One of the biggest lingering questions facing the women in translation movement has to do with... the world. Literature in translation is a nice catchphrase, but when we focus so much on English, it's easy to forget that the reason the literature is in translation is because it's originally written in other languages. Most literature does not get translated, not into English and not into other languages across the globe. Anywhere you go, you're likely to find a degree of marginalization in translation, simply because only select titles even get to breach that gap... and fewer still break out into the mainstream.
People have long asked what the source of the "women in translation" problem is. When we're talking about translations into English, it's obvious that there's a huge problem (see: literally every stats post prior to this one...), but there's a legitimate question to be had regarding source languages. If women writers are thoroughly underrepresented in their original countries/languages, doesn't it stand to reason that they'd be underrepresented in English (or other) translation as well?
I'll note that I don't actually buy this claim. Translation is a form of selection/curation, and as with all cases in which specific, select titles are chosen, there is absolutely no reason to adhere to "natural" forces and not choose with a sharper eye. As I've argued before, exclusion is a choice.
But let's get back to that question: How are women writers represented in other languages and countries? What can we learn about how women are then represented in translation, and specifically in translation into English?
As you can imagine, these aren't easy questions to answer or approach. For starters, it's hard to know what goes on in other languages when you don't speak those languages! Luckily, I do happen to speak one other language fluently and I do happen to have a degree of familiarity with another country's publishing industry, and so I decided to carry out a new project this year and see whether I could begin to answer the above questions.
I began by selecting a few major Israeli publishers and examining their catalogs over two years - 2017 or 2018. Simply put, I do not have the time or resources to compile a more comprehensive list, much as I'd love to. I wanted to look at a few different matters. First of all, I have long had the feeling that the translation rate out of Hebrew (just around 33% women writers) is not reflective of the actual Israeli market. Women writers are extremely popular here, often topping the bestseller charts. Could it possibly be that the rates in English are actually representative of a bias in Hebrew itself that I've simply never noticed? I wanted to compare overall publication of original titles by men and women, to see what that source of the problem in English really is.
Then there's the question of translations. Every time I walk into a bookstore or go bookhunting during Hebrew Book Week, I always have to explain to the booksellers that I'm explicitly not seeking books originally written in English, since I would much rather read those books in the original. Time after time, I have seen the booksellers' faces drop somewhat, and they begin to scramble to find alternatives. I have long felt that translations from English dominate the Israeli book market, not just in terms of all literature in translation, but even in comparison to original Hebrew-language literature. And this in turn led to my final question: What of those translations? Are women writers well represented in translation between different languages?
There's a lot to learn from what I found.
(To be continued...)