Thursday, August 4, 2016

WITMonth Day 4 | Undoing the trend

This is a post I've struggled to write for many months. I've actively avoided it. But it's women in translation month - year three! - and this is as important a time as any to discuss:

We all have a problem with women writers in translation. End of.

I spent several months at the start of the year fretting over my three-year "trend" results, working and reworking them. I emailed publishers. I tweeted publishers. I pondered the matter. I published the overall stats. I read arguments by publishers that perhaps people like me were being too rough on the "good guys" and that publishers were not, in fact, the central gatekeepers of literature in translation and thus devoid of responsibility.

The reality is this, again: We all have a problem with women writers in translation.

Let's start with publishers: many, many, many publishers are clearly trying the best they can within a broken system that makes it hard to even acquire books by women writers in translation, and struggling to reach parity. These are the sorts of publishers that participate in WITMonth, share the women in translation stats, commit to the Year of Publishing Women (2018). These are publishers that are - for lack of a better distinction - making an effort.

These publishers deserve to be commended and recognized for their efforts. Truly. Some of them have abysmal rates themselves, but frankly I respect that they're nonetheless recognizing the broader problem and promoting those few women writers that they do publish. The next stage is correcting it - or first perhaps identifying its exact source and working on that - but any recognition of the problem is wonderful.

However, I do wonder at what point we need to start addressing the elephant in the room: That the problem of women writers in translation will not magically solve itself. Rather, it will require hard work, dedication, and commitment.

I'm always nervous during #WITMonth that it might seems as though I'm relegating the issue (and subsequent attention to it) to one month, rather than demanding equal care throughout the year. The fact that some publishers use WITMonth to promote their handful of women writers (out of an extensive and overwhelmingly male backlog) is great, until their stats remain static. The fact that some publishers give discounts on books by women writers in translation during WITMonth is awesome, until they refuse to change their approach to acquisitions and translations.

I have women in translation statistics going back three years: 2013, 2014, and 2015. Some publishers have shown marked increases; others have shown marginal shifts (going from 0% to 16%, for example). The overall yearly rates: 27%, 27% and 31%. I would love to believe that 2015's ~30% is a sign that things are improving, but it's difficult to ignore the fact that a solid factor in that increase is one publisher (AmazonCrossing; without them, the ratio drops to 25%). So the trend holds, at least for the past three years.

But publishing is not something that responds to immediate, minor whims. Publishing - particularly of literature in translation - is a long-game, with some publishers announcing their forthcoming titles a year or two in advance. The question becomes:

What happens now?

The lack of women writers in translation is a trend. If you go back far enough, you'll find various people over the years pondering the imbalance. Nothing came of it, unfortunately. Slight upticks, but we're still left with a huge imbalance. Now is our opportunity to change that. The 30% trend - as it were - can be history, if we choose it to be.


Readers: WITMonth can become WITYear. Why not have parity in our own reading? Why not make that one small change, at least for ourselves? (We wouldn't even have to sacrifice quality or complexity or diversity! Just gain new dimensions.)

Translators: Let us know what books we're missing! You're our eyes and ears in other languages, capable of pointing out fantastic literature by women writers that has maybe not been recognized yet by English-language publishers (or any other language publishers, for that matter - WITMonth applies to all languages/countries!).

Publishers: Seek out that which we know exists. We know there is always excellent literature by women writers, even if they're not always recognized as much as books by men. Yes, it might be a bit more difficult to find those books, but that would go a long way in guiding us towards the most basic gender parity.

A trend is only a trend if it lasts. We can stop it, but we'll have to work for it.

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