Sunday, May 25, 2014

Women in Translation | The one with charts

The good folks at Three Percent have published the midyear translations database. That means it's time for our check-in regarding the status of women in translation in 2014. So how are things looking so far?

Not good.

We'll start with the basic statistics, which shows that women writers make up - drumroll please - 28% of translations in 2014 so far.

Does that number sounds familiar to you? It should. That was the exact number I got last year.

But let's look a bit deeper, shall we? This year: with graphs!

NOTE: Gender assessments were ascertained using photo searches, biographies and information from Wikipedia. EVERY SINGLE AUTHOR WAS RESEARCHED in order to minimize any mistakes. Any single author left "unknown" was as a result of no photographic evidence and no clear biography found. All easily recognizable anthologies were automatically labeled "both". Obviously a few numbers may be skewed due to human error, however the margin of error is likely to be very, very small and the big-picture conclusions here are ultimately (sadly) unavoidable. 

First I decided to look at all the women-penned books and sort them by language. Then I compared men-vs-women written books (not authors, I should emphasize) to get the following delightful graphic:

Click to enlarge
The important thing to notice here (and you have to click in order to properly see it - note also that the graph is by percentage and not absolute value) is the little values in the chart at the bottom. Because those values will show you that while yes, women wrote all - count 'em - five of the books published in Afrikaans, Bulgarian, Pashto, and Vietnamese, bigger picture: women wrote less than 30% of the books translated from French this year. And yes, women made up 50% out of a total of ten books translated from Turkish, Greek, and Ukrainian, but they failed to crack the 50% mark anywhere else (though German came close-ish, with 21 out of 50 books written by women - go German!).

But this graph is messy, right? So let's look only at the major languages - those that had more than 10 publications this year:

That's a lot of red. Here we can see more clearly that German comes closest to the 50% mark (go German!), with Swedish a fairly close second (go Swedish!). Third place goes to French, which is pretty dismal, as we've already seen. It's all downhill from there. Spanish in particular remains a lowlight in regards to women in translation, with only 12 out of 46 books, with Italian and Arabic as extreme slumps as well.

An additional observation: 14 languages (totaling 32 books overall) were male only (as compared to only 4 languages, 5 books for women). A language like Polish - which is not generally lacking in women writers - had 7 books translated this year, and all of them were by men.

Now we come to an even less savory part of these stats: publishers. Let's take a look at which publishers did well at representing women writers, and which have a ways to go. The top 23 publishers published comfortably over half of the books: 245 out of 442. These are publishers which released more than 5 books in translation for 2014.

Click to enlarge

This is probably the most important chart out of the bunch, with four critical takeaways:
  1. Only one publisher manages to pass the 50% mark, and it's the publisher most frequently vilified by readers of literature in translation: AmazonCrossing. Amazon is, in general, the opposite of what we consider good and noble with the publishing and book industries, yet here you have it - AmazonCrossing is the ONLY publisher to have more books written by women published than books by men.
  2. The "big publishers" do a really terrible job of translating women writers. Two of the most big-shot names on the list - Knopf and Penguin - published zero books by women in translation (out of a total of 13), while FSG and HarperCollins only managed 5 out of 14. The translation database is, of course, only for first-time translations, but my gut also tells me that they do a worse job of translating classic literature by women. Good job guys. Not.
  3. Several publishers have consistently "borderline" stats - Open Letter, for example, always publishes more books by men than by women, yet the numbers inch closer and the gap is shrinking. I consider this to be a huge victory (despite the fact that I would expect at some point women to overtake men, at least for a year...), and commend them for it. Many other publishers who released only a handful of books ultimately ended up with significantly more balanced results as well. More commendations!
  4. Dalkey Archive. New Directions. Melville House.
This last point is probably the most crucial, and for a number of reasons. First of all, these are three publishers I inherently associate with literature in translation, and more importantly with the message of "we are indie" that they work so hard to cultivate (Dalkey less so, then again it's my strongest "literature in translation" association...). Melville House in particular are very adamant about their indie cred, with the majority of posts on their blog disparaging various "flaws" in the current publishing/marketing/sales model (and, of course, their weekly "let's bash Amazon" post). Yet this publisher that holds itself so high above all others just got served by the company it so gleefully tries to take down every other day. AmazonCrossing may be a flawed enterprise, but at least they recognize that women writers in translation have something to offer. Melville? 1 woman writer out of 8 books published, as compared to AmazonCrossing's 10 out of 17. It's also pathetically consistent - last year's stats were equally atrocious. 

