Plume Interviews: Helen Vassallo

Translating Women is the research project led by Dr. Helen Vassallo of the University of Exeter. Launched in 2018, the project both investigates and raises public awareness of broad issues relating to the representation of female-authored books in the UK.

In her research, Vassallo is looking mainly at books released by independent UK publishing houses after the year 2000. Her aim is to find out which women authors get published, who translates them, and what role their language or regional source plays in publishing decisions. Alternatively titled Women Writing Women Translating Women, the study also highlights the work of female translators and publishers who are catering diverse literature to English-language readers.

Rather than carry out her work behind closed doors, Vassallo is making the most out of a growing public interest in female voices. She bridges her academic field research with a blog regularly updated with insightful articles into her study and an active Twitter presence. On 31st October and 1st November 2019, she will also co-host the Translating Women Conference at London’s Institute of Modern Languages Research. The freshly-released conference programme is open to the public and packed with exciting talks and panels exploring the intersections of gender, translation and publishing.

Project Plume spoke to Dr. Vassallo about what drives her research and where the Translating Women project is headed.

What can you tell us about the personal journey that led you to launch the Translating Women project?

I’ve always read predominantly writing by women, but there was a dislocation between the books I was reading for pleasure and those I was reading for my research. I was working on a project on Francophone women’s writing and translation when my husband gave me a copy of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. It was like an epiphany; I realised that by shifting focus from the source context to the target context I could bring together the books I love reading and the research work I wanted to do, and so I decided to expand my project and with it my own reading and research horizons. At that point I never dreamed it would grow in the way it has; it’s all been very organic and very much led by developments in the UK publishing industry. 

What kind of activities are you currently focusing on to advance the Translating Women project?

I’ve just completed an interview survey with twelve women involved in translated literature – translators, publishers and publicists – and their responses will help to frame the research questions for the next phase of the project. Basically it has three sides: an academic one (I’m writing a book on gender, activism and hospitality in the translated literature industry), a public-facing one, which mostly operates on social media (the Translating Women blog and the related Twitter account), and an activist one, where I am starting to work alongside key stakeholders in the publishing industry to promote women in translation. I can’t say more about that just yet, but there are exciting things ahead!

When you reflect on the past year and a half, what have been some of the most rewarding aspects since the launch of the project?

Being named by the literary magazine Words Without Borders as one of 15 literary women and organizations balancing for better was a very proud moment, because it made me realize that I was part of the change I wanted to see. Another highlight was holding an evening in conversation with one of the authors I’ve most loved discovering through the project, Margarita García Robayo; it was so inspiring to hear her talk about her work. I also enjoyed being interviewed by Sophie Baggott for her Wales Arts Review podcast on women’s writing in translation, and talking to you now, as well as the interviews where I’ve been asking the questions! The relationships and connections I’ve formed along the way inspire me to keep going. I am a firm believer that together we are stronger, and more than the sum of our parts.

There is often still an idea that feminism has happened and we have achieved equality, but this is one of the most dangerous attitudes of all, because theoretical equality is not the same as real equality.

Have you found any resistance or professional challenges (e.g. in the academic context vs. the books publishing industry) with your project?

There is often still an idea that feminism has happened and we have achieved equality, but this is one of the most dangerous attitudes of all, because theoretical equality is not the same as real equality. We do need to keep talking about women in translation, keep pushing for that equality just as feminist activists in other spheres do for other aspects of women’s experience. There are also still some people who cling to the belief that the translation is inferior to the original or that women’s writing is inferior to men’s, and I will campaign till I drop for the art of translation and the immense skill with which contemporary translators carry out their craft, as well as the innovative, unique and necessary women’s voices that need to be heard from around the world. And yes, I think it’s important to bridge academia and industry, because we have so many common goals of inclusivity and diversity, and we need to look outwards, to embrace change, and to be part of that change.

It’s so great that Translating Women is investigating important questions like which women authors get published in the first place, who translates them, who decides on whether they get translated, and whether these publishing decisions are linked to language or region. How do you go about investigating and answering these sorts of questions? 

