On International Women’s Day, literary translator Elisabeth Jaquette explores the spaces for women in translation from Arabic into English:
By Elisabeth Jaquette
Where are the women in English translation?
There has been great momentum towards quantifying and addressing this question in recent years. Since VIDA: Women in Literary Arts began counting women’s representation in US literary awards, Three Percent has been tallying the ratio of men vs. women being published in translation, with fairly depressing findings.
Across languages, female authors make up 26.6% of all fiction translations and 29.6% of all poetry translations published between 2008 and 2014 in the US. That means for every book in translation by a woman that makes it onto the bookshelves, there are about three books by men. The numbers for Arabic translations are slightly worse: according to ArabLit’s worldwide count, women-authored works accounted for 22.7% of all the Arabic literature in translation published in 2010, and just 17% in 2014, for example.
Publishing’s gender disparity becomes even starker at the prize level. Women in Translation has tracked women’s low representation in literary translation prizes across languages. When it comes to Arabic translation prize-winners, low representation in publishing turns to no representation in awards.
The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation (administered by the Society of Authors), which has been running for the past ten years, has never been awarded to a book by a female author, and only once did it go to a female translator (Samah Salim, in 2009). At the runner-up and commendation level (the Banipal Prize doesn’t do shortlists or longlists), male and female translators are almost equally represented, but male authors still outnumber female authors more than three to one.
Banipal Prize Winners:
Male authors: 11 (100%)
Female authors: 0 (0%)
Male translators: 10 (91%)
Female translators: 1 (9%)
Banipal Prize Commendations and Runners-up:
Male authors: 10 (77%)
Female authors: 3 (23%)
Male translators: 8 (53%)
Female translators: 7 (47%)
Such stark gender disparity can’t be completely explained by the prize pool, but it’s certainly a contributing factor. Female authors made up only 20% of the prize entries in 2014-5 (these are the only years in which Banipal released the full list of titles under consideration). This generally matches the statistic above: that about 20% of Arabic literature published in English translation is written by women. Here, it would be useful to have figures on what percentage of books are originally published in Arabic by women for comparison, but that data isn’t available.
Banipal Prize Entries, 2014-5:
Male authors: 37 (80%)
Female authors: 9 (20%)
Male translators: 32 (64%)
Female translators: 18 (36%)
Finally, the one gender ratio the prize organizers do have direct control over – the number of men and women judging the prize – also leaves something to be desired.
Banipal Award Judges:
Male judges: 22 (58%)
Female judges: 16 (42%)
Sobering statistics, overall. The Banipal Prize is the only prize dedicated solely to published translations from the Arabic. The University of Arkansas Translation Award — for unpublished manuscripts — doesn’t release submission information. But how does the Banipal Prize compare to other major translation prizes in evaluating Arabic literature in translation?
Here, I’ve taken a look at Arabic literature winners, shortlisted, and longlisted titles for six main translation awards: the PEN Translation Prize, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, Best Translated Book Award for Fiction, Best Translated Book Award for Poetry, the International Foreign Fiction Prize, and the National Translation Award. Women in Translation has put together prize data for all languages, and here’s how the numbers pan out for Arabic literature included in these awards. Unfortunately, the trends in these awards are generally the same as with the Banipal Prize.
Arabic Literature Winners:
Male authors: 4 (100%)
Female authors: 0 (0%)
Male translators: 4 (100%)
Female translators: 0 (0%)
Arabic Literature Shortlisted:
Male authors: 3 (60%)
Female authors: 2 (40%)
Male translators: 4 (67%)
Female translators: 2 (33%)
Arabic Literature Longlisted:
Male authors: 6 (100%)
Female authors: 0 (0%)
Male translators: 5 (83%)
Female translators: 1 (17%)
The winning authors and translators are exclusively men, similar to statistics for the Banipal Prize. When the shortlists and longlists are combined, there are more than four times as many male authors represented compared to female authors, and three times as many male translators compared to female translators.
One fact that doesn’t come out when you look at the data like this is that –among books at the prize level — men tend to translate male authors, and women tend to translate women authors. But that’s a topic for another day.
Overall, the lesson here would seem to be: If you want to win prizes in translation, don’t be a woman, and don’t translate women.
It’s important to remember that literary prizes like these aren’t an isolated facet of the publishing industry. Award-winning authors are easier to pitch to publishers, which leads to more publications, further increasing the gender disparity. Prize-winning translators are more likely to be approached for future translations, and better positioned to command higher rates — well, as “high” as rates go in literary translation.
When the top prizes in literary translation go exclusively to male authors and male translators, it endorses the idea that when the world translates and publishes a highly disproportionate ratio of men’s writings and men’s translations, literature is better off for it. And that’s just false.
Gender disparity in translated literature persists throughout the industry, from books translated, to reviews published, to prizes awarded. Crunching the numbers is just a start towards addressing — and redressing — it. Meanwhile, this conversation has produced several tangible steps towards doing so: Kamila Shamsie’s provocation to make 2018 the Year of Publishing (only) Women was accepted by stellar small presses And Other Stories, and Tilted Axis, which both primarily publish literature in translation. There have also been efforts to create a literary prize for translated fiction by women — let’s hope that 2016 is the year that gets off the ground.
But prizes be damned and depressing statistics aside, there is great Arabic literature out there being written and translated by women, and International Women’s Day is a great day to read some.
‘Women’s work’ to read now:
Online, there’s Hawa al-Gamodi’s Awaiting a Poem, translated by Nariman Youssef; Rasha Abbas’ Falling Down Politely, translated by Alice Guthrie, and Donia Maher’s The Apartment in Bab el-Louk translated by myself.
In book form, there’s Radwa Ashour’s Blue Lorries, translated by Barbara Romaine, and Hanan al-Shaykh’s Beirut Blues, translated by Catherine Cobham. And Basma Abdel Aziz’s debut novel The Queue (in my translation) is coming out with Melville House this May. Until then, you can read an excerpt here. Finally, Salma Dabbagh’s Out of It and Mai al-Nakib’s The Hidden Light of Objects are two superb books by Arab women writing in English.
And if you’re in London, go see the Free Word Centre’s event on Tackling Imbalances in International Literature this Thursday, March 10.
Elisabeth Jaquette is an Arabic translator and writer. Her work has been published in Words Without Borders, Asymptote, the Guardian, and elsewhere. She was a judge for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize, and her first novel-length translation, The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, is forthcoming with Melville House in May.