September 29, 2014

A new prize for women in translation

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Image via Wikipedia.

Image via Wikipedia.

It started with French translator Alison Anderson’s blogpost for Words Without Borders back in May, where she broached the issue of the extremely low numbers of fiction in translation by women. This is something that I think anyone who works in the translation field is (or should be) aware of, but it really hasn’t been until this year that the discussion began to take concrete form. The hashtag #womenintranslation has been one result, a panel on the subject at the London Book Fair was another, and now, the first steps for a prize to be dedicated to “great women’s writing from the non-Anglophone world,” as its primary organizer Katy Derbyshire describes it on her blogpost announcing the launch.

An enterprise like this will naturally run into the questions that bedevil all prizes limited to female writers, and indeed all prizes limited in any way, especially to categories of writers that have historically been ignored when awards are handed out. A hand or two will be wrung, the old worry raised: does the prize marginalize the writers as female writers, instead of just excellent writers in general?

But this misses the point, I think. Because a prize is a twofold thing: it is of course a way to honor quality and originality, but it is also a tool. A tool to get people to pay attention, to see what’s out there in one focused grouping. And tools are great — they’re what you use to fix things.

And this is a situation that needs fixing: the average percentage of women writers in the annual numbers of books in translation is, Anderson calculates, 26%, and the frequency with which they’re nominated for the major translation prizes is lower. They may also not be getting the same degree of review attention. In thinking about the books she herself has translated, Anderson writes:

My experience, too, with some of the books by women—the majority in fact—has been that they received absolutely no reviews whatsoever, not even on Amazon, nor was any publicity or advertising devoted to those novels by the publishers—not even on their Facebook sites! Granted, translated books rarely get reviews anyway; but some of the books by men which I had translated did manage a nod in the New Yorker or the New York Times. Ahem.

So there are numerous hurdles here, some of which aren’t even fully understood— for instance, it’s still not clear to me whether there’s a knock-on effect from the countries of origin, whether books by women writers face the same issues in their countries of origin, which then reduces the number of books offered to foreign publishers and all the means by which they find them (prizes, reviews, recommendations). As part of the broader conversation around this issue, it’d be worth examining not only the numbers of published books but also other links in the chain: issues of New Books in German, language or country-specific Granta issues, and even less official ones like the breakdown of titles that translators are recommending to editors or editors are requesting from rightspeople.

But the upshot is, no matter how it’s happening, it needs to get better, and the place to start is with what you have. Derbyshire describes the soon-to-be-real prize and what it’ll do:

A women’s prize for translated books would highlight those books that do make it through. It would give booksellers, journalists, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and interested readers a hook and get them arguing and help them to discover diverse writing by women. It would celebrate the work of women writers and their translators. It would reward those publishers who do bring out books by women in translation.

This is a good year for it to start – the publication of the third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy has kicked off here the kind of widespread, passionate consideration of not only this book but Ferrante’s work as a whole that doesn’t happen all that often for a female writer in translation. I hope the prize takes the momentum of this year and these discussions and all that has been learned and is yet to be learned, and runs with it. Go, new prize, go! We’ll be cheering you on.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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