Why We Need a Prize for Women in Translation

VIDA-footer-logoIt’s been five years now since VIDA: Women in Literary Arts started its famous count of the percentages of women represented in major U.S. literary awards, and four since it started tracking the numbers of women represented (as writers, reviewers and reviewees) in a number of our top literary journals. The numbers were staggering, confirming a bias in publishing that many women had always felt to be present without really being able to prove it – especially as we all know plenty of incredibly successful women who work for these journals, write for them, get reviewed in them. But overall, the report was disheartening. In 2010, The New Yorker reviewed 9 books by women and 36 by men (that’s 25% women). For The New York Review of Books that same year, just 19% of the books reviewed were by female authors, and the vast majority of reviewers in both cases were men. The VIDA Count occasioned a lot of anti-feminist backlash. It also opened a lot of eyes to the realities of how large swaths of the publishing industry work and started an important conversation that continues today, even though the numbers for many of the journals surveyed are only very slightly better now than they were four years ago. In 2013, The New York Review of Books published reviews of books by women 25% of the time. The New Yorker is doing better: it’s now up to 40% women writers on average (or 45% if you count their “Briefly Noted” column). There’s still plenty of backlash. I recently posted on Facebook about an email sent around by NYRB on Sept. 16 announcing its new issue, listing 9 articles by male authors, 0 articles by female authors (and as a bonus: both books advertised in the email were by men). I quipped that they might rename themselves The New York Review of Men’s Books. And promptly received an email from a male editor I actually respect a lot, saying “Have you read the issue? It’s the best in months. Which of course doesn’t have anything to do with it’s being men.”

One of the insidious things about privilege is that part of the privilege package is having the luxury to be blind to the privilege you yourself enjoy. As an ethnic Jew, I feel lucky that I was born in a decade when widespread discrimination against Jews was on its way out. As a white person, I have invisibly enjoyed any number of privileges, including repeatedly being given the benefit of the doubt and offered opportunities on the basis of my apparent potential. For example, when I was 24, a former professor of mine (female, not coincidentally) hired me for a full-time one-year university teaching appointment even though I’d only ever taught a single college-level class; she had a hunch that I would be a good teacher and trusted me enough to hand over the keys to ten different courses (the load was 5 courses per term) and an office. It worked out fine in the end, and I learned a lot about teaching, but I certainly wasn’t technically qualified to take that job at the moment when it was offered me. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the fact that I am white and did not grow up in poverty made it infinitely more likely for opportunity of that sort to knock in my life. Yes, I worked hard to establish myself professionally – life wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter by any means – but it’s pretty clear that the professional scales are tilted in favor of those who belong to traditionally privileged groups. Which is why the United States has definitely not outgrown affirmative action, and why it’s important for organizations like VIDA to collect hard figures on who’s getting published where. For great journals to publish almost exclusively men is bad for literary life in general (just as it is for them to publish almost exclusively white authors). Like other sorts of professionals, writers and scholars grow through the opportunities they are given, and if you help raise a diverse generation of thinkers by offering them assignments to grow into early in their careers, you are helping to build a rich intellectual mainstream that is as multifaceted and vibrant as the population of this country. If you don’t do that, you’re helping to maintain a status quo that I, for one, can’t help seeing as outdated.

woman_writing_422639386.jpg_detailAnd what about literature in translation? No one’s crunched those numbers yet with a VIDA-like thoroughness (though Alison Anderson set the ball rolling last year in a Words Without Borders dispatch). Now the ball is rolling. At the London Book Fair this year, Sophie Mayer chaired a panel sponsored by English PEN entitled “Where Are the Women in Translation?” In her report on the panel (which featured Anderson as well as For Books’ Sake editor Jane Bradley and novelist Krys Lee), she notes that most of the people who attended the panel were women, prompting her, as she reports, to realize that “the question wasn’t ‘Where are the women in translation?’ but ‘Where are the (often) male gatekeepers prepared to listen to us and help make change?’” The under-representation of female authors in the books published in English translation – Anderson eyeballs the figure as 26% women – may have to do, in many cases, with the relatively small numbers of women getting published in the countries whose literatures we are translating. But is that the whole story? Anderson’s speculations on the topic are very much worth reading. Where’s the Translation VIDA Squad who’s going to look into this? It would make a great project. I hope someone takes it on.

And of course there’s the question of what we can do about the dearth of translated women. Katy Derbyshire of the Love German Books blog has just published a call to establish “a women’s prize for translated fiction” to “raise awareness for great women’s writing from the non-Anglophone world.” I assume there’s going to be some backlash. But I agree with her wholeheartedly that such a prize is badly needed. The first step in eliminating a disparity is to call attention to it. And while no one with privilege (including me) enjoys having their privilege pointed out to them, hearing – loudly – from those who have been excluded from the literary agora is a necessary step if change is going to occur. Celebrating these women’s work, with longlists, shortlists and a kick-ass prize ceremony, sounds to me like a wonderful, life- and literature-affirming project, and I want to be a part of it.

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