#WIT Month – Spain’s female literary voices still lag in translation to English

By Katie King
Seattle, August 31, 2018

For Women in Translation (WIT) Month I’ve analyzed the Three Percent Data 2008 to 2019 on Spain to see how Spain’s contemporary female authors and poets are faring in translation to English. The answer is they are consistently under-represented. Over the last decade, just under 30 percent of titles originating in Spain and published in translation to English were written by women. It’s noteworthy that this percentage has remained consistent year by year over the last decade even as the total number of titles from Spain per year has increased dramatically, tripling from 2008 (18 reported titles) to 2016 (52 reported titles, a single year high). In other words, in 2008 women made up only 30 percent of Spanish titles translated to English and in 2016 also only about 30 percent, as well as 30 percent overall for the decade. Please note that by Spanish literature here I mean the literature of Spain in all of its languages: Catalan, Galician and Basque as well as Spanish language, but not Spanish language literature from other countries.

Why does this matter? Women experience the world differently from men and the story of a nation and a culture is incomplete without them. Spain’s story, as translated to English, is missing important voices.

The data highlight a number of other interesting tidbits. AmazonCrossing, the world’s biggest publisher by volume of fiction in translation to English and the biggest publisher of Spanish fiction in English, has published an almost equal number of Spain’s women writers as men (16 women versus 18 men). The other two biggest publishers of Spanish fiction and poetry were less gender-balanced: Hispabooks (six women authors versus 27 men) and Small Stations (13 women versus 27 men).

While WIT Month focuses on women authors, it is important to consider the translators as well. I read and hear opinions that women dominate in literary translation, but that is not the case in translating the literature of Spain. While the numbers vary from year to year, overall in the last decade men translated the majority of titles from Spain, 177 versus 154 translated by women. Sixteen titles are listed as “both” male and female translators, reflecting a growing trend in teams of translators working on a project.

As ever with data research, these figures both enlighten and confuse. It seems clear that women writers are under-represented. Fair enough. A challenge to work on. But are the numbers complete and accurate? Click here to read more about the challenges of tracking and analyzing complete and accurate information about literature in translation.

Also, the overall numbers are so small – dozens, a few hundred – are they really meaningful? Does publishing equate to success if the books aren’t reviewed, sold or read? How can the impact of these women’s voices, and the publishing efforts behind them, be measured? I’ll focus on these important questions as part of my own ongoing research into Spain’s literature in translation and I’d like to build a community conversation discussing them.

Another obvious question, for which I lack the data to answer, is whether the low percentage of Spain’s women authors in translation reflects the low percentage of Spain’s women authors published in the first place? In Spain’s publishing world, what percentage of the original titles of literature and poetry are by women as opposed to men? Is the pool that English language publishers have to choose from weighted toward men to begin with?

Scholars, critics, authors and book editors who specialize in Spain are concerned about the Spanish voices left behind in this new age of interest in global literature in translation. In the 2013 book Spain’s Great Untranslated, an anthology of Spanish writers underrepresented in English published by Words Without Borders, the editors chose 12 prominent Spanish writers and excerpts of their work translated to English. Just two of the authors are women. The editors – Javier Aparicio, Aurelio Major and Mercedes Monmany – don’t explain their choices and the book has no introduction. All of the writers are recognizable, important names, as are the translators and the editors themselves. It would be interesting to know the criteria for selection and who was left out. Since publication of the book, five of the 12 authors have been published in English, including one of the women, Berta Vias Mahou.

The publishing industry is intensely competitive and difficult. Most translated fiction and poetry are published by small editorial operations, many of them dependent on grants and government funding. The choice a publisher makes of an author or poet to translate is a big commitment because the cost of production must include paying the translator in addition to normal costs, and sales are invariably modest. One example is Hispabooks, one of the biggest publishers of Spain’s literature in translation, which recently closed its doors. These are difficult challenges to overcome for improving the status of Spanish women’s literary visibility in English.

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Katie King

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