The Conversation Continues: An Interview with Alison Anderson and David Shook on Women in Translation

September 21, 2016
Alison Anderson and David Shook. Shook photo by Travis Elborough

Three years ago, in a post published on Words Without Borders, Alison Anderson asked, “Where Are the Women in Translation?” Two weeks later, WLT’s editor in chief, Daniel Simon, pursued this question in his post, “Women Writing, Editing, and Translating,” and enthusiasts of translation and world literature are still asking it today.

Since 2013, there have been small movements to increase the number of women authors in translation. In 2014 Meytal Radzinski, author of the Biblibio blog, dedicated August to be Women in Translation Month. Also in 2014, another social- media-based movement, #readwomen, was started to increase the reading of female authors.

In an effort to contribute to this important discussion, I reached out to Alison Anderson—translator and author most recently of The Summer Guest—and David Shook, founder and editorial director of Phoneme Media, to get their perspectives on the status of women authors in translation. 

Melissa: Now that we’re well into 2016, what is your forecast for the year? Have you noticed any progress, or anything worth noting thus far? Do you have any predictions for women in publishing for 2017? 

Alison: Not really. These things move slowly, like glaciers. . . . The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books has been very heartening—a proof that there’s a real audience (read: market) for translated fiction by women. There have been some great events, like Han Kang winning the Man Booker International, along with her translator Deborah Smith; this might have been inconceivable even four years ago, when I grumbled publicly at the London Book Fair that no woman had ever won the Independent Foreign Prize for Fiction (now part of the Booker International). Another publisher I had fingered for too few books by women, And Other Stories, has announced it will publish ONLY women for a year, but not until 2018. These may be happy one-offs, but I’m hoping they will continue to rattle the entrenched mind-set and start to make it “cool” for publishers to bring out books by women in translation and, above all, for men to read them (and certain women, see below).

David: In terms of my own work as a publisher and editor, I can say that 2017 is going to be an exciting year for Phoneme Media’s continuing publication of women in translation. At the beginning of this year, I found myself very frustrated with how male-centered our 2016 catalog was. Our submissions lean heavily toward male authors, and this was an important reminder to me of Phoneme’s editorial responsibility to actively seek out the types of voices that we want to champion. Since our start in 2014, we’ve published a remarkable group of women writers and translators, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our two Best Translated Book Award winners have both been women translated by women. 

For 2017 we’ve already acquired woman-authored novels from the Russian (Ksenia Buksha) and Esperanto (Spomenka Štimec) as well as poetry from Japanese (Minashita Kiriu) and Yucatec Maya (Briceida Cuevas Cob) and a couple of other projects in the pipeline that I can’t mention quite yet. 

I think it’s important for us small publishers to continue to rattle the entrenched mind-set with intention and intensity. We’re very much on the front lines of promoting women in translation. – David Shook

To echo Alison’s vivid imagery, I think it’s important for us small publishers to continue to rattle the entrenched mind-set with intention and intensity. The burden of proving that a market for these books exists falls squarely on the shoulders of small presses, who are able to take risks that large corporate publishers—and even large independents—usually can’t. So we’re very much on the front lines of promoting women in translation.  

Melissa: In a January 2016 Bibliobio blog, Meytal Radzinski published several statistics on gender in the publishing industry. The findings expose several common myths regarding the lack of women in publications. One such myth is that certain countries are extremely patriarchal and thus women are not published at all or there are very few able to break through the barriers. Biblibio debunks this myth by analyzing the gender of the authors published in France, Germany, and other Western countries. The data shows that men exceed women in publications in every country, which undermines the argument that certain countries are not as “progressive” as the West. Are there any other myths you encounter or that still persist? What are some common remarks you hear when discussing the need for more women authors? And if possible, what should readers of this blog know about these so-called “barriers” for women authors? 

Alison: Bibliobio is absolutely right, in my experience; it is a convenient—and perhaps logical—excuse to say that it’s all about patriarchy. No. It’s about gatekeepers and people who make decisions in publishing. There is a terrific amount, I believe, of unconscious gender bias among those who make the decisions in English-speaking countries regarding what books get translated and published. And this regardless of the gender of the gatekeeper—publisher, editor, literary scout, agent; one of the best publishing houses in the US for translations, but who publish almost zero female authors, is run by a woman. These gatekeepers—male or female—will feed you the argument that they want to publish “the best fiction, regardless,” yet I sense they erect those same barriers, obviously, that apply to all fiction written by women (and even nonfiction): the preconceived assumptions that the work will somehow be less serious, more domestic, sell less well, etc. People have often remarked that Knausgaard’s My Struggle would struggle indeed if he were Kristina Ulla and not Karl Ove, even though his subject matter is mostly gender-neutral and quite domestic (so I’ve been told; I haven’t read him). I am beginning to think manuscripts should be submitted “blind” so that the gatekeepers will have no assumptions before reading. Again, I fault women as much as men in this respect.

