The United States has a plethora of amazing authors writing in English, but August is not their time. Women in Translation is our focus for this month. We’ve all heard that reading, especially literary fiction, increases empathy, well what better way to cultivate our capacity for compassion than to read the works by women who live, or lived, in non-English speaking countries?
As important as it is to talk about women authors whose works have been translated, it is equally important to talk about the smart, passionate people who make it possible for us to read women in translation: translators. Translators are not simply finding words in one language that equates to the words in another language. They are rebuilding the novel or poem or nonfiction work from the ground up and using the grammar and syntax of another language as their blueprint. Whether updating a text for a modern audience, abiding by literal translations, or an interpretive one that captures the spirit of a text, translating a book takes a very, very long time. Translators consider how a story captures the depth of emotion, audacities and subtleties of character, and an author’s style. The landscape of the written word would lack color and vibrancy if not for the work of translators. Sadly, this work is not often acknowledged; one clear example is that a translator’s name does not always appear on the cover alongside the author’s. To remedy that I’d like to share some of my favorite translators: Ariana Hunter (she’s an award-winning translator worked with Herve Le Tellier, a French writer I adore) and Megan McDowell (who did an amazing job translating two of Samanta Schweblin’s works).
Last week’s post was about Latin American women authors, this week I’m sharing with you all a list of women writers from Europe. This list is in no way exhaustive, nor is exclusion or inclusion on the list a reflection of the merit of the authors’ talent nor that of a country’s literary traditions. This list is simply a guide to some of my favorite translated books by women. I have tried to spotlight women authors who are not commonly known outside of their native country. Use this as a guide and not as a rulebook.
The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, translated by Adrian Nathan West
Marianne Fritz must have been clear in her ambitions for this novel. In less than 200 pages, Fritz paints a picture of the realities of life in Austria just after WWII. This novel is dark and darkly humorous while scrutinizing the hypocrisies and cruelties of her fellow Austrians. This novel is bizarre in its content but clear in its stance.
Belladonna by Dasa Drndic, translated by Celia Hawkesworth
The late Drndic was very critical of her country’s role during WWII. She puts the history of Croatia in the spotlight in this novel about psychologist Andreas Ban, a man who no longer practices psychology. He is also a writer who no longer writes. He begins to look through what’s left of his life. He recalls past lovers, the fall of Yugoslavia, and the Nazi regime.
This book is about the horrors of history and the way that the present is a scar of the past.
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Celia Hawesworth
This novel shifts its form as it moves from themes of loss, aging, history, and art. Starting at the Berlin Zoo with the death of a walrus, then moving to Holocaust survivors, to a romantic encounter in Lisbon, to characters who live in exile, Dubravka’s novel reads more like a compilation of fragmented stories. Together they show the breadth of a moment and the depth of being human.
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated by Martin Aitken
A woman recounts a brief yet intense affair with her lover as she is traveling to see her ailing mother. The woman confronts the fallout of her affair and the grief over her mother’s struggle with cancer. The narrative revolves around the questions, What does it mean to lose someone? Is something ever lost? Can stability ever be sustained? The novel is impressionistic, quiet, and poetic.
Klougart has garnered comparisons to Anne Carson, Joan Didion, and Virginia Woolf. The magic of her work is the striking imagery and beguiling prose.
The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinislao, translated by Lola Rogers
This is best described as “literary speculative fiction.” In the spirit of The Handmaid’s Tale, this story is set in an alternative present day that follows from an alternative present. The Eusistocractic Republic of Finland has engineered a new subhuman of women called eloi. The eloi are submissive and are used solely for procreation. Independent, intelligent woman are used for menial labor and sterilized to keep from spreading their undesirable genes. An eloi named Vanna seeks to find Manna, her sister, and needs money for her search. Vanna befriends a man name Jare. They begin to buy and sell a drug that the Health Authority deems dangerous. Manna resurfaces, and Jare soon comes into contact with a religious cult that possesses the Core of the Sun, chilis that cause hallucinations.
This story is critical of oppressive systems and the way they shape friendships, family, and a way to a happy life.
Based on a True Story by Delphine De Vigan, translated by George Miller (publishes in English Jan 2021)
De Vigan blurs the line between a memoir and a thriller in this engrossing novel. The story follows a character named Delphine, a writer on her way to becoming a household name, and L., a woman who befriends Delphine and changes her life forevermore. L. is exciting, alluring, and the embodiment of sophistication. She is what Delphine has always wanted to be. As the pair of friends spend more and more time together, L. inserts herself into Delphine’s life to past the point of appropriate.
This work is about the line between truth and fiction, between adoration and obsession. This is perfect for fans of psychological thrillers.
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie Ndiaye, translated by Jordan Stump
On the surface his surreal novel is about a woman who is married to her second husband. He becomes injured and is given help from a neighbor. Marie Ndiaye’s novel is creepy, emotional, very mysterious, and cannot be succinctly summarized. Ndiaye’s prose creates an atmosphere of paranoia and shifting boundaries of relationships between characters. At various points in the novel, you will have no idea of what will happen next but cannot stop turning the page.
Letti Park by Judith Hermann, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Judith Hermann’s voice is best and only described as beautiful and enthralling. Each story lasts only a moment, yet nothing is lacking. The characters are spouses, friends, lovers, but in most cases these stories are about when who are tangentially acquainted. What transpires when one life comes encounters another in ordinary situations? Hemann captures melancholy of the unremarkable and the wonder of how life happens.
River by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith
Kinsey’s novel is a love letter to nature and life. A woman moves to a suburb of London and walks along the river Lea which feeds into the Thames. As she wanders along the river, her thoughts also wander. She contemplates the connectedness between her life and the rivers she’s lived by, such as the Rhine, Saint Lawrence, and a stream in Tel Aviv. This poetic meditation is about memory, leaving and staying, and is an amalgamation of travelogue, memoir, and novel.
Evening Descends Upon the Hills (Stories from Naples) by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee
This is also known under the title Neapolitan Chronicles. If you read and loved the Neopaltian novels by Elena Ferrante, you should pick up this collection of short stories because it inspired Ferrante. These stories are written in a journalistic style and follow the lives of residents living in Naples shortly after WWII. Some residents are well off while others are not. Some stories follow women and someone follow men. The characters are detailed. Ortese shows us people as their full selves, void of romanization, sentimentality or trite aphorisms. People are living lives as complicated and fully as they can.
The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg, translate by Frances Frenaye
Natalia Ginzburg is experiencing a resurgence of interest, which is in large part thanks to New Directions. Ginzburg was an important Italian author writing in the twentieth century.
Her novella opens with “I shot him between the eyes,” instantly bringing the reader into the action of the novel. Although this is a quick read — it is less than 100 pages — Ginzburg’s story about marriage and the expectations of the role of the wife and the role of the husband is mighty, luminous, and dark.
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, translated by Kerri A. Pierce
Mathea Martinsen lives in an apartment complex with her husband and has recently turned 100 years old. Mathea narrates the novella, and we quickly learn of her idiosyncrasies. She deals with almost-crippling social anxiety and has built a life of routine. When there is an apartment-wide meeting she works up the nerve to attend, but decides ultimately to forgo the event.
In a stream-of-consciousness style, Skomsvold reflects on aging and the delusion that a good life is an expansive and adventurous one.
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak
Wioletta was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize so you know this book will be worth your time. These interlocking stories are about the lives of people touched by the history of Poland. In each story there is beauty and political strife, interwoven with elements of magical realism.
Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated by Philip Boehm
Hannah Krall’s novel of a love story spanning sixty years and international borders is unforgettable. In the spirit of transparency: this is a Holocaust story. The husband of a woman named Izolda Rosenberg is taken from their home in the slums of Warsaw to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She risks her life and confronts extraordinary challenges to free him. She flees her native Poland through the sewers and becomes interned at Auschwitz. This story is both equal parts warm and tragic.
White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Jamey Gambrell and Antonina W. Bouis
Weaving together folklore and fairytales with relatable characters and recognizable motivations, Tatyana Tolstaya is a master of her craft. This collection of short stories are enchanting and textured. She captures the feelings of otherness in all its many forms. She’s a leading contemporary Russian writer in which is no surprise as she is related to Leo Tolstoy.
My First Bikini by Elena Medel, translated by Lizzie Davis
This was first written when Elena Medel was 16! Here she unpacks ideas and expectations of young womanhood by focusing on the most well-known article of women’s swimwear: the bikini. Medel is an accomplished poet and an outspoken women’s rights activist in her native Spain. Her poems are incisive, ferocious, and comforting.
Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennet
Cultures are strange creatures. Culture is what makes a community eat what it eats, speak how it speaks, celebrate how it celebrates, and believe what it believes. Catalan author Merce Rodoreda’s posthumously published slim novel is set in an isolated village in the mountains that is ruled by rituals. The narrator is a young boy of fourteen who witnesses these rituals that are both meaningful to the society and violent.
This novel tries to answer the question when does a society become oppressive. Rodoreda was skilled writer and thinker. The story is still relevant as we continue to see how practices and values of older generations may not be the best one moving forward.
An Elderly Lady is Up to Now Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy
These short stories are brutal — literally. Maude is an 88-year old woman who is traveling for the holidays. We follow her exploits as she murders victim after victim. This book is rife with dark humor and is certainly not for everyone. If you like quick, snappy books with a quirky main character, I’d say that you should check this one out. It’s hilarious and highly entertaining.
Valerie by Sara Stridsberg, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
This is the English debut of Sara Stridsberg, one of Sweden’s most celebrated authors. Stridsberg uses history as a suggestion and lets her imagination fill the holes in this novel that tells the story of Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol in April of 1988. Throughout the narrative are imagined interviews with Valerie’s mother and sessions between Valerie and a therapist. Valeria comes alive as a woman who was rejected from institutions and family and drawn into the circle of The Factory.
This recontextualization of a woman maligned is poignant, thought-provoking, and gorgeously written.
Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattstroem, translated by Kate Lambert
Ebba Witt-Brattstroem is a gifted writer. This portrait of marriage or a rather a soon-to-be former marriage is told from both the husband and wife’s perspective. We are shown the many ways that two people experiencing the same thing have different interpretations. The woman and man are not named. Each section begins with “She said” for the wife and “He said” for the husband. The characters are abrasive, abusive, bitter, and reflective. They talk past each other in rare moments. The conflict of the marriage becomes clearer and clearer with each page.
There is a gentle poeticism to the story that only Witt-Brattstroem can bring.