August is Women in Translation month, and is important because it sits at an intersection that needs increased visibility. The first is the lack of women whose work is translated into English, according to Women in Translation its currently less than 31%. The second is the lack of diversity with only 36% of books translated into English being from non-European countries. The project was initially set up by Meytal Radzinski, a multilingual reader herself, in 2014, and has since taken off with publishing houses, literary journals and most importantly readers taking part. #WITMonth is a big part of the Bookstagram and BookTwitter community and no doubt the increase in translated fiction is down to the popularity it has garnered on social media.
Literary Prizes such as the International Booker Prize, set up in 2015, an annual award for a single book written in another language and translated into English, have also highlighted translated fiction and amplified their appeal to readers. This years winner Geetanjali Shree has spoken about the colonial legacy of writing in English in the Indian subcontinent and this is true for writers across the globe. English is the language of the rich, with wealthy people from ex British Empire countries going to international schools or being educated abroad in English speaking countries. Publishing is also elitist and extremely inbred industry, with the big players dominating across the globe. Non-white authors who write in English tend to be at least middle class, thus being able to afford to write for a living. As a bilingual reader (I read Urdu very slowly and badly) I know that the world of literature and readers are missing out on a wealth of opportunity and discoveries by having access to such a small pool of global writer.
Without doubt, to my mind, I think social media has played a huge role in elevating the popularity of translated fiction. The interconnected and global reach of social media has allowed readers to benefit from learning about authors from Korea to Oman. The #WIT hashtag has just under 900,000 tags on Instagram alone. And I think most of us only know of Women In Translation because of social media, I’ve not seen it being celebrated in my local library or bookshop for example, although I’m sure some do and I hope more organisations will join in the future.
Below are some of my recommendations for Women In Translation (Month?). I’m fully aware that I’m sharing these with barely a week left in August, but I want you to know that you can also pick up these books at ANY time of the year. I appreciate months that raise awareness, but I often worry they can be tokenistic and limiting. I like to read at least one translated book a month, last month it was The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante (Italian) and this month its The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir (French) for bookclub. If you have any suggestions for me, particularly from none European countries, please let me know in the comments below.
Below are 11 books I’ve read and really enjoyed. I have taken the synopsis from the books but if you’d like a review, please visit my Instagram account.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated by Ann Goldstein Language: Italian – Giovanna’s pretty face has changed: it’s turning into the face of an ugly, spiteful adolescent. But is she seeing things as they really are? Where must she look to find her true reflection and a life she can claim as her own? Giovanna’s search leads her to two kindred cities that fear and detest one another: the Naples of the heights, which assumes a mask of refinement, and the Naples of the depths, a place of excess and vulgarity. Adrift, she vacillates between these two cities, falling into one then climbing back to the other. Set in a divided Naples, The Lying Life of Adults is a singular portrayal of the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.
Trees For The Absentees by Ahlam Bsharat Translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland Language: Arabic – Young love, meddling relatives, heart-to-hearts with friends real and imagined – Philistia’s world is that of an ordinary university student, except that in occupied Palestine, and when your father is in indefinite detention, nothing is straightforward. Philistia is closest to her childhood, and to her late grandmother and her imprisoned father, when she’s at her part-time job washing women’s bodies at the ancient Ottoman hammam in Nablus, the West Bank. A midwife and corpse washer in her time, Grandma Zahia taught Philistia the ritual ablutions and the secrets of the body: the secrets of life and death. On the brink of adulthood, Philistia embarks on a journey through her country’s history – a magical journey, and one of loss and centuries of occupation. As trees are uprooted around her, Philistia searches for a place of refuge, a place where she can plant a memory for the ones she’s lost.
Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin translated by Chi-young Kim Language: Korean – When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mother? Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Motheris at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Language; Arabic – Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.
Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay translated by Arunava Sinha. Language: Bengali – A woman arrives alone in Kolkata, taking refuge in a deserted apartment while she waits to undergo an unspecified surgery. In this disorienting city, everything seems new and strange: the pavement-dwellers outside her block, the collective displays of religiosity, the power cuts and alarming acts of arson. Her sense of identity already shaken, when she finds a stained pair of leopard print panties in the otherwise-empty wardrobe she begins to fantasise about their former owner, whose imagined life comes to blur with and overlap her own.
Family Lexicon by NAtalia Ginzburg translated by Jenny McPhee. Language: Italian – Natalia Ginzburg wrote her masterful autobiographical novel Family Lexicon while living in London in the 1960s. Homesick for her Italian family, she summoned them in this celebration of the routines and rituals, in-jokes and insults and, above all, the repeated sayings that make up every family. Giuseppe Levi is a Jewish scientist, consumed by his work and a mania for hiking. Impatient and intractable, he is constantly at odds with his impressionable and wistful wife Lidia yet he cannot be without her. Together they preside over their five children in a house filled with argument and activity, books and politics, visitors, friends and famous faces. But as their children grow up against the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy, the Levi household must become not only a home, but a stronghold against fascism.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang translated by Deborah Smith. Language: Korean – Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Language: Japanese – At school and university, people find Keiko odd, and her family worries she will never fit in. To make them happy, Keiko takes a job at a newly opened convenience store where she finds peace and purpose in simple daily tasks. But in Keiko’s circle it just won’t do for an unmarried woman to spend her time stacking shelves and ordering green tea. As the pressure to find a new job – or worse, a husband – increases, Keiko is forced to take desperate action
Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot. Language: Japanese – In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time. In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, see their sister one last time, and meet the daughter they never got the chance to know. But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold.
Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Language: Arabic – A young woman sits by her father’s deathbed, lamenting her failure to keep a promise to him. A struggling writer walks every inch of the city in search of inspiration, only to find it is much closer than she imagine. A girl collapses from hunger at the side of the road and is rescued by the most unlikely of saviours. In this powerful, debut collection, Rania Mamoun expertly blends the real and imagined to create a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan. From painful encounters with loved ones to unexpected new friendships, Mamoun illuminates the breadth of human experience and explores, with humour and compassion, the alienation, isolation and estrangement that is urban life.
Magma by Thora Hjorleifsdottir translated by Meg Matich. Language: Icelandic – Twenty-year-old Lilja is in love. He is older and beautiful, a Derrida-quoting intellectual. He is also a serial cheater, gaslighter and narcissist. Lilja will do anything to hold on to him. And so she accepts his deceptions and endures his sexual desires. She rationalizes his toxic behaviour and permits him to cross all her boundaries. In her desperation to be the perfect lover, she finds herself unable to break free from the toxic cycle. And then an unexpected ultimatum: an all-consuming love, or the promise of a life reclaimed.