There is a terrific amount of unconscious gender bias among those who make the decisions in English-speaking countries regarding what books get translated and published. – Alison Anderson

David: I agree with Alison’s analysis and don’t have much to add. I think that those of us in the industry need to actively work to unveil that unconscious bias. I think that what Meytal Radzinski has done at Biblibio is a fantastic service to all of us interested in literary translation, and I think that it’s a great resource. Calculating the percentage of our women writers and translators is something that I do every season, and I think it’s an important step toward assessing this inequality honestly. Like I mentioned above, Phoneme’s 2016 ratio of women to men was abysmal, and I agree with Meytal that it’s important for me to own up to my role in that. It can be frustrating as a publisher that publishes so few books a year—when each book accounts for 10 percent of your total, moving a single title to the next season makes a big difference in our total percentages. This year we had to move two titles, both by women, into 2017, for noneditorial reasons, which dropped us even lower. But in 2017, six of our eleven slated authors are women, which marks a significant improvement for us—a benchmark to improve upon in years to come. 

I also keep track of our ratio of translators, which has hovered between 40 percent and 60 percent female. I’m not sure how this compares to other small publishers. We have far more women translating men than men translating women, or even women translating women, for that matter. 

Melissa: What are some of the biggest challenges you have come across when publishing women authors? 

Alison: Well, I don’t publish, but I will say simply that when I have tried to pitch books by female authors from French to small or medium-sized publishers in the US and UK, I have had absolutely no luck. Granted, I may not be gifted at pitch letters, but there is simply less interest, perhaps a fear that the book will not sell. The same publishers come back to me later on asking if I’ll translate such and such a book by a male author. 

But when—oh miracle!—I am asked to translate a book by a woman, very often there is less attention in the press. VIDA has addressed this topic regarding reviews of books by women generally, and it certainly holds true for works in translation.  

David: I think the biggest challenge for us here at Phoneme is finding the right books for our catalog. But then that’s also the biggest challenge when it comes to finding the right books written by men.  

I’m especially interested in women writing in indigenous African and American languages, from countries or places we seldom hear from, and those aren’t likely to be projects that find their way into my inbox; I’m going to have to seek them out. In our submission guidelines we do mention that we’re especially interested in books by women, and I long for an inbox flooded with submissions of books written by women. I hope that some of World Literature Today’s talented readers—and you, Alison—will send your ideas and pitches my way!  

In our experience at Phoneme—which, granted, is only a couple of years—our books by women sell at least as well as books by men, and often better. I’ve never heard anything negative about the sales potential of our female authors from the sales team at Publishers Group West, our distributor. And while, as Alison mentioned, it’s incredibly difficult to get translated literature, and especially poetry, reviewed, several of our most critically acclaimed books are written by women. 

Melissa: How do we enact global change beyond publishers so that more women are both read and published? In other words, I am thinking about the ways we can engage with students of literature in classrooms, or book clubs where people may not be thinking about or reading women authors. In order for long-term change, I believe, we need to think beyond just the publishing companies. What is your advice for activism toward this end? 

Alison: Global change beyond publishers—I certainly agree that “students of literature” need to read women authors, and this from as young an age as possible, even in primary school. There are wonderful translations of children’s literature from around the world that would open minds both to women and to global diversity, so that young boys—some of them future publishers, reviewers, critics—won’t have a resistance to literature by women (hopefully). Not even ten years ago I suggested titles only by women to our (mixed) book club and felt strong but unspoken reluctance on the part of the male participants (as if I’d asked them to wear pink?). On presenting my own novels to male colleagues, for example, I came up against a prejudice that my books would be extreme “women’s fiction”—i.e., of the chick-lit or romance variety; I think this assumption dies hard with men and even a lot of women and can cross borders all too easily, unfortunately. It seems it is only once a translated author has established her reputation as a writer of fiction that men might enjoy—in spite of the fact she’s a woman—that she becomes better known and universally appreciated. So while much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go . . .

David: I think that you’re right in asserting that we need larger, systemic changes to take place. I’d like to learn more about how we can do this, and I think that the conversation WLT has generated this year is a good starting point. I’m working actively to listen and learn. I’m grateful for your work with this interview, Melissa. 

I think that what Alison says about introducing young people to writing by women is important. In my own case, writers like Beverly Cleary and Lois Lowry were instrumental in my development as a reader. I wonder if there isn’t a greater bias toward male writers in the field of supposedly high-prestige “literary fiction”—which I think often includes literature in translation.  

I think that book sales are a crucial way to support women in translation. Buy books by women. Check them out from the library. Review them online. Read Alison’s translations and novels!  

I’d love to hear suggestions from World Literature Today’s readers, too! 

                                                                                    July–August 2016

Editorial note: Please share this article, leave a comment, and include female authors among your next book club selections. And for more information, visit PEN America’s website to read Alex Zucker and Allison Markin Powell’s article, “Women Translation Month: Moving toward Parity,” and VIDA’s website for statistical information on authors by gender.

Alison Anderson is a novelist and translator. Her most recent novel, The Summer Guest, based on an episode in the life of Anton Chekhov, was published this year, and her translation of Boualem Sansal’s 2084: The End of the World is forthcoming in January 2017. She lives in Switzerland.

David Shook’s debut verse collection, Our Obsidian Tongues, was longlisted for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize. His recent translations include work by Mario Bellatin, Tedi López Mills, and Víctor Terán. Founding editor of Phoneme Media and also a contributing editor to WLT, Shook lives in Los Angeles. 

Melissa Weiss is a former WLT intern.