Women in Translation

Figures show that we are nearing an equilibrium in novel sales between the genders. Almost as many books sell by female authors as books by male authors. The difference according to many book sales charts is as little as one or two percent in both many areas of genre writing and literary fiction. That said, it is hard to shake the feeling when you enter any bookshop that the fiction shelves are populated by fewer female names than male. Could this be a hangover from history? As the shelves aren’t purely populated by modern books, could the sexist history of publishing be maintaining a sexist present in bookselling? I don’t claim to have answers, but it is an interesting issue to query. There is one area of fiction which still inarguably suffers from a very modern gender imbalance, and this is fiction in translation.

Translation, to me, is emblematic of the same form of power as that held by fiction. A story is a device of empathy – a portal into a world of otherness, into a culture that exists beyond the confines of a singular existence. Through fiction our perspectives are broadened and our ability to empathise increased. In much the same way, translation is a key to another world. Translation can provide the first tentative step into another culture – a culture largely defined by a language that up until the point of translation may have acted as an exclusionary barrier. It is jarring then that rather than being an almost utopian area of literature, fiction in translation is one of the areas of publishing with the greatest amount of sexist bias.

A recent study found that about 26% of books translated into English were authored by women. This imbalance is easily demonstrable. Anybody with the slightest interest in literature will be able to list a bevy of behemoths of contemporary fiction who are translated into English: Murakami, Pamuk, Schlink, Bolano, Knausgaard, Llosa, Modiano, Ōe, Oz – a list that includes four Nobel Prize laureates. Extend the list to any 20th century writers and we have Camus, Proust, Fallada, Garcia Marquez, Zweig, Kafka, Borges, Fuentes, Calvino. Consider these names, and now think of the women in translation who occupy the same volume of space on bookshelves; the same reach and respect in the public’s consciousness. Elena Ferrante, possibly. Isabel Allende, probably. Herta Muller, Clarice Lispector and Simone de Beauvoir, hopefully. Banana Yoshimoto and Han Kang? I’m not sure.

There is a dramatic and pervasive imbalance. Thankfully, the impact of this gulf is not insurmountable, and can be lessened with a little bit of conscious effort on behalf of both publisher and consumer. As book buyers we can choose which books we read and purchase, and we can support the publishers who take active steps to address the issue: the not for profit And Other Stories are only publishing female authors in 2018. Les Fugitives, another indie outfit, exclusively publish previously untranslated award-winning Francophone female authors. Beyond this, there is a bonanza of incredible work already available in English from women all over the world that you have likely never heard of, that you are yet discover. Here are a few of my recent favourites:


Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (Les Fugitives) – A wonderful torrent of neuroses that is funny and touching without ever really trying to be either. The main character unpicks her social failings while on a flight home, focusing on a needlessly complex romantic encounter with a American-German pianist.


Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (Deep Vellum) – An exquisitely fragile account of the numb terror that accompanies the loss of a primary sense. A rare condition causes blood to seep into the eyes of the protagonist, causing blindness and complicating every aspect of her existence.


Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs by Lina Wolff (And Other Stories) – A sweeping, polyphonic epic chronicling the life of Alba Cambo, an enigmatic writer of short stories. Lina Wolff subtly reverses many classically gendered roles with her dynamic and vivid cast. This book instantly rocketed into my favourites after I read it. A rare and brilliant gem of a novel.


For those interested in the world of translation, we have one of the most celebrated names in the field, Daniel Hahn, coming to speak at the bookshop as part of our Book Fringe at 1pm on Saturday 12th August. Additionally, I will be running a fiction in translation reading group from September. Keep an eye out for details!


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