Each August the literary community celebrates Women In Translation Month, aka #WITMonth.
Meytal Radzinski started this initiative back in 2014 when she and a passionate group of book bloggers dedicated a whole month for championing women authors who write in languages other than English.
They had two simple goals in mind:
- Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
- Read more books by women in translation
Why? Because in 2013 only around 26% of books translated into English were by women.
And, I believe that because of the awareness (and consumer demand) raised by initiatives such as this, that clear disparity in representation has slowly begun to improve.
In 2018, one-third of the books translated into English were written by women.
There is still a way to go, but momentum is building…
Any day of the year is a good time to read Women in Translation!
Whenever I make time for fiction in translation, more often than not I enjoy the reading experience. The authors’ perspectives seem fresh to me and I believe that stems from different cultural origins and context. It is a wonderful way to experience new places and cultures, and broaden our thinking on issues both emerging and historical.
Some people think choosing a title in translation is a risk. But I think it is a risk well worth taking because you are guaranteed to learn something — whether it is about another culture or even just your own mindset.
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Women in Translation – Book Recommendations
I have grouped my reading recommendations, noteworthy titles I have either read or want to read, by the author’s geographical region of origin below. For those titles I have read, I have linked to my reviews.
My go-to recommendations for female writers in translation would have to be Japanese authors Hiromi Kawakami, Yoko Ogawa and the lesser-known Mitsuyo Kakuta.
Why am I drawn to Japanese literature? It may have something to do with the intrinsic cultural paradigms being so distinct from the western norms that underpin much of the fiction I read. The narratives are quite introspective and there is often great meaning conveyed through symbolism.
I have particularly enjoyed Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly affecting writing style and her delicate touch with offbeat characters. I highly recommend her novels Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase) and The Nakano Thrift Shop, and look forward to reading the latest of her novels translated into English, The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino.
On the hunt for Japanese literature of a similar style to the works of Hiromi Kawakami, I found some delightful short stories (Kindle Singles) from the award-winning Mitsuyo Kakuta. So often, what is not said is more telling than what is, and the moral or message being conveyed is more powerful because of the restraint displayed by the author. Mitsuyo Kakuta’s Good Luck Bag and Moving the Birds are fine examples of this.
Another all time favourite of mine is Yoko Ogawa‘s The Housekeeper and the Professor — exquisite minimalism and charming reflection on the need for companionship. I found her collection of stories The Diving Pool impactful reading also, but the subject matter is dark and at times sinister. I am eager to read her latest novel The Memory Police. It is a speculative mystery described as ‘a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable’ that has only just been released but has been gaining positive reviews.
I’ve also found Korean literature particularly impactful, but The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun is the first work by a female Korean author I’ve read in translation. It is certainly gristly food-for-thought for those planning their post-pandemic travel itineraries.
Other women in translation I am keen to add to my reading pile include The Last Lover by Can Xue (2015 winner of the Best Translated Book Award for Fiction) and Ru by Kim Thúy (Longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize).
Lone Theils‘ crime novel Fatal Crossing (originally written in Danish) was one of my best books of 2017. Nora Sands is an intelligent and feisty female lead I connected with immediately. I look forward to the second title in this series being translated into English.
Keeping with the Scandinavian theme, I recommend Camilla Lackberg‘s compelling The Ice Child (Detective Hedstrom & Falck Series) to those with strong stomachs, and for a thriller heavy on the psychology, Karin Fossum‘s bleak yet riveting storytelling in Bad Intentions.
Of the German fiction in translation I have read to date, I found Jenny Erpenbeck‘s The Book of Words the most impactful.
Italian author Elisa Ruotolo‘s stories in I Stole The Rain are highly engaging, and I recommend the collection to readers that enjoy originality and a more philosophical bent to their fiction.
People can debate the merits of Irene Nemirovsky‘s chosen affiliations prior to her death in Auschwitz at age 39, but the artistry of her written prose (nor Sandra Smith’s wonderful translations of the original French) cannot be questioned. Of the four of her many titles I have read, Suite Francaise (‘a masterpiece’) and All Our Worldly Goods (‘powerful and compelling’) rank as my favourites.
I am also eager to read Nina George‘s The Little Paris Bookshop (translated from the original German) and Olga Tokarczuk‘s Booker International Prize nominated Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead (Polish, described as a literary murder mystery).
Latin American Literature
One of my all-time favourite Latin American female authors in translation is Isabel Allende. Of her many bestselling titles, I particularly recommend one of her earlier novels Of Love and Shadows filled with courage and passion.
Although still relatively unknown to English readers, Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares is considered one of Brazil’s modern masters and I highly recommend her Jabuti Prize-winning novella Family Heirlooms (translated into English by Daniel Hahn, thanks to Frisch & Co).
While Valeria Luiselli has written her most recent and Booker Prize longlisted novel in English, her earlier award-winning titles Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth (originally in Spanish) have been on my reading radar for some time now.
I have read several titles by women born in Africa but I was surprised to find all were originally written/published in English. That fact, and that it took some investigation before I found these titles by women in translation that I am now keen to read (an overwhelming number of the African authors translated into English are male), says a few things about cultural and societal change in the region.
I am keen to read The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (Eqypt, translated from Arabic) and So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba (Senegal, translated from French). The first has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984 and earned Elisabeth Jaquette a 2014 English PEN Translates award and the latter (published in 1979) recognized as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.
Of Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk, Toni Morrison said, “Its beauty matches its depth and her achievement is as brilliant as it is haunting”, and the award-winning Ingrid Winterbach‘s The Book of Happenstance is described as “an alternately sublime and satirical meditation on love, loss, and obsession”. Both titles have been translated from the original Afrikaans.
But what about the female translators?
What cannot be underestimated is the value the translator brings to the final reading experience.
After a while you gain a confidence in and an special appreciation of particular translators work. I certainly know I check to see if its one of my favourite translators before committing to reading. For example, I would not hesitate to read anything translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Sandra Smith, Charlotte Barslund or Allison Markin Powell, just to name a few.
In a Guardian article titled, In their own words: 10 female translators on the work that inspires them, many more women at the top of their field are offered up such as Susan Bernofsky, Margaret Jull Costa, Barbara J Haveland and Christina MacSweeney.
Who are your favourite women in translation and female translators?
Share your women in translation recommendations with us in the comment section below.
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