Women’s Writing Often Gets Lost in Translation

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Women read, but aren't often translated.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Don’t let borders limit your reading.

That’s the exhortation of Reading the World, a campaign in its third year of celebrating June as World Translation Month. In a collaboration among independent booksellers and publishers, the project champions 40 translated titles in store displays and media promotion nationwide.

“From Lithuania to Iraq, from Norway to Chile, the writers (of these 40 titles) offer an excellent introduction to a variety of cultures and ideas found outside our borders; ideas and cultures that we must have access to in order to understand our world,” promises the promotional literature.

Of those 40, only 12 are written or edited by women.

Yet the 70-30 gender split is actually fairly generous to women when you consider other lists advocating for translated literature.

For instance, Robert Gray, a Vermont bookseller, penned a passionate article for the online magazine Words Without Borders in 2005 about how reading foreign literature isn’t a duty, but a joy. As proof, he named 24 authors; only four were women (Marjane Satrapi, Svetlana Alexievich, Colette and Dubravka Ugresic).

Of the 1,800 reviews currently collected at the Complete Review, an online resource particularly dedicated to literature in translation, only 14 percent are by female authors. It’s a consistent disparity that led managing editor Michael Orthofer to reflect on “How Sexist Are We?” in an essay published on the Web site in 2002.

‘Some Sort of Failure’

“The statistics are not impressive–there’s some sort of failure going on here–but we’ll be damned if we can figure out the root of the problem. (We cover too few books by women authors–but that’s the problem, not the reason),” he wrote.

Commentaries by Orthofer, Gray and Reading the World proclaim that when it comes to literature in translation, the very vitality of the English language is at stake, not to mention engagement with the world outside U.S. borders. When women’s voices are hardly included beyond a token level, it creates a frightening imbalance.

Does the exclusion of female writers by translation reflect a gender gap in the percentage of work that makes it into English? Or do the numbers mirror the writer gap worldwide?

After all, it’s a hostile world for any author who writes in languages other than English, regardless of gender. Words Without Borders reports that 50 percent of all the books currently published in translation worldwide are being translated from English, while a mere 6 percent are translated into English.

That’s actually a rather high estimate. Esther Allen, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University in New York, says 3 percent of all published books are translated into English.

Computer Manuals Skew Stats

In a report for International PEN, the London-based worldwide association of writers dedicated to freedom of expression, and the Institut Ramon Llull of Barcelona, Allen notes that the minuscule percentage is inflated by nonliterary material, such as computer manuals, which make up the vast majority of English translations. It also includes retranslations of classic masterpieces.

In which case, everybody loses: Literature in English is choked off from the literary wealth that lies beyond its borders, and, because of English’s position as the global language–the second language of choice and the planet’s largest book market, according to Allen–writers denied an English translation are denied a global audience.

“The question of translation into English therefore affects not only the English-speaking world but the entirety of world literature,” Allen writes.

Women have a disproportionately limited access to an English-reading audience, says Daniel Simon, managing editor of World Literature Today, a bimonthly magazine out of Norman, Okla., that has celebrated writers from around the globe for 81 years.

“We see so little importation of literary works from other languages that our perception of women’s voices in those cultures is inevitably muted, distorted or altogether ignored,” Simon said in an e-mail interview.

“I think there is less of a ‘writer gap’ in the world than there is a ‘publication gap’ in terms of who gets published, who decides which works get into print, and how they fare in the vicissitudes of national and international markets,” he added. “Any translation gap, then, would seem to be an exacerbation of this underlying inequity.”

Feminist Press Spotted Problem

Redressing such inequities was the impetus for forming the Feminist Press 36 ago, a New York publisher that promotes “the most potent voices of women from all eras and all regions of the globe.”

In kind, the University of Nebraska Press, based in Lincoln, has a European Women Writers series and a Latin American Women Writers series. Meanwhile, some of the most prominent female authors around the world are translated into English through Dalkey Archive Press out of Champaign, Ill. Dalkey has published literature from around the globe for more than a century.

Gloria Jacobs, executive director of New York-based Feminist Press, which publishes a range of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, says she’s not sure why more translated literature written by women isn’t published but she has some ideas.

“The standard in the industry is that books in translation don’t sell as well,” Jacobs said. That assumption, she went on, is rooted in the lack of interest U.S. publishers themselves hold in women abroad.

“I don’t understand why,” Jacobs said. “Women buy these books. Women read.”

Jacobs says that publishing a translated text is complicated. Nonfiction texts carry site-specific assumptions that are difficult to convey. And when publishers receive a translation proposal, they often have to make decisions based on a small sample of translated text and the judgment of someone who reads the original language. She estimates that translations probably double the cost of publication.

“But it’s also essential and important,” Jacobs said. “We often buy books that are already translated into English; that’s the way I get around it.”

To that end, Feminist Press published “Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq” in 2005 and, a year later, its sequel, “Baghdad Burning II.” The high-profile title by a middle-class Iraqi women in her 20s who calls herself Riverbend, collects her eyewitness dispatches from Baghdad. Riverbend won the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage and was longlisted for the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. She writes in English, and thus made it more possible for Feminist Press to make her voice widely available.

Also in 2006, Feminist Press published “Touba and the Meaning of Night,” a novel by Iranian Shahrnush Parsipur, whom Jacobs describes as one of Iran’s pre-eminent contemporary authors. The book sold between 3,000 and 4,000 copies in a year.

Those numbers are decent for a novel, Jacobs said, but she couldn’t help wondering: If it weren’t a translated novel, if Parsipur wrote in English, how much better would it have sold?

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Brookline, Mass. She works with the Center for New Words, a feminist nonprofit dedicated to strengthening women’s voices in media and literature. She also maintains the Web site Isak (http://www.isak.typepad.com).

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

Words Without Borders:
http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/

World Literature Today:
http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/

PEN American Center:
http://www.pen.org/

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