Tuesday, August 4, 2020

WITMonth Day 4 | From translation to feminist spaces

When I first started hosting WITMonth back in 2014 - before the @read_WIT Twitter account, before the @readWIT Instagram account, before publisher deals and library involvement and bookstore displays - I had a fairly clear image in mind of my target audience. WITMonth was meant to convince readers of literature in translation that women in translation were worthy of their time. In those days, it seemed like the obvious and necessary approach, since the debates (often well-meaning!) I was having and the trolling I faced were all within the "translated literature community", so to speak. My impression was that I needed to convince folks who already read translations that they needed to broaden their horizons to include more women writers in the mix. My entire approach that first year was rooted in targeting those readers, and not really anybody else.

I've written before about the way that my attention has shifted pretty seriously over the past few years. I no longer find myself particularly nervous about general readers of literature in translation accepting women writers in translation; even as the translation rates only barely creep up and even as many leading publishers continue to ignore the matter and even as most readers default to men writers in translation, "women in translation" as a topic and WITMonth as a specific event have become fairly deeply rooted within the community. I no longer feel I have to be the single driving force for WITMonth to take place, which is pretty awesome.

The problem, as I've previously laid out many times, is my increasing awareness of how literary feminism itself seems determined to shut out women writers in translation. My 2014-justifications for WITMonth were borne of feminist rants and manifestos, but these seem superfluous in the face of the "actual" feminist movement. I shouldn't have to explain why reading internationally is an inherent part of intesectionality, right? I shouldn't have to explain the value in reading words that women write in their native languages (or sometimes different, non-English colonialist languages), to a homegrown audience, right? I shouldn't have to explain the importance in learning about the world through the eyes of other women, right? Right?

If it sounds like I'm repeating myself, it's because I am! I wrote this all last year, and there too I noted how I've written this all before. Repeating myself is frustrating, but it's also, apparently, necessary, because this keeps getting ignored. It's not even that feminist spaces reject women in translation in some clear and concentrated effort, no, it's much worse than that. Women in translation simply aren't on the radar for the vast majority of English-language feminists. You may see a book or two creep into the conversation, sometimes a book go mainstream like My Brilliant Friend or The Vegetarian or Convenience Store Woman, but the conversation itself remains firmly rooted in highly specific cultural contexts. Note too how women who shift from writing in their native languages to writing in English or being marketed as writing in English suddenly get a massive boost in profile and attention (Valeria Luiselli for the former, Elif Shafak for the latter). Framing the conversation around English and around an English-speaking audience is one part of the story, absolutely, but it is only one part.

Feminist spaces have spent years acknowledging their struggles in integrating different perspectives. There's a reason these have spent the past few months talking about antiracism and focusing on women of color. There's a reason there's a constant conversation about space for queer, disabled, or otherwise marginalized voices in feminist spaces. These are all important. Yet they largely fail to take into account the complexities of different cultures or contexts. It's important to remember that an immigrant voice writing a "foreign" story for an unfamiliar audience will be wildly different than a book written within a certain culture's borders. The story that someone tells as a diaspora writer isn't the same as the story someone shares within their culture and community. It's not that the former is bad - on the contrary, it's pivotal that we center these experiences as well! - but it shouldn't come at the expense of the latter. Giving space to Black, Latinx, South Asian, Middle Eastern, or Indigenous writers within English shouldn't replace listening to those same voices writing in their own contexts.

This is where I feel that feminist spaces really need to step up, and this is the point I've been making for years now. To take the most pressing recent example, the US and UK book-sale lists the past few weeks have seen a notable jump in sales of books by Black writers. These are often books that tackle race and racism explicitly in the US/UK cultural context, since it is ostensibly this culture that is being challenged, whether in the form of slavery's legacy or through modern oppressive tactics. But it's worth remembering that these problems exist well outside of English as well. French writers - many belonging to the African diaspora - have been writing about police violence, social inequality, and structural racism for years, as have others throughout Europe. Caribbean writers - whether French-language, Spanish, or Creole - have been writing about the legacies of slavery and colonialism for generations. Indigenous Latin American writers have been tackling stories about racist minority oppression since the 19th century (at least), and many modern writers even make a point of writing in Indigenous languages. Brazilian writers have been having parallel social (and indeed feminist!) conversations about every one of these issues for decades, yet these works are overwhelmingly unavailable to outside audiences (even as English-language books about racial bias and oppression are readily translated into Brazilian Portuguese). And frankly? The only reason I know any of this is because I've made it a point to learn and seek out the authors of these works (which are overwhelmingly unavailable in translation, to English or other languages).

This is just one example. Almost any important topic you can think about exists and is discussed in literature across the world, and deserves that space in translation (and again, not just into English!) as well. Feminist spaces have to open their doors to international writing; you can't claim intersectionality without space for existing international voices. Women in translation must be a part of this mainstream effort.

I don't expect this particular post to move any needles, not more than the previous. I can only hope that as WITMonth grows from year to year, more and more readers who have long embraced English-dominant feminist reading lists will also recognize just how much those lists would benefit from international voices. We all benefit from the normalization of women in translation. We must do more.


  1. Yesssssss to all of this! You couldn't be more right, and I hope that this will shift / continue shifting. I can't tell if the broader literary world has become more welcoming to books in translation or if I'm just more aware of it -- it feels like the former, but I can't swear to it. Anyway, just speaking from my own experience, the more books you read in translation, the less scary it feels, and I'd very much hope that increased exposure will make English-speaking audiences more excited and open to the worlds of international literature.

  2. This is a really good point, and it makes me glad I'm reading a book in translation from the German about gender in children, published by The Women's Press as my book this year.

  3. Hear, hear! I try to frame it in a positive way, that other cultures are more widely informed about debates happening in all sorts of other languages, because they translate more from other languages, including English. So it's a loss (and point of ignorance) for the English-speaking world. But when the English-speaking world is so dominant in terms of publishing, it really isn't their loss so much, as the loss of everyone else...

  4. Yes yes yes. You *shouldn't* have to explain this, it seems so obvious.

    The racism/international perspectives thing has been on my mind a lot lately. I'm a librarian at a community college that is going to be all online this semester, and over the summer we put together our own version of the 'anti-racist reading lists' that were circulating. Ours had to be accessible to our people, so it only features books we have in e-format; students can click on the title and start reading, no money or physical books involved, since the library is closed. We bought a lot of e-books we already had in hard copy. But it is (so far) super-duper focused on the US, and I want to put in a bunch of other stuff too. I'm getting some good items to share. I'm seeing so much turning inward in our culture right now, on every side; I've been feeling like it's more important than ever to bring forward non-US perspectives. We can't just forget that everybody else exists.

    1. And I just wrote about the gap in eBook availability too, I can't imagine how that's affecting things now with all the closures... It's so hard, but it's awesome to hear that some librarians are making that effort!!!

  5. I was just typing this out from a book I finished a few days ago, and I think it applies here.

    "Keep in mind that most of the world's 3.3 billion women do not speak your dialect of feminism. For instance, they might not define power in terms of the ability to hold a position in a bureaucratic hierarchy. Of course, use the languages in which you're fluent to do the work you're capable of doing. But don't forget that others' languages and discourses are valid. For instance, to discount women's 'unenlightened' voices and viewpoints simply because you don't understand them is the opposite of feminist.... through frequent interaction with many beloved Others, we learn to be polyglots. We learn that people can be wise and good in different ways."
    --Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, in the book "Crossings"


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