Thursday, January 21, 2016

2015 Women in Translation Stats | Part 2 - Languages and countries

Read Part 1 - Publishers here.

I should point something out before I begin: This post will include some personal observation and analysis in addition to the hard numbers. When writing about statistics (particularly those that have a, shall we say, feminist nature), people will eventually try to prove that your numbers are actually wrong. It's hard to reject the publisher stats (though some have tried), but somehow people eventually reach a particularly toxic - and at times racist - argument.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

We left off with an industry-wide problem and an overall rate of translation at 31%. At this point, I decided to look more specifically at the language breakdown of the books published. Part of this is out of pure curiosity, but most of this has to do with the question of whether women are poorly translated worldwide, or if this is a geographically isolated problem.

Once again, my numbers come from the US-based Three Percent database and are for first-time translations of fiction and poetry only. A single title by an author of unknown gender (translated from German) was removed for the sake of simplicity. The cutoff value for the country/language specific charts was at least 7 titles published, in order to better see the data. As always, there is a chance of some inconsistencies/inaccuracies due to human error...

Breakdown by countries and languages

Click to enlarge
As you can easily tell, the problem of translating women is not as a result of a certain country, rather the overwhelming majority have low rates overall (some more than others). It's difficult to measure how universal this is, mostly because of how many more translations there are from French relative to all other languages, and also because we again face the AmazonCrossing conundrum discussed in the previous post. Amazon has been shown to be a statistical outlier, and I knew from compiling these ratios that many of the titles had specifically been translated from German.
Languages, excluding AmazonCrossing
Note that German has gone from having more women writers translated than men, to significantly fewer, Korean has balanced out fully, and while Finnish didn't make the 7 cut in this case, it's actually the only one of the three to have retained an advantage for women writers (by one book). The differences really aren't all that major beyond German, but it's such a huge difference that I want to emphasize it: Of 37 titles by women writing in German, a whopping 27 were published by AmazonCrossing.

But what about countries, I can hear you ask? Surely languages aren't especially representative, since of course Spanish spans three or so continents, French at least three, Russian an entire swathe of Asia and Europe... surely there's some major difference with countries, right?

Not quite. France remains the overwhelmingly dominant voice, and since French translations remain dismally disproportionate in not-translating women writers, it's not especially surprising that the overall ratio looks not unlike France's.

And still, the rest of the world doesn't do all that well either. I decided to try to find the countries with the best track record, the area of the world so often touted as egalitarian and supportive of women and progressive and... you get the point. So yes, I looked only at the Nordic countries:

Hmm. Not that great either.

The narrative of "some parts of the world"
I think I need to pause here for a moment and explain what it is exactly that I'm trying to show. You see, there's this one argument I'm constantly told whenever I talk about this imbalance: The problem of women in translation is surely as a result of "some parts of the world being more oppressive to women". Western readers frequently imply that the entire project is meaningless, since of course there are going to be cultures in which women simply aren't valued as highly as men. This is almost always code for "the rest of the world is sexist, but the West has advanced beyond that".

This is a claim that has not only always angered me greatly because of how heavily racially coded it is, but more to the point angers me because of how distinctly false it is. Look at the charts above. Do you usually include France in your list of "oppressive to women"? What about Sweden? Boy, Spain sure does have a poor track record. And goodness me, Norway, that bastion of oppression!

By languages too. I have most frequently heard readers and industry-folk alike try to argue that Arabic would have significantly lower rates of translation than other languages. And while it's true that women writers make up only 23% of translations from Arabic, that's the same ratio you find for, well, French. It's the same ratio you find for Japanese (22%), only a little less than the ratio you find for Portuguese (27%) or Spanish (29%). Any claims that attempt to dismiss the problem of women in translation by limiting them to "certain parts of the world" are not only false, they are racist. They presume a cultural superiority by one specific slice of the world which - guess what - is doing just as poorly as almost everywhere else. At times, even worse, especially given how many more books they get translated per year.

This is what it looks like by continent of origin. Europe, the Americas and Asia all hover around the 31% (plus or minus), and Africa generally does lag behind. But of course, the entire African continent accounts for a grand total of 31 titles, making its lower rate of translations less prominent. Europe remains the primary source of all translations, and we're still left with a fairly global problem.

I also looked within Europe. This metric is probably the sketchiest and least accurate, because my definition of Western versus non-Western Europe was extremely vague. Basically anything east of Germany and the entire Baltic region got called "non-Western", but this is mostly just a guided attempt to show the differences between the two regions:

And here there is a marked difference - Western Europe at an unsurprising 35%, while the smaller countries (with far fewer translations) don't even reach 20%. That's something worth remembering for the future.

