Sunday, August 14, 2016

WITMonth Day 14 | On the need for intersectionality | Thoughts

One of the things I've found that saddens me most within this women in translation project is when people ask me about intersectionality. "You've mentioned it..." they'll say. "You raised it when comparing overall translation rates..." "Is it something you care about?" "Do you feel this is important?"

These questions hurt not because there's something wrong in them. On the contrary. These are exactly the questions that need to be asked. No, what saddens me is that I've done a poor job in expressing the need for intersectionality. Because here's the thing: a project like women in translation cannot exist without intersectionality. It is meaningless without intersectionality.

For those who aren't familiar with the terminology: Intersectionality (sometimes referred to as intersectional feminism, though the concept is not limited to feminism) is a theory that seeks to study feminism (or any other social order) at its intersections with race, sexual identity, gender identity, religion, class, physical ability, etc. The theory argues that it is impossible to separate one social order from another, effectively demanding of its proponents to seek all possible intersections when looking at a certain problem.

And so it should not come as a surprise to anyone that I feel the women in translation project is meaningless without intersectionality. To talk simply about a lack of women writers in translation without noting the huge gaps between translation rates from different countries (namely: European countries versus the entire rest of the world) becomes almost silly. What does it mean to replace one imbalance with another?

I want to make it very clear: The stunning disparity in countries of origin for literature in translation is not something that can be shrugged aside. There are obvious practical and cultural reasons for the huge imbalances (for instance: traditions of teaching French, Spanish and German literature in English-language universities due to an age-old Euro-centrism), but that doesn't mean we can ignore what the stats are telling us. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for equality - and at the very least awareness - on all fronts. Similarly, the difficulty in finding queer narratives (or books by queer authors) is not coincidental and also cannot just be swept under the rug.

The 2015 statistics displayed fairly clearly that there was no significant demographic bias when it came to translating women writers (that is, you cannot simply blame those "other" parts of the world). However, the overall publishing bias towards Western Europe is deeply disturbing. French is the 18th most spoken language in the world, yet it makes up the decisive leader in literature translated into English. Even within Spanish - the second most spoken native language in the world - a sizable chunk of the books translated are only from Spain, and not the much more populous Latin America.

Even within Euro-centrism, Western Europe dominates while Eastern Europe languishes. Asian languages - among the most spoken languages in the world! - seem like an afterthought relative to their actual strength. And this is simply regarding country and language of origin. Now look at ethnic groups. Social class. Religious minorities (or majorities...). LGBTQIA+ authors and narratives. Physical ability.

When we talk about women in translation, it is critical that we don't forget these other factors. That we don't simply start translating more French and German women writers, while leaving Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, and Bengali women behind. That we don't exclude queer narratives by women. That we understand the marginalization that non-binary or transgender writers face (and that we fully include them in this project, despite use of the word "women"), rejecting a purely binary world and giving space to these writers. That we examine stories from different backgrounds. That we recognize stories that represent all social classes and castes. That we truly explore the world in all its glorious multitudes. Including writers from every single one of these groups.


  1. This is a great post, Metyal, and something I really struggle with as well - how do we find more of these titles? And how do we make our desire for them better known? It's something to always keep in mind.

  2. When I published my Who's Who in Contemporary Women's Writing in 2001, I had to fight to make it a truly international guide to women writers. There had been nothing like it before and it may still be the only international guide to women writers. Its focus is on writers whose careers began between 1960s and the 1990s but it remains an excellent resource for those interested in finding new writers to read, especially writers from outside of western Europe.


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