Tuesday, August 3, 2021

WITMonth Day 3 | Filling the gap

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine in the lab gaped a little when I told her about this project and WITMonth. It's something that usually catches my labmates off guard; I am a passionate about my love of the sciences and I suspect that for many it seems like an extremely odd balance of interests. But the true surprise isn't in my love of literature - that surprise fades away relatively quickly - but the feminist nature of this project I manage. The questions started immediately. They were nothing I haven't heard before, but that doesn't make them less exasperating; why do you do this isn't this sexist but what about all these authors don't you think you're making up a problem where there isn't one. All sentences that reflect a profound lack of awareness regarding A) the problem itself, and B) the fact that I'm a person who's been working on this for coming on eight years now. But let's set aside B and focus on A, because the truth is that outside of a small slice of the internet, the vast majority of people still are not aware of the Women in Translation project, its offshoots, its impact, or its importance.

It's easy to forget, but most folks in the world do not necessarily engage with art and media the same way that the most hardcore fans might. I run a book blog specifically because I am deeply passionate about books and wanted an outlet to write about them (erm... was encouraged to do so by an insistent sister who was tired of hearing me ramble to her). The folks who read my book blog are, for the most part, also folks who are deeply passionate about books and as such read book blogs. The same is true for BookTwitter, Booktube, Bookstagram, BookTikTok or whatever other social media platform you may use. It's not even that this is the exclusive place for readers; I'm in a non-book-specific Facebook group that has some extraordinarily avid readers, none of whom engage with what I would call the express "book community". Not to mention that there are multitudes of different literary communities in this shared online space. Readers who love James Joyce don't necessarily overlap with readers of Leigh Bardugo (though you never know!), and readers of WWII historical texts aren't necessarily the same folks who are going to gush about the latest Inspector Harry Hole thriller (but again... you never know!). Readers are not a monolith. Nor are feminist readers and nor are activist readers.

I've written before about the awareness gap in WIT, on multiple occasions. I'm not naive to how highly specific this project seems and how broadly unimportant. That reaction from my coworker is one that I've heard countless times from people who simply cannot fathom why I spend my time doing all this work to promote women writers (voluntarily!), and moreover women writers from all these "random" backgrounds that nobody has ever heard of. I often voice my belief that readers cannot be expected to read that which is not available to them, but the same is true of folks outside of these especially focused literary communities. People cannot be expected to care for a problem they neither see nor understand.

This is a huge part of why I've tried to build a Women in Translation website for the past two years. My hope has always been to be able to provide resources for those who are aware and engaged, but also an open door for exactly those who ask the standard question: Why? Huh? Why? There's a lot of work left in order to fully fill the awareness gap, yes, but it's a process. More and more readers are aware of WITMonth and its source. More and more readers are becoming aware of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. More and more readers are being exposed to bookstore and library displays that showcase women writers in translation, and not just the same six authors. We are in the eighth year of this process, but it's moving. Maybe, hopefully, someday my coworkers will not gape at me, but instead give me a piercing glare and ask, "Shouldn't you be doing more to ensure equitable translations of women writers?" Touché.

Monday, August 2, 2021

WITMonth Day 2 | Explaining myself | Thoughts

This will be a musing sort of blog post.

One of my great struggles over the years has been explaining to people what the women in translation movement is. I have tried - and often failed - to convey what exactly we're trying to achieve here with this work. The truth is that most people who are not avid readers have never quite been able to understand what WIT is. Tomorrow's post will delve into this in a bit more depth; today I simply want to explore what it even means to explain myself. Because it often feels like that's all I do.

I explain that WIT isn't necessarily about translations into English, but it's not about translations from English. I explain that WIT is about women writers, not translators. I explain that WIT is about having fun, not a burden or expectation on readers. I explain the origins, I explain the credits, I explain my role. My explanations never quite feel like enough.

Part of the problem is, of course, that I embedded far too many ambiguities in the original project title. "Women in Translation" is contextually snappy and accurate, but it gets extremely confusing when, well, translated. More than that, the original meaning behind the project seems to get lost and watered down. I have had extremely lovely readers reach out to me (in private and in public) asking as to the "rules" of WITMonth. One likened it to a readathon, asking whether it was okay to read books from regions or genres not mentioned in the bingo card I recently uploaded. I found myself in the rather odd position of explaining that WITMonth carries absolutely no obligations with it and that the ultimate purpose is awareness and enjoyment. I suppose it's inevitable that the project origins will get a little muddled as it moves further and further away from me (which remains a good thing! even if it occasionally leave me melancholic), but that doesn't mean there is no hope, right?

