It’s August, which means: Women in Translation month!
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finding 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.
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.
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?