This post contains affiliate links to independent bookstores and publishers.
If you’ve even dipped your toe into the world of translated literature – that is, literature translated into English – you’ll probably recognise the name Meytal Radzinski.
That’s because Radzinski – the woman behind the Biblibio blog – is the founder of Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), an annual event that’s taken place every year since 2014 in an attempt to promote and champion women’s literature from around the world.
Originally founded after PhD student Radzinski realised women writers made up just 25% of her reading in translation, WIT Month has since been adopted by bookstores, blogs, readers and writers the world over. Take a look on literary Twitter basically any time, ever, and you’ll see people tweeting out the hashtag and talking about the women in translation they’re reading. Can you imagine? The impact!
Here, we discuss the unexpected glow-up of WIT Month, the importance of translating children’s books, and skipping the blurbs before reading new books.
Lauren Cocking: How would you sum up your WIT Month project in one sentence?
Meytal Radzinski: WIT Month is an opportunity to centre and focus on women writers in translation (into English or across different languages), from across the world!
LC: WIT Month has been widely adopted by readers and websites. Did you ever imagine the impact your WIT project would come to have? What’s been the most unexpected consequence?
MR: I’m still pretty surprised! And excited year after year, especially seeing more and more readers getting a chance to encounter and engage with books that they had never previously considered or even heard of. It’s been absolutely incredible seeing readers from across the world – Nepal, Somalia, Brazil, India, Australia, Morocco, Indonesia, all over – share their thoughts and favorite authors and more. As much as I may have dreamed of it as a truly international event, I don’t think I ever really imagined it could actually reach so many different corners of the world (and hopefully make an impact).
LC: Per your Twitter bio, you’re a “biophysichem PhD student” by day. Do you think your inclination for science and data has been a help or a hindrance when it comes to WIT Month and reading in general?
MR: I think it’s helped. People often try to wave away observations about bias as though it’s an exaggeration or overstatement, but it’s much harder to wave away clear numbers. Having data on hand has helped me really understand just how deep certain biases go, at least on the analysis side. And as a reader… it’s hard to say! It’s all just mixed up in who I am, and I strongly believe that everyone has their little bits of what we perceive as “scientific”-mindedness and artistic tendencies.
In my mind, there’s no competition between these two pieces; literary analysis helps me in the sciences, and scientific analysis has helped me better understand the world of literature. The two can absolutely live together.
LC: You must have been interviewed hundreds of times about the project. Is there anything you always wish people would ask but they never do?
MR: I suppose I wish people would ask why the project remains rooted in the “translation” aspect and not as part of the larger feminist movement. Not that I can answer that question, unfortunately! But it’s something that I think about almost daily and wish was part of the larger conversation.
LC: In what way do you consider WIT Month to be part of the wider feminist movement?
MR: I think that the women in translation movement as a whole and WIT Month specifically are opportunities to center women’s voices and stories. Feminism can’t and shouldn’t be limited in whose voices are heard or given space. This is such a central concept in modern feminist discourse (as it should be), but for some reason it’s still one that is mostly taking place in English and through a very Anglocentric lens.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that feminism often means different things in different cultures and for women of different backgrounds. That’s often reflected in their stories. In addition to the many other lessons to be learned from women’s writing from around the world, the different perspectives on feminism and feminist identities is one that I think is particularly important for those who have predominantly engaged with Anglocentrist feminism.
LC: Sure. Speaking of translation, I think people from, for example, the US and the UK are skeptical of translated literature or don’t fully understand the role of the translator. How did your bilingual upbringing [Radzinski was brought up speaking English and Hebrew] impact your way of looking at translated literature? How can we change mindsets regarding translated literature?
MR: Anglocentrism is real and persistent, not just in literature. Being bilingual meant that I always knew that there wasn’t just one language that I could explore, and I grew up constantly seeing translations around me (even if many of them were from English). It is unimaginable that I would only ever engage with art in my native language. But English-language readers (and filmgoers and TV watchers…) can easily spend their entire lives only reading books originally in English, which then makes anything translated as automatically “other”, rather than just a normal part of the literary landscape.
I think that the first step to breaking this assumption is to make sure that kids are exposed to the whole breadth of international literature as kids, knowing that this is what they’re doing and appreciating the value that stories from different backgrounds bring with them. I’ve encountered so many readers who have been certain they’ve never read or liked a book in translation until I asked them about Heidi or Pippi Longstockings or Moomins books (all by women in translation!), but they never processed these as works in translation.
And those few works that they did process in translation were often “heavier” (all male) classics, like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, Hugo, Goethe.
