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The importance of promoting international female writers

Since 1990, the demand for translation has continued to soar, the number of translated literary publications up to 2012 saw an increase of 66%. However impressive this initial figure seems, the total percentage of publications which are translated and published in the UK is struggling to rise above 5%.

International female writers are a minority within this minority; publishing less than one 100 books in Britain each year, much less than their male counterparts. Such high levels of disparity are prompting many leading publishing houses and translation services, to ask “Where are the women in translation and publishing?”.

In a time of heightened international awareness around gender equality, why have English speaking markets been so slow to embrace the wealth of female literary talent resting just beyond its borders?

Why women are underrepresented in foreign-language publications

Publishing’s bias towards men is not exclusive to translated books in Britain, but is a trend reflected across the majority of genres and cultures. Women are much less likely to receive awards or reviews for their work. Long-lists, finalists and award winners tend to be heavily dominated by male authors.

This was particularly apparent at this year’s Leipzig Book fair in Germany. Just one of the five author’s nominated for fiction was female, while no women at all were nominated for nonfictional work. In translation too, though the vast majority of books were translated by women, only one of the five original translated texts came from a female author.

In order for books to be put forward for translation, they must have a noticeable level of buzz and media attention surrounding them, thus indicating the material is worth translating. One of the factors believed to be hindering women’s foreign publication success is the lack of attention from literary viewers in their own countries.

It could be argued that this is a result of international social sluggishness, a failure to promote equality and recognise female talent and ability. Even cultures which are seen to be leading examples of equal gender opportunity, such as the UK and Germany, are not making progress in this field.

Some industry professionals have put this sexist behaviour and social attitude down to national stereotypes of writers, which are often masculine. There is, therefore, a level of comfort and expectation in this which is supported by promoting and translating men’s work over women’s.

An extension of this theory is that perhaps audiences and publishing houses have preconceived notions of what subject matter, style and tone will be present in female literature. This could lead to women’s work being dismissed or overlooked, and therefore struggle to become well established enough to be translated.

How we can promote gender equality in publishing

As more attention is drawn to the lack of female presence in translated literature, change is steadily getting underway. English PEN translates is a publishing programme which pays grants out to deserving writers from around the world in order for their work to be translated into English.

Over the last few years, the number of grants awarded to women has been disappointingly low, owing simply to the overwhelming amount of male applicants. However, this year half of the sixteen winning authors were female and have been able to put literary material forward for translation.

Meanwhile independent publishers are making international female authors their priority, with some choosing to translate their work exclusively. This conscious push for equality is being reflected throughout the publishing industry.

A talk from well established author Kamila Shamsie has challenged publishers to have ‘a year of publishing women’ in 2018. As awareness and appreciation for the work of female authors across all genres grows nationally, the recognition and demand for international books should rise too.

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