Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Award lists are important, but framing is important too

Over the past few weeks, I have had decidedly mixed reactions to the release of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The award - which has gone to women in translation twice in its history (as well as once to an English-language woman writer back when it was given to writers alone and twice in the parallel history of the International Foreign Fiction Prize) - suddenly emerged with a shortlist that was, to quote the Guardian and the NYT and just about every media outlet, "dominated" by women.

For the first time in history, the prize was not in its usual gender breakdown of 4 men and 2 women or 5 men, 1 woman. These are not just ratios of recent years, these are consistent numbers across the years (for the IFFP, at least). Women were consistently minorities, consistently outnumbered 5:1. They almost never took home the prize. And suddenly this year, the ratio flipped. Now it's 5 women writers and 1 man.

A shortlist "dominated" by women.

On the one hand, I am delighted by this shift. It's not about "beating men", rather it's a wonderful indicator that the women in translation project is working. The prize judges specifically cite the importance of diversity in their shortlist, in a way that makes it obvious that they are aware of what it means to have women in translation at the forefront. Prizes mean visibility, visibility means more sales, more sales means more readers, and ultimately more readers means that publishers may realize that it's in their financial interest (as well as their moral one...) to publish more books by diverse women in translation.

On the other hand... Framing is important, and the current framing of this shortlist as one "dominated by women" undercuts all of the hard work that has gone into this effort. It also undersells the list. It was deemed unremarkable for years that the IFFP had similarly ratio-ed shortlists, but with men "dominating"; men writer dominance was never commented on. The degree to which men writers have dominated literary discourse for decades despite stunning output by women writers is only discussed in the context of feminist perspectives. This creates the impression that women succeed only when there is a feminist agenda working in their favor. But the unremarked upon mostly-men shortlists? Those are simply as a result of the quality of the text, right?

It's important to recognize this shortlist. It's important to specifically recognize the degree to which it's still a rarity, that this is a shortlist that goes against market trends. Most important of all, recognize the women writers themselves, who are getting their moment in the spotlight, something that is still all too rare for women writers in translation.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

"Translated literature", here and in the world

One of the biggest questions I ask myself when thinking about WITMonth and the women in translation project at large is whether or not I am helping or hurting. This, after all, is a project I've been working on for years; I have dedicated countless hours to assessing the state of women in translation in English. But that question of "in English" is another one that I think about quite often. After all, I am not monolingual, I also read in Hebrew (albeit less frequently than English). And I often think about how my efforts maybe segregate women in translation; if people are only reading WIT during WITMonth, doesn't that entirely defeat the purpose?

On Twitter, Tim Gutteridge responded to a tweet by Vagabond Voices (quoting Katy Derbyshire's desire to see an end to the segregation between original and translated literature), asking: "I wonder if this is a peculiarly English-speaking way of thinking about things. I don't think Spanish readers, for example, self-consciously read "translated literature" in this way. Any thoughts from those familiar with other reading cultures? I also wonder (I'm in a curious mood!) if some of the brilliant ways in which we promote translated literature - and the kinds of books we seek out - inadvertently strengthen the boundaries between translated and non-translated, rather than breaking them down."

These are extraordinarily valid questions that sit within an extraordinarily complicated realm.

Several responses addressed the complexity of the issue. Some noted that in certain countries, "translated" literature may be obvious simply by author name; I would argue that a similar "foreignness" metric (which was raised in relation to the French perspective) applies to English as well, though it is no guarantee of whether or not the book is in translation or originally in English. Others still responded to the way that segregating translated literature has created the perception that only "certain" types of books are actually translated into English, in essence removing the majority of "middlebrow" literature that originates in other languages.

I can't speak to every language or culture, of course, but I can speak to the situation as I see it in both English and Hebrew, as well as stories I have heard since embarking on this project.