I will continue to explain myself. Tomorrow, the day after, and every day to come. With the new website and here and everywhere else. But I hope that I can find the right words.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

WITMonth Day 1 | A new home

After years of trying to get this off the ground, the Women in Translation - womenintranslation.org - is now live. This has been an extraordinary effort, and rather like this blog, would not exist without the concrete support of my sister (who in this case literally built the website). 

This brand-new WIT site is still very much a work in progress. It has only a few of the projects that I hope it will someday have, as well as resources, links, and information. But it is a start. If you're looking for a single place with all of the WITMonth resources (buttons, bingo cards, miscellanea), this is your site. If you're looking for the annual book lists, this is your site. If you're new to the project and just looking to understand what the heck I've been rambling about for years, this is your site.

Today is the first day of August. For the past several years, I have tried to have daily posts throughout August; this year, I am not certain that I will make the same effort that I usually do. But I do so with the sense of satisfaction and relief that readers will not lack for WITMonth resources and information. With time, womenintranslation.org will grow to include many of the topics I have covered on this blog, and I am grateful for the chance to simply enjoy WITMonth as intended. I plan on spending this month contemplating the matter of women in translation, discussing it, reading books by women writers in translation, review books by women writers in translation, and most importantly... as always... just having fun.

Happy WITMonth, everyone!

Saturday, June 12, 2021

#WITMonth 2021!

For those of the us in the northern hemisphere, June brings with it not only warm winds, but the promise of a hot summer. And the promise of a hot summer always turns my thoughts toward August. And, of course, August is Women in Translation Month. WITMonth, the greatest, WITtiest month of the year!

And we are now 50 days away.

WITMonth 2021 button

As with every year, there are a lot of ongoing efforts leading up to August. First and foremost, there's the annual (and still in progress!) New Releases list - this is a list of books by women writers translated into English that have been released since September of the following year and are due to be released by August of the current year. As with every year, the list is constantly being updated and amended; in fact, these lists are so flexible that they are often updated years after the fact. Which is why you should probably also check out the last few lists: WITMonth 2020, WITMonth 2019, and WITMonth 2018! Each list has gotten a new title (or ten) since originally "finalized". Among these lists, you can find books of almost every imaginable genre, style, and perspective, spanning dozens of languages and countries. If you're looking for where to start searching for WITMonth books, this is a good first stop.

As with previous years, I also turn to industry professionals, translators, authors, editors, and anyone in the know-how for help expanding the list! This is a constant work-in-progress and omissions are reflective of my own ignorance, not of any deliberate attempt to actively ignore relevant titles. Please feel free to email me or message me via Twitter (either the @Read_WIT or Biblibio accounts are fine!) and I'll try to add the missing titles as soon as possible.

A new WITMonth also brings with it new questions and challenges. For me, the #DailyWIT has proven to be an extraordinary year-long challenge that makes some of my previous efforts a little redundant. There is little point, it seems, to do a 50-day countdown when the entire year is dedicated to sharing precisely those style blurbs. Nor in chronicling titles I'm curious to read. But I am looking forward to writing a bit more about different genres, about different perceptions of classic women in translation. Who knows, maybe that'll even translate into some sort of organized event! (Pun intended.) There's still quite a bit in the works right now, so we'll see what happens. And anyways, I definitely still owe everyone leftover posts from last year (oops), so maybe I should hold off on the promises...

And on that cheery note I turn the stage over to the real WITMonth stars - all of you! Every single reader who is ready to think about women writers from around the world during the month of August. What are you looking forward to?

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Decentering and centering | Thoughts

More musings: Anything I'm able to write up for my huge new project (#DailyWIT) is going to be biased because of what I'm able to access.

I wrote the other week about compiling this new list and some of the challenges involved. I know that the list will never be perfect and I am not aiming for perfection. I'm aiming for something that will contribute to raising the visibility of and awareness toward women writers in translation, even if only a little. I believe that any list would be able to achieve that, to be honest, which does mean that I have a few other ambitions tossed in. While I know it's impossible to really reflect the world in an exactly proportional way, I am also not very interested in doing so. Instead, I am trying to continue the legacy of my first ever big list of women in translation - the 2019 50 Day Countdown. Now, as then and certainly as in the 2020 50 Day Countdown, I want to make sure my list reaches corners of the world, cultures, backgrounds, and languages that maybe aren't always centered or heavily promoted. 

