Thursday, March 5, 2020

The European problem | 100 Best WIT

When deciding to craft a "new canon" and creating the list of "100 Best Women in Translation", my initial hope was truly to reshape our existing impressions of literature. How tiring to read the same sorts of "Best of" lists, time and again. Whether it's things like the top books of the year as published by the NYT or "official" canons promoted by various literary organizations or special "classics" series by different well-regarded publishers, the limited mindset of these lists honestly exhausted me at some point. And of course, this extends beyond just literature. Is Hollywood truly the creator of all good films in the world? Does the only quality television emerge from the US or UK? Etc etc.

I always knew that crowdsourcing a list of 100 books by women in translation would be imperfect. I knew that it would not truly be the 100 "best", but the 100 "most popular", and as such would be tilted by all sorts of factors. Changes in the list's winning titles during its nominations period showcased some of these flaws, with the earliest batch of nominations coming from die-hard fans of literature in translation (and a lot of translators!) and reflecting fairly obscure titles, while many of the more "popular" titles fell on the wayside until much later in the nominations process. People also frequently referenced their assumptions about biases when nominating their favorite choices, which led to truly bizarre omissions or results, simply because several readers said things like "well, I bet everyone has nominated [book], so I'll go for [other books] instead" and nobody ended up actually nominating that book until very late in the game! (True story.)

I might discuss some of those biases someday, but the truly biggest and most apparent bias is one that I realized right away was going to happen, and the one that disappointed me most by the end of the nominations process - the 100 Best WIT is a highly Eurocentric list.

Let's be clear: Literature translated into English on the whole is overwhelming Eurocentric. European titles accounted for 64% of new fiction and poetry translations into English from the years 2013 through 2017, based on the Three Percent Database. There are few differences between the global rates and those for women in translation specifically. When breaking it down into smaller (approximate) regional definitions (recognizing that there are cultural biases within European translations as well), it's clear that translations into English have a "close-to-home" bias - 27% come from Western Europe, 15% from Central Europe, and 12% from Nordic countries. Only 7% and 2% of translated literature comes from Eastern or Southeastern European countries.

This, as you might imagine, has little correlation with actual population distributions across the world. Asia - both the world's largest and most populous continent - provided only 18% of translations into English in that 2013-2017 timeframe. Think about it. China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines... countries with literally hundreds of millions and billions of people, the vast majority of whom read and write in languages other than English, are represented by a handful of titles for all. South Korea and Japan are slightly better represented, but we're still talking about significantly fewer titles per capita as compared with France, for instance (South Korea has 68 translations for a country of 51.7 million people, while France has 372 for a country of approximately 67 million). Translations are biased in a lot of ways, and country of origin is absolutely one of them. And all of this without taking into account the truly abysmal representation for African literature in translation.

Breakdown of country of origin for new fiction/poetry translations into English published between 2013 and 2017 (data from the Three Percent database)

So let's go back to the 100 Best WIT. I expressed my disappointment at how Eurocentric the list is, due to the fact that 56 of the top 100 were of European origin. It can be argued that this is actually a somewhat positive value - after all, it's a bit less than the industry-wide 64%. And not all of the European writers are necessarily white European writers, introducing an additional degree of diversity for which country alone does not account. And yet wonderful as it is to have a list of the 100 Best WIT, it frustrates me to see the continued hurdles women writers from around the world face. Why doesn't our list have more African women writers? More Indian women writers? More Arab women writers? More Southeast Asian writers? Why do we tear down certain barriers, only to reveal additional ones?

There is an answer to these question, and the answer lies in that chart above. The fact is that translations are not made equal. The translated literary landscape remains thoroughly rooted in European stories, whether classic or modern. The 100 Best WIT list is tilted extraordinarily modern (note how many classic [European] women in translation didn't make it!), yet it still cannot overcome the simple availability bias. How can we expect English-language readers to nominate books they haven't read? (And while I wanted the 100 Best WIT to truly be international and not just about translations into English, there too lies a bias - the list was largely compiled by English-language readers, and of those overwhelmingly American or British readers.) So it really boils down to... how can we expect readers to love books they haven't read?

Allow me to emphasize this last point: Readers cannot be expected to love books they haven't read.

This leads back to that original WIT question in the first place. After all, the reason I care about WIT is because I care about actually getting a chance to read books from all the world, by all sorts of writers. Women writers obviously exist and always have, but their availability has been limited as compared to men writers in translation. The struggle has been to carve out that cultural space for their existing works, while also making sure we give room to more works overall. Giving space to more European women writers can be a step forward in very, very specific contexts - for European-focused publishers, when talking about European classics, when looking at very specific cultures or cultural expectations - but it really isn't when looking at the big picture. This project has always been about recognizing a cultural bias and seeking to rectify it. Replacing one bias with another is not where I want the Women in Translation movement to be.

I won't pretend I'm surprised that the 100 Best WIT list is Eurocentric. I won't pretend that I'm not still proud of the work that we did. I also won't pretend that I don't desperately want to revisit this project someday in the future, and create a wider, more inclusive version of the 100 Best WIT once we've worked on improving the publishing stats. (But, like, someday far in the future, because this was actually a bit exhausting in how much work it ended up being...)

Things are changing. We're slowly seeing a greater awareness for the lack of diversity in the translated literature world. Of the publishing world overall. The numbers for women in translation are slowly going up, though they are somewhat hampered by wide gaps in nonfiction and among certain publishers. Outside of the world of literature in translation, we're also seeing more and more readers becoming aware of cultural biases against writers from around the world (or even just different backgrounds within certain cultural contexts, e.g. "We Need Diverse Books" or the recent discussion of Latinx writers in the publishing industry). And while women - particularly women of marginalized backgrounds - face almost insurmountable hurdles in advancements across a lot of fields (politics is sharply on my mind today, but science, as ever, remains my home territory and most frustrating lived experience), there are pockets of improvement and good around the world.

The 100 Best WIT is a pocket of good when looked at from one angle, in the fact that thousands of readers have now read the list and begun to engage with the women in translation project for the first time. As I already said, I remain extraordinarily proud of the work we (and I) did. Of what we created. It remains unique and revolutionary in a lot of ways. But the list also reflects the gulfs we have yet to cross. It's something that will absolutely be shaping my own reading in the coming months and years; again, I will not eliminate one bias just to introduce another. May this be a lesson for us all, and an opportunity to begin to create that next canon with a better understanding of the next battles.