With the global rise of nationalist attitudes, new questions over which demographics should have their movements restricted — or not — are rife. At the same time, the migration of voices and ideas is on the rise. I’m referring not only to the internet but also translated literature, a genre that is slowly gaining popularity among English-language readerships and around the world.
It is entirely thanks to the magic of books in translation that stories get to float out of the confines of their thought-cultures and open faraway hearts and minds. Sometimes, translators are even able to smuggle voices out of censorship in their societies of origin, so that they can be celebrated abroad before ultimately echoing back home, empowered.
But unfortunately for all these romantic notions, just as with the migration of people, not all writers’ voices are granted equal passage to other cultures.
The gender gap in translation
This latter realisation first struck me when I made a resolution in 2017 to read more non-English literature, starting with Czech. For context, I was living in Prague at this point and, since I didn’t have the language skills to access the literary world around me, English translation was my only ticket in. After scouring the foreign sections of bookstore upon bookstore, a pattern began to emerge: the titles propped up on shelf upon shelf were written exclusively by men.
A couple of alarmed Google searches later, I discovered to my relief that I was far from the only one to have noticed this gender imbalance. On the downside, it became instantly clear the gender gap in translation was not limited to Czech books in English, but was a rather global phenomenon.
In 2014, the literary blogger and biochemist Meytal Radzinski made the same observation and was so motivated to raise awareness of the issue that she took it upon herself to inaugurate the month of August as Women In Translation Month.
“It isn’t that women aren’t writing books, or that they aren’t getting published in their own countries,” Radzinski wrote in her first blogpost about women in translation in December 2013. “The problem is on the English-speaking world’s receiving end. With us.” It wasn’t just down to her own bias either: she estimated, based on statistics by the translation research organsiation Three Per Cent, that less than 30% of all translated books in English were written by women.
This August marks the sixth ever installment of Women In Translation Month. The 2019 edition has already kicked off with an incredible list titled 100 Best Books By Women In Translation based on a Twitter survey conducted by Radzinski. The WIT Month playbook is pretty simple to follow: “1. Read, review, and discuss books by women writers in translation / 2. Support women writers in translation / 3. Try to find solutions for the lack of women writers in translation”.
Thanks to increased participation year on year from individuals, booksellers, and organisations around the world, #WITMonth campaigns have continued to propel global awareness of the topic forward. In 2017, The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was launched, and 2018 became nominated by Kamila Shamsie as the The Year of Publishing Women to tackle the gender imbalance in publishing at large. Earlier this year, Words Without Borders curated a thorough list of worldwide organisations striving to close the gender gap in translated literature.
This fall, the Translating Women Conference organised by Helen Vassallo and Olga Castro will take place in London’s Institute of Modern Languages Research to formally investigate the underrepresentation of women’s voices in the English translated books industry. The pertinent questions they ask deal with the geopolitics of translating women, including: “Which women writers are being translated, and who is translating them?” and “Where do borders lie in translated literature?”
So… why Project Plume?
We, Project Plume, come in at the back of the line. The project kicked off officially this summer of 2019 as an independent publishing and community outreach initiative. Our first output will be a series of print anthologies featuring poetry and prose by women authors from underrepresented languages in English translation, with each issue focusing on showcasing a diverse representation of works from a common base language or region.
The honorary language we have chosen for our first anthology is Czech for the reason that this project was born in Prague and, to quote the acclaimed translator Alex Zucker in an interview from earlier this year, because the gender disparity is “especially great in Czech literature”. We will be collecting submissions for this issue until 31st August 2019.
I’ll also go ahead and take the opportunity to thank Nathan Fields for all his gracious editorial support so far, Andreea Bora for our stunning logo, Elis Yurtsever for our ace communication design, and all the amazing translators, writers, publishers and literary agents who are helping us spread the word and getting those submissions rolling in.
Our aim for now is to start small and grow organically in response to the changing needs of the writers, translators and readers we interact with. The long-term mission is to connect women authors who write in underrepresented languages with literary translators, to formulate strategies towards helping translators access the funds they need, and to carry underrepresented voices in translation to curious readers around the world.
We’re also accepting submissions for this new blog you’re looking at. We’re on the lookout for translated fiction and poetry from anywhere in the world, and equally interested in proposals for nonfiction pieces around the theme of women in translation.
If you are also passionate about this topic and want to contribute your work, discuss a partnership, have a chat, or share ideas, please say hello! We’re waiting with open arms and plumes in our grasp.
Salwa Benaissa is the founder of Project Plume. She is based in Prague and Berlin and works as a freelance writer and communication strategist.