- Writing with WITThe Gender Gap Seen through the Women-in-Translation Activism
Our Women in Translation ("WiT") activism began in May 2015, when we moderated the PEN World Voices panel "Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women's Voices" and at the same time posted graphs on our online site, womenintranslation.tumblr.com, showing the significant gender divide in the fiction and poetry titles published in translation in 2014: less than a third were by women authors.1 The skew toward men authors was even more pronounced when we looked at individual publishers. We were shocked to discover, for example, that a major translation press hadn't published a single woman author among the more than thirty novels in translation it had brought out the previous year. Literary prizes for translations were also heavily biased; in the case of the PEN Translation Prize, the ratio was 7:1 in favor of men over its fifty-year history. In short, despite encouraging reports of a twenty-first-century renaissance in literary translation, we found that a regressive sexism was still in place.
In the four years since, we've kept to our mission of building awareness of the gender divide and of challenging the status quo in the literary translation world. Our WiT tumblr lives on as a place to post updated charts and graphs, interviews with women authors and translators, news of books by women in translation, reading reports, and links to articles that speak to our feminist concerns. We've also organized panels, written articles, and most recently, [End Page 135] hosted editathons to address the underrepresentation of international women writers and women translators on Wikipedia. We're one of several Women in Translation initiatives in the English-speaking world—in the UK, there's the Translating Women project and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, and in the Twittersphere, @Bibliobio's "Women in Translation month" each August, when the #womenintranslation hashtag gathers a worldwide community of activist readers and translators who support gender parity in what gets published in translation.
What's it like to be seen as troublemakers within the small and somewhat insular world of English-language literary translation? Or, to echo Sara Ahmed, to be "feminist killjoys" at the party of international literature? Publishers have told us they make their editorial choices based on aesthetics, on what makes a good read. They claim that gender doesn't enter into it. Can't we just let them get on with their work? We don't agree. The numbers tell us a different story. And the movement has caught on—it's not a momentary distraction. The gender gap and other kinds of exclusions in translation are now part of the conversation, despite the fact that books by men who write in European languages are still overwhelmingly favored when it comes to being translated, published, and reviewed in the United States. The "Great Men" tradition in literary translation may linger on, but it's becoming harder and harder to defend in light of our activism. By continuing to point to the gender disparities in our publishing niche, the Women in Translation movement—ours and others in the English-speaking world—is bringing a more equitable world of translation into view.
Margaret Carson's translations include Letters, Dreams and Other Writings by the Spanish artist Remedios Varo and Sergio Chejfec's Baroni, A Journey and My Two Worlds. She teaches in the modern languages department of Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Alta L. Price runs a publishing consultancy specialized in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, design, and culture. She translates from Italian and German into English, and was awarded the 2013 Gutekunst Prize. Her translation of Dana Grigorcea's An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence was published in 2019. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Three Percent Translation Database. 2008. www.publishersweekly.com/pw/translation/home/index.html