New Directions as well - this is a publisher that touts itself as being independent and thoughtful and different, but push comes to shove that independence extends only so far as "male". When you run through the New Directions website, it becomes so disturbingly apparent that women writers just aren't as valued. And I did that - I went through book by book, trying to identify books written by women. It was hard, and it shouldn't be. We're looking here at the absurd situation in which 2 books out of 12 were confirmed to be written by women.

Finally: Dalkey Archive. This one hurts.

Dalkey Archive is important in the literature in translation business. It's hard not to be important, when you're the biggest publisher of books in that field. Dalkey make a point of publishing books from all over the world, from all sorts of different languages, books of all types and creeds and styles... and I really, really admire them for it. But I cannot admire a publisher that has such a low proportion of women writers in translation. So far this year, I could not find a single confirmed woman writer in translation, while in the best case scenario here (assuming all the 4 "unknowns" were women, which is highly unlikely), less than 15% of the books Dalkey are publishing are by women. Last year? Just under 25%. This is not a one-off of misrepresentation.

This kind of disparity from the biggest publisher of literature in translation is huge. Readers don't know which books need to be published. They don't know where to look. They come to publishers, publishers provide them with books, they read the books. If publishers are incapable of providing readers with books written by women, you have to wonder. And while I'm sure that home-country availability has something to do with the huge gaps in representation, I think a bigger issue is perception: books by women are perceived to be lesser than books by men. Sometimes this is justified by (wrong) genre definitions, sometimes it's outright sexism, and sometimes it's subtle sexism (love stories written by women = romance; love stories written by men = literature). This is obviously a different discussion, but it's one we're going to have to own up to someday if we want anything to get better.

So here's my takeaway: With three years of hard data backing me up, it's clear that a lack of women writers in translation is a trend. It's a trend that is staying stagnant. It's a trend that seems not to bother the biggest publishers (who are the worst culprits). It's a trend that's not going to magically fix itself. And while the end of the year results may ultimately smooth out some of these numbers, history tells me that they're not going to actually improve them. Dalkey will not suddenly publish 30 books by women writers in translation in the second half of 2014. There won't suddenly be 15 books translated from Spanish to balance out the huge gap.

Here's what we do to fix it: Discuss. Read. Contact publishers. Contact translators. Bring attention to the issue. I'm hosting WITMonth not for the sake of having a button on my toolbar that says I did it, rather so that we as a community can sit down and make a point - 28% is not representation. We read literature in translation to gain as broad a view of the world as possible... so give it to us.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly | Review

This novella right here is one of the reasons I so strongly believe in having a dedicated Women in Translation month. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, right here, this book, serves as such a perfect example for why I've been championing this, and why it means so much to me.

Sidebar: the cover is positively lovely in print
The reason I read literature in translation is the same reason I read sci-fi, the same reason I read fantasy, the same reason I don't like mysteries, the same reason my tastes shift every few years - it's because above all else, I seek diversity in my reading. I don't want to read formulaic novels and I don't want to read about ideas that I'm already familiar with. International literature checks off many of these boxes comfortably, because often a different upbringing and a different culture heavily influences the type of book an author is likely to write. In the same way, gender is likely to influence it as well.

So we come to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, a short fable about a hen who, yes, dreams she can escape her coop, lay an egg and fly away from the life she's lived until now. When the story opens, our hen Sprout (a name she chose herself, since of course to her human masters she's nothing more than an egg-laying hen and useless as long as she is not fulfilling that task...) is reaching the end of her egg-laying days. She can feel it coming on. And she wants, desperately, more than anything, to be a mother to a chick.

