August marks Women in Translation month. Thirty-one days dedicated to women all over the world, whose work has been translated into other languages, making their stories and characters accessible to an even wider audience.
In 2018, I embarked on a challenge to read a book from every country in the world. This naturally led to reading several books in translation. When I first started my challenge, I didn’t pay much attention to the authors’ gender or race. As long as they came from a country I hadn’t read before, I eagerly snatched up whatever I could get my hands on.
Since it’s Women in Translation month, or WiT month, now is as good a time as any to take a closer look at my list to find out which of the various novels, poems, novellas, and short stories were written by women in a language other than English, the language I usually read in.
This is a great exercise for me to assess how many female writers I’ve read, but I hope it also serves as inspiration for those searching new titles to read for WiT month, and beyond. I know I’ve been eagerly reading WiT tweets and can’t wait for the list from @Read_WIT to make notes on books to include in my challenge going forward.
For now, here are the translated works from women I’ve read for my challenge so far.
The Door by Magda Szabó (Hungary)
An intense read focusing on the fraught relationship between a writer and her housekeeper, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Emerence, the housekeeper, is particularly enigmatic – a trait heightened by her rigid and controlling manner.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Chile)
You had me at magical realism. That’s the category this book falls into and it does so beautifully, with rich descriptions and feisty female characters. It’s also a book I often see pop up on listicles – whether they’re focused on books in translation or books from around the world, the widespread love for The House of the Spirits and its author is undeniable.
Neighbours: The Story of a Murder by Lília Momplé (Mozambique)
Translated from Portuguese, the story is filled with a host of varied characters occupying three different households. Grounded through their social realities, this book is more than just a crime thriller.
The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story by Hanan al-Shaykh (Lebanon)
They drink coffee! I could spend all day reading characters who drink coffee, while drinking coffee myself. The Locust and the Bird is a memoir about the author’s mother’s life, instead of her own. I think that’s what sets it apart from other memoirs. I’m not a massive fan of the genre, and here it feels as if the author’s distance helps her focus on making the story and characters come alive.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri (Switzerland)
This book will want to make you move to the mountains to live like its free-spirited little heroine – with days full of fresh air, natural light, and sunshine. Best read outside with a slice of melted Raclette cheese on fresh, hot bread.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (South Korea)
This is another book that pops up on a lot of lists – probably even more so than The House of the Spirits. Told in three parts, it focuses on the character Yeong-hye and her decision to stop eating meat. It’s a story not told from her point of view, filled with visceral descriptions that make this book about so much more than what we choose not to eat.
The Vikings by Else Roesdahl (Denmark)
This is basically a historical text that’s very textbook in nature. I found it quite a difficult read, mostly due to the nature of its chapters. These cover different categories and themes instead of a chronological period of events, making it challenging to keep track of history’s timeline and those who people it. It works better as a reference book, and its scope and detail deserve high praise.
Two Fragments of Love by Eileen Almeida Barbosa (Cape Verde)
A short story told in the form of a letter, it appears in an anthology titled Africa39. Literally fragmented into two parts, the poetic prose of the story segues from love and art to violence and disease, always tethered by its theme of loneliness.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)
I loved this book. The setting (an island), the season (summer, obviously), and the emotionally resonant relationship between the little girl and her grandmother are all beautifully and ardently described by its author. It’s written in Swedish, but the author is Finnish – which led me to discover that the former is also an official language of Finland. You can’t say my challenge isn’t full of lessons!
Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El-Saadawi (Egypt)
I know I said I’m not one for memoirs, but that’s not to say I won’t read them or like them. This one literally has the word memoir in the title, so there’s no doubt as to what it is. Besides, it’s a quick read and I liked the straightforward tone of the author’s narrative, told with enough emotional clout to assure you that the doc probably has a good bedside manner too.
I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (Iceland)
This is one of my favourite books of the challenge so far. It’s a horror story, a genre I don’t read often, but this book certainly gave me a great taste for it and an appetite for more. It’s excellently plotted and paced, alternating chapters between two seemingly disparate stories. And it’s so atmospheric! I definitely felt chills up and down my spine – just thinking about it makes me want to read it all over again.
Hardly Ever Otherwise by Maria Matios (Ukraine)
An intricately woven drama sweeping across multiple family members and seeped in its cultural roots. There is such a strong focus on French, German, and British literature, we tend to forget about their Eastern neighbours and their own rich literature.
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (Barbados)
Finding works of fantasy and science fiction in translation has not been easy – any suggestions, please holler at me on Twitter @ClaudiaHauter – so I was happy to pick up this magical tale for the challenge. It feels more folkloric than fantastical – which makes sense considering it’s based in part on Senegalese folklore – but it’s an ethereal tale nevertheless, filled with great characters and unexpected humour.
