by Katy Derbyshire

If you read fiction, think of a translated writer. Just the first one who pops into your mind. Let me guess: Stieg Larsson? Karl Ove Knausgård? Thomas Mann? Marcel Proust? Haruki Murakami? If you thought of a woman off the top of your head, I salute you.

When I counted up translations of female-authored fiction published in the UK in 2013, I found a figure of 27%. Using existing counts of translations published in 2000 and 2008, I came to 24%. So we’re talking a quarter. And that’s a quarter of a really small fraction of UK publications all in all. If a bookshop stocked a hundred titles, you could buy ninety-six books written in English, three translated books written by men, and one translated book written by a woman.

If you thought of a woman off the top of your head, I salute you.

We don’t know why this is happening. We suspect it’s a combination of fewer women getting the kind of books published abroad that end up in translation (my count for original German hardback fiction came to 37% women authors) and that nasty fact of women getting less attention for their creative work than men do.

Whatever the reasons, it’s startlingly unjust. Although writers can’t necessarily make a living out of selling translation rights to their books – few translations are mega-sellers – being translated into English brings them literary recognition and prestige at home. And it turns out the people who are getting that boost are those who need it least: (middle-class) (white) dudes.


(Photo via Ocelot Berlin)

At the same time, Anglophone readers are missing out. I’m not going to pretend that reading translated fiction changes people’s lives (or not more than reading any other kind of fiction). But it does give readers an opportunity to empathize with characters outside our own range of experience, in some ways, and yet like us in other ways. Fellow human beings, fellow parents or children or brothers or sisters, fellow insomniacs, fellow alcoholics, fellow food-lovers, fellow pedestrians or cyclists or truck drivers – for a lot of people, one of the joys of reading stories is relating to characters. When we read translations, those common experiences are set against foreign backdrops. We learn to relate to people whose lives are not like ours, on the surface. Which is actually a pretty radical thing to do.

So during Women in Translation Month – August – the idea is to try out some female-authored foreign fiction. If you’re a woman, you might find that growing up female in Mexico City feels oddly familiar. If you’re a man, you might be interested in a woman’s multiple possible lives and deaths in twentieth-century Germany. Or vice versa. A forced labour camp in the Ukraine. An uprising in South Korea. Friendship in Naples. A murder on the coast of Finland. A civil war in an unnamed Arab country. Assuming a male identity in the Albanian mountains. Infanticide in a French seaside town. A childhood in the West Bank.

So during Women in Translation Month – August – the idea is to try out some female-authored foreign fiction.

A gaggle of translators has put together a long list of suggested reading, so there are plenty of books to choose from. And the one good thing about the lack of women in translated fiction is that those books that do make it are really, really good. So do something radical today – read a woman in translation.


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