8 Nonfiction Titles for Women in Translation Month #WITMonth

It’s August, which means: Women in Translation month!

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This is far and away my favorite literary event of the year. Meytal Radzinski of Bibliobio began this initiative in 2014, which serves to increase awareness of and engagement with translated works written by women. Female-authored books comprise only around 30% of those translated into English each year. Nonfiction constitutes an even smaller proportion of this, which is why I especially love being able to share and get recommendations in this area. There are also various events hosted on and offline throughout the month, so it’s worth checking at your favorite bookstores and publishers to see how they’re participating.

As my contribution, I like to highlight the translated nonfiction I’ve read over the last year to give some ideas for reading this month, including titles newly published this year (and a majority of books translated from French instead of Russian for once!). Links are to my reviews where they exist, and I’ll be trying my best to post reviews for the others throughout the month (“try” being the key word here — I’m on a sort of working vacation after being allowed out of the US to visit my husband in Europe, so things have been/will continue to be a bit slow round here considering!).

And here are my past posts of translated nonfiction by women from 2019 and 2018. What are you reading for #WITMonth this year? Any nonfiction on your list?

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Of Morsels and Marvels, by Maryse Condé, translated from French by Richard Philcox, 2020 – French Caribbean author Condé’s essays are loosely connected to food, cooking, and memorable meals, and include her passionate defense of the culinary arts as being just as worthy an occupation as writing, despite its cultural reputation of being not as lofty a pursuit. It focuses heavily on her travels and work experiences all over the world, interspersed with musings on what she felt and how she looks back on it all. It was a lovely glimpse into her life, and I love her strong voice.

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Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany, by Marie Jalowicz Simon, translated from German by Anthea Bell, 2015 – Shortly before her death Jalowicz Simon’s son urged her to tell her remarkable story of wartime survival in Berlin, living as a so-called “U-Boat”: one of the city’s Jewish residents who against the odds managed to remove their star and live out the war in plain sight, more or less. (There was a lot of more or less involved.) Her memories and recollections are incredibly vivid considering the time that had passed, and although her story is sometimes harrowing and she maintains some emotional remove from the worst parts of it, it’s also heartening, and just a gorgeously written, compelling read. The corner of history it sheds light on — the experience of the Jewish people who stayed and managed to survive — is such a fascinating one.

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Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi, translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, 2016 – Beloved Russian author and satirist Teffi fled Moscow as the Bolsheviks steadily overtook Russia’s institutions, and then its cities, in her wake. She went first to Kiev, which had become a new sort of stand-in for Moscow after the latter’s fall to the Revolutionaries, and eventually fled overseas to Paris. Memories is her account of that time and journey, and shows why she remains such an important figure in Russian literature of the era. It’s light and funny despite taking place in one of the country’s darkest periods, and includes a colorful and eclectic cast of characters from her life.

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The Years, by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison Strayer, 2017 – Novelist Ernaux’s memoir is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It often takes a stream-of-consciousness style, a narrative Ernaux calls “slippery”. It encompasses both the personal details of her own life, beginning with her Normandy childhood (but from a remove, as “she”) as well as the collective “we” of her postwar generation in France, those who came of age in this pivotal, change-laden era of the 20th century. This included the protests of May 1968 and the manifesto of the 343, a pro-choice rights petition challenging the illegality of abortion in France at the time. It’s a strange, surreal narrative, with strikingly brilliant observations and an amazing ability to capture both the personal and the public equally strongly.

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Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag, by Monika Zgustova, translated from Spanish by Julie Jones, 2020 – An oral history in the vein of Svetlana Alexievich, Zgustova interviewed former female Gulag prisoners, including Boris Pasternak’s stepdaughter speaking about her mother’s imprisonment as a proxy punishment to the author. Their stories of human connection, unlikely but redeeming friendships, and the tenacity that allowed for their survival are extraordinary, and Zgustova juxtaposes their memories with quick but telling sketches of their present lives. It’s a surprisingly uplifting and revealing look at an under-discussed element of Gulag history, as women’s stories of the prisons aren’t as often told.

9781606066591_06446Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life, by Brigitte Benkemoun, translated from French by Jody Gladding, 2020 – Dora Maar was one of the comparatively rare female artists in the Parisian Surrealists, and although history has most often labeled her as Picasso’s mistress and muse, she was a talented painter and photographer in her own right. Novelist Benkemoun unwittingly bought Maar’s address book online, leading her to investigate the book’s entries and research each figure’s role in Maar’s life and by extension, what the relationship can show about Maar. It’s a revealing portrait of a complicated woman who doesn’t often get the historical treatment and recognition she deserves.

