Women in Translation month


Now and then people ask me how many of the works that I read during my year of reading the world were written by female authors. This morning, I finally totted them up.

It turns out that of the 197 texts I read over the course of the quest, 53 were by women and 134 were by men. There were also nine mixed-gender group-authored books and one anonymous work (although most theories point to it having been written by a man). In all, then, 27 per cent of the literature I read in 2012 was by women.

When you consider that women make up 49.6 per cent of the global population (according to a 2015 UN report), it’s clear that my reading was not representative of the world’s demographics. However – without my realising it at the time – it was a fairly close reflection of the proportion of female-authored books that get translated into English.

The fact is that women authors have significantly less chance of getting an English-language book deal than their male counterparts. According to translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski, who has drawn on the excellent Three Percent Translation Database for her analysis, around 30 per cent of new translations in English are books by women writers.

The implications are clear: not only are we anglophone readers still only getting access to a relatively tiny proportion of the world’s stories, compared to the amount of translated literature published in many other parts of the world, but such works as do make it through the bottleneck add up to a rather skewed selection.

Eager to challenge and correct this imbalance, in 2014 Radzinski decided to name August ‘Women in Translation month’ (#WITmonth for those of the tweeting persuasion). The idea caught on, with numerous readers, bloggers, translators and booksellers jumping on the bandwagon to champion translated books written by women.

This August, for the third year in a row, #WITmonth is back and looking bigger than ever. A significant number of bookshops and libraries in the UK, US, France Germany and New Zealand have pledged to support it with displays of female-authored translations, and various other literature organisations and publications on both sides of the Atlantic are getting involved.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the campaign’s success is that #WITmonth is first and foremost a celebration. As translator Katy Derbyshire recently put it: ‘Women in Translation month is all about appreciating the great women writers who do get translated – and of course the people who bring them to us, their translators and publishers. It’s an opportunity to join in a worldwide conversation about outstanding writing from all over the globe.’

If you’d like to join the fun, Radzinski has put together a handy list of things you can do. This could be as simple as pledging to read a translated book by a female author sometime this month – in which case you might want to check out Radzinski’s database of translated books by women for inspiration.

And for those keen to explore the issue further, the activist group Women in Translation, founded by translators Alta L Price and Margaret Carson, has a great Tumblr site featuring a lot of the latest news on efforts to address gender inequality in the translation world.

For my part, I’ll be reading widely to find a brilliant female-authored work to feature as August’s book of the month. It’s a small gesture in the face of such marked inequality, but, as I discovered back in 2012, the way to read the world (and transform your view of it) is to go one story at a time.

23 responses

  1. First of all, your blog is truly amazing. I am a big fan of it and I have been getting reading tips from you since I first saw your TED talk. I would like to suggest a post about the Brazilian novelist, Clarice Lispector (“The Hour of the Star”) or about one of the best Brazilian contemporary writers, Adriana Lisboa. One of her most recent books has been published in the UK, “Crow Blue”. Her novel “Symphony in White” has also been translated into English. Considering the small number of Brazilian female writers who are translated into English, this is no small feat.

  2. I used to think I preferred female writers but when I thought about some of my fav books, a lot of them are male authors. Not necessarily because they are better writers, but prob because they are better promoted. In the last few years, I think a lot of that has changed though. There might even be whole genres where women dominate now.

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  4. I’m going to read Auður Ava Olafsdottir – Butterflies in November which is by an Icelandic author, as I’ll be going there again this month, too. Unfortunately, I can only read very small children’s books actually IN Icelandic, but it gets me doing WIT Month, too!

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  6. My book Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing is a great source for women writers in translation whose careers began between the 1960s and the 1990s. When I published it in 2001, it was the first international guide to contemporary women’s writing (maybe it still is). Most of the writers included had at least one work translated into English. The entries indicate which works have been translated and which have not. One of my goals with this book was to bring attention to the lack of translations of women writers. #WITMonth gives me hope that this situation may at last be changing.

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  10. Just amazing 😉 it’s the “Women”that makes us feel that “we are Men”.
    Pl go through my blog as well and put some comments to encourage me to post better blogs in future…….
    Let’s respect #Women 💃their #Dignity & #Modesty 🙏
    A News last night compelled me to pen down on a issue “haunting”me since my childhood. Long  back I read a book 📚though I have forgotten its name …

  11. Found out about WIT month by coincidence! At the moment, I am reading Tamil poetry by women translated to English, and I happened to search online about translated work and women. 🙂

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