8 Nonfiction Titles for Women in Translation Month 2019 #WITMonth

August is Women in Translation month, an event started by Meytal Radzinski of Biblibio to encourage reading more of the too-few books written by women that are translated into English each year (statistics are a bit hard to come by, but women writers only account for around a third of what’s translated.) You can learn more about it here. There are various happenings around literary sites and blogs, plus bookstore and literary events and discounts from publishers.

This year they’re also asking for readers’ votes on the 100 best books by women in translation. Send your posts and picks to @Read_WIT and use #WITMonth and #100BestWIT.

Nonfiction is an even smaller slice of what gets translated into English, let alone by women, so all the more reason to highlight it. I’m sharing reviews this month of books I’ve read recently by women in translation, plus the titles I’ve read over the past year listed below. And here’s last year’s list of recent reads and favorites if you want a little more translated nonfiction inspiration. What nonfiction in translation by women do you love?

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I’m Writing You From Tehran: A Granddaughter’s Search For Her Family’s Past and Their Country’s Future, by Delphine Minoui, translated from French by Emma Ramadan — A journalist moves from France to her family’s native Iran to research her grandfather’s life and examine it in the context of the country’s current turbulent state.

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Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky — Alexievich’s most recent work translated into English is a collection of harrowing but powerful oral histories from people who survived the Second World War as children, many in the Soviet Union, looking back on their experiences and sifting through memories.

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But You Did Not Come Back, by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, translated from French by Sandra Smith — Loridan-Ivens and her father were captured as Jews in Vichy France and shipped to Auschwitz; she survived and returned, he didn’t. This gorgeous memoir written near the end of her long life is loosely structured as a letter to him about the life she lived after coming back and how his absence was felt.

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Rasputin and Other Ironies, by Teffi, translated from Russian by Robert Chandler — Beloved Russian satirist Teffi’s memoir-in-essays of moments in her life and people she’s known, including major figures in recent Russian history (Lenin, Rasputin). It’s a good introduction to what a quirky, significant figure she was herself, especially in the Russian émigré literary world.

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The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, translated from Dutch by Jane Brown — Activist and former Dutch parliamentarian Ali’s first book (and the only one not originally written in English) is a collections of essays around women’s issues (and much more, really) in Islam. She touches on some of the autobiographical stories and events she would later expand on brilliantly in her memoir Infidel. (review)

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Within the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg, translated from Russian by Ian Boland– Ginzburg’s flawless Journey Into the Whirlwind ended with her en route to the Gulag for alleged political crimes during Stalin’s Terror. This second memoir recalls the years she spent in Siberia, working as a medical assistant, and the life she built upon her release. She’s an extraordinary writer and storyteller, and here describes focusing intently on retaining events and details in order to write about them. (review)

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Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich — The period around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition into a new Russia is endlessly fascinating to me. This oral history collection draws from Alexievich’s talks with ordinary people who lived through this time as they reflect on the changes with a wide and often unexpected range of reactions. Nothing has ever helped me understand Communism and the former Soviet Union more. (review)

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The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, by Dunya Mikhail, translated from Arabic by Max Weiss — Poet and journalist Mikhail tells, through the lens of heroic Iraqi beekeeper Abdullah Shrem, the terrifying stories of the women brutalized by ISIS who managed to escape with his help. He organized escape networks at his own peril. Many of the women were Yazidis, an ethnic minority heavily targeted and enslaved by ISIS. (review)

Have you read any of these? What nonfiction in translation by women do you recommend?

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31 thoughts on “8 Nonfiction Titles for Women in Translation Month 2019 #WITMonth

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    1. This time around they were all a bit serious, weren’t they. I almost wonder if it’s an easier sell when nonfiction is on a heavier topic since humor can be so culture and language-specific and hard to translate. I’m really not sure. Or maybe I just gravitate towards them” And I’m not surprised if you haven’t read any nonfiction in translation, it’s such a sadly small genre! I wish it was better represented.

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  1. Oooh I’m so excited to see this post! I’ve been wanting an audiobook to listen to but I can’t really do fiction on audio, for whatever reason, and I was wondering what nonfiction would work for WITmonth. I’ll take a look at all of these. Last year I listened to The Only Girl in the World on your recommendation and that was amazing. At a glance But You Did Not Come Back sounds incredible and gutting, I might give that one a try.

