Why We Should Engage More with Translated Literature

Translated literature only accounts for 3-5% of literature in the U.K., and less than ⅓ of this is written by women. Despite showing a steady increase in the past few years, it is clear that translation’s place in the publishing industry is overlooked, with women’s work representing a minority within a minority.


Why is this statistic so low? 

One of the main reasons why translated literature struggles in the U.K. market is because of the notion of foreign literature as ‘niche’. It is thought that readers automatically assume that translated texts will be more high-brow and challenging than something from their own culture. Women’s lack of visibility fits into this by the additional tendency to group women’s writing into its own subcategory of literature.

Caroline Criado Perez recently published an in-depth exposure of the ways in which gender bias is embedded at every level of our social and cultural interaction. In her words, we need to change “the mode of thinking that sees male as universal and female as niche”, and the publishing industry is no exception to this when women’s literature is seen as its own genre, whilst there is no 'men’s literature' subgenre. 

Foreign literature faces the additional obstacle of being largely rejected by bigger publishing houses. Large publishers are often biased in the material they choose to publish, as the need to be the ones representing future prize-winners and bestsellers means they are likely to publish a safer option from a sales point of view. Naturally, this frequently means authors already well-established in that country. 


Why should we engage with women’s work in translation in particular? 

In general it is important to support women’s literature as a means to advocate diversity and help reduce the gender gap in publishing. Although an ostensibly inclusive and representative industry, theoretical equality does not always translate to real equality. This is evidenced in literary prize-giving. In 2018 Boyd Tonkin published the 100 Best Novels in Translation, in which only 14 of the books awarded were women-authored. 

It is also important to consider that unconscious bias affects us all, including literary judges. Unconscious bias is defined as "the tendency to accept existing structures unquestioningly, thereby not only perpetuating but also normalising the inherent bias they carry". When questioning why women lack equal representation in lists such as Boyd’s, there is always the convenient scapegoat of the fact that prizes are based on merit, and that positive discrimination and inclusivity quotas may hinder this process. Yet, this completely disregards the broader issue of deep-rooted patriarchal structures that for decades have provided obstacles for women, preventing them from reaching publishing in the first place. 

Equally, the canon of English literature is dominated by male authors. Whilst these works merit a lot of praise, a history of gender disparity in the literature our culture has consumed only serves to further illustrate that we are all influenced to an extent by this socio-cultural bias. This was proven by novelist Nicola Griffith who conducted a study where she found that in general, novels in which the main character is female have won far fewer prizes than novels in which the main character is male. Between 2000-2015, “not a single book-length work from a woman’s perspective or about a woman was considered worthy” of a Pulitzer prize. 

This may seem to digress away from why we should support women in translation in particular, instead of just those in the Anglophone world, but the hurdles remain the same. A female author may struggle to get acclaim in her own culture, let alone internationally, and this is compounded by more barriers such as additional costs to pay translators as well as authors that may limit their career if they do manage to reach this level of success. 


Why do we need foreign literature?

Reading stories about experiences outside of your own universe expands your international horizons. In an age of fake news and increasingly un-nuanced thinking, other cultures are often reduced to their stereotypes, so it is important to discourage these binary attitudes.

Supporting works in translation also means supporting smaller, independent publishing houses. These companies are in many ways paving the way for greater diversity in the literary world as they champion what they believe to be the best literature out there, with no pressure from a finance department telling them they can’t make certain decisions. Publishers such as Charco Press and And Other Stories are two examples of small U.K. teams trying to change the misconception of translation as a niche category, the former giving voice to purely Latin American authors, and the latter publishing Anglophone as well as translated works.       

Find out more about Charco Press and their mission here. Find out more about And Other Stories here

I would recommend Fish Soup, written by Margarita Garcia Robayo and translated by Charlotte Coombe (published by Charco Press), if you would like to support their work. It contains a collection of short stories and two novellas set in 1990s Columbia. They also ship for free in the U.K! 

Another good read besides Perez’s Invisible Women that challenges societal bias on a number of levels, including gender equality, is We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik.

Read this interview with translators Margaret Carson and Alta L. Price for more on the challenges women face getting published/into translation.