The problem is that I come with a bias that I cannot shake off - language.

Linguistic bias may seem like an obvious topic for a blog that has focused on international literature for the past eight or so years, but I'm not talking about bias from a place of which books I'm able to read. I'm talking about bias from a place of which authors I'm able to learn about. I am privileged enough to read (fluently) in two languages, passably in a third, and can understand the gist with the help of Google Translate in another few (across a few different alphabets). Which all together leaves me with what must surely be a wider range of resources than most, but certainly a smaller range of resources than I would like.

I cannot write about authors I cannot learn about.

This has been a problem in the past, but it feels even more obvious now that I'm trying to come up with 365 new women writers from around the world (after already having compiled a list of 100 in the past two years). 365 women writers from backgrounds, languages, and experiences that are already difficult to track. International literature is already so marginalized in English that finding anything can be difficult, but even more when seeking works by women writers and particularly women writers of different (i.e. non-European) backgrounds. I can stalk Wikipedia all I want (and I do! and I make incredible discoveries thanks to a pretty special talent for searching!), but when push comes to shove, I'm limited by whatever resources exist in English. And the more layers of marginalization an author faces, so to speak, the harder it is to find resources in languages I can access, if they even exist.

I often feel guilty for this. English-language bias and Anglo-centrism shape so many of my critiques at the core of this project, and yet they shape so much. (Hebrew, my other native language, unfortunately doesn't always have all that many more resources than English, though there are some and they often provide me with incredible insight that makes me wish I knew more languages!) The limitations of English end up defining most of the limitations of whatever projects I may want to embark on. It's inevitable, yes, but disappointing.

I dream of a day where that won't be the case. Where the women in translation project will truly exist across languages and borders and cultures. It already doesn't feel like so far-fetched a dream; WITMonth has been recognized in so many different countries and languages from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica, but I'll get those penguins or penguin scientists eventually!). But I still feel like I often need to remind people that just because I'm mostly framing myself and the project in English doesn't mean it is an English-language project - it's not. It cannot be. It must not be.  

My language barrier means that the #DailyWIT list will be biased, like almost all of my other work in this field. I'm one person (for now), there's no way around that fact. English will remain at the center of this blog and most of what I'm able to tweet about and share. But at the same time, I hope I can hold onto that decentering. I hope I can remind readers - bilingual or not! - that English should not be our only outlet for this conversation. And I hope, as ever, that I'm able to contribute something that will, somehow, manage to make up for whatever inevitable flaws come with it.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A product of its time, in unprecedented times

This is not a review. These are, in fact, extremely scattered thoughts following a rather disjointed and confused reading experience, that triggered within me a cascade of almost indescribable feelings. And yet I will try to explain them.

I finished reading The Emissary not three hours ago. I stopped trying to write critical reviews soon after completing a book years ago, realizing that I was never quite able to capture what the book meant to me and often ended up either overestimating how much a book would leave a mark on me or underestimating whatever undercurrent might constantly suck my thoughts back into a text weeks later. So suffice to say that writing a review mere hours after finishing the book is not something I'm really interested in doing. Again: This is not a review.

No, this is much more of a meditation of books as products of their time. It's a phrase I've used myself (quite often) to describe older texts that had literary value that seemed to expressly reside in the context of the time in which the book was published. Many stories do not translate well across generations and subsequent culture changes - a perfectly normal and acceptable phenomenon. But The Emissary is, of course, a fairly recent book. Yoko Tawada's slim dystopia was originally published in 2014 in Japanese, and translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018. I purchased it in 2019. Recent, recent, recent. So how could this book be a "product of its time" and why did that phrase continuously ring in my mind as I read it?

It starts in a public park, earlier this morning. The sun was shining, surprisingly warm for a winter day (sweater only), but of course it's been warm all week. I am sitting in a patch of sunshine and cracking open this novella, which I partially chose to take with me on my lockdown walk because it could fit in my coat pocket. And almost instantly, it strikes me that there is something absurd to the whole situation. Something that simply didn't work anymore.

The Emissary is a dystopia; it spends a good portion of its pages detailing the ways in which the world has fallen apart or changed. Its premise - like that of most dystopias - relies on hovering in the in-between space of being just slightly believable enough that it could become real, but still thoroughly unbelievable enough that it's not just fiction. Speculative fiction of this category has to walk a very fine line. 

