Between 2008 and 2014, 2,471 fiction books appeared in English for the first time: 1,775 of those books were written by men, compared to 657 by women, and 39 by both men and women. Female writers make up only 26.6% of the translations published over the past seven years.
At the Bowery Poetry Club on Sunday, November 8, Margaret Carson, the co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee, led a discussion on the gender gap in literary translation at the New Literature from Europe Festival. The event featured Danish writers Josefine Klougart and Naja Marie Aidt, German novelist Bettina Suleiman, and Open Letter Books publisher Chad Post.
Post reiterated that it is not that hard to find great books by women. Still, the gender gap is huge. One possibility is that translators want to work with authors who are well-established in their home countries. Those prominent writers tend to be male, thus feeding into the cycle of inequality.
Here’s a sample of the breakdown by country of origin, courtesy of Three Percent:
Argentina: 60 male authors, 30 female authors (33%)
China: 76 male authors, 21 female authors (20%)
France: 253 male authors, 96 female authors (27%)
Germany: 146 male authors, 78 female authors (35%)
Italy: 134 male authors, 41 female authors (23%)
Japan: 118 male authors, 47 female authors (28%)
Russia: 97 male authors, 32 female authors (23%)
Spain: 114 male authors, 36 female authors (24%)
Sweden: 79 male authors, 47 female authors (36%)
The issue goes even deeper. Once those books are finally published, they still face gender biases during the publicity stages. Klougart was recently featured in an article that claimed that women have become too dominant in the Danish literary scene. The article said that her novel On Darkness (forthcoming from Deep Vellum) was too concerned with “light female themes such as love, loss, and grief” and invited readers to burn all copies of books that lacked substance. Klougart’s novel, which is both essayistic and poetic, was quickly dismissed as one of those “light” reads.
Aidt articulated that some reviews of her work were steeped in sexism, and interviewers often commented on her appearance when their focus should have remained on her work. Her new novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors (translated by K.E. Semmel), has a male narrator. Many critics were “impressed by a woman who can write in a man’s perspective.” The VIDA count, an annual measurement of gender equality in the literary arts, also shows that reviewers often give more coverage to books written by men.
The lineup of this year’s New Literature from Europe Festival shows a gender gap as well, featuring nine male writers, compared to three female writers (all present on this panel).
Klougart mentioned that great female authors are often left out of anthologies and literary prizes, and eventually written out of the canon. “We need to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore. This is a great loss, and it’s not only a women’s issue.”