Women in Translation: how to read the world
Dr. Helen Vassallo examines the ongoing lack of published female authors in translation, and what can be done to break the bias for International Women's Day.
Why is so little translated fiction published in the UK? What happens when some voices simply aren't heard?
Dr. Helen Vassallo is a leading academic authority on translated fiction and creator of Translating Women, and also supervises PhD research in women's writing and translation at the University of Exeter. Here, she examines the hierarchy in UK publishing that still keeps translated fiction by female authors worryingly elusive, and asks whether literary awards and publishers are doing enough to address this imbalance.
‘Reading in translation should challenge and destabilise, should make us question our preconceptions and assumptions about other cultures and other social groups.’
Translated literature is often discussed in terms of the “3%” – that is to say the small proportion of literature published in English that was originally written in another language. Recent attempts to gather more precise data reveal the figure to be slightly higher (between 3 and 5% in the UK), but this focus on the paucity of translated literature more generally can eclipse other issues of bias within publishing and translation. One significant bias is the gender gap in translated literature: less than one-third of translations published in the UK are by women authors.
The imbalance in translated literature reflects imbalances in society more generally: though women have legal and theoretical equality in many cultures, the world we live in is far from equal. In translated literature as elsewhere, this often invisible yet pervasive imbalance requires an active and determined response: if we don’t address this problem, if we don’t actively do something to change it, then we become complicit in perpetuating it. It is not enough to justify the lack of equality in translated literature by falling back on arguments about literary “quality” – of course publishers want to commission high-quality books. But the obstacles facing women writers, often resulting in a lack of visibility, mean that the manuscripts that are more likely to come to publishers’ attention are the ones written by men. Prize-winning books. “Great” books. Best-selling books. If we accept these terms without questioning the processes that lead to prize shortlists, literary accolades and commercial success, then we can never expect the industry to become miraculously more inclusive.
‘The most obvious action we can take as readers is to be more inclusive in our own reading choices. If enough of us make those conscious changes in our reading – that is to say, if enough demand is there – then supply will follow.’
One striking example of this consecration of a handful of “great” authors is the Nobel Prize in Literature. Just before Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk became the fifteenth woman laureate in 2019 (as recipient of the delayed 2018 award), chair of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee Anders Olsson said that the committee had been consciously looking at women writers. On the face of it, this seemed encouraging: women writers are less likely to come to the committee’s attention as readily as men, and so this deliberate action could have been a decisive step forward.
Sadly, though, this was not Olsson’s reasoning. Rather, he went on to say, it was because “now we have so many female writers who are really great”. Now? As opposed to the rest of time? This fallacious logic suggests that if there had been so few women laureates in the prize’s history, it was because there weren’t any (or many) great ones before, calcifying a false and self-perpetuating vision of literature that enshrines men as the authors of “great” literature and women as the newcomers, the guests at the table. And of those who do make it to the table, how many are women of colour, working-class women, non-European, non-heterosexual or non-cis women?
Yet even as I write this, Tokarczuk’s Nobel recognition feels as though it belongs to some distant past. The prize was awarded just months before a new virus changed the world as we knew it, and the global Covid-19 phenomenon is fundamentally connected to the fragile possibilities for more balanced representation in translated literature. It is well-documented that after a crisis societies become more risk-averse; just as in general terms this could be socially harmful to women (who, research shows, are also likely to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic), so within the publishing industry it could slow or block the momentum of diversity initiatives and efforts. There is a danger that publishing – particularly publishing literature in translation, already a more costly and complex endeavour – could revert to a more risk-averse state if measures are not taken to support and promote diversity of representation.
‘There is a danger that publishing – particularly publishing literature in translation, already a more costly and complex endeavour – could revert to a more risk-averse state if measures are not taken to support and promote diversity of representation.’
We can take action against this, even if those actions feel like small things. The most obvious action we can take as readers is to be more inclusive in our own reading choices. If enough of us make those conscious changes in our reading – that is to say, if enough demand is there – then supply will follow. Yet this still comes with a warning: even if we think we’re reading widely and openly, what we’re reading is necessarily what has already made it through, via processes that are themselves flawed and biased. The choices regarding what is published in translation represent a means for writers from other cultures to enter the Anglophone literary ecosystem, influencing English-language readers and writers and enriching our cultures. So it is vital that there is diversity of representation in what makes it through in translation, otherwise we recreate inequalities and hierarchies even as we are professing to challenge and dismantle them.
Reading in translation presupposes an openness to other cultures, and a willingness to experience the world differently, and yet so often – especially in times of crisis – we might instinctively seek out what is familiar, prioritising a “safe” version of otherness that does not challenge our world view or our view of the world. Though it may be comfortable, this encloses us within new limitations: if we only see ourselves and our views reflected, then we can never move from a place of certainty about our own rightness. Reading in translation should challenge and destabilise, should make us question our preconceptions and assumptions about other cultures and other social groups, and as readers of the world we have a responsibility to undertake our literary travels with an open mind. Reading in translation should not be about seeking out what we already recognise, but rather a willingness to be changed by the encounter with a context that we do not yet know.
Read more from Helen at Translating Women, and discover some amazing translated fiction by women writers below: