Celebrate Women in Translation Month With These 13 Translated Books

Fewer than 30% of the translated books published in the U.S. are written by women. We’re missing out.

Word map with pins
Photo by Mana Amir on Unsplash

Here is a fun fact: only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations. Here is an even more fun fact, out of that measly percentage, fewer than 30% are books written by women. Math is hard, but you don’t need a calculator to realize that these figures mean less than 1% of books published in the U.S. are written by women who work primarily in non-English languages. French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Russian, Italian: There are countless books cut out of the literary landscape for monolingual English readers, and the few that do make it into translation rarely get the credit they deserve.

Back in 2014, a blogger had the epiphany that should have come much sooner: We need an official month for this. Meytal Radzinski dubbed August the month for Women in Translation. Her goal was two-fold: (1) “Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation,” and (2) “Read more books by women in translation.”

The more we read, the more we talk, and the more we talk, the more incentives we give publishers to translate more women. That’s the circle of publishing life. The best way to broaden your book horizon is to look outside of the mere 15% of the world that speaks and writes in English. That’s enough with the numbers, let’s get to the books and the women to whom we dedicate the month of Women in Translation.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Winner of the Nobel Prize in 2015, Alexievich puts into writing the oral histories of Russian women at war. These are not glorified tales of patriotic bravery but the quiet voices that history books erase. Alexievich built The Unwomanly Face of War from interviews with gunners, pilots, tank drivers, and nurses alike, all of whom were women that shared in the hardening experience of World War II. The testimonies given here bring forth the lost memories of how women survive changed but unbroken.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori

The first of Murata’s novels to be translated into English, Convenience Store Woman is a masterpiece of defying expectations. Keiko Furukura finds comfort in conforming to a preset role, and life behind her convenience store counter is exactly that. Even after eighteen years she finds herself perfectly content, but Japanese societal pressures and familial concern threaten her state of bliss. Convenience Store Woman is a hilarious tale of rejecting conventions told by a narrator whose unique perspective is a charming as its is fun.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade, trans. Samuel Rutter

Two sisters return to live in Tierra de Chá, the Spanish village where their grandfather died a strange death. From the psychic to the dentist, everyone keeps secrets in this village, and so long as those secrets remain unspoken the tentative peace continues. However, gossip has a way of seeping through even the smallest cracks. Praised for her storytelling that takes from the best of Spanish oral tradition, Sánchez-Andrade is a treat to read with magical realism, intrigue, and the kind of insight that makes even the strangest of characters recognizable at their core.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba, trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

As a school teacher, Ramatoulaye Fall is in a unique position to witness the trials of her fellow women, but her desire for progress is difficult to reconcile with a love for her country’s traditions—traditions which happen to be fading before her eyes. Polygamy and the suppression of women has inflicted only suffering, but what about the trades, the arts, and the culture that made her nation what it was? Ba, praised as one of the greatest African writers of the 20th century, tackles tradition versus modernity in this originally French semi-biographical novel on femininity.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, trans. Geraldine Harcourt

A twelve-part story run in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo, Territory of Light centers around an apartment building so overflowing with light that the single mother and daughter pair who inhabit it must squint when they come up the stairs. The apartment represents joy, safety, but also loneliness for the woman who finds herself alone battling for a divorce and for a future for her child. Each part of the story is an episode in their life from walks in the park to building repairs. Though mundane in subject matter, the book is written with a haiku’s lyricism that survives the translation from Japanese to English and explores the duality of isolation and peace.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, trans. Megan McDowell

Worms. The word alone can make you wriggle in discomfort, but this book takes creepy conversations to a whole new level as a young boy whispers questions into a bedridden woman’s ear. Translated from Spanish, the novel reads almost like a play with its flowing dialogue between the two. The boy asks about his mother, and the woman in the bed answers as best she can. Mother-child relationships fracture, and all the while the worms that open the story lurk unaddressed beneath the surface.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, trans. Jennifer Croft

In a collection of thinly tied fragments Tokarczuk experiments the implications of travel. A doctor studies the anatomical purpose of the Achilles tendon for motion; a child stares out a window watching others depart; a dead man’s heart journeys from one city to another to attend a second funeral. The bits and pieces come together to make up a whole that philosophizes on the fluidity of space. Flights, from the Polish Bieguni, took home the Man Booker International Prize this year for its hodgepodge of comings, goings, and all the motions in between.

Umami by Laia Jufresa, trans. Sophie Hughes

Jufresa’s debut novel examines the end of grief as a rich experience with a flavor you can’t quite pin down. In a small housing complex just outside of Mexico City — each house named after a different taste — every resident has a story of grieve held close to the heart. It begins with a little girl planting a garden whose little sister is not longer by her side, but the novel does not dwell on individual pains. It moves, it heals, and it reveals the binding power of empathy.

The Crossing by Samar Yazbek, trans. Nashwa Gowanlock

Samar Yazbek was in exile from her native home of Syria, but regardless of the danger, regardless of the guns, fences, and soldiers, she did not let anyone stop her from going back. In 2012, Yazbek snuck her way into the country to collect testimonies of what their home had become. The stories recorded in The Crossing are written plainly from the perspective of a journalist, but they also hold the ache of one who knows the glare of a sniper’s scope and fears not for herself but for her fellow countrymen who are all struggling to survive.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, trans. Deborah Smith

The Vegetarian tells in three parts Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian. Yeong-hye morphs into a grotesque, rebellious creature, one to be coveted by her husband and disciplined by her family. Piece by piece her bodily autonomy is ripped away under their hands until all she has left to control is her appetite. Han Kang’s novel spares no punches in it’s portrayal of violation. Allegorical in nature, The Vegetarian reimagines personal suffering and the attempt to escape through passivity.

People in the Room by Norah Lange, trans. Charlotte Whittle

A girl in Buenos Aires gazes voyeuristically into her neighbors’ house and fantasizes about the life the three women lead. Each of them is enclosed, the girl and the women, and enclosure demands escape. The girl’s imaginings as she peers through her window are one form of escape, and in those imaginings she creates countless more: a life of criminality, murder, her neighbors’ death and her own. Observation and hallucination become one as the girl’s desperation increases to reach from her own enclosure to theirs.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, trans. Katrina Dodson

The Complete Stories features 89 stories taken from nine collections completed over the course of Lispector’s career. Lispector’s work has a reputation for being absolutely insane and more than a little brilliant. In this compilation, the narratives range from a housewife blundering through an existential crisis to a narrator contemplating an egg and that egg’s implications on the nature of the universe. The stories consistently find ways to confine amorphous thought into concrete words without losing any of the playful ambiguity of the original Portuguese.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, trans. Christina MacSweeney

No one can spin a story like a salesman. A loquacious auctioneer, Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez, puts a series of priceless artifacts up for sale: teeth straight from the mouths of the greatest thinkers in history. They belonged to Virginia Woolf, Borges, and maybe even Plato himself. As the prices skyrocket, Highway keeps to himself that the only mouth those teeth ever inhabited was his own. Dry and satirical, The Story of My Teeth is best known for its superb technical execution, with layers upon layers of philosophical thought that demand the novel be not just read but pondered.

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