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.


  1. Being a feminist with a grand passion for literature this article definitely caught my eye. It is devastating to see that men make up most of really any big industry, including translation, and women really need to "discuss. read." Women have the capability of being anything in this age yet we see still a minority of women in the charts. There definitely has to come an out cry for passion of reading and writing and translating from the women !

  2. Thank you for posting about this, I've been following all of these posts with interest

  3. Great post - thank you for using hard data as it does paint a very stark picture. Interestingly enough to find books for the challenge I visited "50 Works of Fiction in Translation that Every English Speaker Should Read" article and the % of female writers.....drumroll....26% almost the same as your data for 2014 and we're talking books of ALL time - a lot of work is required, and I'll be joining in an broadening my horizon's in August too, very much looking forward to it. is the link for the top 50 works.

    1. Oh wow, I was not expecting that list to make me quite as annoyed as it did. I sort of thought I'd seen everything by now... nope! I mean, in a list with that kind of ambition, why wasn't the "first novel" included? Written by a woman! Why is Murasaki always ignored?

      And all of the writers are 20th century or later (when, I guess, international women writers were invented?). Disappointing, but I guess it's only to be expected. There's a problem with defining classics usually through the lens of the "canon", which has long filtered out women writers, or non-white writers. And, as we now know, there's a problem with international women writers. Combined, maybe we should be impressed that the stats ended up so high! *sarcastic clap*


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