Posted by: biblioglobal | August 5, 2014

Women in Translation: The hidden forces shaping my reading

I’ve been looking forward to Women in Translation month hosted by Biblibio, but I had mostly been thinking of it as an opportunity to read what I’m already reading anyway. After all, I like to seek out women writers and my book-from-every-country project encourages me to read a good number of translations.

It was interesting, then, to look at the numbers for the books I’ve read for the book-from-every-country project.

Out of 57 books I’ve read so far, 29 are written by one or more women, 27 by one or more men and one by both a woman and man. I’m happy with that ratio, though I’m always surprised both with these books and my reading more broadly that I read about 50% women and 50% men. I always feel like I’m reading more books by women. Interesting how perception works.

Looking specifically at works in translation though, 8 were by women, 15 were by men, and one by both a man and a woman. The numbers are small, so it could just be due to chance, but I find it interesting that I read fewer women in translation.

Biblibio put together a great post showing that of 442  translated novels published in English in the first part of 2014 only 28% were by women.* The numbers for 2013 were were similar. I knew that women were under-represented in translation, but I hadn’t realized how much that was shaping my own reading. Those systemic biases have been affecting my reading patterns without me even noticing.

Now that I know, however, I can push back some against that pattern. Women in Translation month is a great opportunity, both because I’ll be reading some books for it myself and because I’ll learn more about great women authors who have been translated.

Some of my favorite women in translation I’ve read so far for the book-from-every-country project are (links are to my posts):

  • The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli– Gioconda Belli now lives a suburban life in Los Angeles, but in an earlier life she was a member of the Sandinista guerrilla movement in Nicaragua.
  • A False Dawn by Ilona Lackova– The version I read of this book (ie English) was actually translated twice. Ilona Lackova’s oral stories, originally tape recorded in Romani, were then translated and transcribed in Czech. It was fascinating for its insights into life as a Roma woman in Slovakia.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi– This well-known graphic novel telling Marjane Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran made a good movie as well.

Hmm, interesting that these are all memoirs of various sorts. I didn’t realize that until I wrote them down. (Edit: Somehow I forgot to include The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke!)

And here are the books I picked up at the library this weekend for reading this month:

  • The Summer Book by Tove Jansson- I’ve been reading lots of rave reviews for this book as part of the celebration of  the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth. She was a Finnish author who wrote in Swedish, most famous for the Moomintroll children’s books. I’m looking forward to trying out her writing for adults.
  • The Door by Magda Szabo- This book was recently recommended to me as a Hungarian book to read. It looks like it is about the relationship between a woman employer and her housekeeper. (Seems like it might be interesting to read paired with The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar about the same topic.)
  • So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba- This is a classic novel in the form of a letter by a Senegalese woman, translated from French. It has been on my to-read list for a long time.

These books all turn out to be quite short, so I might get to all three of them this month, but it’s a busy month for me, so I’m hoping to finish at least two.

* For fun, I did a quick chi-square statistical test to determine the probability that such a result would occur from a process that was random with respect to gender. The answer: 0.0000000000000000028%



  1. Interesting! Female authors seem dominate the genres I read. The handful of books I’ve read by men are mostly non-fiction.

    • That’s interesting. Gender ratios definitely vary by genre. I’ve read statistics somewhere (no idea of their accuracy) that overall about 60% of books published are by women. But women tend to be under-represented at the ‘prestige’ end of things- major awards, reviews in prominent publications, selection for translation, and so on.

      • Yes, the disparity in awards and book reviews is striking. The VIDA Count numbers are always interesting to see. This year, if I remember correctly, they saw progress with some publications, but not across the board.

      • Yeah, I think that’s correct. I’m really impressed with the work the VIDA folks do!

  2. I hope you enjoy Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, and I’ll look forward to reading your review (our old book group read it about five years ago).

    I’m very intrigued to see how you find The Door as I’ve heard mixed things about it. I’ve seen some great reviews, but I know a couple of people who’ve given up on this one…again, it’ll be interesting to read your post.

    • Hmm, that’s interesting about The Door, since the person who recommended it to me said that the person they last recommended it to hated it. I guess I’ll just have to see for myself, but I am feeling a bit of trepidation now!

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