Sunday 28 September 2014

A Women's Prize for Translated Books

Since the panel asking "Where are the women in translation?" at this spring's London Book Fair, I have been thinking about how to raise awareness of women writers in translation. Significantly more books by men get translated into English than books by women, and at International Translation Day we held a session to start doing something about that. You can read chair Sophie Mayer's excellent briefing about it on the Free Word website.

There are lots of things we can do. We can review books written by women to help redress the imbalance in review coverage; reviewing books by women in translation will also, ideally, improve translator visibility. We can address funding issues so that translation grants are more evenly distributed, and a working group was formed to do just that. We can look at best practice and acknowledge those publishers who are doing it right. We can address gatekeepers – many of whom, as another working group established, are women: teachers, booksellers, translators, readers, editors. There are already grassroots initiatives promoting writing by women on Twitter, for instance.

What I wanted to do was to establish a prize for women's books in translation. I'm pleased to say that the idea was popular and we formed a working group at the end of the session to try and make it a reality. So let me outline my idea in more detail here and share some of what we talked about on Friday.

I'll start with what Sophie Mayer points out in her briefing notes:
Since its inaugural award in 1996, the Orange Award (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) has shown an unerring ability to celebrate and promote emerging writers who are now fixtures in the literary heavens. According to The Bookseller, the Orange Prize is a  proven driver of sales, and libraries that promote the prize reported a reader survey in which 48% of respondents said that they had tried new writers as a result of the promotion, and 42% said that they would try other books by the new authors they had read.
Yet, from its inception, the Award has been controversial, losing its first sponsor (Mitsubishi) and courting criticism from its own judges as well as reviewers and authors. AS Byatt called it ‘sexist… The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don't believe in’, although the award does not stipulate gendered subject matter, and has rewarded historical epics, crime thrillers and experimental writing, genres often associated with male writers.
With awards to Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and to Diane Evans and Irene Sabatini in the short-lived Orange Award for New Writers), Orange juries have also been more attentive to the multiethnic and transnational diversity of Anglophone writing than more established UK literary prizes.  That raises the intriguing possibility of replacing the Orange New Writers award with a Bailey’s Writing in Translation award that continues to extend the prize’s global awareness.
What I am interested in setting up is not a translation prize especially for women writers (or indeed translators); it would not be a sub-category of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which should continue to be awarded to the translated book judged to be the best of the year. The IFFP has never yet been awarded to a woman, almost certainly reflecting the imbalance in submissions. In my view, however, it must continue to consider quality above all other criteria while ensuring that the judges are a balanced mix.

What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.

The Bailey's Prize prompts debate every year through its mere existence, and every year people point out that women are still at a disadvantage in publishing. A women's prize for translated books would use exactly the same arguments – except that the translation stage actually amplifies this disadvantage, meaning that significantly fewer books by women are available in translation than books by men. In 2013, about 25-35% of new translated fiction published in the USA (the only figures we have) was written by women.

A women's prize for translated books would highlight those books that do make it through. It would give booksellers, journalists, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and interested readers a hook and get them arguing and help them to discover diverse writing by women. It would celebrate the work of women writers and their translators. It would reward those publishers who do bring out books by women in translation. I suspect it would even be possible, at this point, to publish a preliminary list of all the books written by women published in translation in the UK in a particular year, before drawing up a longlist and a shortlist. Almost everyone loves a list these days, and book prizes are a useful way of exploiting that mental laziness we all share.

So it's a fairly simple idea because we have a precedent. Now all we have to do is put it into practice. We can do it. And the awards ceremony will be amazing.


Unknown said...

I look forward to seeing what you come up with (even if I'm not quite convinced that everyone will see your distinction...). Of course, the technicalities will be interesting. When would the prize take place? Is it done by US or UK release dates? Who will judge it?

kjd said...

Hi Tony,

It's super-early days yet and we're going to start by looking for funding, but what we talked about was something more or less confined to the UK.

Once we have some money we can sit down and work out the technicalities. If it was up to me I think it would be judged by women though.

On the distinction, I've been discussing it on FB and here are my thoughts in more private mode:

"Oh dear. OK, I don't want it to be saying, here's a prize for translated fiction, and here's a subsection of that prize for translated fiction written by women, because they have it really tough and they've never won the main prize so here's a patronising little special prize just for the poor women.

