Good news for women and translation

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Writing is a tricky career at the best of times. With thousands of titles published every day, the chances of selling enough books to make a living as a wordsmith are slim. Indeed, a study by Queen Mary University reported by the Telegraph earlier this year found that only a tenth of British authors are able to support themselves purely by writing – a sharp drop from the 40 per cent who claimed to be able to do so a decade ago.

If you write in a language other than English, your odds of making a decent living from your books are narrower still. With translations accounting for only around 4.5 per cent of the literary works published in the UK, deals in the world’s most published language are like hen’s teeth, meaning that the majority of foreign-language authors have access to a much smaller market than their anglophone counterparts.

And if you make the silly error of being born a woman, well, your chances of seeing your work made available to many of the world’s readers shrink yet further. As Alison Anderson reflected in an excellent piece for Words Without Borders back in 2013, the statistics don’t look good. According to figures from Open Letter Books’ Translation Database, for example, only around a quarter of translated works published in the US each year are by women.

Many international literary prizes show an even sharper discrepancy. The fact that only two women authors have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its 25-year history is a case in point.

In the three years that I’ve been involved with English PEN’s PEN Translates funding programme, I’ve seen this imbalance first hand. Over the past five or six rounds, we have often struggled to award grants to more than a handful of female authors. This is not because of a lack of will to support women writers on the part of the panel, but because the applications have overwhelmingly been for books written by men.

So it’s great to be able to share the news that this latest round of grants achieves gender parity for the first time. Eight of the 16 writers whose books have been supported are women, with the languages represented including Korean, Mandarin and Turkish. Authors range from well-known names such as Han Kang, whose novel, The Vegetarian, was published to great acclaim in the UK this year, and Prix Goncourt winner Lydie Salvayre, to wordsmiths likely to be unfamiliar to anglophone readers, such as Karmele Jaio, who writes in Basque.

The supported titles should be out in the next year or so. Great news for readers and writers alike. Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come.

Picture: Four of the best translated books by women I’ve read recently.

18 responses

  1. Do you think the gender disparity in getting published work translated is connected to a gender disparity in translators? Or does it simply correlate with the gender disparity amongst writers getting published?

    • It’s certainly not because of translators – I don’t have precise figures but from my experience there are many female translators – they may even be in the majority. In terms of publishing, that may play a part, although the gender bias is not as skewed in towards men in every literary culture as it is in the anglophone world. There are even some countries like Lesotho where more women are literate than men. And in South Korea, women tend to dominate the literary prizes…

  2. Very interesting figures! My general assumption would be that there would be more translated works by women, perhaps because I believe more women tend to be authors than men. Reading this makes me want to read a French-language book and work on my French!

  3. Great to see more women in translation being put forward by their publishers. The majority of the books I read now are either works in translation or written by people who’ve grown up or experienced living in another culture, I hope we get more translated into English, it certainly helps to have publishers like Peirene Press and Gallic Press who are actively on the look out for works they believe would be appreciated by the Engish reading audience.

    I love the surprise of a novella from Peirene Press, they take so much of the hard work out of finding a really great book.

  4. I keep seeing more about the gender discrepancies in publishing, and it’s a bleak topic. An article that really hit home recently was about a female author who had been rejected by numerous publishing houses when using her real name, but then sent the same work out with a male name and got very positive feedback. It seems imperative to use that knowledge as fuel to keep supporting female authors, and for the ladies to keep writing!

    For more fun with literature, check out aliteralinterpretation.wordpress.com. I think you’ll like it.

    • Thanks Jen. I wish there was one simple fix, but I think it requires a series of shifts across society. As readers, we can do our bit by seeking out more books by women where possible. Over time, that demand could help adjust the balance.

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