Translators Margaret Carson and Alta L. Price are the cofounders of the Women in Translation tumblr, which is focused on raising awareness of women in translation through charts and graphs, reviews, and more. They talked to us about how the project has evolved since its inception in 2015, how they gather data about women in translation, and their defining moments in recognizing the gender disparity in publishing.
What led you to start the Women in Translation tumblr, and why did you specifically select tumblr?
ALP: Having already organized an event for the PEN World Voices Festival, we wanted a place where we could share our initial findings, first presented as charts, beyond the event. Colleagues recommended tumblr because it’s no-fee, easy to use, doesn’t require that viewers create an account, and can handle images, text, and links. We came for the ease, and stayed for the community we found there.
MC: Six years later, we’re still happy with tumblr. It attracts a lot of quirky and creative people. It’s a delight to scroll through the feed—it’s totally unlike what you find on other platforms. We also like that it’s not owned by Facebook and is relatively free of ads.
What are your methodologies for conducting and visualizing research for the charts and graphs you share on the Women in Translation tumblr?
MC: Our original charts for the PEN World Voices panel and later updates used the Three Percent Database in both its iterations: as a downloadable Excel-sheet resource, and since 2019, on Publishers Weekly, in a more interactive format. Back in 2015 the database didn’t have any info on gender, so we went through it title by title to look at first names (a gender marker, in many cases) or to Google search the author or translator. With the move to PW, it’s now a matter of a few clicks to see what’s being published in translation according to gender of author, gender of translator, language translated from, country in which the book was first published, etc. No more sorting and hand counting necessary. Anyone can search the database and have an answer in a few seconds.
On another front, a few years ago we manually went through translation reviews published over a 16-month period in the New York Times Sunday Book Review to do the “Count.” We found a huge gender gap: 75% of the reviews of translations were by male authors vs. 25% by female authors. We also had an exchange with Pamela Paul, the editor of the Times Book Review, about this glaring imbalance.
Except for the charts prepared for the 2015 PEN World Voices panel (we had some help with those), all of the charts on the tumblr have been generated by Numbers, Apple’s spreadsheet application. Here are some top charts from our archive:
ALP: The VIDA Count was a model for our first research and graphs back in 2015, and we began by looking at the gender gap in authors and translators. Margaret’s the chart whiz, I gather links, events, quotes, and run the occasional survey. We both discuss various angles—the gap by language or country of origin, by publisher, etc.—and there are many approaches still on our to-do list.
We know that decisions about what books to translate and publish aren’t made at the industry level; it’s up to publishers to make their own editorial choices.
– Margaret Carson
What first prompted you to conduct research for “Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation” in 2015?
MC:A shout out to the many activists and colleagues who paved the way! The VIDA Count was by far the most influential. Since 2009, it has served up its famous pie charts showing the gender gap in bylines at literary publications in the US and UK. In fact, a former VIDA Count manager, the poet Jen Fitzgerald, advised us on our charts and joined us on the World Voices panel. We took our cues from VIDA: just as their Count reported on individual magazines and journals, our Count reported on individual publishers of translations. That was an essential step, because it’s at the publisher level that decisions are made about what authors and books to translate. We know that decisions about what books to translate and publish aren’t made at the industry level; it’s up to publishers to make their own editorial choices.
Other influences: the feminist art-activists The Guerrilla Girls, who in the 1980s had its notorious report card giving scores to individual galleries based on the number of exhibits that featured women artists. More recently, in 2013 Alison Anderson published “Where Are the Women in Translation?”, a groundbreaking article in Words Without Borders that first reported on the significant gender imbalance in books being translated as well as the enormous gender skew in the literary prizes being awarded. Alex Zucker, who co-chaired the PEN Translation Committee with me in 2015 and helped to organize the World Voices panel, has long been tracking gender stats in his Czech literature published in English translation database. As we neared the date of the World Voices panel, we learned that Meytal Radzinski was doing similar investigations based on the Three Percent database for her Women in Translation Month initiative. Shortly after the World Voices panel, we joined forces with Meytal at the 2015 American Literary Translators Association Conference to keep the discussion going.
ALP: I can take no credit for the genesis—Margaret and I were both on the PEN Translation Committee, and I came on board when she asked whether I’d like to co-moderate the World Voices Festival panel with her. The presenters and audience all brought so much to the table, I left knowing I wanted to do more.
We’re in the twenty-first century. If the books published in translation are mostly by men, or mostly by white men writing in European languages, what’s so fresh and innovative about that?
— Margaret Carson
What were your individual personal “SNAP!” moments? What was so surprising about your findings?
MC: The idea of “snap” comes from the feminist scholar and activist Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life. In it she defines “snap” as a moment of awareness that serves as a crossroads, that can be the start of something, a call to action. My “snap” moment was when I saw that out of the 30+ books in translation published in 2014 by Dalkey Archive—second only to Amazon Crossing in the total number of translations published that year—none were by women authors. It’s hard to beat that level of exclusion. That was the starkest disparity. In the case of other well-known publishers of translations, the disparity was not so appalling, but it was still significant. Surprised? Well, it challenges the idea that translation publishers are to be lauded without qualification for their efforts to open up the insular US publishing world to voices from abroad.