The story that continues from there is sweet. It's powerful. It's meaningful. Anyone who reads The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly will recognize the strength of the maternal theme that runs through the core of the novella. Sun-mi Hwang (ably translated by Kim Chi-Young) doesn't simply look at the ordinary desire for motherhood (and yes, I recognized while reading the book that there might be a perception of an assumption that motherhood is the default for females, though I really don't think that's the point...), but at the actual practical implications. Motherhood appears in different forms - desperate, voluntary, loving, frightening, overbearing, understanding - it's almost overwhelming. If we're ever going to discuss whether men and women write differently (which I really, really don't believe), I think this would actually serve as a good example for different styles: men writing about motherhood so warmly is fairly rare...

But The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is not just about motherhood, and it's not just cheerful, plucky hens flapping around trying to get their way. The messages here about family in general, culture, belonging, and even farming as a concept stand fairly central in the story. It's a fascinating little book, one that made me think about all sorts of issues for several days after I finished it. Unique, different, pleasant, thoughtful and intelligent... what more could you ask for?

I really recommend The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. I've seen certain reviews call it a "lighter" fable as compared to something like George Orwell's Animal Farm; to be perfectly honest, I think that assessment has a bit of the "male=serious, female=fluff" mentality to it. This is a novella that packs major punch in its "domesticity" (quite literally, actually), and while it doesn't aim to represent totalitarianism or hypocrisy or anything Orwellian of the sort, its piercing and, yes, lovely focus on motherhood, love and family is equally powerful.

The writing style is very, very simple, as befits a story narrated by a chicken. Readers who like their prose a bit meatier may find the childlike style frustrating; I personally felt that it matched the story quite well. Sprout is a fascinating character (beyond her chicken-isms), and her world is one filled with messages we could all do well to remember. This is a book I'm very glad to have found, and very glad to have read. There's a lot to love here.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Women in Translation | Introducing WITMonth!

Introducing Women in Translation (WIT) Month

When I started posting about the lack of women writers in translation, I had one idea in mind: get people thinking. Just as I had never noticed this startling skew, I knew that most readers of literature in translation probably weren't aware of just how bad the situation had become. I wanted to spread awareness, make the issue known, and get readers, reviewers, translators and publishers involved in a discussion.

Thankfully - thanks to all of you - this has been possible. But as I've said before - this project is not one post, thrown to the wind. Over the past few months, this project has become more and more central to my reading. I spent January tracking down a lot of books by women in translation, and February, March, and April reading them. I've been writing more reviews than usual, widening my horizons, and all the while trying to understand what could be the reasons for the overwhelming male-preference in translated literature.

While many of you have voluntarily taken up the challenge to read more books by women in translation, another idea soon cropped up thanks to the wonderful T. Olmsted of BookSexy Review: a dedicated month for championing women in translation.

And so WIT Month is born.

WIT Month will be held in August of this year (2014), with two simple goals in mind:
  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
These two goals are not meant to limit readers by any means. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am notoriously terrible at planning my reading (or planning my blogging, for that matter), and am never capable of sticking to any sort of schedule. This month isn't actually asking anyone to bend over backwards to only read books by women, or drop whatever else you're reading, or suddenly post only about feminism. The point is to encourage readers who appreciate structure in their reading to have a bit of encouragement and guidance. It's to hear from authors and translators and publishers who may not always make their voices heard in the book blogging world. It's to have a time and place where we can all sit down together to have a discussion, plain and simple. And hopefully, to read some excellent books along the way.

Readers interested in participating can show their stripes using the above button. I'll be keeping a list of participants and all related posts in the new section here on the blog, right next to the newly updating list of recommended literature in translation by women. Links to posts, reviews, thoughts or anything related to WIT Month can be left in comments, emailed to me (biblibio at gmail), tweeted to @Biblibio or using either the #WITMonth or #WomenInTranslation tags on Twitter. This is a growing project, with no fixed schedule yet, so make your voices heard! If you have any ideas for specific events or topics to discuss over the course of August, please share them. We'll be trying to build some kind of loose schedule over the coming weeks, and your input is not only helpful, it's necessary.

Any and all feedback welcome! We would love to hear your ideas in an effort to make Women in Translation Month interesting, educational, entertaining, and enlightening. Spread the word, tell your friends, neighbors, dogs and cats. Stock your bookshelves and get your bookmarks read. August is coming.