Friday, August 24, 2018

WITMonth Day 24 | Stats (part 3) | Publishers respond

I left off yesterday with a cliffhanger, having presented data that shows the degree to which publishers of literature in translation have failed women writers in translation. Seeing these numbers year after year is more than disheartening, it's infuriating. At a certain point, I have to wonder what else there is left. Do I simply accept this as the industry standard and continue to promote those 30% of books by women writers that do get translated into English? Do I step back and not point to this injustice, simply because too few books in translation get published at all? Do I continue to disregard the pervasive imbalance in publishing that sees women in translation (and particularly non-European women in translation) as rarities, rather than the perfectly prevalent thing that they are?

I contacted a handful of the major publishers of literature in translation described in yesterday's post, presenting them with this data and asking for public comment. I only emailed publishers with easily navigated websites in which I felt I could verify my data personally, so this of course offers only a narrow view of publisher responses. Someday, I hope to contact the rest of the repeat-offender publishers. (Feel free to do that as well, I think this is a case of "the more, the merrier".) Even with these limitations, I found the responses (and silences...) quite revealing. 

First up, Europa Editions initially pointed to 2017 as a unique outlier, citing a higher rate of publication of English-language women writers and translations of books by women from two new countries for them ("And it was the year we published our first novel in translation from the Japanese (written by a woman) and our first Mexican novel in translation (also written by a woman), and both of those books were high priorities for us so we tried to clear some space around them."). As the five-year data shows, this is only partially accurate: Yes, 2017 is an outlier, but it is not the first year that they've stumbled in terms of publishing women in translation. The official comment from editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds pointed to Europa Edition's involvement in WITMonth at large, and their perceived role in the publishing industry overall: "Our commitment to publishing women writers is hardly an august enthusiasm and it is certainly not circumscribed by our affinity for the goals of the WIT initiative. It is year-round, multifaceted, decades-long, and, I would argue, has done quite a lot to change industry- and market-thinking about the prospects for women in translation in recent years."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have omitted from this statement a single sentence at the end that I feel characterized my original email as an attack on the publisher. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly remind publishers that these stats are in no way meant to be a declaration of war or as any sort of indication that your publishing house is not making any effort. They are, quite simply, a reflection of reality, and if that reality shows that your publishing house isn't doing very well, then I will continue to comment on it and expect better. I will get back to this...

Next, New Directions responded that they were surprised by the low rate, and hoped that the rates had been improving (which, as I reported earlier, they have somewhat!). They reaffirmed that they "are trying", and cite the women in translation movement (and global stats like those I have been publishing here over the past several years) as having "influenced our approach to the issue, which I believe is reflected in more current lists. (As I bet you know, it’s a time-consuming process, finding the books you want to translate from abroad and then getting them translated, edited, presented in catalogs, and out into the world.)  I think ND is moving in a good direction." As I mentioned earlier, this effort is clearly seen in the gradually improving ratios at New Directions, and it is gratifying to know that this has been borne of a concentrated effort. Given where we are, this how it should be.

Finally, New York Review Books responded with a similar acknowledgement of the situation, writing: "It’s pretty disappointing. We should really be doing better. This is not meant as a defense or justification but just to note that we don’t do new fiction and the history of literature is that most books published in all languages have been written by men, which is the source of our books, whether reissues or new translations. Again this should just be a push to work harder to find good female writers from the past." This, too, is an excellent recognition of the problem at hand and I hope that we will begin to see a change in the actual publishing rates in the near future.

Neither Archipelago Books nor Dalkey Archive responded to my Tweets or emails. This is not the first time I have attempted to contact either publisher and received no response.

There are a few takeaways from these responses. First, it is wonderful that publishers recognize that they have an imbalance and are searching for ways to improve them. Really. It is absolutely wonderful. I love that many publishers have embraced WITMonth and I think that it's absolutely the right first step in becoming more aware. Each publisher also pointed to their achievements in publishing women in translation until now (as well as forthcoming titles), which I also think is pretty great. It's good to promote books by WIT, keep at it!

Second: Defensiveness is not a tactic. The truth is that sometimes - typically - human beings mess up. I can say that as a reader, I know that I don't read nearly as diversely as I'd like to. I ultimately read very little queer lit, not enough Southeast Asian literature, etc... We are all influenced by bigger forces than our own taste or interest. Publishers are no different. But pointing out that we have these biases isn't an attack, nor is it an erasure of those few books you have published by women in translation. (I'll get back to this later as well.) 

Here's the problem: We all know that it's not enough to simply state your support of a project. Archipelago, for instance, are one of those publishers that have used the #WITMonth tag in order to promote books translated by women (and not women in translation), all the while steadfastly ignoring any and all attempts to communicate with them regarding their abysmal publication rates. The defensive stance that many publishers take in response to literally pointing out the facts to them is disappointing in large part because it shows a lack of commitment to the cause itself, where the bottom line is ultimately consistent parity. It's not enough to have published men and women in equal rates for one year.

But what do we do to make that better? Europa suggest - and perhaps with good reason - that this isn't something that can be solved with a snap of the fingers, rather that there is a process. To be honest, I don't think that this approach is inherently wrong. In the years I've worked on this project, I've seen how many factors play into the global imbalance. It's not inaccurate to say that the US translation market is influenced by markets in other countries, biases in other countries, and imbalances in other countries. But as I've explained many times, I also think that it's a cop-out to use those as an excuse not to publish more women in translation in the Anglosphere (or other languages, for that matter!). Translation is already so highly selective and curated that yes, it might require some more effort on the part of publishers. 

But the time has come for all of us to do our parts in ending this imbalance.

To be continued...

(Yes, I'm sorry, but this is just getting really long and I want it to be as coherent as possible and it's already pretty messy!)

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