Saturday, August 4, 2018

WITMonth Day 4 | The other translation gap (into English)

Today's post comes courtesy of Twitter user @asyndetic! I asked on Twitter if there were any topics that anyone wanted covered for WITMonth:

And to be honest, it's a great question, one that I've only ever briefly touched upon in the years that WITMonth has been running. The reason I've never been able to answer it is that... I don't have any solid, evidence-based explanations. As a scientist, I find it difficult to make claims without having the data to back me up. Here, in a field in which I only have anecdotal evidence, can I really claim to be accurately representing reality?

But... this isn't biochemistry. Let's discuss the anecdotal evidence, shall we?

If I'm going to be honest, I observed this phenomenon years ago, long before I ever started thinking about women in translation. It all began with one of the first books I read translated into Hebrew, Philippe Claudel's Brodeck (a man in translation, of course). I adored the book, and almost the instant I finished reading it, I rushed to Amazon to write my review. Except... the book was preorder only. I was surprised - after all, Israel always gets everything just a little bit delayed, if at all (see: movies, music, fashion...). The same thing happened with the next book I read, which was only translated a year or so later. I quickly realized that while most books translated into Hebrew were from English (and often within months of publication in the US), many of those from languages other than English actually weren't available in English at all. Many remain untranslated into English to this day.

Here's the thing: Just about every language other than English that I've ever looked into has significantly higher rates of publishing translations than English does. Now, a lot of that stems from translations from English (just take a quick look at the Instagram WITMonth feed, which is full of German readers promoting books by Anglo women... more on that later this month), but it's not exclusive. Bilingual (or even monolingual, non-English speaking) readers have been telling me for years the same thing I have always felt: When you grow up surrounded by translations, there's just nothing weird about it. In fact, monolingual English speakers often ask me how I "got into" translations, and the honest answer is that I didn't. I read in English growing up, and I read in Hebrew growing up. I always knew that there were other books out there that weren't available in English. I always knew there were more options that weren't necessarily available in one language or the other.

That old adage of "3% of books published per year are translations"? That "3%" is an absurdly low ratio. Literature in translation remains a niche, dismissed "genre", almost. Most readers don't even consider whether they are reading literature in translation, even if they are the most socially aware readers ever. Just look at how stagnant my efforts are to get more feminist readers to take part in the women in translation project. Look at how diversity efforts are almost always focused on Anglo writers, to the point where many readers don't even realize how many books in translation already exist.

So to the initial question: How is that English falls behind? I think it's a two-part answer.

ONE: I think that in general, the English-language publishing and reading worlds remained closed off to literature in translation. While a handful of books and authors are "permitted" to break into the mainstream every year, this remains a niche field with a niche readership. There is limited awareness at large.

TWO: Women writers remain less trusted than men writers when it comes to "risk". Not many men authors have reached the automatic translation state either, to be clear; there are perhaps a handful of men writers like Haruki Murakami or Amos Oz who are translated the moment they publish a new book. But women writers seem to have to prove themselves far more for translations. In a world in which too few books are translated into English in the first place, it often seems to take longer for women writers to get translated or recognized.

This is all anecdotal, of course. Even speculative. It's very difficult to gauge how and why exactly English falls behind so egregiously when it comes to translating women writers; it's harder still to understand how it does so even as other languages succeed. Yet it's important to remember that other languages have other struggles, too. The minimal data I have collected from Hebrew, French, and German (most of it anecdotal or partial) shows that in translations from languages other than English, women writers from around the world still fare extremely poorly, even as global translation rates themselves are relatively higher. It is worth remembering that many countries and languages have their own biases against women writers, whether translated from English, translated from other languages, or native-written, as well as deeply entrenched sexism when it comes to women's literature at all. It is also worth remembering that many languages have significant translation gaps between each other, simply for lack of adequate translators (e.g. Hebrew and Korean!). These are all topics that I will someday, hopefully, explore more quantitatively and fully.

But for now, one thing is clear: Just as there is a translation gap between women and men into English, there is a global gap when it comes to actually publishing more literature in translation. As we work to make room for more women in translation in our cultural consciousness, it is worth remembering just how big a fight this really is.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely right! I grew up in Romania and even during the Communist dictatorship, when censorship was in full throttle, we had a good selection of translations from all sorts of languages. Nowadays, translations almost threaten to overtake home-made literature. Yes, a lot of those are from America and the UK, but many aren't.

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