This past WITMonth, I received some gentle disagreement from an Israeli blogger (Shiri, from Books on Buses) who felt that my insistence on defining translation (for myself) as originating from languages other than English was unfairly exclusionary. Examining the bias from a translators perspective, it seemed to her than translations from English were no less worthy of attention. I continue to maintain that translations from English need no help; English-language books are constantly translated (into Hebrew and just about every other language on Earth...), often regardless quality. Hebrew in particular seems to have as many books translated from English on the bestseller lists than books originally written in Hebrew... often more, in fact. Books translated from languages other than English, while still relatively more common than in English (remember that the Hebrew book market is significantly smaller), are far more rare. Yet I concede that not all translations from English are made equal - for an Israeli reader (as well, I imagine, for many non-Anglo/European readers), a translation of an Indian or African or Native English-language writer (for example) can often be as enlightening in its diverse perspective as a translation from a "foreign language". Sometimes more so. (See: European/Western dominance in translation.)

I have no doubt that the situation in English is unique. Viewing "literature in translation" as a concept that we need to focus on stems from a unique lack of foreign perspectives. English seems perfectly content to define diversity through the lens of English alone, often failing to recognize that different languages thoroughly shape different experiences. This is true not only of literature, but culture at large. While the rest of the world absorbs Anglo-American culture from birth (whether through television, movies, music, or books), many Anglo-Americans feel uniquely comfortable entrenched in their own limited perspectives.

Defining what "literature in translation" means in other languages does become more complicated (as that Israeli blogger noted), because literature in translation simply isn't rare in other languages. Everyone reads books translated from English, from the US, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia... and there are also relatively more books translated from other non-English languages. And while in Israel, many bookstores do distinguish between original and translated literature (most bookstores, in fact), the translated shelves are almost always significantly larger than the originals. That's just how it goes.

The question about the types of books translated, meanwhile, feels like it strikes right to the heart of everything I have been trying to do with the women in translation project these past six or so years. Tim is absolutely that the current market for literature in translation is highly defined: we view literature in translation as a genre, rather than a description. Literature in translation is disproportionately published by independent publishers, and this too defines how these books are received by the wider public. Like it or not, independently published books are not going to be available to the vast majority of readers, regardless questions of their literary style. Small town public libraries cannot afford to purchase largely unknown books, nor will certain chain bookstores (e.g. Barnes & Noble) carry them either. Nor is the marketing of these books ever intended for mass consumption, meaning that even people who predominantly purchase their books online are unlikely to stumble across these titles.

This is not to say that I'm satisfied with the current situation. On the contrary, my constant pleas for the women in translation movement to go "mainstream" is exactly meant to push back against this frustratingly niche constraint. The fact that on top of the practical accessibility constraints, much of literature in translation is more experimental and as such does not appeal to many "average" readers. With the exception of Scandinavian thrillers (which boomed in the early 2010s), most genre literature from around the world simply doesn't get translated. More than that, children's/YA literature and even contemporary literature are rarely translated, removing exactly the sorts of books that are most popular in the English-language market today.

As such, there are a lot of misconceptions about literature in translation. For every passionate fan, there are a dozen or so readers who bemoan cultural differences "lost in translation", without any attempt made at bridging those difference. The primary faces of literature in translation (overwhelmingly men, typically of a certain background writing with certain literary quirks) do little to dispel these myths. The framing of literature in translation as its own category is also a double-edged sword; I steadfastly believe in the importance of promoting diversity and believe that literature in translation provides this in a unique form, but this should not "other" or exoticize it.

This leaves us in a tricky position. In English, we have to emphasize literature in translation because there is so little of it, even as the distinction becomes murkier in other languages. But the very act of defining translations also limits us in what we are given, with perceptions often defined by those publishers brave enough to devote themselves to the more experimental/diverse sides of translation, which then leads to fewer mainstream publishers embracing literature in translation in their genres. The self-feeding cycle means that, yes, we're not quite breaking free of problematic boundaries and assumptions regarding literature in translation.

And so... there's no real bottom line here. Yes, "literature in translation" is a highly context dependent term. Yes, we are limited by what that phrase has come to mean. Yes, there is a global lack of mainstream literature in translation and a particular lack of literature in translation across a wide range of popular genres/designations. But also: No, I don't believe that these are fixed states. More and more books in translation are becoming popular in English-speaking spheres. As bookish communities embrace diversity of literature in a variety of forms, I believe that the market for more international literature will also grow. And ultimately, I can also hope for that ideal future that Katy speaks of, when literature in translation (and women in translation in particular!) does not need to be defined as such, because there is nothing odd or rare about it.

We're just not quite there yet.