Meytal Radzinski is a young scholar best known for the Women in Translation project, which she began after noticing with disappointment the lack of translated titles by women on her shelves. In 2014 she took it upon herself to single-handedly count the statistics on women-identified authors published in translation, following in the footsteps of VIDA, whose work counting gender disparity in major literary journals has made waves over the past several years. Meytal has continued her project for three years, with dishearteningly little progress made in the results. She also started Women in Translation Month, which will take place this year in August (just a few days away!), to encourage and challenge readers to seek out translated texts by women. She spoke with ALTA about the sad state of women writers in translation, and some things we can all do to work towards changing it.
Sara Iocavelli: You’ve spoken in other places to your inspiration in undertaking this project, but I’d love to hear more generally how you became so invested in reading literature in translation in the first place.
Meytal Radzinski: How I got involved: I’ve always read not-English literature (side effect of being bilingual and belonging to a multilingual family) and I was always encouraged to read literature in translation. I remember one summer I ended up buying a lot of new books translated into Hebrew from French, Hungarian and German, and being super disappointed once I realized that they hadn’t been translated into English yet because it meant I couldn’t share them with my friends! It seems really obvious to me that there’s lots of great literature from around the world that would have to be translated into other languages, just like I know there’s lots of Hebrew literature that I never saw translated into English.
SI: I love the move to hold publishers more responsible for parity in what they choose to publish, but I wonder if you think there’s also a need to pose this challenge to translators? Is it that translators keep choosing to translate the works of men, or that maybe more works by men are being published in their original languages? Not to let translation publishers off the hook, but it seems like this problem probably goes back further than them. If that is the case, how else can we address these more systemic problem as translators and as readers?
MR: Translators and publishers: The problem definitely goes back further. Just about every step of the pyramid has its problems, from translator bias (men translating fewer women, according to Women in Translation) to a general lack of reviews and publicity to gender bias in other countries. Responsibility lies everywhere, but ultimately I ask myself: who are the gatekeepers? Translators are definitely players in the game, but they’re ultimately not the ones setting up the pieces. Those are the publishers. Yes, many languages see far more men published and awarded literary prizes, many translators have their own bias when promoting texts, readers too have a bias that we pay for with our wallets… yes, the problem goes much further back. But if every single publisher decided right now that they were unwilling to let the situation stand as it currently does, we’d be fixed. English-language publishers are the primary gatekeepers, and they ought to bear that burden in addition to its benefits. To claim that “we’re not being offered enough books by women writers” is a weak argument. We all know the books exist, if not recently then in the backlog. We all know there are always excellent books that are untranslated. The books a publisher chooses to translate are exactly that – a choice. And many publishers have so far chosen without any acknowledgment of the huge imbalance they’re creating. (This is also true in terms of the overwhelming focus on Western European literature…)
SI: As far as the numbers go, does it matter who’s doing the translating (men or women)? Is this something you’ve looked at, or considered looking at? I’ve heard it said in some places that when looking at the gender of translators, the ratio seems reverse — is this true in your research? And if so (or not) what might it imply?
MR: Who’s translating: I’ve never delved into this but Women in Translation has! They also found that women aren’t actually overrepresented in translations (a classic case of parity being viewed as “female dominance”), but that they do translate far more books by women writers relative to the men. My guess is that there’s something in the perception of “books by women are for women”. Perhaps male translators don’t bother to read many books by women because they have preexisting biases…
SI: Some of the early feminist theorizing (Lori Chamberlain & Sherry Simon, among others) on translation deals with this question of “secondariness” — how both women and translation are seen as derivative of an original (as in the biblical story of Eve being created from Adam). There’s also a way, I think, in which both translated works and works by women are treated as inferior to original writing and writing by men. Writing by women in translation, then, would be given the lowest status, and your numbers seem to suggest this is true. Do you think this common notion of inferiority informs publishers’ decisions, whether or not they’re conscious of it?
MR: The impression I got from those rare publishers who admitted their bias (through the thinly-veiled guise of “aesthetic” differences between men and women’s writing) was that they simply viewed all women’s writing as lower than men’s. I can imagine how many readers would thus also unconsciously/accidentally categorize women as lowest in this form. On the other hand, I’ve also noticed a distressing lack of interest in the women in translation problem within the other feminist circles I’m familiar with, where while they fight for intersectionalism and diversity in all other forms, they seem to steadfastly ignore anything outside of English. Even within feminist circles that define themselves by the broadest possible intersectional base, translations are ignored or are viewed as “more difficult”. I haven’t encountered any works that explicitly look at the problem, though to be honest I’m not familiar enough with academic feminist theory to be able to properly search. I would love to see it explored, though!
