ArabLit marks the seventh Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth):
Women in Translation Month, an August celebration founded by the book blogger Meytal Radzinski in 2014, sits at the intersection of two visibility-raising efforts. The first, spearheaded by the Three Percent blog, highlights how few literary works in the United States are translations. The second, started by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, tracks women writers’ representation in English-language magazines, newspapers, and journals.
Surveys say that the majority of literary translators are women. But as Women in Translation Month highlights, the books being translated are largely by men. Around 30 percent of new translations to English from across world languages are works written by women, while 70 percent are by men, Radzinski has found.
Translations from Arabic to English have generally followed a similar pattern. Of the 30-some Arabic books we are expecting in English translation in 2021, 11 are by women.
Of the 16 books submitted for the 2021 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, a surprising seven were by women. However, previous years have shown a different picture: Of the 14 works submitted to the 2020 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, ten were by male writers and four by women. In 2019, it was three books by women, 13 by men. Of the 20 entries in 2018, three were written by women.
“The first year that the Women in Translation movement came onto my radar, I thought that probably I had translated many women,” Arabic-English translator Elisabeth Jaquette said in an interview last year. “But I looked back through my publications and found that to be very untrue, that I had translated more men than women. In part, this was due to being commissioned to translate male writers. That was a moment of reckoning for me.”
But, Jaquette added, her preference for women writers is “not only a matter of principle, it’s also a matter of taste. There’s a lot in women’s writing that resonates with me.”
Translator Sawad Hussain said the same in a 2020 interview. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy the writing of male authors, but I seem to gravitate more towards and connect with writing by women authors.”
In other languages, men’s writing also seems to be translated more than women’s. Maria Isabel González Martínez found that, “Of the 110 authors translated from Arabic to Spanish, 76 are men and 34 are women.” While Chiara Comito said she had no official numbers, ““If I look at the library in my house, most of the books of Arabic literature I have are by male authors.” About 100 of the 400-some books by Arab authors, translated to German, were by women.
There is an even more distinct gap when looking at women’s writing in Arabic that is awarded prizes, according to a survey by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2016.
There is also a negative side to elevating women’s work, especially if the aim is “empowering” women writers. As the brilliant Egyptian comix artist Deena Mohamed said in an interview with Egyptian Streets:
It’s kind of a myth that people won’t support ‘diverse’ work. What actually happens is the opposite – people want you to write about ‘the issues’ (for Westerners, Islam and feminism, for Egyptians, feminism) but they want you to write about it in a very specific way. They want really superficial, easily-quoted takes. They love women’s empowerment, if women’s empowerment means sharing [online] a hijabi superhero comic without ever reading the messages behind it. […] At some point you start to feel very patronised.
As she wrote in a recent comic, “For me as well, when I speak English I feel like I’m addressing a different world. When I make. my comics, they travel differently in different languages. In Arabic, I can talk about feminism freely. In English, I feel I need to talk about Islamophobia.”
Moreover, the framing of Arab women translated into English often puts Arab women writers forward as a singularity: the “first,” the “only,” and the “taboo-breaking.”
Poet Iman Mersal talked about the difficulty of, when she wrote about Enayat al-Zayyat, in In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat, suddenly al-Zayyat became singular, a writer with a new cult following. Rather than focusing on adding particular women writers, she suggested people instead need to think again about the canon and “trust our readings: what we like, and what we don’t like. Not to add or subtract from the literary canon, but to encourage the diversity. To ask: Who put this text here and why?”
Keeping all this in mind, we choose — during this month — to bring attention to the wide and varied writing by women that we love in Arabic and in translation.
Women’s Writing in Translation: Ten Books for 2021
A Bed for the King’s Daughter, by Shahla Ujayli, tr. Sawad Hussain (University of Texas Press)
Voices of the Lost, by Hoda Barakat, tr. Marilyn Booth (OneWorld)
My First and Only Love, by Sahar Khalifeh, tr. Aida Bamia, from Hoopoe Fiction
The Book Smuggler, by Omaima Al-Khamis, tr. Sarah Enany (Hoopoe Fiction)
Packaged Lives: 10 Stories and a Novella, by Haifa Zangana, tr. Wen-chin Ouyang (Syracuse University Press)
All the Women Inside Me, by Jana Fawwaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman (Interlink Books)
Here is a Body, by Basma Abdel Aziz, tr. Jonathan Wright (Hoopoe Fiction)
Memoirs of a Militant: My Years in the Khiam Women’s Prison, by Nawal Qasim Baidoun, edited and introduced by Malek Abisaab and Michelle Hartman, tr. Michelle Hartman and Caline Nasrallah (Interlink Books)
Planet of Clay, Samar Yazbek, tr. Leri Price (World Editions, August 2021)
Catalogue of a Private Life, by Najwa Binshatwan, tr. Sawad Hussain (Dedalus Books, October 2021)
A Look Back: Women in Translation Month 2020
Novel excerpts and short stories:
“Women in Translation Month” episodes of Bulaq: