Saturday afternoon, writers, translators, editors, and publishers, gathered above Albertine bookstore to discuss the gender bias in literary translations published in the United States. “Where are the women authors in translation?” the panel of experts wanted to know—and considering the packed room facing Central Park on a sunny spring day, they were not alone. In fact, the central question of this consciousness-raising meeting has been publically posed various times in recent years. Much is owed, for instance, to Alison Anderson’s 2013 Words without Borders dispatch (“Where Are the Women in Translation?”), panels at the London Book Fair (“Where are the Women Writers in Translation?”), and even a 2008 piece in The Guardian (“Where are the women writers in translation?”). And with the hashtag #womenintranslation gaining momentum alongside projects like Bibliobio’s Women in Translation Month, the conversation has only been escalating.
To examine the current state of the gender gap in the reception of translated literature by female authors, the PEN World Voices Festival brought together VIDA veteran Jen Fitzgerald, Tin House editor (and VIDO Award recipient) Rob Spillman, author Véronique Tadjo, and translator Susan Bernofsky. Moderated by co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee Margaret Carson and translator Alta L. Price, the discussion sought to explore the questions: Why are so few of the books translated into English written by women, especially when so many of them are translated by women? Why is it so difficult for women who are widely read in their own countries to find an English language publisher? Why do female writers so rarely win translation prizes?
Numbers tell a story, and while not the whole story, an important one. Handouts with charts were disseminated and projected onto a large screen. (All charts are available at Women In Translation.) The data, which the moderators culled and painstakingly sorted from the Three Percent database, provided a concrete depiction of this systemic issue facing the translation world and the publishing ecosystem at large. As we went over the charts together, I was surprised to learn that many of the publishers I had long supported as a reader and championed as a bookseller were far from reaching gender parity among the authors they published in translation just last year.
After this, Jen Fitzgerald, the longtime director of VIDA Count, gave an overview of the organization's history. She mentioned that VIDA also works to include those of nonbinary genders, and that the organization has never initiated a quota or passed judgment on the literary gatekeepers represented, but rather has presented the numbers and let the numbers themselves spark conversations.
Rob Spillman spoke about his work at Tin House since the first VIDA Count alerted him to gender disparity among contributors to the magazine. He said that he began paying close attention to the numbers—solicitations, submissions, acceptances, rejections, repeated submissions after previous rejections, submissions from agents, gender of agents—and began noticing patterns. He noticed, for instance, that even among solicited writers, women were half as likely to send work as men, and that, when rejected, female writers were far less likely to send him something else, even upon request. He said that this knowledge caused him to reconsider the way he sends rejections, to follow up with female writers when possible, and, in the case of Tin House’s Lost & Found section—where writers can choose any underappreciated writer they’d like to shine a spotlight on, and both men and women consistently choose male authors—he has taken to asking contributors whether there is no underappreciated female author that they’d like to champion. Spillman, who also teaches at Columbia, mentioned that his findings among students have been similar: when he asks students in his Establishing Authority seminar to bring in their own found examples of authoritative “writing that works,” eighty percent bring in work by male writers. About Tin House’s successes with achieving gender parity, someone joked, “And sales are okay?” Spillman assured us that sales were as good as ever, if not better for the support of women and the recognition from VIDA.
Véronique Tadjo, who has written many books that were later widely translated, including The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda, spoke of the challenges of publishing in Africa. She noted the price of books and the lack of a readership to sustain the industry, particularly given the number of languages used even within a single country on the continent. With educational books being more lucrative, many writers find exposure outside of Africa. She lamented that not much translation is occurring between African languages, but said that there are projects underway to republish African literature published in France, Belgium, and Canada in Africa as well, such that the books are accessible and affordable to their own communities. She also explained that as a result of oral traditions, many women in Africa play a major role in the literature but are not often represented in the larger literary world.
Susan Bernofsky made an appeal for a prize for women authors in translation, arguing that separating and celebrating the work of women writers is an important step toward parity. She described how she arrived at this idea, referencing a post by Katy Derbyshire (“A Women’s Prize for Translated Books”), the originator of the idea for this prize in the UK, and went on to explain that while the UK already had a prize for women writers (Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction), we were missing this fundamental stepping stone prize—a major prize for books written in English by women—until VIDA recently created one. Bernofsky then posed a few logistical questions about the translation prize, such as: How would we fund it? Who would administer it? What’s in the best interest of the translation world? Would it be a joint prize between author and translator? If so, would both need to be female? She acknowledged that the prize would likely incite discomfort among those with more privilege, but that change comes about through discomfort, and the goal here is not the prize itself but change. For more on this topic, see Bernofsky’s own post at her blog Translationista (“Why We Need a Prize for Women in Translation”).
When the audience spoke up, it seemed as though most people present felt freshly implicated. Indeed, the various tentacles of the conversation had demonstrated that for the publishing ecosystem to move toward gender parity, it will need everyone. Publishers will need to examine their publication numbers as well as submissions, solicitations, commissions, and acquisitions. Judges and nominators, their lists, short and long. Booksellers, their inventories, their displays. Readers, our bookshelves, our reviews. Teachers, our syllabi. Writers and translators, our own voices as well as those yet unheard—of any category. The recent proliferation of columns like Tin House’s Lost & Found and blogs like Writers No One Reads demonstrates that not all ships can rise on their own.
Downstairs from the panel, past the marble pillars and gilded trim, I wandered into the bookstore. Albertine has an excellent selection of small press books and some of the most gorgeous versions in print. The display table prominently featured staff picks replete with handwritten index cards. Side by side were books by female authors with female translators, and I walked away with Tom’s staff pick, Apocalypse Baby from Feminist Press.
Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neopolitan novel will be published in September, and I can’t help but wonder how many other Ferrantes are out there. How many of the world’s great books will never be translated into English because of our own gender biases? How long will we have to wait for books by female authors to be “discovered” by the anglophone world?
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For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here