Saturday, August 8, 2020

WITMonth Day 8 | Accessibility and women in translation

A topic I've found myself thinking about a lot over the past year is accessibility. Accessibility can mean a lot of different things, from a disability context to an international one to simply a financial question. These all intersect pretty seriously with the question of women in translation becoming "mainstream" (as I often describe it) and honestly needed to have been properly addressed until now.

It's no secret that a large chunk of books by women writers that are translated into English are published by small independent presses. These presses - wonderful, gorgeous, labor-of-love indie presses - are often non-profits, cash-strapped, or of limited operations on the whole; there are all sorts of stories about indie presses getting caught off guard by the success of a certain book (WITty or otherwise) and having to rush reprints, or else somewhat sadder stories of indie presses "losing" an author they built up to fame and award-recognition getting snatched for a lot more money at a larger press. Another major force in publishing literature in translation (albeit far, far fewer women writers) is academic publishing, which is similarly somewhat more limited in the reach of their books.

Two things are important to remember about these presses: The first is that their books are, on average, slightly more expensive than those of larger publishing houses. Even the slimmest novellas can cost almost as much as a mainstream full-length novel from the big names. The second is that their books do not typically have the same reach as those by mainstream publications.

Together, these two issues combine to mean something fairly disappointing about indie/academic presses - their books are rarely available to the wide public and are almost always unavailable to readers with disabilities or impairments who mostly read audio- or eBooks. Though eBooks have become a lot more prevalent among indie presses in the past few years, the lack of audiobooks means that a lot of readers who would otherwise be happy to read works by women writers from around the world simply don't have the option. While thankfully some of the biggest name authors have been released in audiobook format, a shocking amount have not. And the usual biases we find in translated literature overall are reflected in audiobook recordings as well. Not everyone can be Elena Ferrante... Literally as I was writing this post, my sister forwarded to me two separate audiobook requests by different friends. When I went to look for some of my favorite women in translation from the past few years, I found that they were nowhere to be found. Too many readers are losing out.

The issue extends further. Not having audiobooks or eBooks also affects readers who primarily use digital libraries in order to read. I know many young people in particular who rely on digital libraries such as Overdrive/Libby for their reading, and many more who have leaned on those services even more since coronavirus closed their local libraries. Many international readers also utilize these digital libraries, coordinating access with local readers who don't mind sharing their details. (Yes, this is a thing.)

And it's not just a matter of audio- or eBooks. Smaller print runs mean that indie and academic publications are virtually nonexistent in smaller libraries or even in many bookstores. Almost every time I mention the women in translation project to someone new in the English-language context - even to avid readers! - there's the moment when they realize that they've at most read one or two books by women writers from non-English languages, usually something like Diary of Anne Frank or Pippi Longstocking and that's it. The process of finding the right books is often a challenge, with readers frequently telling me that they struggle to read WIT because they can't access it. It's not at their library, it's not at their local big-name bookstore (at least in the US), and it's rarely if ever promoted or easily found on Amazon through browsing. ( so far actually does promote a decent amount of WIT on their front page, so that's exciting!) Those who still wish to purchase the books are then met with the uncomfortable roadblock that is the higher price tag (particularly when purchasing from independent bookstores as well) - what should the reader do now?

Finally, accessibility and availability is also a problem that crosses borders. I don't talk about this on the blog very often, but I've occasionally tweeted about how very difficult it is for me to acquire books. I don't live in an English-speaking country. I rely on bookstores/websites with international shipping in order to read books published in English. If a book isn't available through one of 2-3 major sites that are available to me, the book simply isn't available to me. And for the record - for all sorts of reasons, I don't get many review copies (just the rare book, and usually shipped to a US address that I collect months after the fact). Like many other readers from around the world, I am at the mercy of international rights and availability, which are often... not helpful.

Each one of these issues can feel disconnected from women in translation specifically because they just as easily apply to men writers in translation, but there is an important intersection here: If we want people to read more of a thing, they need to be able to access it. That might mean that the books need to be reasonably priced, that might mean that the books need to be conveniently sold, that might mean that the books need to be in the appropriate formats, etc etc. The major problem that the women in translation movement faces (in English) is a lack of global awareness and acknowledgement. But how can readers address a problem that they don't see? How can they read books that aren't available to them? It's the exact same problem that lies at the core of the translation imbalance itself - readers rely on books to be available to them in order to read them!

I don't know what can be done, honestly. These questions all seem to me like something that needs to be handled within the industry. But the questions do feel like they need to be addressed, and soon - readers deserve better.


  1. Boy, this is all so true. Is there some structure in place for like, creating and distributing audiobooks privately? That feels like something that would exist -- like a LibriVox kind of set-up, where individuals can do it. What do self-published authors do when they make audiobooks? THIS AUDIOBOOK THING FEELS SOLVABLE.

    1. Maybe? I'd love to see some sort of big-tent indie press audio-book front, honestly, but it seems like something that's so far from possible when indies are so pressed as is and barely hanging on. At the very least, it's something that has to come from within the industry... :(


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