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.

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