August is Women in Translation month, dedicated to boosting recognition of women writers
and working against the bias in the publishing industry toward books in translation
Catherine V. Howard
Why do we need a Women in Translation month? Perhaps a look at the statistics will help answer that question. According to Meytal Radzinski, a Hebrew-to-English translator and blogger at BiblioBio, her analysis of the Three Percent Translation Database revealed that women writers account for only 30% of works in translation published in the Americas (in English, Spanish, or Portuguese). Looking carefully at Meytal’s charts, we can see that Europe fares only slightly better at 33%, while Asia reaches 36% and Africa tallies a dismal 10%.
We already know how reluctant English-language publishers are to take on works in translation: in the U.S., only 3-5% of books published each year are translations. The percentage in the U.K. has been rising lately as works in translation are enjoying a refreshing surge of popularity, but is still woefully below the figures in other countries. If only one-third of those translations are by women authors, then that means that a mere 1% of the literary titles made available by U.S. publishers are by women in translation. As Ann Morgan points out in a post in her blog, Reading the World, the result is that Anglophone readers are being deprived of access to the voices and visions of writers representing half of the world’s non-English speaking population.
Besides having fewer books published, women authors in translation are also underrepresented in other aspects of the publishing world, such as the percentage of literary prizes they are awarded (e.g., only 8 out of 54 of the PEN Translation Awards) or the number of their works selected for book reviews (e.g., only 25% of the New York Times Sunday Book Reviews). And even though the number of female translators far exceeds male translators in general, the former end up being underrepresented in the book publishing industry as well.
Determined to do something about this, Meytal started Women in Translation Month in August of 2014 on her own. Her aims were simple and straightforward:
- Increase the dialogue about women writers in translation
- Read more books by women in translation
In her vision, the spirit of WITMonth should be “educational, entertaining, and enlightening.” Without a PR budget, corporate sponsorship, or even a grant, she simply began spreading the word through her blog, her contacts, and letters to publishers around the world. The idea caught on and as been gaining momentum every year through social media. Last year, she helped organize an entire panel on “Where are the Women in Translation?” at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) Conference.
After listening to a similar panel in the U.K., a new independent publishing house was started, Calisi Press, which is dedicating itself entirely to publishing works by Italian women in translation. Similarly, Les Fugitives, another newly-launched publisher, will focus exclusively on female French writers in translation. And Other Stories, a press publishing only works in translation, has agreed to accept a challenge to devote all the 2018 titles to women writers. This year, WITMonth has caught the attention of bookstores in the U.K., New Zealand, Germany, and France, which are featuring foreign female authors in their displays and promotional events.
PLD members may be especially encouraged to know that Glossolalia, a new publication by PEN America on writers in translation, has dedicated its second issue to “Women Writing Brazil.” The issue was put together by Eric Becker and Mirna Queiroz dos Santos as a pointed retort to an assertion made at the 2015 Paraty Literary Festival (FLIP) by some male authors that “there are no great female writers in Brazil.”
The Twitter hashtags #WITMonth and #WomenInTranslation provide a rich trove of links to lists of suggested titles by women in translation. Some notable lists are those drawn up by the London Review of Books, Flavorwire, and Meytal’s own database in Google Docs, to which she invites anyone to contribute.
For those who want to learn more about women writers in translation beyond the month of August, the Tumblr site WomenInTranslation is dedicated to the topic all year long.
Finally, in pondering how all of us can contribute to the long, slow work of increasing access to women’s voices in translation, Meytal makes a special appeal to translators:
“Translators: Let us know what books we’re missing!
You’re our eyes and ears in other languages,
capable of pointing out fantastic literature by women writers
that has maybe not been recognized yet.”
If you’re looking for female authors from Brazil whose works may need translating into English, consider Wikipedia’s lists of women writers from Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Equatorial Guinea, and São Tomé and Principe (unfortunately, there are no lists for Macau or East Timor). As for books by women needing translation into Portuguese, there are thousands of possibilities from languages all over the world!
CATHERINE V. HOWARD is a Portuguese-to-English translator who spent time in the Amazon in the 1980s to conduct her doctoral fieldwork in cultural and linguistic anthropology. Her first book translation, From the Enemy’s Point of View, was published by the University of Chicago in 1992. She currently works as a socio-environmental translator, rendering English versions of environmental and social sustainability studies through her company TranslationCraft Services. Catherine also contributes to Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories, motivated by the pleasure she takes in working on texts written by verbal artists who care about the nuances, expressiveness, and power of language and in hopes that more foreigners will discover the astounding creativity of Brazilian authors.