SI: You break down your stats by country and by language, which is really interesting, but I’m curious if you have any thoughts in terms of parity regarding the fact that it seems to be mostly European titles that are being translated still. Is translation from more marginalized languages an important factor to you, or something outside of the scope of your project? Is it may be something you’d consider addressing in the future if the project continues to grow? (Or that you’d encourage others to take up?)
MR: This is actually something that really bothers me, and I realize that my frustration has probably not translated very well in blog posts. As far as I’m concerned, the women in translation project is meaningless without looking at this intersection. It’s why I made a point to try to promote as many parts of the world as possible during the last two WITMonths (compiling resources, reviewing titles, etc.), and I intend to do the same this year. I hesitate to make hefty demands in this field for the simple reason that I recognize that not every language is made equal when it comes to translators, particularly the more marginalized ones (this is doubly true when translating between marginalized languages), but there’s also an absurd situation in which Chinese or Bengali (or dozens of other languages from around the world) are marginalized languages in translation! This is absolutely part of the same war, the same effort to have balanced and diverse literature that truly represents the world we live in. And women play a critical part in this as well.
SI: It’s interesting to note, as you do in your most recent post, that no young adult books are being translated from other languages. Do you think that people are not translating YA because they don’t think they’ll be able to sell it? I’m curious if you have more thoughts on the reasoning for this, or if it’s something you’d be interested in pursuing further, perhaps issuing another challenge about?
MR: I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve thought about this a lot in relation to my observation that feminist circles tend to ignore the translation problem. I think most kids wouldn’t really notice whether they’re reading a translation, but it’s more expensive to translate than… not to. I do expect that the fear of few sales is preventing some publishers from taking that risk. And the activist side of things just doesn’t see it as a cause worth fighting for, from both directions. Most of the more respected voices I’ve encountered within the translated-literature community of sorts firmly reject YA literature as a lesser form of literature, and I expect most of the niche publishers agree (and they’re the major voices, at least in the US). Meanwhile most of the activist diversity voices in the YA world have little interest in translated literature. I also know that some countries still don’t really have a YA market. Israel, for instance, translates most of its YA from English, and has only a handful of genuine YA novels every year. I have no idea what it’s like in other countries, but that could be another factor…
SI: Clearly you’ve read plenty of books by women as you’ve been embarking on this journey. Could you recommend maybe three favorites?
MR: Hmmm, this is always tricky! I feel like I’m abandoning so many of my favorite children…
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer (tr. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin) is my go-to first choice for just about any type of favorite book these days! It’s such a special book, gorgeously written and so utterly magical.
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky) is probably my favorite recent translation. It comes so highly praised and it just deserves every drop of it, I loved how the book played with time and with growth.
The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (multiple translations). It’s such a fascinating book to read from the perspective of modern feminism because on the one hand she writes about so many of the same issues that modern feminist writers tackle, on the other hand she reaches very different conclusions that are often completely contradictory to contemporary feminist theory. I think it’s one of the most interesting proto-feminist texts I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and definitely inspiring in terms of how Christine is basically a revolutionary, radical feminist relative to her culture and surroundings.
And I’ll sneak another in: Favorite Hebrew book by a woman translated into English: The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. It’s a wonderfully sharp book and I love Hareven’s writing.
SI: Are there any thoughts, requests, or challenges you’d like to leave ALTA’s readers with?
MR: The issue of women in translation is something I want to see discussed by everyone. I see so many different feminist or diversity efforts, and so often they’re niche and limited to small groups of passionate activists. I’d love to see this question of shouldn’t our reading reflect the world we live in? reach every reader, from the most casual to the most academic. I’d love to see people taking an active part in WITMonth (August this year). I’d love to see people doing whatever they can to make this a central cultural issue or to solve it in whatever way they can (and we all play some role). I’d love to see this viewed as an important part of everyone’s cultural awareness, that we can’t box ourselves in when it comes to literature. If we see that we’ve been locked into an Anglo-centric (or Euro-centric), white, straight male perspective, then we’re losing. We’re losing stories and ideas and voices. Those aren’t things I’m willing to lose or give up on.
Be sure to check out Meytal’s blog Bibliblio all throughout the year, but particularly during August, Women in Translation Month!
Sara Iacovelli is a poet, translator, essayist, and bartender from NYC but living
all over the place. She has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Clark University and an M.A. in the same, as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies, from the University of Colorado. She is the fiction editor at Noble / Gas Qtrly and a coordinator for the VIDA count. Her languages are Italian, Japanese, and French.