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Women in Translation: An Interview with Margaret Carson & Alta L. Price

By Jessie Chaffee

Translators Margaret Carson and Alta L. Price cofounded the Women in Translation tumblr in 2015. We spoke with them about the evolution of the #womenintranslation movement, how things have changed in the last few years, and challenges to and strategies for fostering greater gender parity in international literature.

Words Without Borders (WWB): For those who are not familiar with the Women in Translation tumblr, when did you begin the site and what was the impetus?

Margaret Carson (MC): Alta and I started the tumblr in May 2015, just before the PEN World Voices panel we moderated, “Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices.” The tumblr was created as an online space for the charts and graphs we prepared and presented at the panel. The visuals clearly illustrated the gender disparity across several categories—by English-language publisher, by source language, by country, by continent—using the Three Percent Database. We also posted charts showing that most literary awards, especially PEN’s own translation prize, have historically favored men authors and men translators.

Alta L. Price (ALP): The #WITMonth initiative predates our site, it was launched in August 2014 by Meytal Radzinski. As an avid and perceptive reader of international literature in translation, she’s asking many of the right questions. With the tumblr, we aim to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in our niche of a niche, and crunch the numbers so people can see why and how action is called for.

MC: We’re also looking at other women in translation, not only authors: women translators, women editors, women bloggers/reviewers. With respect to translators, we find it interesting, for example, that while women translators seem to vastly outnumber men (judging from those who attend literary translator conferences or enroll in literary translator workshops and MFAs), if you look at book translations you’ll find that men translators have a slight edge in being published. What explains their relative success compared to women translators?

I’d also like to add that it’s relatively easy to keep track of the conventional M/F binary within our small niche of a niche because of the fact that many first names are gendered. That doesn’t work all the time, especially outside of Western Europe and the Americas, but in those cases if you google the individual you’ll usually find a “he” or “she” fairly quickly. (The weakness of this system, however, is that we’re unable to consider an individual’s gender identity, which would have to be self-reported.)

 We’re also aware that other exclusions exist. For example, translation is said to foster global literature, but Europe is by far the primary source for most books in translation in the Anglophone world. Our WiT tumblr is focused on tracking women’s representation, but we’re by no means closing off other kinds of questions and discussions.


WWB: Since you cofounded the tumblr, have you noticed any changes and/or progress in the WiT movement? What do you attribute those changes to?

ALP: The movement has caught on, and is spreading both through social media sites and in the physical world among readers, translators, and bookstores hosting events. Several indie publishers have joined in, either by devoting a year to WiT or offering specials on specific titles for WITMonth.

Individual members of associations like PEN (both in the US and the UK) and ALTA are doing their part. After a colleague and I outlined the movement at an event last year for international translators working from German, several translators from various countries in Europe, Asia, and both South and North America expressed interest and sounded off about the situation in their own countries.

Since the movement began, there are a few other positive changes: the Three Percent Translation Database has added gender to their data collection. There’s now a website maintained by a group of “translators and advocates of women’s work in translation,” and a group of UK translators helped establish the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. The international literary community has successfully gotten local bookstores to create table displays for WiTMonth. And fewer people I speak to ask why such an initiative exists, because they can already see the ongoing disparities.

Of course, we have a long way to go: one of our panels was ghettoized when festival organizers decided to take all the female authors sent over by foreign cultural agencies and put them on the WiT panel—as if to inadvertently prove our point, several of the authors hadn’t even had a book translated into English yet, and the other panels in that time slot were left with zero women on them. Some editors and publishers are still saying their lists are determined by “aesthetic discernment,” as if that somehow justifies the 70%:30% male/female author ratio of their lineups. And despite “Ferrante fever,” I’ve found little evidence of publishers scrambling to find the next big breakout/crossover female author in translation.

There’s also the phenomenon we’re calling the poster-woman effect: when we wrote to one prominent book review editor to ask whether she was aware that her publication’s reviews of literature in translation over a seven-month period featured three books written by men for every one book written by a woman (69:23, or 75%:25%), she responded by implying that the disparity in her publication was just a reflection of what’s being published, pointing to two cover reviews of books in translation done by a female translator, and noting that her editorial team often has women review such works. So not only do some reviewers try to pass the responsibility back to publishers, but it also seems that in covering one or two books by women, people feel justified in saying they’re doing all they can, when it’s clear they aren’t. It isn’t enough to be able to name one or two women in translation—we’ll know we’re making progress when readers, reviewers, editors, and publishers can name three, four, five, or more women who’ve recently been published in translation.

We’re still monitoring literary prize statistics, too, which haven’t yet reflected as much change as one might hope to see.

MC: WiT is definitely part of the conversation now, not a momentary distraction.

It isn’t enough to be able to name one or two women in translation—we’ll know we’re making progress when readers, reviewers, editors, and publishers can name three, four, five, or more women who’ve recently been published in translation.

WWB: In your work as translators, do you seek out work by women to translate? Have you noticed particular hurdles to getting work by women translated, and have you found strategies for clearing or avoiding those hurdles?

MC: As a reader I’m interested in women writers, in English and in other languages. But that predates my WiT activism. How much agency do translators have in what gets published in translation? You have to bear in mind that it’s ultimately editors and publishers, here and abroad, who make the decisions about what to publish. Deciding on your own to seek out and translate women writers won’t necessarily balance the picture, because a publisher has to decide to take on the book as well. And if you’re trying to build up your own publication record, the numbers are clear: it’s much easier to be published if you’re translating a male author.

