August is Women in Translation month, an annual celebration of writing by women translated into English. I’m late to be sharing anything about this, but in case you can still catch something, bookstores often spotlight titles and hold sales, host special events and readings, and many publishers offer discounts on titles by women in translation. Maybe there’s still time to catch some sales and events, and always next year to look forward to!
Plus I love the awareness that the month creates for reading this special genre – as a woman working in the translation field myself (though you would never want to read a book of the kind of things I edit and proofread in translation), it holds a special place for me. Translation is no easy or straightforward task, and according to an article in The Guardian last year, in 2016 only about a third of books that were translated into English were ones written by women.
Rachel at pace, amore, libri (an absolutely brilliant person to talk books with) inspired me through her own exploration of titles to celebrate this month, and gave me the idea to share some ideas for reading women in translated nonfiction (which seems like an even narrower slice of an already somewhat narrow genre!)
What are your favorite nonfiction titles in translation, are any written by women? Here are some of mine.
1947: Where Now Begins, by Elisabeth Asbrink, translated from Swedish by Fiona Graham – Asbrink examines a postwar year, month by month, through the lens of international figures in entertainment, the arts, politics, and ordinary people in Palestine as regional tensions build and the wheels of diplomacy turn (and so much more.) Threaded through these stories on a global scale is the very personal one of Asbrink’s own father, then a Hungarian child in a refugee center. I loved the surprising glimpses, like into Billie Holiday’s life that year, the writing that came across so lyrical and poetic even in translation, and the surprising accuracy of the subtitle – I couldn’t believe how many points Asbrink highlights that are still so relevant or directly influential in world events and politics today. A short but powerfully affecting book. Amazon
Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad, by Asne Seierstad, translated from Norwegian by Sean Kinsella – Journalist Seierstad’s latest explores the lead-up to two young Somali sisters’ flight from a comfortable life in the Oslo suburbs to war-torn Syria and Islamic State. She follows their path to radicalization alongside their desperate, broken father’s attempts to extract them from Raqqa and bring them home, or even to get any information at all about their safety and whereabouts. Thorough, rattling, and page-turning narrative nonfiction journalism. Amazon
Aetherial Worlds, White Walls, Pushkin’s Children: Writing on Russia and Russians by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Jamey Gambrell – The first two are short story collections, although at least one story in this year’s finally released in English Aetherial Worlds could be an essay – it mirrors and pulls from an autobiographical piece Tolstaya published about the eye surgery that led her to look to her inner worlds after being temporarily blinded to the outer one, thus beginning her writing career. White Walls is my favorite short story collection, and even in translation her work is extraordinary – dreamy, eerie, witty, a blend of magical realism and all-too-real Russian history with plenty of autobiographical elements. Pushkin’s Children is her excellent nonfiction collection, essays on politics, culture, literature, and Russians as a people. Amazon
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster; The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich, multiple translators from Russian – Even if you’re oversaturated in World War II history, if you haven’t read Unwomanly Face of War, I’m confident in saying your experience is incomplete. 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Alexievich’s oral history of female Red Army soldiers is transformative, and like nothing else I’ve ever read. Voices from Chernobyl (Amazon link) is similarly affecting and gut-wrenching while revealing something so deep and rich about human experience in tragedy, a deceitful government and so much more.
Interestingly, in her recent essay collection For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, author Laura Esther Wolfson, a translator herself, writes of some discrepancies between Alexievich’s translated work and the original, plus a little about the somewhat controversial translation methods of the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s an intriguing take on the nuances and potential pitfalls of translation, and Wolfson explores her own work in the field as well. Although not itself a translated work, it provides good insight into the topic. Amazon
A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary, by Anonymous, translated from German by Philip Boehm – Although it remains listed as author anonymous, it’s now known that this diary of a German woman in occupied Berlin at the end of World War II was authored by journalist Marta Hillers. It was published anonymously to spare her the shame or ridicule of what she and other women went through during the mass rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers in the war’s immediate aftermath. It’s harrowing but moving, and very revealing of this hectic, uncertain time, not to mention excellently translated. In choosing to remain anonymous Hillers also allowed this story to stand in for the experiences of so many women who endured the same as she did. Amazon
The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir, by Maude Julien, translated from French by Adriana Hunter – If this was fiction, you’d think it goes too far. Maude Julien was raised to be a strong, fearless, “ultimate survivor” superhuman by her tyrannical father and manipulated mother. He’s a controlling and delusional figure whose abuses (tortures, really) against Maude and her mother (whose connection to her husband is a bizarre and disturbing story on its own) are equal parts cruel and astounding. This could’ve been an oppressively miserable memoir, but Julien imbues it with her inherent strength and a bravery that she somehow cultivated despite her upbringing. Reading about her later life and work is an uplifting experience – she not only survived, she triumphed, and dedicated her life to helping others who’ve overcome similar abuse. It’s an immersive, consuming story but Maude’s voice comes across vibrantly in a rich and lovely translation. Amazon
The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, by Brigitte Hamann, translated from the German by Ruth Hein – If you’re not already familiar with the story of beautiful, unhappy Elisabeth, the glamorous and tragic Empress of Austria, you are in for a delight. Sisi’s story has it all – royal drama, intrigue, infighting, murders, madness, fabulous gowns, adventure, and it all ends with her tragic assassination.
The basics are that she was a happily wild-and-free Bavarian princess who married Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef for love as well as political connection, but she hated the staid, stuffy court life of Vienna. Sisi indulged her wanderlust with sailing, traveling, and building palaces in Corfu and Madeira, never resting in one place for long. I’m not big on royalty biographies if they’re not Russian but Sisi’s story is an incredible one with never a dull moment, and this is considered her definitive biography. Amazon
Have you read any of these, or did you read anything else in honor of Women in Translation month? What are your favorite works by women in translation?