Women in Translation (from Arabic): Does It Matter?

Although commentators have often suggested Arab women’s literature is over-emphasized in the West, Arabic literature tends to experience a gender imbalance that’s similar to the other languages:

womenzFor the most part, this imbalance has been written about anecdotally. But lately, the “Three Percent” site has worked to track who’s being published in translation in the U.S.: women or men. There, Three Percent reports an overall approximate 71/29 imbalance across languages, favoring books by men.

No one has, to my knowledge, been keeping particular track of the gender balance of Arabic-English translations, nor even of which translations are published from Arabic to English worldwide.

The Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature in Translation keeps a sort of track of Arabic literature published in the UK. There, in 2015, there were seven books by women of 29 total considered for the prize (24%); in 2014, two of 17 (11%) were by women. In the US, in 2015, the Three Percent site logged 5 of 20 by women, or 25%.

The ArabLit count in 2014, which attempted to be global, was 7/40, or 17% by female authors. All of this excludes anthologies, which are more likely to be egalitarian. For instance, the excellent 2015 Beirut Noir anthology, ed. Iman Humaydan, featured more than half women’s work. The 2014 Gaza Storiesed. Atef Abu Saif, also laid emphasis on women’s stories.

Much hay has been made of the reasons behind the overall imbalance: Perhaps there just isn’t that much women’s work, as the Angoulême Festival CEO argued in response to a protest when his Grand Prix excluded women. Or perhaps women’s work just isn’t good enough: France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, has gone to a woman just 11 of the 102 times it’s been awarded. The far younger International Prize for Arabic Fiction has gone to a female novelist just 1/2 a time in eight years: The year it went to Raja Alem, she shared the prize with Mohammed Achaari.

But, as translator Katy Derbyshire writes, all of this begs the question: Does it matter?

On March 10, Free Word will host an event in London titled, “Few Women in the History: Tackling imbalances in international literature.” Ahead of that, Derbyshire argues that — well — women’s presence in translated literature does matter. Derbyshire writes:

In our ongoing efforts to start a literary prize for translated fiction by women, we’ve been leaning heavily on the diversity argument. Novels written by women from other cultures and in other languages really do offer windows into lesser-known worlds. Be they Herta Müller’s Romania under the Securitate or Han Kang’s South Korean domesticity, the (fictional) worlds they contain will often be unlike British readers’ own lives in some ways, but similar in others.

Do women’s books in Arabic — broadly speaking — accomplish something different from men’s writings? Do you get something from reading Hoda Barakat, Iman Humaydan, and Najwa Barakat that you wouldn’t from reading Elias Khoury, Jabbour Douaihy, and Rabee Jaber?

Thus far, I know of only two books coming out this year by female authors translated from the Arabic:

Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette. This surrealist first novel by psychiatrist-writer Abdel Aziz, which appeared in Arabic in 2013, describes Egyptians queueing for hours in front of a mysterious gate. Forthcoming with Melville House Press in May 2016.

Arwa Saleh’s The Stillborn, translated by Samah Selim. Saleh was a key 1970s activist and a writer, and her powerful criticism of Egypt is forthcoming from Seagull Books in Fall 2016.

Do these books offer a different view of Egypt that isn’t found in “men’s” writings, generally? Perhaps, yes. Even Radwa Ashour, who has a muscular multi-generational style that is in many ways similar to her male peers, is different in her emphasis on and interest in women’s lives.

Derbyshire also also suggests that genres that favor women might also draw in new readers, as new types of writing might draw in new readers:

Remember what sparked the current (relative) boom in translated fiction? It was crime writing. Scandinavian detective stories made many readers overcome their reluctance to reach for anything genuinely foreign.

Writing by romance writer Ahlam Mostaghanemi thus far has not made an impact in English, but many of the excellent novels of Hanan al-Shaykh certainly have, as has work by Nawal al-Saadawi.

Over on Facebook, Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani also asks what percentage of books are originally published in Arabic by women. As far as I know, there are no statistics tracking  such a thing, although prizes like Katara and IPAF have made sporadic announcements about how many submissions are from women. IPAF for instance announced 26% had been by women in 2016, with a similar percentage over at Katara for the same year. Certainly, this would only reflect a narrow range of fiction, of the type publishers might think win a literary prize.

As a final incentive to publishers, Derbyshire notes:

Women buy two thirds of all fiction sold in the UK.

And as a final statistic: Saudi Arabia was the only Arab-majority country where Three Percent found more women’s work translated than men’s: 2 male authors and 3 female authors, leaning 60% female. What does that mean?

¯\ _(ツ)_/¯.

Also: More than 40 French publishers have signed a letter saying they won’t participate in next year’s Angoulême unless it makes some major changes. A much easier target than all of publishing, but good for them.