As to the hurdles—because a book in translation is almost always first published elsewhere, I have to assume that there are hurdles for women writers in that country, too. Basically, a lot has to take place before a book comes to the attention of a US publishing house.

ALP: Absolutely. It’s worth noting that most of the book translations I’ve published to date have come from publishing houses that had already chosen a certain project, and a major reason for my involvement in this movement is that for the entire first decade of my career every single book I was commissioned to translate was written by a man. Call it 20/20 hindsight, but as a translator I do feel a need to take responsibility. There wasn’t enough overlap between the books I was reading and loving and the ones people were hiring me to translate.

A few hurdles: even if Anglophone editors and publishers are multilingual, they can still only acquire what they’re able to find in the source language, so any extant bias in the foreign publishing ecosystem is necessarily reproduced, if not magnified—this applies to gender, skin color, socioeconomic class, age, genre, etc. Many editors and publishers I’ve interacted with identify themselves as monolinguals, so they’re relying on what foreign publishers or cultural agencies pitch to them, plus readers’ reports (which introduces another potential gatekeeper if the report is done by someone unaware of the aforementioned biases).

MC: There’s plenty of potential here for “passing the buck” when different players in the complicated ecosystem of international publishing attempt to explain why books authored by men are so clearly favored when it comes to translation.

ALP: In terms of strategies to clear those hurdles, there’s little we can do about the source culture’s biases, but a whole lot we can do here at home. We can proactively work with publishers and their marketing departments, pointing out that if their lists don’t reflect the fabulously diverse nation we live in, they’re missing out on untapped readerships. We can cultivate our relationships with enlightened journals and book publishers. We can be more tenacious—submitting, resubmitting, requesting feedback, and resubmitting. We can apply for grants and residencies to help support work that hasn’t yet had a voice in English. Most of all, we can remain aware of these biases and ask our colleagues abroad what they’re reading that might help us redress the skewed numbers.

There’s plenty of potential here for “passing the buck” when different players in the complicated ecosystem of international publishing attempt to explain why books authored by men are so clearly favored when it comes to translation.

WWB: What is a recent work by a woman that you've translated? How did you find the writer, what drew you to the work, and what was the process of translating the work like?

ALP: One of my forthcoming works, Dana Grigorcea’s novel An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence (Seagull Books, 2018), came to me through a friend and translator colleague who recommended it. I was drawn to its protagonist, Victoria, who has worked in banks in both Switzerland and Romania; when the Bucharest bank she works at is robbed, she’s put on leave to process the trauma. The novel unfolds between her memories of growing up under a communist regime, her reflections on how both she and her hometown have changed, and wildly lyrical passages where you feel that the walls of your reality—much like Victoria’s—have come crashing down.

An excerpt recently appeared in Trafika Europe, and the process of translating it was as hilarious and heartbreaking as the text itself. I’ll save the specific anecdotes for our upcoming launch and festival events . . . .

MC: My translation of Letters, Dreams and Other Writings by the Spanish artist Remedios Varo will be out next year from Wakefield Press. She’s a kind of “outsider” surrealist artist who left Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War, lived in Paris until the Nazi occupation, and in 1941 moved to Mexico as a refugee, where she lived for the rest of her life. She created astounding works of art in the ’50s and early ’60s, totally under the radar. It was a big surprise to me to discover that she had some writings, mostly fragments and short pieces, collected in a book I found on a visit to Mexico City some fifteen years ago. I started translating it out of curiosity but put it to the side, I guess waiting for the right publisher, because—very strangely—no one seemed interested. A few years ago, Wakefield Press, which specializes in odd, eccentric, and overlooked writers, started up. Serendipity led me to Wakefield and voilà, perfect match. Remedios Varo has been an absolute joy to translate—I’ve been the happiest of close readers.


WWB: In addition to reading translated work by women writers, what can lovers of international literature do to support WiT?

MC: Don’t forget about WiT the rest of the year. When you make a discovery, tell others. Pass the book along to a friend!

ALP: Margaret pretty much covered it, so I’ll take a sillier tack: when you find an author and/or translator you like, let her/them know, and maybe write the publisher a thank-you note so they know their good decisions are appreciated. Champion the work among friends, or consider passing the book along to an enemy—minds can change, and even if they don’t, you’ll at least have something interesting to argue about.


Margaret Carson has translated works by Sergio Chejfec, Mercedes Roffé, Virgilio Piñera, Nancy Morejón, José Tomás de Cuéllar, Teresa Ralli, Griselda Gambaro, Petrona de la Cruz Cruz, and Isabel Juárez Espinosa. Her translation of writings by the Spanish surrealist artist Remedios Varo is forthcoming from Wakefield Press. A former cochair of the PEN America Translation Committee, she teaches in the Modern Languages Department of Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY.

Alta L. Price runs a publishing consultancy specialized in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, design, and culture. She translates from Italian and German into English, and was awarded the 2013 Gutekunst Translation Prize. Her recent books include Corrado Augias’s The Secrets of Italy (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2014) and Jürgen Holstein’s The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic (Taschen, 2015). She is a founding member of Cedilla & Co. and a member of the PEN Translation Committee. Her translation of Dana Grigorcea’s An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence is forthcoming from Seagull Books.


Read More #WIT on WWB

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Le altre e io (The Other Women and I)—Women Writing within and beyond Italy

Published Aug 30, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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