Thursday, 14 June 2012

Where Are the Women in Translation?

Today Stefan Tobler of the top exciting British mainly-translation publishers And Other Stories tweeted that he thought "more men than women submit literary fiction. We'd love that to change! Submissions info here.... "

So if you're a woman writer and think your work would work for them, do submit.

But I was thinking about why it is that more men than women get translated into English. It's definitely the case; I just called up the most recent translation database compiled by Three Percent, in this case listing first translations into English in 2011. In a strictly scientific experiment, I went down all the first names of the translated authors and highlighted the ones I thought were probably women. Then I highlighted about half of the ones where I had no idea whether they were men or women, just to be on the safe side. I made it about 80ish women authors out of 360 translated titles. The list remained really rather white - even if I'm rubbish at sexing names, we can still assume women writers accounted for only a quarter to a third of translated titles last year. Next I went down the list of translators' first names doing the same. Too many women to count, I'd say roughly half - it looked quite yellow.

Why on earth could it be? A friend of mine once suggested translators aren't averse to picking authors by how attractive they find them. I decided to neglect this theory because it would involve too much speculation on the statistical sexuality of translators, and anyway it's not usually the translators who choose what gets published in book form. Although it might be an interesting topic for a survey of translators who submit to literary magazines. Anyone?

So I have three other vague and speculative theories. Firstly, many successful women writers write genre fiction, and less genre fiction gets translated into English. Just as an example, this piece about historical fiction in Germany says about two thirds of the writers published last season are women.

And secondly there's that thing about men being more prominent in female-dominated fields. Because publishing's basically run by women (except for the upper echelons, d'oh!), fiction's basically read by women and there are more women writing than men. So the smaller number of men rise to prominence more easily than, say, in the world of investment banking, and certainly more quickly than women tend to. There's been research on this - they call it the glass elevator effect. Or maybe men have retained their privileged position from the times when publishing and writing was still male-dominated and have only let women get into the runner-up positions. Or maybe all those heterosexual women readers are buying books based on the author photo on the back. Or all the heterosexual women editors are buying translation rights based on the author photo on the back. Or the men on the awards committees are handing out prizes to their peers and buddies. Whatever the case, very many of the big guns of international fiction are men, and it's the big earners, the big award winners and the big guns who get translated into English.

Thirdly, because a lot of canonical writers get translated and re-translated, there are still plenty of dead white men to be dealt with - although this isn't reflected as strongly as it might be in the Three Percent statistics because they don't include re-translations.

I'm not sure what can be done to get more women writers into English, other than raising awareness. But on a very low level, our AOS German-language reading group is especially reading three books by women with the aim of suggesting one of them for translation. Bucking the trend slightly, I count I've translated seven women and two men so far, with two more men on my to-do list.


M. Lynx Qualey said...

I did this with Arabic at one point (for 2009-2010 titles, maybe?) and found it was about 20% women, 80% men being translated.

To which I'll just add that there is a perception on the part of some that Western publishers are almost exclusively looking for "hot young Arab woman fiction," but that is not, clearly, the case.

kjd said...

It's quite bizarre, isn't it? Thanks, Marcia.