There are lots of things we can do. We can review books written by women to help redress the imbalance in review coverage; reviewing books by women in translation will also, ideally, improve translator visibility. We can address funding issues so that translation grants are more evenly distributed, and a working group was formed to do just that. We can look at best practice and acknowledge those publishers who are doing it right. We can address gatekeepers – many of whom, as another working group established, are women: teachers, booksellers, translators, readers, editors. There are already grassroots initiatives promoting writing by women on Twitter, for instance.
What I wanted to do was to establish a prize for women's books in translation. I'm pleased to say that the idea was popular and we formed a working group at the end of the session to try and make it a reality. So let me outline my idea in more detail here and share some of what we talked about on Friday.
I'll start with what Sophie Mayer points out in her briefing notes:
Since its inaugural award in 1996, the Orange Award (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) has shown an unerring ability to celebrate and promote emerging writers who are now fixtures in the literary heavens. According to The Bookseller, the Orange Prize is a proven driver of sales, and libraries that promote the prize reported a reader survey in which 48% of respondents said that they had tried new writers as a result of the promotion, and 42% said that they would try other books by the new authors they had read.
Yet, from its inception, the Award has been controversial, losing its first sponsor (Mitsubishi) and courting criticism from its own judges as well as reviewers and authors. AS Byatt called it ‘sexist… The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don't believe in’, although the award does not stipulate gendered subject matter, and has rewarded historical epics, crime thrillers and experimental writing, genres often associated with male writers.
With awards to Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and to Diane Evans and Irene Sabatini in the short-lived Orange Award for New Writers), Orange juries have also been more attentive to the multiethnic and transnational diversity of Anglophone writing than more established UK literary prizes. That raises the intriguing possibility of replacing the Orange New Writers award with a Bailey’s Writing in Translation award that continues to extend the prize’s global awareness.What I am interested in setting up is not a translation prize especially for women writers (or indeed translators); it would not be a sub-category of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which should continue to be awarded to the translated book judged to be the best of the year. The IFFP has never yet been awarded to a woman, almost certainly reflecting the imbalance in submissions. In my view, however, it must continue to consider quality above all other criteria while ensuring that the judges are a balanced mix.
What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.
The Bailey's Prize prompts debate every year through its mere existence, and every year people point out that women are still at a disadvantage in publishing. A women's prize for translated books would use exactly the same arguments – except that the translation stage actually amplifies this disadvantage, meaning that significantly fewer books by women are available in translation than books by men. In 2013, about 25-35% of new translated fiction published in the USA (the only figures we have) was written by women.
A women's prize for translated books would highlight those books that do make it through. It would give booksellers, journalists, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and interested readers a hook and get them arguing and help them to discover diverse writing by women. It would celebrate the work of women writers and their translators. It would reward those publishers who do bring out books by women in translation. I suspect it would even be possible, at this point, to publish a preliminary list of all the books written by women published in translation in the UK in a particular year, before drawing up a longlist and a shortlist. Almost everyone loves a list these days, and book prizes are a useful way of exploiting that mental laziness we all share.
So it's a fairly simple idea because we have a precedent. Now all we have to do is put it into practice. We can do it. And the awards ceremony will be amazing.