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.

My time on a translation funding panel

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Since I finished my Year of Reading the World last December, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a number of exciting opportunities and projects. The last few months have been no exception. Not only was I invited to record a piece about reading the world at BBC Broadcasting House for NPR in the states (you can hear the finished report through the link at the bottom of this post), but I was also asked to sit on English PEN’s PEN Translates panel for the second time.

If you’ve not come across it, PEN Translates is a funding programme run by the freedom of expression and literary network charity English PEN. It exists to help pay for the translation into English of works that deserve to reach a wider audience. Scores of books have received support from the fund since it was launched in 2012, including Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, who you can see pictured above at a signing (photo by Robert Burdock).

As it’s open to works in any language and from anywhere, the programme has to have a careful assessment process. First off, the publishers’ submissions and original versions of the proposed texts are read by people with in-depth knowledge of that region’s literature and language. These assessors prepare detailed reports in English, giving their reactions and explaining whether or not they support the application. The panel members (aka yours truly and six others) read these reports and formulate their own opinions. Then we get together and have a discussion that goes on for several hours.

It’s not easy. For one thing, it’s often very hard to make a judgement about how good a book is – or what sort of a job a publisher is likely to do with it – when you’ve never read a word of the story. As I discovered last year, books that don’t necessarily sound promising at first can often be hidden gems.

Then there’s the challenge of balancing all the rival considerations that affect a book’s chances: the quality of the writing, the diversity of applications, how well represented literature from that region is in the UK market, whether or not the work is too similar to other things in the bookshops, whether or not you (yes, you sitting there) are likely to want to read it and if you are, whether the story needs funding in the first place – to name but a few.

Amazingly, however, after several hours of discussion, we always seem to manage to reach a good solution. Luckily, because the panel is not required to grant the full amount requested, we have the freedom to make partial awards where it seems appropriate, which means we can make the money go a long way. In fact, at the last meeting, we managed to support some 17 books.

It’s inspiring and humbling to be involved and I’m proud to have the chance to play a small part in helping to bring some exciting new works into English. If you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, why not check out the supported titles on the PEN website? I’m told there is going to be an updated version soon, complete with books that dance!

Photo by Robert Burdock