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    1. That book was amazing! But You Did Not Come Back might be good for audio because it’s pretty short, I have trouble following anything longer or convoluted if I’m listening to it without some visual accompaniment. But it’s not too involved.

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      1. I was so excited to see that it was under 3 hours – this is my ideal audiobook length, lol. My Overdrive didn’t have it but it was only $5 on audible so that was a no brainer.

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      2. I have like 30 minutes left – I can’t say the audiobook is great (why, why, why do narrators feel the need to infuse their narration with FEELING and MELODRAMA when the words themselves are already so heavy) but the book itself is terrific and horrifying. Ugh, this poor woman.

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      3. Finished this morning and wow, what an ending – those last few lines were devastating. Fantastic book, thank you for the rec. But, yes, all of the audiobooks I have ever enjoyed have had very flat narration. Maybe with the exception of Born a Crime, because Trevor Noah is such an animated person and that audiobook felt more like someone sitting down to tell you a story than narrating words off a page. Otherwise, I wish narrators would keep it simple!!!

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      4. That last exchange was so haunting. I don’t like to wallow in misery stories but I did read a lot of that book with tears in my eyes. That seemed like such a difficult experience to talk about — that coming back and reintegrating was so hard when people expected them to be joyful — even though it was such a common one for camp survivors. Just so sad but I thought she found the way to put it into words so well. Glad I could recommend it to you!

        I would imagine Trevor Noah’s delivery would be amazing, but he’s a gifted performer. They get professional voice actors to do a lot of audiobooks, but some of them are still so atrocious. I remember when I tried listening years ago (I really can’t do audiobooks though, I’m strictly podcasts now) I was so annoyed by male readers who did female voices. It was too funny to believe and takes you completely out of whatever you’re listening to! I don’t know which is worse, the faux female voices or flat affect.

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  2. I both enjoy and have taught Inger Christensen’s poetry collection Alphabet, which is translated by Susanna Nied. She uses the Fibonacci math sequence and the alphabet to explore war, and I just love it. For Alphabet, Christensen won the American-Scandinavian PEN Translation Prize.

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  3. I don’t know that I’ve read any nonfiction in translation, so find this list very helpful! I’m adding The Beekeeper and Secondhand Time to my TBR immediately, and look forward to checking out the others a bit more thoroughly! Also excited for those forthcoming reviews. 🙂

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      1. I really wasn’t sure but I thought I remembered seeing an interview with him! Translated nonfiction in general really is a limited category. I tried looking for some stats on it but couldn’t find much that was useful.

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    1. The style was really different in that one, it took me awhile to get into. I liked the women’s stories, less so when the author wrote in her own voice because she didn’t provide any context of how she knew her interview subject, or came to the story, anything like that. It was a bit odd. But I really liked their stories, haunting as they were!

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  4. Have not read any of these, inspiring topics but too upsetting for me. I guess that’s why I enjoy tales of corporate greed and downfall: not going to cry when someone loses their corporate jet. I have Anne Ernaux The Years on my list, that would qualify as “women in translation.”*

    *since reading Dreyer I no longer know where to put the blinking inverted commas🤪

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    1. Oh I had’t heard of that book! It sounds interesting, I see The Guardian gave it a great review. And yes, it was a pretty heavy group this time around. Oddly a lot of the books in translation I’ve read by male authors were much lighter and the selection by women pretty dark. Hmm.

      I know, his book always makes me think twice now too! As I understood it the inverted commas are dependent on British or American English, I think you did it American-style 🙂 Punctuation outside quotations is preferred in British English, right? I really hope so because I just finished copy editing a book and did all the quotations that way 😂

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  5. You are right about the inverted commas, just checked Dreyer – we are supposed to leave full stops or commas outside the closing quote marks; maybe I have been doing it wrong all my life 😲 oh the shame! 😉

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    1. And I was doing it the wrong way (for American style) my whole life for short bits in quotation marks that aren’t necessarily quoted speech (“scrambled eggs,”) always putting a comma outside of them because it just looks weird to me inside! That book helped me so much, I wish it had come along much sooner!

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