As we come to the end of Women in Translation Month, it's time to ask why only one third of all literary translations published in the UK are written by women. But we can also celebrate the achievements of female linguists whose work has an impact beyond the stars.
“Women hold up half the sky”
Traditional Chinese proverb
August is Women in Translation month, and while we’re eager to celebrate the contribution of women to our industry and culture, we have to ask if that contribution is sometimes undervalued.
Women in Translation Month highlights the outstanding female writers whose work is translated, and aims to bring them to the attention of as wide a circle of readers as possible. This month @Biblibio released a list of the top 100 books by women writers in translation, voted for by a wide selection of readers. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein from the original Italian into English, was the number one choice on an excellent list, and that book’s success is certainly something to celebrate.
Less happily, though, only one third of all literary translations published in the UK are written by women, and those that are translated win far fewer prizes than male writers. The reasons behind that have nothing to do with the skill of female translators, and may have quite a lot to do with the way creative artists are recognised. In an analysis of European literary prize winners in the 21st century, we find that 30% of awards go to women. It can’t be a coincidence that this 30% figure applies to translations too. If a literary culture is skewed towards recognising male writers then that will filter through to literary translation.
We want to see talent recognised in any arena, and we applaud the skill of the literary linguist. Conversis Senior Project Manager Cassie Mill sees many parallels between literary translation and other commercial projects:
The literary translator must find the right buttons and the lightness of touch to press them. This is equally true for anyone launching a commercial brand in a new market, and subtle distinctions can turn a brand to gold, or to dust. The name of a child’s toy might be innocent in one language but sinister in another. A conversation between parent and child might be considered charming in one society but shockingly disrespectful to those with different values. A successful campaign will require genuine creative talent in any target language.
One field where female linguists are having a major impact is aerospace, and this year Elena Kozhukhov, one of the pioneers, celebrated 25 years at NASA. Elena came to the United States at 14 and followed her father, an engineer and an interpreter, in helping NASA manage its growing partnership with Russia. Joint space programmes between nations require impeccable communication in the most pressurised situations. Being able to explain the details of, for example, a docking procedure in both English and Russian is a rare skill, and Elena Kozhukhov’s mastery of it led to her becoming one of a handful of interpreters providing continuous space-to-ground mission support for the International Space Station.
Cassie Mill hopes many young women will follow in her footsteps:
This summer’s A-level results told us that for the first time in Britain, girls are just as likely to sit Science-based A levels as boys. I like to think many of this generation will follow in Elena Kozhukhov’s footsteps and develop a combination of technical skills and language skills.
Women really do hold up half the sky; socially, culturally, economically and in Elena Kozhukhov’s case, literally. As we come to the end of Women in Translation month, let’s make sure they get the recognition they deserve for that.