When The Emissary was written (and translated into English), the idea of a country becoming wholly isolated from its surroundings fit in that in-between zone. When it was written, an environmental catastrophe that shapes and shrinks and wholly reshapes its main characters' world was speculative fiction. It could happen, but it hasn't. Except here I was on this too-warm Saturday morning in January (less than 1km from my home, per lockdown orders), reading this novel with a mask covering my nose and mouth, desperately trying to find a deserted patch of sunshine from which to read apart from the various families, couples, and individuals who had come out to enjoy the sunshine as I had. The dystopia I lived in seemed to mock the dystopia that Tawada had so carefully crafted. No, The Emissary does not remotely imagine a world like our current one, but to the contrary - the differences meant that her world no longer felt believable. Too many little references and ideas and world-building threads suddenly felt... dated. The book felt like something that had clearly been written in Before-times.

This is an exaggeration, of a sort. Tawada's work is, again, so distant from our current lives that it doesn't really change in response to whatever changes our world is going through. Rather, it was that I had changed. As a reader, I found myself approaching The Emissary with a jaded sadness that I'm sure I would not have had two years ago. Unlike straight-fiction which I've largely been able to read as before, the dystopian nature of The Emissary made me feel like its subtle misses and too-on-the-nose predictions placed it just out of reach, somehow. (Emotionally, that is.) I couldn't view this is an "irrepressibly funny, playfully joyous novel", as the back cover promises. At all. At all. The book seemed to drain me of all feeling and joy. It was interesting, yes, and there's a lot I appreciated about its writing, and if I ever write a real review there's a lot I can also discuss about its worldbuilding strengths, but I could not view it through an enjoyable lens. 

I imagine I will encounter more books like this in the future, that are reshaped by the experiences of this past year (these unprecedented times) and possibly by future events I cannot yet fathom (hopefully positive ones). It is inevitable that as the world barrels onward and history is made on an almost-daily basis, my relationship with fiction - its limits, its plausibility, its impact - will change accordingly. Perhaps I should have expected this sort of response to The Emissary and waited to read it, but I find myself rather grateful for the experience and the thought process it triggered. I am a changed reader after the past year - it's good to know that.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Lists, or, embarking on new projects

I occasionally like making lists. Not necessarily the hard work behind it, but the way a list looks when it's done. I like the way lists can organize thoughts or approaches. There's beauty to it, at the end of the day.

I'd been toying with the idea of daily tweets on my "Women in Translation" account for a while. It's not an original idea, of course, and I've made similar big threads in the past. But I wanted to try to stretch my boundaries a little this year. I want to make it impossible for readers to miss the incredible range of women writers from around the world. 2021 is going to be the year that I simply do not let up. I refuse to.

So here's what I'm doing: I'm making a list. A very long list, to be perfectly honest. For every day of 2021 (not necessarily posted every day, because, well, that won't be possible due to all sorts of factors...), I will be sharing a brief tidbit about one woman writer from around the world writing in a language other than English, living or dead, near or far, translated or not. I know that the list will be imperfect in a lot of ways, whether in terms of giving space to authors it will emerge I do not like (since I am not filtering author inclusion on whether I've read their works or not, at least not at this stage), or in terms of mistakes that may fall along the way in my assumptions or awareness of their works. I expect that the list will end up including authors that will frustrate some readers. Maybe that should even be part of the point, I'm not sure.

I decided to compile this list because I'm tired of the omissions. I'm tired of the fact that time and again, readers come away with the perception that women writers exist in English, and only in English. This simply isn't true. Yes, there are certain biases in place that seem to drive women to write in English over native languages, but more than that, there is a persistent unwillingness to create space for those women who do write in languages other than English. A brief run-through of sites like Words Without Borders and Asymptote Journal reveal that women are often wholly missing from "underrepresented" languages. And to be perfectly frank, these aren't actually languages with few speakers; Punjabi, for example, has over 100 million native speakers, and no translations of works by women... But this is just one example, and while I'm sure some languages have imbalances galore, I'm not convinced that there are simply no women writers.

So just as I've done in the past with the 50 Day Countdowns, I want to set the record straight. There are going to be all sorts of challenges involved in compiling this list, yes, especially since I refuse for it to be an overwhelmingly white, European list either and don't want to repeat authors previously included in the countdowns. There are challenges galore. But you know what? It'll be worth it, if I manage. It'll be worth it to come and say, flatly, "No. Women writers exist across the whole world, across all these languages, cultures, regions, and experiences." Women cannot be the afterthought when it comes to literary engagement or awareness. This new project is just my latest way to try to reset the record, even if only a little bit.