I also worry that because many of these older works are translated in an archaic style, it only emphasizes the “something gets lost in translation” misconception. It makes literature in translation seem inaccessible, which it obviously isn’t on an inherent level. I think a major first step is in increasing the number of children’s books in translation, to remove that fear and uncertainty at the earliest stages.
LC: Which countries suffer the worst gender disparity when it comes to work in translation?
MR: This is tough to answer, in part because there are such massive differences in terms of regional translations overall. But bluntly: France is the most translated-from country (into English), and it consistently has a massive gender imbalance. Between 2013-2018, there were 94 new fiction and poetry titles by women writers from France translated into English (and published in the US). There were 274 by men writers. Even if some individual countries or regions might look worse (and many do!), it’s still not on the same scale.
The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of countries have significant gender imbalances in translation. While the ratio is sadly worst for African countries, these are (frustratingly) also generally underrepresented, meaning that numerically the biggest difference is still coming from those countries with the most translations. France easily ‘leads’ the pack.
LC: I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to French literature, if I’m honest! Do you think it’s enough to look at women in translation? In the focus on women, do you think readers unconsciously overlook other intersectional concerns, like Black women writers, or disabled women writers? (Or even marginalised translators.) If so, how can that be addressed?
MR: I have thought about this a lot. At the end of the day, “women in translation” means exactly one thing: women writing in languages other than English. Every single other intersection or identity perspective exists under this umbrella and must be given its due space. Black women write in languages other than English. Indigenous women write in languages other than English. Disabled and queer women write in languages other than English. And, of course, there are also trans and nonbinary writers working in languages other than English.
I think when we look at translations into languages other than English, these questions are much more pertinent, in large part because English-language writers have international visibility that others do not and there’s a sense of otherness that grows more marked depending on how much smaller/ “distant” the different languages are.
If I were to only read women writers from languages other than English translated into Hebrew, I would unfortunately find myself with a far more limited scope than what’s available in English (or in English translation), because every additional bit of “distance” feels the effect of those existing biases.
But that’s not an argument against women in translation, it’s an argument for more, and especially for more women in translation from exactly those most overlooked groups, and certain for translations between non-English languages.
Black women in translation, for example, should simply be available alongside English-language writers and alongside other women in translation, across the world, across languages. And the same obviously applies to all other groups who are all too often pushed aside, whether in translation or not.
This, I should note, was part of the inspiration behind my 50 Day Countdowns these past two years. It’s never going to be perfect (“Women in Translation” is, in retrospect, an unfairly exclusionary title for a project that seeks to be inclusive), but it has to remain a priority and I think it’s important that we as readers continue to ask ourselves these questions. We cannot replace one bias with another.
As for translators, I can only comment as an outsider, but it strikes me that the world of translation is often homogenous, not just in terms of background, but also in terms of literary taste and appreciation. My understanding is that many translators from different backgrounds often feel a sense of exclusion in this regard, and that’s a problem that definitely needs to be addressed, though I can’t really speak to it myself.
LC: Absolutely. You just wrote on your blog about the relationship between hype and disappointment when it comes to reading. Do you try and avoid reading much about a book before you get started on it?
MR: I’ve basically stopped trying to read book cover blurbs because I’ve ended up disappointed too many times! Or outright spoiled, which really angered me. So yes, right now I’m trying to dive into books with as little knowledge as possible, just recommendations or short blurbs. We’ll see how it goes…
LC: I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all! I also read that you keep a reading spreadsheet – I do too! What are some of the most interesting tidbits of data you’ve pulled from your spreadsheet over the years, translation related or otherwise?
MR: I’d say the most interesting bit of data over the years was what sparked the women in translation project in the first place (for me, at least): Reviewing my recent reads in 2013 and realizing that despite an overall gender balance, among the books I had read in translation, only 25% were by women. Since then, it’s been interesting to track how my reading has grown more and more focused on women writers in translation, but also more varied stylistically, culturally, and geographically.
LC: What was the last book you read by a Latin American woman?
MR: 2020 was my worst year on record for Latin American writers (oops!), but I finally got around to reading Cubana, a collection of short stories by Cuban writers (edited by Mirta Yáñez), which I felt was a really interesting introduction to a country I wasn’t so familiar with myself.
LC: Is there a book, writer, or translator you wish more people knew about?
MR: Oh goodness, there are a few! But if I had to pick one book I’d like to shove in the face of every single reader on Earth, I think it would have to be Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches, translated into English by Jordan Stump. While painful and difficult in many ways, it’s a phenomenal work that needs to be default reading for almost everyone.
This interview was conducted over email and edited slightly for length and clarity.