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A Bookshop in Berlin: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape from the Nazis, by Francoise Frenkel, translated from French by Stephanie Smee, 2019 – This found memoir was written by a Jewish woman, Francoise Frenkel, who ran a French-language bookstore in Berlin until she was forced out by the Nazi regime. She went to France, which seemed a comparatively safe bet at the time, only to later fall under German occupation and force her to keep moving in order to survive. Frenkel’s memoir follows her harried journey from one hiding place to another as she seeks refuge before finally making it to Switzerland.

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The Little Girl on the Ice Floe: A Memoir, by Adelaide Bon, translated from French by Tina Kover, 2019 – Bon’s memoir of her rape as a child is heavy, but it’s also overwhelmingly meaningful. Bon writes beautifully and movingly about how this event influenced her life and relationships as she struggled with demons that included linguistic ones — not being able to label what happened “rape”– and what it meant to her when the perpetrator was caught and tried, years later when she was an adult. Bon had not been the only victim by far, and there’s an exploration around the power that can be restored in breaking the silence and knowing you’re not alone. It’s exceptionally well written and crafted, with Bon employing themes around jellyfish and tentacles to make her experience and feelings better understood, to powerful effect.

Have you read any of these? What translated nonfiction by women do you love?

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

Add yours

  1. I am always glad you stop by my blog every once and a while….it is a reminder to me to visit your blog more often . Reading non-fiction this summer and I seem to lean towards the ‘political’. Best TRUMP book is ‘Very Stable Genius” so far….
    Short reviews are on my GR page….(are you on Goodreads.com?)
    Finished: Shadow State by Luke Harding (V. Putin Russia) – so-so.
    #WIT I think I will try Adelaide Bon’s “La petite fille sur la banquise”
    I did some research on Amazon.fr and see many good reviews…..”récit magistral…”
    I’m in the mood for some French….it is a pleasant distraction from the news, these days!
    Thanks for all your reviews….you are my ‘go-to-blog’ for non-fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love seeing what you’re up to and glad we have so many nonfiction loves in common!

      You know I love political nonfiction too. I just bought my copy of Jeffrey Toobin’s True Crimes and Misdemeanors about the Mueller investigation today (it’s newly out this week). Is that one on your radar yet?

      I was curious about Shadow State because I read Luke Harding’s last book, Collusion. I liked it but didn’t love it. I enjoy his pieces in the Guardian though, and I can’t resist anything about Putin’s Russia and the Trump connection. If it’s so-so I’ll wait for it from the library. Thanks for the heads up! Although I agree, a break from the news is really necessary too, especially lately…

      The Adelaide Bon book is just exceptional. I’m glad I could interest you in it because I thought that one might be a hard sell but it’s really such a fantastic book and well written. It’s a major bestseller in France. Do you read in the original French? I’m sure that would be preferable but I thought the translation was excellent too. Excited to hear your thoughts and thanks for your kind words — makes me happy we can always swap so many recommendations!

      And I have goodreads — does this link work? https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/875657-ren

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  2. PS: ordered 2 other French books from your list! Dora Marr (Brigitte Benkemoun) and Francoise Frenkel’s “Rien où poser sa tête” (bookstore in Berlin). So You will be keeping me busy some great French books….. for the next few weeks!

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  3. Luke Harding’s book was a re-hash of many items in his other books I read. Definitely wait for the library version and skim. I am intrigued by all things Putin….a sly fox, indeed! I very much enjoyed Fiona Hill’s books about him. Remember her during the Impeachment hearings in December 2019? Yes, Harding’s articles in The Guardian are alway informative. Thanks for the GR link…I just sent a friend request. Jeffry Toobin’s book…I saw it on CNN….I will wait to see what you think. He is a New Yorker Magazine congributer ….so I’m sure he can write….but I wonder if there is anything new about Mueller (…I read the report)…that we do not already know. I’m contemplating this one: “It was all a lie” by Stuart Steven, but must do a little more research first. I HOPE that we get another blockbuster book from Jane Mayer (The New Yorker investigative journalist)….soon. Her book DARK MONEY is wonderful. But I’m sure you’ve already read it. Yes, I read the original in French. It took me 5 years of self instruction to be able to read French books. High school basic French always in the cobwebs of my mind….but you just have to do the hard ‘vocabulary’ work to build up an arsenal of words so the French reading is more pleasure than a chore. That takes time. I read Émile Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart sequence of 20 books in French to get this far.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to know about Harding. I haven’t read any of Fiona Hill’s books but I’d love to!! Where’s a good start? I was very impressed with her in the hearings.

      I really like Toobin, I love hearing his CNN commentary and I like what I’ve read of his. I’m really looking forward the book but I also haven’t read the entire report, so I could imagine it being a bit repetitive if you already have…perhaps it’s more a commentary on that but let’s see. I’ll let you know!

