Why are there so few books by women in translation?

Women in Translation Month is an opportunity to celebrate and promote translated fiction by women. Here, literary translator Charlotte Collins asks: why is so little translated fiction by women making it to our bookshelves?

10/08/2020
4 minutes to read

As the fight against racism and prejudice continues it is only becoming more important to amplify diverse voices from around the globe. Reading increases our empathy, understanding and knowledge of other cultures, countries and communities, and it is vital that the fiction we have access to represents our incredibly varied world.  Translated fiction by women is a tiny minority of the books on our shelves, and so Women in Translation Month was launched in 2014 with the aim of promoting and celebrating translated fiction by women. Here, Charlotte Collins asks why there are so few books by women in translation.

Did you know that August was Women in Translation Month? The initiative was launched in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinksi on biblibio.com, after she noticed that the majority of translated literature on her shelves was by men. Unconscious bias, perhaps? She collated the figures, and discovered that less than a third of the literary fiction published in translation in the UK and US is written by women. And as only 3.5% of published literary fiction is in translation (delivering double that percentage of overall sales!), women who write in languages other than English are a minority within a minority. Their voices are barely being heard.


#WiTMonth aims, among other things, to encourage editors to consider their purchasing bias and look at what they can do to achieve parity. We need more books by women in general – and that includes books in translation.


The problem is compounded right the way down the line. Dedicated review space is dwindling; it can be hard to get translations reviewed at all. Here too male authors are far more likely to get the attention. If the women who do make it into English get little publicity, their books are less likely to be noticed, less likely to be bought and read.


At the end of the literary race are the prizes. With fewer translated books by women in the running, it’s no surprise that women have consistently been underrepresented. In 2016, the prestigious Man Booker International – reconfigured to honour author and translator equally – was awarded to two women, Han Kang and Deborah Smith: a great choice that also sent out a powerful signal. Other juries have been less self-aware: in 2016, for example, the 20-strong longlist for the Dutch Europeese Literaturpreis included more books with naked women on the cover (two) than books written by actual women (a grand total of one). For some time now a group of literary translators have been highlighting and looking to address this imbalance: their efforts have led to the creation of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which will be awarded for the first time on 15th November 2017.


#WiTMonth encourages everyone with an interest in literature – authors, translators, publishers, editors, publicists, reviewers, bookshops, bloggers and readers – to spread the word about great books by women in translation, urge people to read them, and bring more great, as-yet-untranslated books by women to publishers’ attention.


Here are three of my recent favourites that, fortunately for anglophone readers, have been made available to us in exquisite translations:

Wilful Disregard

by Lena Andersson

Book cover for 9781447268932

Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Smart, witty, razor-sharp depiction of misguided love, obsession and self-delusion.

Angel of Oblivion

by Maja Haderlap

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Translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis

Vivid, poetic memoir: a rural childhood scarred by the wartime persecution of Austria's Slovene minority.

The Vegetarian

by Han Kang

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Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Surreal, sensual, beautiful and disturbing: a woman's refusal to eat meat alienates her from her family, society, and, ultimately, herself.