Reflecting on Women in Translation Month

Women in Translation month is an intiative developed by The Reading Agency in order to appreciate women writers, including the writers whose works are translated, and the translators and publishers who transfer them into different languages. August was full of events and discussions around this theme, and our Client Services Director, Jasmine, attended an event in Sheffield arranged by Tilted Axis Press. The event featured Korean and Japanese authors, along with English translators who had worked with them. Some of the points raised left an impression and as a team with a real love for languages, it’s worth shining a light on them.

Under a third of literary translations published in the UK and US are produced by women. Given that only 1.5% of books published in the UK are translations into English, this represents only a tiny fraction of all literary fiction that we consume. Despite these surprising statistics, recent findings suggest that translated literary fiction sells better in the UK than fiction originally written in English.

This begs the question: why are we not translating more literature into English?

Perhaps one reason is that languages and translation students are often discouraged from going into literary translation, with it being perceived to be a time-consuming, difficult task with little financial reward. However, it must be argued that there is real personal reward from being involved in such a project, aside from the positive cultural impact it can have. From the translators who spoke at the event, there was a sense of warmth and mutual understanding between the authors of the original works and the translators who produced the translations. This is because the literary translation process is very much a collaboration, with the translator and author being in contact to ensure the translation is as faithful to the original as possible.

Another thing we hadn’t realised was how much influence a translator can have on whether or not something is translated. Deborah Smith, who spoke at the Tilted Axis event, explained how she herself suggested translating The Vegetarian, a Korean book, to a publisher. It was this impetus from the linguist that led to The Vegetarian being translated into English, and subsequently winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Interestingly both the original author, Han Kang, and the translator won the prize and an equal share in the award.

While we have previously become accustomed to translators taking very little credit, with their name often not even appearing on the front cover, it is encouraging to see the translator given equal acknowledgment in this way. The focus must now be on increasing the presence of female translators, which initiatives like the Women in Translation Month can only help to improve. We certainly have some fantastically talented female translators in our team of freelancers!

One of the other important things to take away from this is that linguists should be proactive in seeking out content and being confident enough to propose a translation, rather than waiting to be asked. The next time you read a good foreign language book, check out whether it’s been translated yet. You could be the one who is responsible for bringing it to a whole new audience, which is perhaps the most rewarding thing that a translator can experience in their career.