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Translation industry must be ready for ‘year of publishing women’

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in the UK. While this is a day of celebration for many, it is also an important opportunity to draw attention to women around the world whose voices are not yet being heard or valued.

The number of books being published and nominated for literary prizes is significantly lower for female authors. In a recent talk published in The Guardian, well regarded Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie called out the industry on this gender bias and suggested that 2018 be a year of publishing and celebrating the written works of women.

These bias have been found to be even more extreme in translation. Although the translators working to convert selected books into English are predominantly female, the texts being translated are completely dominated by male authors.

Less than 100 books by international female writers make it to the UK each year

English is the most published language in the world. For authors writing outside of English-speaking countries, in their native language, opportunities to get translated and published is a valuable opportunity. However, with translations making up just 4.5% of literary works published in the UK, these opportunities are rare – and even rarer for women.

A critical problem for female foreign language authors is the critical reception their books receive once published. VIDA Count, an organisation analysing gender equality in literature, have consistently found that women are underrepresented in book reviews and discussions across media platforms.

This attention, or lack thereof, is having a huge toll on women’s chances of being nominated for national and international book awards. Throughout the last two decades, awarding bodies have continued to focus on male authors.

Research has shown that over this course of time the PEN Translation Prize, for instance, has only been given to three women – 15% of the total number of winners. While the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) has only ever awarded its prize to one female author since the competition began in 1990.

Publishing and translation are finally making room for women

With just two years to go until the UK’s Year of Publishing Women, efforts to promote and address the current bias are already having an impact.

VIDA Count, who we mentioned earlier, have noticed small but clear improvements in the number of literary works from women authors being reviewed in recent publications. Changes observed in The New Republic were among the highest, with an increase of 18%, up from 27% female literary representation to 45% over the last year.

Meanwhile, PEN translates has seen an increase in the volume of foreign language female authors applying for grants to get their work translated. Although this figure has been low in the past, this year eight of the sixteen grant winners were female and have been given the opportunity to see their work translated into English.

In the US, Amazon Crossing is responsible for the publishing the most translated texts, with the highest percentage of work from female authors. Last year the publishing giant announced a ten million dollar commitment to the translation of books to English.

Although this move by Amazon has been met with mixed reactions – some translation services are concerned about the impact this will have on the cost of transcription – the general feeling is one of optimism. More ‘major players’ supporting a translation industry, promoting equal opportunities for foreign language authors of both genders, is definitely a positive step towards removing publishing and translation’s male bias.

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