Where Are the Women in (Arabic) Translation?

In a recent dispatch for Words Without Borders, translator Alison Anderson asked: “Where are the Women in Translation?

vidaTwo years ago, when Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon estimated the percentage of women’s works being translated, he came up with a number of around 20%. This year, Anderson estimated a higher rate: “over the last two years, an average of 26% of the books of fiction or poetry published in the United States were by women.”

But the numbers get lower when it comes to prizes: For the Best Translated Book Award, 17% of the books on the longlist were by women, and 21% of the shortlists, fiction and poetry combined. The PEN translation prize hit 15%, and, Anderson writes, for “the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP): over the last three years, 13% of the longlist, and 16% of the shortlist (in other words, the “token” woman on the shortlist of six). No woman author has ever won this prize since its founding in 1990.”

In Arabic literature, this question also comes up. Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr recently discussed this (“Women and Arabic Literature,” by Lissie Jaquette) and this question comes up nearly every year at the International Prize for Arabic Fiction press conferences: Where are the women? In its six-year tenure, 22 % of the authors on the IPAF longlist have been women.

You can make from it what you will: Women don’t choose to become authors; women don’t write good books; women’s good books aren’t promoted; women’s good books aren’t deemed prize-worthy; journalists these days will write about anything; statistics don’t belong in the literary world.

Counting is not my favorite thing, so I’m sure I’ve missed spots. I tried to avoid anthologies (unless they were all-women anthologies) and non-literary works.

AUC Press 38 / 170 = 22 % Arabic literature (in translation) by women.

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing 3 / 10 = 33 % Arabic literature (in translation) by women.

Interlink 11 / 37 = 30% Arabic literature (in translation) by women. (Note that I’m not counting excellent translations of work by Arab authors like Etel Adnan, Assia Djebar, and Leila Marouane).

There are many 0%-ers, like Archipelago, which Orthofer notes scores low on women-authored books in general. All Archipelago’s Arabic translations are from Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury. But who could fault Archipelago for choosing Darwish and Khoury?

Over at the Literary Saloon, Orthofer says:

This seems to be a really deep-rooted problem/issue, and publishers really might want to look into this: I note, for example, that of the sixteen just announced 2013 English PEN grants for translation (see also below) two are anthologies, thirteen of the to-be-translated books are by men, and one is by a woman (Julia Franck). Seriously folks ?

I am not problematizing the issue here; just noting it.


  1. This is pretty awful. There are plenty of Middle Eastern women writers. Why are their works not being translated????
    Let us start there.
    Then go to why these authors are not being promoted. Take for example the writer Sahar Khalifeh. At least five of her novels have been translated into English, yet how are they promoted? Where are they reviewed, and by whom? Elias Khoury seems to have each of his novels promoted and reviewed almost as soon as they come out. This is not the case with Khalifeh, nor has it been the case, from what Ive seen by Women writing in Arabic (Hanan Al Shaykh, Alicia Riffat, Salwa Badr, Liana Badr, to name but a few) and Middle Eastern writers writing in French, which would include Assia Djebar and Andrea Chedid. Please correct me if Im wrong. Roll up your sleeves. There’s lots of work to do.

    1. Well, Elias is in NYC, he’s a known quantity, he’s working with a trusted publisher (Archipelago) that almost never comes out with a bad book. (If ever.) Sahar doesn’t run the speaking circuit; she’s with AUCP, which is less of a known quantity for US & UK reviewers … I reviewed her latest book (which I hope you’ve read!), but in a specialty magazine (Women’s Review of Books) vs. mainstream press. It’s so hard to place reviews in mainstream press. Maybe it’s my lack of contacts or initiative, but unless it’s “topical” or a writer like Elias Khoury it’s really a bitch.

      Hanan I think is in an excellent position — known, respected, loved, admired, translated. But a bit of an anomaly.

      Yes, there’s lots of work that could be done.

  2. Two of my short pieces were translated by Mona Khedr ya Marcia to be published abroad. before they are published in Arabic!!!

    1. Like Hassan Blasim. 🙂 Make sure you let me know when they’re available!

  3. may be you can help.i have written a fiction in arabic titled:diary of a mosquito who was a girl in the paradise
    and looking for a publisher and a translator to english.please help.

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