      I have a copy of Dark Money but still haven’t read it!! I know I need to. Will try to get to that one soon.

      That’s fantastic that you taught yourself French, I’m so impressed! I speak and work in German but it’s still difficult for me to read in it. I’m working on translating a book just for my own practice in reading that kind of material as opposed to the business stuff I work with. I agree, building up the vocabulary is so time consuming. I’m also impressed that you learned it well enough to read in it without being in a French-speaking country. It sounds like you developed a great method for learning it!

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      1. Oh thanks for sharing, I somehow missed your review of that!! It sounds fascinating. Have you seen Putin’s People by Catherine Belton, one that came out a few months ago? Also about him but covers his crony network and how he was installed, the creation of their slush fund, etc. It’s very comprehensive and chilling.

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    1. A thought provoking post: I realise that I probably have not read any translated non-fiction by women authors..first I thought of Mend the Living by de Kerangal (??) but then realised that it’s actually a novel. Duh! Not sure I realised that at the time, it seemed so realistic. Bridget Jones Diary is non-fiction too, isn’t it?? (Checking for a friend).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I realized the same when I first learned of this event and now I try to seek them out, see what’s newly published, etc. So I think it’s a big success for how many people it’s raised that awareness for! (Side note: for some reason as a teenager I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary and I have no idea why, especially at that age. But I read it more than once, even! It did seem essentially nonfiction for what I imagined London thirtysomething life to be!)

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  4. Still intrigued by this issue!! Looked back through my past reads and as suspected, not much in this category: When Death Takes Something From You Give it Back by Naja Marie Aidt which was a heart-breaking lyrical memoir about the death of the writer’s son in an accident. And The Scholl Case by Anja Reich-Osang about murder in small town in Germany. But I do have a book ready to read that fits the bill and one I think you have reviewed already: Two Sisters by Anne Seierstad.

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    1. I loved Two Sisters, it was one of my favorites the year it came out. It’s so well written and really interesting in that their father is a bit of an unreliable narrator. I’m curious about what ended up happening to the girls. I liked The Scholl Case too but I wanted more from it, I think we talked about that one! When Death Takes Something sounds devastating, is it tough to read? But I love anything that’s lyrically written so I’m tempted.

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    1. Oh I didn’t know that!! That’s so strange! I read that some of her other books were fiction with clear autobiographical influence but I thought this one was very clearly a memoir. I suppose the unconventional narrative was too confusing for them or something?

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  5. The Dora Maar book sounds good. I’ve always been interested in the surrealists, but like most people, I mostly know her as Picasso’s muse.

    I will post my meagre contribution to WIT next week, but it will be fiction. I am reading quite a lot of nonfiction, though. Just finished Becoming and currently reading The Myth of Sisyphus.

    Enjoy your working holiday! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Dora Maar book is fantastic! I only knew the same about her, and researching her art afterwards I was so impressed and kind of astonished that she didn’t get more recognition historically for her impressive work.

      I’m excited for your list! I love seeing what gets translated, even in fiction 🙂 And thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading your list makes me realise that I’ve read very little non-fiction in translation, let alone by women – I read a bunch of translated Christian memoir in my teens and early twenties, some of which I loved, but otherwise I think that it rarely occurs to me to look for translated non-fiction. I’m looking forward to Dressed for a Dance in the Snow, which I’m planning to start this evening. And a couple of these books sound very good – Of Morsels and Marvels and Underground in Berlin especially.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I realized how little of it I’d read as well when this event started. So it’s definitely made me seek more of it out! It can be tough to find a wide selection of nonfiction in translation though. It seems to lean heavily towards history and some memoirs, which is of course great but I’d also like to read more in science/medical and more narrative nonfiction-type.

      I’m so glad you’re finally getting to start Dressed for a Dance in the Snow! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. And Underground in Berlin is one of my favorite reads so far this year. One of those I bought years ago when it came out and finally got around to and now I’m mad that I waited so long to read it!

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      1. Yes, I agree – I would be especially interested to read some accounts of the Ebola crisis (although, er, maybe not right now) and I imagine lots of those have not been published in English.

        I read it in a single sitting and already put my review up! Extraordinary book.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, exactly! I’d love to read more about those kind of topics from a non-US or UK perspective and there just seems to be a blank space.

        I am so thrilled you liked it so much and found it so compelling!!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Some great books here and the Dora Maar particularly appeals to me. I’ve read some translated fiction by women and some translated non-fiction by men this year … but the WIT book I have to read later in the month is non-fiction at least!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really liked the Dora Maar book, it was so interesting. I seem to have read a lot of translated nonfiction by men this year too, although I guess that’s not too difficult since more of it exists! What nonfiction book do you have lined up for WIT?

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