In the first instance I gather quantitative data, then I analyse it to see whether there are trends emerging from that data, and whether conclusions can be drawn. But I also talk to people! I ask publishers why they made particular choices, I ask translators why they worked on particular books – and most of the time the answers are not what I expected. So it just goes to show that speculation – even informed speculation – is never a match for opening a dialogue.

Have you found any particularly surprising statistics in your quantitative research that you could share? 

Well, it’s not terribly surprising, but I have found that the representation of women’s writing from Africa and South Asia in English translation is very low. I don’t know the reasons for this – I can make some educated guesses, but this is why it’s particularly important that we support brave independent publishers who work to champion literature from under-represented regions.

Have you witnessed any radical transformations in the landscape of women in translation or books publishing since launching Translating Women?  

I don’t know about radical transformations. I wish I could say that was the case. It’s certainly what Kamila Shamsie hoped for when she set out her provocation for a Year of Publishing Women. I have witnessed a lot of activism, and a small but steady increase in the proportion of books being published by some of the independent publishing houses I focus on. I’d like to know what the sales figures say too, whether there’s an increase there. Because for there to be a truly radical shift, everyone needs to be on board, and that’s why it’s important for all of us to do what we can. Some of us have a platform from which to talk about this, but the real shift will come from readers. If sales and reviews of women’s writing in translation increase, the publishing industry will respond. 

Some of us have a platform from which to talk about this, but the real shift will come from readers. If sales and reviews of women’s writing in translation increase, the publishing industry will respond. 

In your opinion, why does there continue to be a sustained gender disparity in English-language books translation?

I think this is a question of unconscious bias. I don’t believe that publishers are actively deciding against publishing women, or that translators are actively deciding to pitch books by men. But it’s a risk-averse industry, and publishers will want to know that they won’t lose money on a book, so they’re going to go for books that they expect will do well. And if it’s translated literature, then you have to think about what rises to the top in other literary cultures – it’s been widely acknowledged that men are published more, have more review column space, are more likely to win prizes in their home culture, and therefore more likely to come to the attention of English-language publishers. So at any point in the chain of production, if you think “I’m not biased, I’m just taking what’s offered” then you’re perpetuating bias elsewhere by allowing it to continue unchallenged. We all need to have our unconscious bias challenged – it’s the only way to evolve and to avoid stagnation in the many forms that can take.

What can readers expect from the forthcoming Translating Women conference later this year?

It’s going to be a brilliant mix of translators reflecting on translation, authors discussing their journey to translation, and academics analyzing circuits of translation. Plus a keynote from Margaret Carson, an academic and activist I greatly admire, and two author-translator events that look set to be phenomenal – from two of my favorite women in translation (Négar Djavadi and Ariana Harwicz) and their talented translators (Tina Kover, Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff). 

I dream of a day when women’s writing won’t be seen as a subcategory of “writing”, just as I dream of a day when translated literature won’t be seen as a subcategory of “literature”.

You mentioned in a recent blogpost that 2019 has been somewhat of a landmark year for women in translation (not least thanks to Jokha Al Harthi and Marilyn Booth’s Man Booker win). In your view, what lies in the future for women in translation?  

This is impossible to answer accurately, as I can’t predict the future! But I am cautiously optimistic. The representation of women on the Man Booker International longlists and shortlists has grown steadily. The more people talk about women’s writing in translation and make it accessible, the closer we get to equality and the less we will need to talk about it. I dream of a day when women’s writing won’t be seen as a subcategory of “writing”, just as I dream of a day when translated literature won’t be seen as a subcategory of “literature”. This is connected to what I was saying earlier about theoretical equality as opposed to true equality.

I also think it’s important that there are high-profile prizes like the Man Booker International prize, and although Celestial Bodies wasn’t my pick to win, that choice will have brought Omani writing to the attention of a global public. In some ways it’s unfortunate that there was so much media coverage of the longlist – and particularly the shortlist – being “dominated” by women authors and translators. To me the greater proportion of women on the lists was a sign that activism is working, that there is more awareness of the importance of gender balance, but the focus on it and the framing I found rather reductive.

These authors and translators weren’t there because they are women, but rather because they are great writers, and the fact that they happen to be women can’t be reduced to a neat soundbite about one prize or one moment. 

Follow @translatewomen on Twitter and check out Helen Vassallo’s virtual bookshelf to get inspired for #WITMonth!

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