This past May, at a PEN World Voices panel entitled “Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices,” PEN Translation Committee co-chair Margaret Carson, translator Alta Price and poet Jen Fitzgerald of VIDA presented a series of graphs showing the percentage of books by female authors published in 2014 by the top 25 publishers of translations into English. The results were disheartening. On closer examination, lots of wonderful publishing houses turn out to publish woefully few women. But these were the figures for only one year. Now the Women in Translation team has crunched and graphed the numbers (sourced from the Three Percent Database) for the years 2010-2014, and yes, the results are as we feared.
The single largest publisher of books translated into English is currently AmazonCrossing (119 titles published between 2011 – the year of its founding – and 2014, and 45 in 2014 alone), and it is also the single largest publisher of translated books written by women. These two facts are flip sides of the same coin: most of Amazon’s publishing is in genre fiction, including genres in which female authors predominate, giving Amazon a total translated list that is 54% female. Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster with a pretty commercial list) is next, with 50% women, and coming in at a distant third is Europa Editions (best known these days as the publisher of Elena Ferrante) with 39% women. And from this point on, the percentage of women on these lists drastically dwindles, such that some of my favorite publishing houses clock in with alarmingly low figures (New Directions, 16%; Archipelago, 13%). The longer the publisher’s list, the more indignant I am at the disparity. New Directions and Archipelago published 59 and 39 translated titles respectively during this five-year period, mostly by men; while Dalkey Archive (16%) was publishing three times as many translated titles: 154, of which only 23 were by women. The way I see it: the longer your list, the more times a year you’re making choices about whom to publish.
As has surely been said before, the more a publishing house focuses on work by older authors (e.g. New Directions’s emphasis on modernist writing, and NYRB’s [16% women] emphasis on classic works), the more likely their lists are to skew male, since the publishing world used to be even more inhospitable to women in centuries past than it is now. And publishing houses that focus on literature published in countries where the literary/publishing scene is still overwhelmingly male are most likely going to reflect that in their lists. But it’s definitely time now for publishers to be thinking actively about the ways in which their publishing programs contribute to an international literature that eclipses women’s voices. Surely we can be doing better than the 25% female authors published by these 25 presses (or 21% if you leave the commercially-oriented houses Amazon and Atria out of account). Why shouldn’t editors be especially on the lookout for interesting female authors to publish when the opportunity arises – even if the voices of these women are not the ones heard most loudly in their home countries and languages.
Meanwhile, big thanks to Margaret Carson and Alta Price for continuing to pursue this important project. You can follow their work on the Women in Translation Tumblr page, and if you’re going to the ALTA conference in Tucson later this month, check out the panel they’re running: “Where Are the Women in Translation?”