The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk (Slovakia)
This is another favourite. Featuring two young female characters who become friends over a shared love of horse-riding, it’s a full-bodied coming-of-age tale told with fervour and grit.
Freelove by Sia Figiel (Samoa)
Another coming-of-age tale, this book by the Samoan author is written in English. But it’s filled with a liberal amount of Samoan words, phrases, and passages – all translated within the text and accompanied by a Samoan-English vocabulary list.
Before by Carmen Boullosa (Mexico)
I chose this book, because it’s touted as something of a ghost story. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but because I went in expecting something quite different, I felt a bit bemused. Stylistic and ethereal, appreciate it for its tone-setting, brooding prose.
Touch by Adania Shibli (Palestine)
This reading challenge throws up so many questions. What is a country? Why? Why not? While these questions are worth noting and broaden the knowledge gleaned from the challenge, they should not consume it. Touch is a tender reminder of how much more our lives encompass than political borders and machinations. The novella revels in the meticulous observations of a young girl’s everyday life, breaking its chapters into reflections inspired by colour, silence, movement, and language.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus)
While Roesdahl’s Vikings deals with history in a very textbook manner, this book by the Belarusian writer offers an interesting counterpoint. It’s an intimate, emotional, and harrowing recounting of memories from World War II: a collection of stories from different women, highlighting the various roles they played in the war beyond mother, wife, and nurse. I listened to the audiobook which is beautifully read by several different women in Slavic accents, giving it more of an authentic feel than a reading in RP would have done.
Heart of Fire by Senait Ghebrehiwet Mehari (Eritrea)
A gripping read about the author’s days spent as a child soldier in Eritrea, somewhat marred by allegations regarding the veracity of her experiences. Regardless, its well written and well-paced never teetering into sentimentality or melodramatics, but also emotionally invested enough, so as not to come across as cold or alienating.
High Tide by Inga Ābele (Latvia)
Ieva finds herself in so many different settings – a prison, the icy countryside, a nightclub. They’re all atmospherically depicted, drawing you right into the heart of her tumultuous story.
The Proof of the Honey by Salwa Al Neimi (Syria)
An erotic contemplation was not exactly what I was expecting from Syria, but I’m glad I got to read something that didn’t focus on the war. Not that it isn’t a relevant subject, but it’s important to recognise (as mentioned before) that citizens everywhere are not defined purely by their nation’s political turmoil; and the author’s reflections provide a fresh approach, as she swings mischievously from academic analysis to scintillating sensuality.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana (Dominican Republic)
Yet another favourite, I found this one on a list of cli-fi book recommendations. Cli-fi is short for climate fiction, which is a fiction genre focusing on the topic of climate change. Since I’m passionate about the importance and urgency of mitigating and adapting to anthropogenic climate change, this book was a must-read. And it’s brilliant! Well-paced and filled with intriguing characters and time travel, I couldn’t put it down.
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (Senegal)
This is another book that endlessly pops up on listicles. And boy did I struggle to find it. When I eventually did, I had to fork out an arm and a leg for it. As the title suggests, it’s written in the form of a letter. I liked the idea, but it became a bit muddling at times, especially in terms of who’s who in the story. I can’t help feeling it would have been better served in a different style. But it’s told with earnestness and a kind of wistfulness, particularly in its final pages.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qui Miaojin (Taiwan)
I loved this story of a college girl intertwined with that of crocodile. Once, while scouring a reading challenge, an interesting suggestion popped up: read a book told from an animal’s point of view. I’ve seen this handled very poorly in another book, but here it works well. Of course, I imagine it’s strongly metaphorical, but that’s probably part of why it works so well. What makes these affecting tales infinitely sadder and more poignant is the knowledge that the author committed suicide at the age of 26.
Midnight Sunburn & 17 Footsteps by Lisa Ducasse (Mauritius)
Poetry is not my thing. I blame school and varsity, where teachers and lecturers forced meaning down our throats and refused to let the words mean anything other than what had been prescribed. This collection of poems I picked up in Mauritius completely changed my mind. It’s another addition on the list that’s not actually a translation. Poems in this woefully slim volume appear in English and French, but the latter have not been translated. Of course I read the English poems, which at least gave me an idea of the poet’s style. And they’re beautiful – and so had to be included on this list.
I hope you’ve found many new and great recommendations for your TBR pile.
Want to share your great women in translation finds? Share them with me on Twitter @ClaudiaHauter.
Get the full list of books read for my challenge, so far, here.
Follow the challenge on Twitter and Instagram using #aroundtheworldinwords.