Tuesday, August 16, 2022

WITMonth Day 16 | Selling women in translation

The world of literary translations - like all industries - ultimately boils down to one thing: Sales. Whether we're talking about a nonprofit, an academic press, a stable indie, or one of the major publishing houses, the bottom line remains the same. Books are published with the assumption that they will eventually be sold, at least in part. It may not be the only (or even primary!) motivation behind the work, but it is still one of them. And selling books also means that there's marketing. And marketing also means that there is a need to "sell" the books onto the readers. How do you convince readers to pick up your book specifically?

I'm not in the publishing industry (as you probably already know...), but I've spent enough years adjacent to it to have picked up on some of the tricks. The best known is also the one most frequently critiqued - the comparison. Whether in general design, blurb-styling, or direct comparison, books are often sold on the basis of "here's something that reminds you of this other thing that you like". It's a tried and true method because it's generally quite appealing. "[X] meets [Y]" is the fastest and easiest way to hook someone on your work. Shorthand and visual reminders as well.

The problem (as you probably guessed from the title of this post, and the fact that I'm writing it during August) is that these are occasionally very sloppily done. Many comparisons rely on the same few easily recognizable authors, regardless of whether or not it has any bearing. Japanese writer? Murakami! Italian woman writer? Elena Ferrante and Natalia Ginzburg! Are there even any other Italian women writers? Does it matter if they cover completely different styles and perspectives? 

The narrow scope that women in translation are permitted is maybe not the most important matter on the table, but it's still something worth thinking about. How do we sell women in translation? How do we frame women in translation? The above examples are specifically comparisons, but of course the question of how publishers frame women writers in translation for English-speaking markets (in this specific case, though I've seen similar issues across other languages as well...) extend to other marketing forms. Recall, if you will, Léonora Miano's criticism of the University of Nebraska's marketing/framing of her novella, translated into English as Dark Heart of the Night (a title she was unhappy with). Here was a case of a writer pigeonholed to fit what the publishers thought a book about African violence should be, rather than what the book actually is. Then, of course, there's the eternal problem of "the first book by a [X] woman translated into English", or "the first [X] woman author". Firsts are easily marketable and easily framed, particularly when there's an expectation of "otherness". They are often also misleading or extremely vague. (For example: I was and remain baffled by the marketing that claims that Duanwad Pimwana is the first Thai woman novelist to be translated into English, given that Jane Vejjajiva was translated quite a few years back; children's novel, yes, but... still? It's a question that has bothered me... Perhaps I'm simply missing something.)

Women writers in translation deserve, of course, to have their books sold. That means that one way or another, publishing will need to find some way to frame their works. In some cases, this will inevitably draw comparisons to the few women in translation who have paved the way before them. In other cases, it may be a regional divide. Sometimes, there will be racial biases and stereotypes that shape how a book is marketed or sold. (Black womens' silhouettes. Asian women from behind. Red cover for books about China.  The acacia tree for books from Africa. Burkas and hijabs for works relating to women across either the Arab or Muslim worlds.) While some degree of marketing is of course necessary, it's important that we ask at what point these do extreme disservices to the works themselves. And it's important that we recognize the extra damage inflicted upon writers already starting from disadvantaged positions.

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