Women in Translation Month was launched in
August 2014 by literary blogger Meytal
Radzinski to generate discussion about the
disproportionately low number of books by
women published in translation in America.
Over the past few years, the movement has
grown significantly. What started with a series
of blog posts now includes programmes from
bookstore displays to events sponsored by
literary organisations, such as PEN America,
and a trending hashtag, #WITMonth.
For years, a lack of reliable data has made it
hard to track exactly what was being published
in translation in America, and thus, hard to see
exactly how much worse the situation was for
women. After all, books in translation
represent such a small niche in America–just
3% of books published in America are in
translation–and some readers might naturally
assume that because there’s a general lack of
international literature making its way into
English, that it’s as bad for men as for women–
especially given the recent successes of authors
like Elena Ferrante and Valeria Luiselli.
A decade of data
But with the advent of the Translation Database–which I
founded at the University of Rochester, and as of this year, is
now supported and hosted by Publishers Weekly–we can dig
into a decade’s worth of data on the translation market, and
get a better sense of who’s being translated.
So, how many books in translation are written in their original
language by women, and how many by men? The data shows
that between 2008 and 2017, only 29% of all translations
published were written by women, 1,417 by women versus
3,351 by men. Yes, that’s bad. Stunningly bad, especially
considering recent surveys from Pew Research show that women
make up the majority of the book-buying audience, and that the
Publishers Weekly annual salary surveys reveal that the majority
of employees in the publishing industry are women.
The good news: we can see at least some marginal
improvement. In 2008, for example, only 24% of books in
translation were by women. In 2016, that number was 34%.
That’s still awful, a 2-1 imbalance, but it is an improvement.
In terms of publishers, of the top 10 publishers of works in
translation between the years 2008 and 2017, only two–
AmazonCrossing and Feminist Press–have published more
women in translation than men in that time. In fact, no one else
even reaches 40%, and four of the top 10 don’t even reach 30%.
In other words, the presses doing the most books in translation are
Some good news
mostly publishing books by men. And given their overall market
share, if these 10 presses had more balanced lists,
the overall gender gap would be nearly eliminated.
It’s not surprising that Dalkey Archive has
the second most books published by women
among the top 10, having published 302 total
translations in this 2008-2017 period–a figure
only topped by AmazonCrossing, which has
brought out 323 since 2010. What is surprising,
however, is that Dalkey has the lowest percentage
of women of any of the top 10, just 19%.
But there is a bit of good news to share. When
you look at the gender of the translators for
books published in 2017, there is no gap
between books translated by men and those
translated by women. That’s encouraging,
especially if you consider translators as
ambassadors who can help shape editorial lists
by providing recommendations, sample
translations and general information about books
by women to publishers. That, in combination
with initiatives like Women in Translation Month,
could really make a long-term difference.
Of course, the overarching question remains:
why are women so underrepresented in the
translation market? That’s a question for a different, much
longer, and more speculative article. But speaking as the
publisher of Open Letter, my gut feeling is that this is part of a
systemic problem within the publishing industry
Anecdotally, it is my experience that foreign agents pitch us
far more books by men than women, and often in ways that
emphasise the “classic” nature of the male authors. The same is
true of submissions directly from translators.
And while this too is anecdotal, books by women at Open
Letter are less frequently reviewed by tastemaker publications
than are books by men. At any point in time, there seems to be
one international female author getting the bulk of reviews–
Lispector, Ferrante, Luiselli–while other women published
around the same time are quietly ignored. That doesn’t happen
with male authors.
It’s hard to envision a quick and simple fix for this
inequality, but the hope is that by being more aware of the
issues, publishers, agents, editors and translators will together
work to address the problem. Given the time that it takes to
sign a book, have it translated and then marketed to the public,
it’s possible that we will start to see the positive effects of this
awareness, and the efforts by Women in Translation Month,
showing up in our 2018-2020 data. And as more and more
publishers start to pay attention to the gender imbalance on
their lists, perhaps we will get closer to equity. ■
Chad Post looks at how more translations into English in the US are written by
male authors than female authors
Women authors lost in translation
and 2017, only
29% of all
women, 1,417 by
3,351 by men.”