Tuesday, August 6, 2019

WITMonth Day 6 | Stats (part 1) | Let's do things a little differently...

The annual stats posts have become a WITMonth fixture. While I haven't written stats for every single year since 2014, stats are typically among the most popular of my August posts and the ones that people find most useful in understanding why we need a month dedicated to promoting women in translation. The truth is, though, I've started to feel that the stats as I've presented them until now have only given part of the picture. People have often - rightfully! - asked me how things were changing, and whether I'm pleased with the gradual yearly upticks. And it's true, the numbers are increasing! In some cases, the situation is even increasing at a surprising and thoroughly heartening rate, as you'll soon see. It seemed unnecessary to rehash the same things as last year.

I decided to do two things a little bit differently this year. First, this post uses a different methodology for data collection than previous years and has a much more limited scope. The next stats installations will also focus on a new language (not English!!!) for the first time, but we'll get there. For now, let's take a brief look at women in translation through a very specific lens: What happens when we include all of those books that until now have been excluded? What happens if we... do things a little differently?

Until now, the methodology for these stats posts has been fairly simple: I've worked using the marvelous Three Percent database (formerly at that website, now hosted by Publisher's Weekly) and worked within the confines of their database's definitions. That is, it looked at first-time translations of fiction and poetry. Wonderful as it is, I've long felt that there must be something missing in that extra data. What happens when you factor in children's literature? Is nonfiction still dominated by men writers? How do reissues feed into existing biases?

There were things I simply wouldn't be able to find out by working with an existing database, and so I decided to start building a list of my own and looking at catalogs directly. The purpose was never to have something truly encompassing or all-defining, rather to get a stronger feel for publisher catalogs and the status of women in translation across different publishers. It also meant that I was very loose about which publishers I selected, largely disregarding regional constraints (i.e., I looked at both US and UK publishers). For this reason, it's very important for me to note that this year's methodology is not scientific or necessarily the "full" picture in the same way as might have been in previous years. Publishers were chosen through my personal choice, as well as ease of data collection. These stats are meant to reflect, not to define.

So! Disclaimers aside, let's dive into what I found...

We'll start with the good news: Things are improving! I checked several publishers who had previously displayed poor rates of publishing women in translation and found some surprisingly positive stats. Take New Directions, for example. New Directions is a publishers that had a gently upward trending rate over five years of data, but they were one of few publishers who responded last year with surprise at their low rates and a pledge to do better. While this year's data obviously reflects books that were already in the pipeline, the leap is huge - from not-quite reaching the 30% rate in 2018, New Directions' 2019 catalog (best as I can tell) is perfectly balanced, with 10 books by men and 10 books by women (in translation, of course). These include, as I mentioned earlier, both nonfiction and reissued works. Even with categories that we may assume are more likely to favor men writers (and I'll elaborate on this at a later time), we see that New Directions actually landed on perfect parity.

Other "never-quite-there" publishers also managed to up their games. Open Letter, almost perpetually with one book more by men than by women, finally shifted their balance to publish more women than men in 2019. Europa Editions came as close as possible to their 2015 parity, with a one book difference between men and women in translation. And FSG, one of the big-name publishers that has long been solidly dominated by men-writers, came surprisingly close to 50% as well. I also tossed in some independent British publishers like Charco Press or Fitzcarraldo Editions, and found that they did fairly well in terms of their gender balance, with Charco over 50% and Fitzcarraldo just under. If we were to include AmazonCrossing, the heavyweight champion of women in translation, I'm certain the overall picture would look very rosy. In general, the fact that there have been shifts in specific, previously disappointing publishers is wonderful news and I do not want that lost in what I'm going to write next. So let me reiterate: Things are getting better!

And yet.

Part of the reason I opted for this new analysis methodology was to get a better sense of the nuances behind the data. Knowing that the average publication rate for women writers in translation is going up is brilliant, but it's also, still, only part of the picture. While certain publishers are improving, which aren't? Are there certain fields or genres that remain particularly hostile to women writers? How can we begin to fix those? Where do we need to be looking?

I started by looking at publishers that I feel sit on the bubble of disappointment - definitely not great, but also not as bad some others. (High praise, indeed.) Take Pushkin Press, for example. If we take its combined catalogs (children's imprint alongside adult), we have reasonable 39% translation rate. Not bad! But if we split the two catalogs (and indeed, that's how Pushkin themselves market the books), we see that the children's imprint (which includes both kidlit and YA) tilts the playing field, with the latter imprint at a 60% and the adult at 32%. It's worth noting that Pushkin Children has certain series that may be contributing that 60%, though of course this may be a recurring theme - I'll need to collect more data to be certain. Another note: one of the Pushkin Press catalogs I sampled (representing different seasons) had near balance and the other had a sharp 2:12 ratio, which seems to suggest that there is no targeted effort on the part of the publisher. Again, something worth tracking.  

Another disappointment was a publisher I looked at for the first time: MacLehose Press. This is one of the more prominent and well-respected British literature-in-translation publishing houses, yet they sit at a not-great 26% women in translation rate. (It's telling, I think, that I call 26% "not-great"; after all, when the base rate has hovered between 28-31% for the past 5 years, that's a pretty reasonable stat, isn't it?) (No.)

One of the more personally frustrating stats came from NYRB. While it has an overall higher rate than MacLehose, for example (at almost 30%), it's disappointing given that they were positively receptive to the problem last year (again, see this post). My hope is that this is a delay bias (in terms of works already in the pipeline) and that we'll see higher numbers from NYRB in the near future. In the meantime, it's more of the same. Here at least, like with Pushkin, we see some benefit from the inclusion of a children's literature imprint... but not much of one. Graphic novels don't seem to shift things much in either direction, perhaps because there aren't many overall.

And then. Then things start to get infuriating. 

...to be continued. (Graphs to follow in the next post!)

1 comment:

  1. Love this, you put bold stats behind a general feeling one gets when perusing certain catalogs. Sometimes I read a wonderful book by a WIT and then look to the catalogue expecting to find others, only to be disappointed. Calling individual publishers out and then seeing a change tells us who is paying attention to their readers, rather than the feeling I often get that they're publishing for themselves, acting more as judges of literature rather than curators of their own audience readership.


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