Women writers in translation in the UK: The "Year of Publishing Women" (2018) as a platform for collective change?

Introduction: the Year of Publishing Women (2018) as a watershed year?

In May 2015, writer Kamila Shamsie sent out a provocative call to action as part of an impassioned speech at the Hay Literature Festival, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales: she called on British publishing houses to make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women (YPW), to coincide with the centenary of some women getting the right to vote. As she announced in her talk, published by The Guardian and The Bookseller a few weeks later (Shamsie 2015), the idea was simple: women are still underrepresented in publishing, as in other domains, and so for one year publishing houses should only publish books authored by women. This would then have a positive impact not only on figures for that one year but also subsequent years, as the collective action would shake up an industry that has been shown to be fairly stagnant in terms of the gender distribution of published books (see Rudd 2013).

By issuing this challenge in 2015, Shamsie was, ostensibly, giving publishers plenty of time to prepare — and to take part. And yet only one publisher, the independent publishing house And Other Stories, declared their intention to participate. As the founder of And Other Stories, Stefan Tobler, explained, they realized “it provided an opportunity, instead of relying on what happens on its own, to really make a public call” (Tobler, in Yates-Badley 2018, online, n.p.). Nicky Smalley, the marketing director, reflected that Shamsie s “incendiary solution” was “a provocation to all British publishers, big and small, she urged presses to highlight the problem, instigate discussion” (Smalley 2018, online, n.p.). Reactions elsewhere were mixed: most famously, at a panel on the Womens International Day in 2016, writer Lionel Shriver defined Shamsie’s campaign as “rubbish and a ridiculous idea” (in Flood 2016, online, n.p.). Our contention here is that it was far from rubbish or ridiculous, but a message sent to the publishing industry about equality, and one that, while not being the outright success Shamsie may have hoped for, has had a significant effect on publishing in the UK, particularly among independent presses.

Though Shamsie was campaigning for womens writing in general, the YPW aimed to include women writers in translation too. If the situation is not promising for women writing in English, it is even more challenging for translated authors, in a publishing context in which translated literature “oscillates around 3%” of the book market in Ireland and the UK on average, as confirmed by the Publishing Translated Literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland 1990-2012 Statistical Report (Buehler and Trentacosti 2015, 5).2 Given the “hyper-central position” of English (Sapiro 2008, 158), translated texts have traditionally been eschewed by the anglophone marketplace, partly because of a tendency towards being “reactive in terms of translations, wanting to see (and know) what works have done in other markets before committing to buying rights” (Mansell 2017,53—54).

Linking this to the lack of womens visibility in their own literary cultures, this may help explain the fact that, out of that meagre 3%, less than one-third (around 28%) of books in English translation are authored by women writers? Translator and activist Katy Derbyshire laments:

Only a tiny fraction of fiction published in English is translated, and only about a quarter of that translated fiction was originally written by women. For some reason, fiction in translation by women is an absolute rarity — black diamonds, palomino unicorns.

(Derbyshire 2016, online, n.p.)

Despite these figures, Alexandra Buehler and Giulia Trentacosti’s report also pointed at a consistent increase in the number of titles in translation. This was confirmed by a more recent report on Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations: A Picture from the UK, whose authors assert that the widespread and enduring pessimism about the prospects for translated literature in the UK is outdated, noting that “the concern has shifted from a focus on the low amount of translated literature being published, to questions about the diversity of literature translated” (Chitnis et al. 2017, 1). This diversity is mainly understood in terms of the literary genres and the variety' of smaller literatures (defined as those that depend on translation to reach international audiences) that are rendered into English, most of them representing smaller European nations and thus perpetuating Eurocentrism. When looking at gender in translated literature, publication lists are still dominated by male authors (Chitnis et al. 2017, 9), a trend which was also highlighted by Daniel Hahn, writing about the longlist of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (the most prestigious award for literary translation in English). Hahn noted that the longlist reflected “a significant gender imbalance (as we see every year), and a significant bias towards European writers and European languages (as we see every year, too)” (Hahn 2017, 48), and that these imbalances were indicative of the overall submissions pool, and thus of a more widespread imbalance in the translated literature industry.

Although there is reason to be optimistic about the upward turn in the percentage of literature being translated into English, initiatives such as the YPW in 2018 are essential to hold gatekeepers to account for the continuing bias towards male-authored writing available in translation. While other stakeholders (booksellers, reviewers, literary festivals and others) also have a part to play in tackling this bias, for the purposes of this study we shall focus on publishers because of their role as primary “gatekeepers.” More precisely, we shall focus on small independent publishing houses in the UK, based on our contention that smaller presses are pioneers for activism in translation. Indeed, Tobler identifies the independent and not-for-profit status of And Other Stories as being the primary factor that gives them more freedom to embark on projects and initiatives such as the YPW, whereas larger publishers might be more hesitant, “fearing a backlash or losing money” (see Tobler, in Yates-Badley 2018, online, n.p.). We identify the smaller presses as important activists for gender parity in translation for two key reasons: first, because of their contribution to the increased percentage ot translated literature in the UK (as noted by Chitnis et al. 2017,2), a trend that explicitly includes women writers — indeed, Chantal Wright, who was instrumental in setting up the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, notes that “smaller, independent publishing houses are pioneering in their activism for gender in translation” (Wright, in Krstic 2018, online, n.p.). Second, independent presses are crucial to activism in translated literature because of their work as “cultural talent scouts” (Freely, in Flood 2019a, online, n.p.), the importance of which is reflected in the fact that eleven of the thirteen books longlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2019 were published by independent presses, and that eight of the thirteen were women-authored.

This focused approach will help us to assess the impact that the YPW has had on translation into English in the UK in 2018 and whether it might lay the groundwork for equality-driven shifts in the coming years. We shall situate our contribution within wider debates about gender, publishing and translation, and also in the context of different initiatives put in place to encourage greater translation and dissemination of women writers into English. Special attention will be paid to recent theorizations of translation as a tool for enabling transnational encounters among diverse women, as claimed by transnational feminism, particularly when translation happens in a space we shall term “from-the-Rest to-the-West.” Underlining the importance of the intersections between critical debate and literary activism, and the ways in which each enlarges and empowers the other, we set in dialogue the theory produced by academics with the immediacy of online publications and their relevance to such a time-specific debate. By so doing, we accord equal importance in this study to traditional academic research publications and contemporary methods of dissemination such as blog posts, online editorials, and podcasts, responding to the “diversity” of advocates highlighted by Rajendra Chitnis et al. (2017, 2). We shall then introduce our case study and carry out a statistical analysis of translated womens writing published in 2018 in the 13 independent presses forming our corpus, with particular consideration of translation flows in relation to the geopolitical status of the source texts. Finally, we shall offer some conclusions about the impact of the YPW on the UK translated literature industry, highlighting areas of growth and areas that are still in progress.

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