Women in Translation: Not Just Bearded Dudes for Bearded Dudes

By Katy Derbyshire

For the past three years now, a lot of people invested in the Anglophone literary industry – translators, writers, editors, critics, readers and others – have been raising their voices about the gender imbalance in translated fiction. The trigger was when translator Alison Anderson asked the question ‘Where are the women in translation?’ at Words Without Borders magazine, pointing out that only one woman had ever won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and that only 26% of the translated fiction and poetry published in the United States in the previous two years had been written by women. My own count for translated fiction published in the UK and Ireland in 2013 came to a figure of 27%, and a review of the Literature Across Frontiers data on UK/Ireland literary translations published in 2000 and 2008 gave me an average of 24%.

The last Independent Foreign Fiction Prize went to Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky for The End of Days. The bestselling original German fiction title of 2015 was Dörte Hansen’s Altes Land (reviewed in issue 37 of NBG) – rights have sold to St. Martins Press. And German is the language with the highest proportion of literary translations originally written by women, with a still-notterribly- impressive thirteen out of forty-four publications or 29% in 2013. When the conversation on gender imbalance began, prize organisers pointed out that they can only nominate what is submitted to them and literary editors commented that they can only commission translations of what is brought to them. The buck, it was suggested, could be passed to those pesky foreigners – at least in part. So does that low rate of translations of women’s books from German reflect what’s coming out in Germany? Having come up against a complete lack of statistics on gender in the otherwise well-documented world of German publishing, I decided to do some more number-crunching.

I chose thirty German-language publishers – large and small, indie and mainstream, genre and literary fiction – and counted the number of original German fiction books published over the past two seasons. In total, my unrepresentative survey found that 43% of original German fiction publications were written by women. I was surprised it wasn’t more. Few countries keep a tally, but the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction was famously launched when, in 1992, the ratio of books published by men to books by women was 60:40 in women’s favour yet women writers rarely won literary prizes. If the UK had apparently hit 60% back in 1992, what is going on in the Germanspeaking countries in 2015-16? I’ll leave that question firmly at the door of German editors.

A closer look at the count, however, shows a clear disparity between literary and genre publishers. One major literary house published original German fiction by twenty men and eleven women over the past year. Whereas another publisher of ‘entertaining, emotional books and thrilling stories’ clocked up five women and only one man. The pattern repeats itself across the board – despite the fact that women have been quietly taking over as publishers at large houses like dtv, Piper, Rowohlt, Ullstein, Blanvalet/Limes/Penhaligon and Dumont and that women make up 64% of German editors. Women simply aren’t getting as much literary fiction published as men are.

What we’re seeing in translations into English, then, may be a skew in the kind of books that get translated. A look at the Three Percent list of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2015 confirms this, with an interesting twist. Traditional publishers brought out forty-two translations from German, only ten of which were authored by women. AmazonCrossing, however, turned that figure on its head, with twenty-nine books by women and six by men. Fantasy, romance, historical romance and thrillers are writ large, often by authors who originally self-published with Amazon Germany.

What does this mean for diversity in UK and US publishing? I think it means that the continuing trend for translating more genre fiction will give readers a more diverse range of authors to choose from. Some friends and I are working to establish a literary prize for translated fiction by women, aiming to highlight some of the great books coming to the UK and Ireland in translation and not distinguishing between genre and literary fiction. There is certainly plenty of excellent genre fiction available for translation.

But publishers of literary fiction – in both the Anglophone and the German-speaking world – can clearly do more to support women writers and give readers more choice. There’s a leaf to be taken – pardon the pun – from the book of And Other Stories, who have pledged to publish only books by women in 2018, which novelist Kamila Shamsie proposed should be a ‘year of women’. With people like Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press and Deborah Smith at Tilted Axis setting more good examples in terms of picking female winners, literary publishers everywhere could help rid translated fiction of its ‘bearded dudes writing for bearded dudes’ image – winning more readers as a result. I’d say that’s a good idea all round.