What I want is for it to say, Here's a prize for books written by women, aren't they amazing? And here's a prize for translated books written by women, which are amazing too. That's the context I want the prize to be perceived in."

I think planning this - if it works out - will be really exciting in itself and provoke some fascinating discussions.

Unknown said...

Do you envisage its being a stand-alone prize, or would you like to approach the Baileys Prize people to suggest a collaboration?

As for the judges, is it really best to have just women judged by just women? I think that's the quickest way to ensuring people (men...) feel alienated and turned off...

The Modern Novel said...

I think the idea is brilliant but part of the problem is that there are a lot of superb women writers who are not getting translated into English. I read a fair amount in Spanish, Italian and French and I am aware of brilliant women writers in these languages who are completely unknown in the English-speaking world. (I am also aware of some brilliant untranslated male writers in these languages but that's another story.)

Like Tony, I find your distinction will be difficult to grasp by many (me included) so I think that you should try to keep it (relatively) simple. I shall follow your efforts with great efforts and will be happy to help where I can,

kjd said...

Thanks, you two. At the moment this is very much in the early planning stages and little is clear.

What is becoming clear though is that a lot of people think it's a really good idea, or had the idea already, or would like to support it in some way. So it's obviously the right moment to try and create this prize.

I hope one thing it will do is make publishers think about the books they choose to translate, and show that there's a readership for the great books by women that do make it into English. I agree, TMN, that there are so many that don't get translated, by women and by men, but the surge in interest and visibility for international writing through the internet has prompted a slight rise in translations. So let's hope a prize celebrating writing by women in translation might have a similar effect.

Dilettante said...

I have never been a fan of the Orange / Baileys Prize but the imbalance in translated fiction, outside a couple of genres, is such that I think a women's prize for translation is a very good idea.

"great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women."
I'm not sure which way round you use this distinction.
I would vote for whatever means ‘great writing that just happens to be by women’.
The Baileys Prize longlist, along with a few feted authors, usually contains a lot of stuff barely half a brow higher than the publishers' marketing category 'commercial womens fiction' - which does have exactly the sort of gendered subject matter Byatt referred to. That is one of the biggest selling categories in publishing and doesn't really need a prize as a boost. Whereas more highbrow and obscure writing by female authors, like recent critics' favourite Eimear MacBride, is a category that hasn't usually had as much publicity and respect as similar works by male authors. Likewise, VIDA concentrates on a small spectrum of reviewing journals which are never looked at by the majority of readers, readers who account for high volume book sales in which women authors are well represented. It is at the most intellectualised end of the market where there is most imbalance and it’s a sector which - due to its elitism and centrality to academia - sometimes forgets how small and unrepresentative it is of readers of fiction as a whole.

One of the cultural trends of the last c.10 years is towards greater gender essentialism and divide, seeing some things as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ subjects and traits, and also a greater public visibility of ‘feminine’ subjects and designs, with adult women who don’t like ‘girly’ things implied as traitorous. Labels such as genderqueer appear as a separate niche for those who don’t fit, but it is mostly liberal under 30s who are part of that subculture, whilst the essentialism is more obvious for everyone else. [LGBTQ writing in translation, now there’s an even worse neglect…]
Another prize for ‘women’s writing’ rather than ‘great writing by women’ contributes to the essentialism - which is disappointingly found in a lot of online literature discussion - and it can end up as something for admittedly large subsets of women who generally like the usual middlebrow family focused novel or feminist-activist fiction – rather than nonconformists whose main interests lie in a rather large elsewhere. It’s not that those subjects should be entirely absent from a longlist, but it’s a shame if they dominate it, and thus continue to make the work of women authors look like a niche that’s just for other women more or less like themselves. And realistically, like it or not, there are a lot of male readers who have a very limited interest those categories, yet aren’t averse to novels by women on subjects that interest them. I also like the idea of a mixed-gender judging panel, more like the Prix Femina than the Baileys – that says ‘books by women are for everyone’.

[This is my username from the Mookse and the Gripes forum.]

kjd said...

Thanks for all your thoughts, everyone.

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