Final takeaways
I want to reiterate that these numbers are all extremely skewed, and to a certain degree almost meaningless. When one language and one country and one part of the world is so dominant in all of translation (a topic that should be discussed separate of the women in translation project...!), it makes it hard to recognize the weight behind any of the other numbers. French's 23% translation rate is obviously much more significant than, say, Tamil's 100% (which results from one book). But even with that, it's impossible not to recognize that there is no part of this world - no language or country or continent - that is doing well. The problem of women writers in translation is global, and while some countries technically have parity or even ratios above 50%, their weight is generally not so prominent (with the exception of German, where the numbers shift drastically without one publisher).

We cannot blame "some" regions of the world for a failure to give voice to women writers, and we cannot attempt to make this some sort of cultural distinction when it is effectively universal. We can only continue to discuss the gross imbalance and seek ways in which to rectify it across the board.

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Women in Translation Stats | Part 1 - Publishers

Unlike previous years, I found myself digging into the women in translation statistics a little more in depth in 2015. After almost three years of crunching these numbers, small patterns have emerged and I've begun to look at the big picture. Not that it's always easy when looking at publishers that release 4-5 books a year on average, but the more you look at the titles that are published (and who publishes them, and what genres they fall into, and who their authors are), the more you do start to recognize recurring themes, recurring problems, recurring offenders.

This will be a major theme in these posts; I have decided to dub a certain class of publishers "repeat offenders". These are the publishers who have not simply failed to translate books by women writers at similar rates as men, but also have shown a pattern of failing women writers, consistently falling below the already-low average. My hope is that these publishers will now join the 2016 Publishers in Translation challenge and commit to doing better, but for now let's start looking at numbers.

Introduction and methodology

2015 overall men:women rates of translation

As always, all data on published titles is taken from the Three Percent database. This collection of statistics is thus US-specific (and only for first-time fiction/poetry translations of original texts, so no retranslated classics looked at or nonfiction titles of any kind), though by all indicators is also fairly representative of the translation trends in the UK as well. Gender assessments are done one-by-one, based primarily on biographical information (Wikipedia, biographical information provided by publishers, personal websites and pronoun use, etc.). Anthologies were labeled "both" authors unless specifically noted as being all one-gender (one collection was exclusively women writers and was included as having been written by a woman).

The 31% overall rate may look a bit familiar there to long-time readers of this blog, since that's the same fairly disappointing number we encountered in 2014. As we'll see later (in the three-year "trend" stats), there is simply no indication that there's an improving trend. Yet. Put as kindly as I can possibly phrase it: 31% is embarrassingly low. It is not good enough.

What makes this 31% even more shocking is how very fragile it is. Because as you'll soon see, it's not that all publishers simply publish around 30% women writers in translation and are done with it. If only it were so simple.

The top 24 publishers

There's something to be said that even most of the "major" publishers of literature in translation haven't released all that many books. In order to tune in more sharply to publishers who "specialize" in literature in translation, I decided to look specifically at publishers who had released 7 or more titles in translation in 2015. At face value, the results seemed pretty straight-forward:

Perhaps not amazing, but 32% is at the average, indicating some level of consistency in the field. Except... not really.

Zoom to enlarge (?)

When it comes to publishers crossing the 50% mark, there are only two: AmazonCrossing (with 65.8% women writers) and Europa Editions (55.6%). Both publishers show an increase from their last year stats (from 52.3 and 31.6% respectively), though it is unclear how much of that has to do with the fact that Europa Editions published significantly fewer books in 2015, while AmazonCrossing published significantly more (and I'll get back to AmazonCrossing in a moment). A third publisher comes close to reaching parity: Atria sits at the respectable 45.5%, compared to a 2014 50% ratio - solidly balanced. Wakefield Press also comes in at a reasonable range, with 42.9%.

But let's look at Amazon again. Last year, I noted that AmazonCrossing seemed to lap other publishers of literature in translation when it came to publishing women writers in translation, and this has become disturbingly accurate this year. AmazonCrossing published 48 titles by women writers in translation in 2015 (a sizable portion of which were part of a series of German-language romance novels), while the next 23 publishers published a grand total of 51 titles by women writers. And in this sense, it suddenly became apparent that AmazonCrossing is simply a statistical outlier. In essence, if we want to see what publishing in translation largely looks like, we can't look at any ratios with Amazon in them, because Amazon skews those numbers far too significantly. Ouch.

The top 23 publishers (excluding AmazonCrossing)

So I decided to look at the overall men:women ratio without AmazonCrossing, and then the top now-23 publishers. The overall rate drops from 31% to 25%, the top publishers drops from 32% to 22%. While AmazonCrossing is of course the largest publisher of literature in translation these days regardless of gender, no single publisher should ever be responsible for that much of the gender divide. Especially when the immediate conclusion to be reached is: Other publishers are doing very, very poorly.

