Skip to content
We’re hiring a books editor! Learn more and apply by August 6.

Tipping the Scales: WWB’s Conversation on Women in Translation at AWP

By Jessie Chaffee

Last week, WWB was in Washington DC for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, where executive director Karen Phillips moderated the panel “Tipping the Scales: Addressing Gender Imbalance in Literature in Translation.”

Karen spoke with translators Marguerite Feitlowitz, Hillary Gulley, Alta Price, and Sholeh Wolpé—and the audience of translators, writers, and publishers—about the lack of gender parity in translation, both in terms of the authors and translators of international works. As Alta Price, cofounder (with Margaret Carson) of the vital Women in Translation tumblr, shared, this imbalance is evident throughout the process, from acquisition (only 26% of books translated into English are written by women), to coverage in gatekeeping media outlets (in the New York Times, for example, 75% of translated works reviewed are by men), to recognition by way of awards and prizes.

Image: Hillary Gulley, Alta Price, Karen Phillips, and Marguerite Feitlowitz. Photo by Jessie Chaffee.

How do these translators combat the imbalance and successfully find and publish works by international women writers?

All of the panelists stressed the necessity of actively seeking out women writers through translator networks, blogs, and word of mouth, and highlighted the role of publishers in pursuing content by women. (In 2018, for example, the small press And Other Stories will publish only works by women.) As Alta noted, it is necessary to go beyond traditional outlets, like book reviews, where a similar gender disparity exists, in order to reach a more diverse group of writers. Hillary spoke about the importance of mentorship by experienced women translators, like Susan Bernofsky and Esther Allen, who have supported emerging women translators.

Sholeh discussed the power of compiling and translating anthologies by international women writers as a way of featuring a bouquet of work by a variety of women, rather than relying on a body of work by a single woman, which may or may not be available due to publication inequities in the writer’s home country. Marguerite encouraged translators to remain engaged in the existing efforts to achieve greater parity, as there is a danger in assuming that those efforts will continue without sustained support. And Karen spoke to the role of readers and editors in helping to provide exposure for women writers and translators by consciously sharing writing and reviews by and about women’s work.

Image: Marguerite Feitlowitz and Sholeh Wolpé. Photo by Jessie Chaffee.

The panelists recommended a number of publications and organizations consciously working to tip the scales, including VIDA–Women in Literary Arts, the Women in Translation tumblr, PEN Translation, Translationista, Biblibio (where #WITMonth was born), Literary Hub’s series on international women writers, and the Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation section.

Where you can find new work by women writers and translators?

We suggest starting with the excerpts below, translated and presented by the panelists:

“STUDY. The word was not pronounced, there was no need, it was there, inscribed in living letters, on my heart. Inscribed and forgotten. To study. Not in order to be healed, or to gain time. But for the sake of study. So that it should live.”

—From Liliane Atlan’s poem “Study,” from the forthcoming collection As One Would Chisel Diamonds, and translated from French by Marguerite Feitlowitz, who says, “The writing in the book Liliane Atlan knew would be her last has a rare beauty—it is by turns delicate, unnerving, visionary, and sometimes even makes us laugh. Always, it is imbued with a subtle music.”    

“The days are tunnels where time cloaks the torments that remain off the clock. I can hear another plane overhead. The roar of an IL-62 or an MIG-15: there are thousands, millions of them; they are flies, barzuk bumblebees: this is a country of mammalian aircraft.”

—From Cuban writer Polina Martínez Shviétsova’s “Skhizein (Decalogue for the Year Zero),” from the collection Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba (OR Books, 2014), edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo and translated from Spanish by Hillary Gulley, who says, “I chose Polina Martínez Shviétsova’s piece because I admire her lively prose and her ability to weave disparate thought sequences into a loose narrative.”

“And a woman who finds herself in the eye of the storm—a terrible war rising up all around, a war organized and carried out by men, a war that’s razed all spaces for civil confrontation, leaving room only for armed confrontation—what does she do? Forced to decide between complicity and armed opposition, between slavery and life, what does she choose?”

—From Italian writer Joyce Lussu’s “Battles, Recollections, Etc.,” published in the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology, and translated from Italian by Alta Price, who says, “I chose an excerpt from Joyce Lussu’s piece because it seems regrettably yet poignantly relevant right now.”


“I have sinned a rapturous sin
in a warm enflamed embrace,
sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
arms violent and ablaze.”

—From Iranian writer Forugh Farrokhzad’s poem “Sin,” from the collection Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, 2007), and translated from Persian by Sholeh Wolpé, who says, “I read Forugh’s poem ‘Sin,’ not only because it is linguistically and rhythmically a very difficult poem to translate, but also because the erotic rebelliousness of a young woman must come through as it is heard in Persian. Indeed Forugh was the first woman poet in Iran to write, for the first time in the history of that culture, exclusively from the point of view of a woman—sexually, emotionally, politically, and socially. Yet it is interesting that she was, and in my view rightly so, adamant that she was a poet, not a ‘poetess.’ I personally hate that word, and it is a word that my father’s generation still uses. And in this country, too. I have been introduced many times as a poetess in Iranian readings. And I never fail to correct them.”

Check out WWB’s list of 31 Women in Translation to Read Now

Published Feb 17, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.