Nonfiction Titles Celebrating Women in Translation Month

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.

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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.

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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.

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Aetherial Worlds, White WallsPushkin’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.

 

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear DisasterThe Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War IIZinky Boys: Soviet Voices from Afghanistan, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets 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. Alexievich’s oral history of female Red Army soldiers is transformative, and like nothing else I’ve ever read. Voices from Chernobyl 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.

I haven’t read Zinky Boysabout Soviet soldiers during the war in Afghanistan, or Secondhand Timeabout the end of the Soviet Union, but they’ve gotten similarly glowing reviews and acclaim: Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Have you read any of these, or did you read anything else in honor of Women in Translation month? What did I miss – what are some other great works by women in translation?

Affiliate links from Book Depositorya great site (I buy there) offering free shipping, worldwide. I get a small percentage of the sale – you pay nothing extra – if you use my links to buy books seen here. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

29 thoughts on “Nonfiction Titles Celebrating Women in Translation Month

  1. Oh I’m SO excited you did this post. So many fantastic titles to look up! Aside from the ones we talked about before, you’ve also reminded me that I bought a copy of A Woman in Berlin years ago that I still haven’t gotten around to reading and I’d really like to do that soon. The Only Girl in the World sounds brilliant as well.

    Also, what language do you do translation work in? I had an internship once in a museum in Italy which was mainly translating archives stuff into English, and where the texts themselves were pretty boring it definitely made me appreciate just how tricky translation can be and how much more credit we should be giving translators!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A Woman in Berlin is so good! I read it years ago and it’s still with me with so strongly. It’s a really powerful story.

      I translate from German to English, but the bulk of what I do is editing and proofreading work on translations done by others in that language pair. I prefer that to doing the actual translations myself. But because my work is primarily in various business sectors and even that has so many nuances, sensitivities, fine differentiations and the like, I can’t even imagine the effort that goes into literary translation!! (Although I recently undertook translating a creative nonfiction book as a personal project, so I’m about to learn more…we’ll see how it goes!) I have so much respect for people doing that work and it makes it so extraordinary when you read a work that you can tell has been brilliantly translated. As you know from doing that kind of archival work…also so difficult!

      I’m so glad you wrote your excellent post and we had a conversation about it, thanks for the inspiration to contribute something to this month! It’s such a great event to celebrate 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah that’s amazing! One of my best friends is German and I’ve spent some time with her over there and it is the most gloriously beautiful country. I’ve attempted to teach myself a bit of German but recently have gotten very lazy about it, but I just love the language. Good luck with your personal project! That sounds like it’s going to be challenging and rewarding. I can’t even imagine how difficult literary translation must be. A lot of my favorite classics are translated (namely Les Mis and the Iliad) and I find it so fascinating that you can read two translations that feel like two entirely different books, and it’s also funny how different translations appeal to different people. It’s so much more of an art than a science. I don’t know if you’ve read any Han Kang but even if you haven’t, this article is fascinating: https://www.koreaexpose.com/deborah-smith-translation-han-kang-novel-vegetarian/ (I started reading that article you linked to about Russian translation but had to stop partway through – I’ll finish it later today!)

        And yes, likewise it has been a pleasure discussing this with you!

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  2. A wonderful list and a great topic to highlight! I’ve read a few of these but not 1947, which I was just looking at in a shop this afternoon and thinking how fascinating it sounds. Two encounters with in it one day prove that clearly the universe thinks I should read it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow thank you so much for these brilliant recommendations that I now have to go and add to my TBR! I particularly like the look of the WWII, Chernobyl and The Only Girl In The World. Definitely options for Non Fiction November, as if I didn’t have enough on my non fiction shelves – haha! 😜

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i really missed visiting your blog because i was recuperating and visiting your blog and discovering new books to read was hazardous to my eyes.
    i read some the books mentioned here and A Woman in Berlin had so much profound affect in me and what women faces in war and after war.
    since you now am bi fan of anything that talks about Austria The and Reluctant Empress will be interesting thing to read.
    recommending books to you is not easy since you either read it or heard about it
    It’s Only Blood: Shattering the Taboo of Menstruation by Anna Dahlqvist which tells the problems women face due to lack of healthy tampons and how it affects young girls and stop them from actively focusing in exams to not playing sports for fear of being known that they were menstruating.
    sad but also an eye opening for males also

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How are you doing, Ina? How are your eyes? I hope your recuperation is going well and that it means you’ve had some helpful treatment! I’m glad to see you back!

      I also loved A Woman in Berlin and glad to see you did too, like you said, it really is profoundly affecting. I know you’ve been trying to read more about some European history so I think you’d love the Reluctant Empress, it’s excellent and very informative about that time period.

      I think I did read another review of the book you mention – I didn’t know you’d read that one too! Really an important topic, especially the health and social aspect. I think I need to check it out. Thanks as always for your fantastic recommendations!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. am really doing fine Ren and my eyes are recuperating very well thanks for your concern.
        you blog is heaven for non fiction readers and every time i visit it i discover many new books thanks to you
        i believe this book is important to read especially for men since they don’t know what women faces and how many equates between condom and tampons as luxury stuff

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m SO glad to hear that you’re recuperating well. Take care of you!!

        Always happy for recommendations from you, you come across such great stuff in your reading! I remember there was an uproar in US a few years ago about a luxury tax on tampons, so ridiculous that would even be thought of as a luxury item..and I can’t imaine how people in other countries might be affected by prices on them. I’ll be on the lookout for that one, it sounds really important!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks a lot Ren I recuperated a lot this month.
        Well it’s amazing how condoms are subsidized but not tampons we men are sometimes really assholes who doesn’t understand the problems women face every day but books like this teach us a lot

        Like

    1. I’m so glad you liked it! It does seem like there’s a dearth of translated nonfiction and I think I’ve read more examples that were poorly done or somewhat clunky than those that have been really excellent. You’ll have to let me know if you come across some great translated nonfiction titles!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! You know my interests well – I actually read a review copy of that one and absolutely loved it. I really recommend it, it’s a great blend of historical detective story and literary history, definitely deserves the buzz it’s been getting!

      Like

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