ALP: Preparing for that 2015 panel, I looked at my own bibliography: in over ten years of translating work by more than forty authors, not a single book-length translation I’d had published was written by a woman. I felt complicit—like part of the problem. Those books reflected what the publishers were acquiring, not the world I lived in, nor my fellow readers; my “dream” project list was different. So I was surprised that these findings spurred me into more actively pursuing, pitching, and placing projects.
I looked at my own bibliography: in over ten years of translating work by more than forty authors, not a single book-length translation I’d had published was written by a woman. I felt complicit—like part of the problem. Those books reflected what the publishers were acquiring, not the world I lived in…
– Alta L. Price
How has the WIT tumblr evolved in terms of its purpose and what content you post since its creation in 2015?
ALP: From the initial graphs we went on to conduct short interviews, post links to relevant articles, pertinent quotations from what we were reading, etc. Then came a period of tallying various prizes and their short- and longlists. Then I felt we could use the platform to share resources like grants or awards open to submissions, bookstore events, etc. We try to keep it exciting while not straying too far from the core mission.
MC: Our evolution is reflected in our “About” statement: “Raising awareness of women in translation by posting writeups, Q&As, charts & graphs, reading reports, letters to the editor, links to reviews + announcements + more. We cover writers, translators, editors, reviewers, bloggers, & others who identify as women and who are part of the conversation about the gender gap & other gaps in translation.” We understand “women in translation” in a broad sense. From the outset, we’ve also been interested in translators and all other players on the literary translation scene who are women.
Throughout your time as activists, what changes have you seen in terms of the gender gap in what’s being published, awarded, and reviewed?
ALP: As you can see in the WiT archive, more readers are talking and writing about the gender gap. The VIDA Count, although it doesn’t cover translation, also expanded to examine the even more extreme racial gap—these movements can bolster one another. And in 2017, a cadre of activists worked to establish the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Meanwhile, Anglophone publishers and acquiring editors are finally looking farther beyond Europe and its languages, which means other prizes are doing a tiny bit better there, too. For the past couple of years, major newspapers covering the International Booker prize have noted that its lists have been “dominated” by women, which is an interesting word choice.
Many reviewers still struggle to cover translation (beyond the obligatory adverb) and #namethetranslator, and many publishers still don’t bother to credit translators on the cover or include them in books’ metadata—but many does not mean all, and translators and booksellers I know are exercising increased agency whenever possible. I have a backlog of New York Times and other book reviews I’d still like to tally, but it requires a lot of volunteer labor before publishing the findings. If we revisit this in another five years, hopefully we’ll have more positive change to report.
MC: To follow up on Alta’s comment about literary prizes: is a shortlist that’s dominated by male authors newsworthy? No. It’s only when the universal male norm is challenged that you see a headline. Fact is, for decades there’s been a scandalous dominance of male authors and translators in literary prizes for translations. If these prizes have skewed in recent years in favor of women authors and women translators, I see that as a gain.
Another welcome change I’ve seen is that US presses whose founding mission is to publish women, such as Feminist Press and Dorothy, have been bringing out more works in translation.
Can you each leave us with a recommendation of a book by a woman you would love to see translated into English and why?
ALP: If you’ll allow me one recommendation from each of the languages I work from…
This is old news, but I’d still like to see Italian author Joyce Lussu’s Lotte, ricordi e altro (“Battles, Recollections, Etc.”) translated into English. An excerpt was featured in the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival online anthology, and I regret having to say her observations regarding the roles of sex, race, class, and religion in shaping human lives remain relevant as ever. It’s nonfiction, but her work as a poet and translator gave everything she wrote a literary quality. Her other works include what we now call speculative fiction, a book about witches, and an epic examination of her own family history, so there’s a lot not yet available in English from this unique writer. She’d be thrilled to know translators like André Naffis-Sahely, Jamie Richards, and Aaron Robertson are bringing work by authors like Ribka Sibhatu and Igiaba Scego into English.
For German, Olivia Wenzel’s innovative novel 1000 Serpentinen Angst (“1,000 Coils of Fear”) blew me away. Its unnamed narrator—daughter of an East German mother and Angolan father, sister of a twin brother who took his own life at seventeen—flashes back and forth in time, place, and style, weaving a gripping travelogue as she explores and interrogates her inner and outer worlds. Happily, a US publisher has already acquired the rights, so be on the lookout for this in the next year or two.
MC: Instead of recommending a specific book, given the longstanding bias against translating books by women into English, I’d like to advocate for writers whose work should have been translated into English long ago but who never came to anyone’s notice. Or maybe proposals to bring their books into English never got anywhere. Or their books are out of print and they’ve dropped out of the literary conversation in their countries. It’s a project to recover women whose writing didn’t fit into the “man of letters” model that over time has stood the best chance of enduring and of being brought into English. Women in Translation advocacy should also take a look back at these writers and make the case for their translation into English.
The recent translation into English of stories by the Mexican writer Amparo Dávila (translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson) is a great example of a writer who should have been translated into English decades ago. There should be more recoveries like that.
Interview by Cindy Brzostowski & Salwa Benaissa