For example: The next largest publisher of literature in translation after AmazonCrossing is Dalkey Archive. Now Dalkey has long been one of the worst publishers when it comes to translations of women writers (see here) and they have also long avoided explaining how in 2014, the publishing house managed to publishing a stunning zero books by women writers (out of 30 titles released overall). Despite that criticism, their 2015 ratio is not particularly inspiring: 16%.

If we continue down the line, fellow heavyweight "literary giant" New Directions did only marginally better at 20%. And these are the stats we see among the non-Amazon top publishers, for example: Seagull Books at 12.5%, Gallic Press at 15.4%, Pushkin Press and Archipelago at 0% (!), Penguin and Knopf at 12.5%... Even seemingly more aware or "younger" presses like Deep Vellum and Open Letter scrape by with 33% and 30% respectively.

Suddenly it's not surprising that the overall ratio is 31% even with AmazonCrossing. With so many publishers barely translating 20% women writers (let alone 30% and certainly not 50%), it's unsurprising that the situation is simply not improving.

University presses

I also found myself checking a new metric this year: university presses. More precisely, I looked at the publishers whose names contain university names or the phrase "university press". Why specifically these? Why not any publisher that is distributed by or partially funded by a university? Quite frankly, I know that as a simple reader, a university press gives an air of... authenticity, a sort of quality control highlighting classics and canon-worthy titles. How do women writers fare in this elite world? Badly.

Not only is 19% well below the 31% average, it's even below the Amazon-excluded 25%. And before readers jump to inform me that of course university presses are bound to translate fewer women writers because women wrote significantly less prior to 1960 (which of course ignores the countless works of phenomenal literature written by women throughout history but I'll set that aside for a moment...), I'll shoot this in response: What purpose do university presses serve in new translations, if not to seek untranslated, unfamiliar and forgotten gems? Women have written plenty of those since the dawn of time, and precisely fit the bill when it comes to eye-opening new titles.

University presses publishing significantly fewer women writers than men means one thing: they are perpetuating an all-male canon. Publishers are gatekeepers. They carry responsibility. So this sort of huge gender disparity is not something to be shrugged aside or ignored.

Now what?

By this point, it should not surprise any readers why I have challenged publishers to release their own internal gender ratios, and to publicly commit to improving them. The fact is that even publishers who have expressed support of Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) failed to publish a single new translation of a woman writer in 2015, and hardly any of the rest did much better. Publishers are failing readers and it is high time we recognize that there is serious work to be done.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The 2016 Publishers in Translation Challenge

Happy 2016! Let's get down to business.

Before I publish the final 2015 women in translation statistics, I'd like to make a few things very clear: Things aren't great, some publishers are definitely doing better than others, and I don't for a moment want to diminish from the great work publishers of literature in translation do at large.

I'll be getting into more details about specific publishers and specific publisher patterns in future posts, but for now - at the onset of a new calendar year - I want to make one main request of publishers: do better.

The 2016 Publishers in Translation Challenge: Translate more women writers!

With even basic parity still a long, long way off and almost all major publishers falling all-too-comfortably below the 31% overall average (as you'll see more clearly in the stats post, of the top 25 publishers of literature in translation in 2015, only 5 were above 31% and only 2 reached/crossed the 50% mark), it's for publishers to show that they recognize this problem and they are committing to fixing it.

For the record: Some of the publishers with pretty abysmal rates have already expressed support for the women in translation project in different ways (WITMonth, the Year of Publishing Women, etc.), but this ultimately has not yet translated into concrete publications. While I continue to admire and support publishers who take part in the project, I also can't just ignore the lack of meaningful results.

The challenge is this:
  • Acknowledge the problem!
  • Publish your own translations rates (including backlog). Show us where you are, for good and bad. Give us the whole picture.
  • Commit to working towards a solution.
  • Publish women writers.
Many publishers will likely scoff at this point, saying that they choose only the best books, or the books that make the most sense for them to publish, or only books that fit with a certain "aesthetic" (a heavily coded word if there ever was one). I'll scoff back and say this: If you can't find books by women writers that fit your aesthetic or style, then your aesthetic or style is probably defined by being exclusively male.

We've passed the point of gently chiding publishers. We've passed the point of being baffled by ratios that make no sense. We've passed the point at which the claim that "women just don't write like men" is deemed an acceptable argument.

At this point, I want to see results. I want to see publishers owning up to the years in which they published zero books by women writers. I want to see publishers owning up to the fact that they have failed to give voice to women writers in equal measure. I want to see publishers recognizing that this was and is a problem, and saying: We are done being part of this problem.

You only pick the best books? Awesome. None of those books were by women? To quote the wise Rafiki: look harder. You'll probably find a gem.