I’ve disappointed myself massively this year in terms of one of my favorite book events, Women in Translation Month. The wonderful Rachel@PaceAmoreLibri introduced me to this event and initiative a few years ago and I absolutely love it.
Books published in English translations by female authors account for less than 31% of translated literature every year. Nonfiction is already a rather scant genre in translation, even more so titles by women, so I like to highlight what I’ve been reading in that area throughout the year, and give some ideas for reading to celebrate this month.
There are also lots of events going on and opportunities to participate in different ways. Find all the details at the link above or by following @Read_WIT and the #WITMonth hashtag on Twitter.
Here’s what I’ve read in translated nonfiction by women since WITM last year.
The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage, by Erika Fatland, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson – By far one of my highlights this year. Norwegian journalist Erika Fatland travels around Russia’s periphery, examining the country’s outsized influence on its neighbors with sensitivity, humor, and a deep understanding of history and culture. For a big book it’s so well written and entertaining, and sheds a lot of light on an oft-ignored region.
Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, by Erika Fatland, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson – The Border was so good, in fact, that I wasn’t ready to stop traveling with Fatland yet, so I read this previous book of her journey through the former Soviet Eurasian countries. It’s similarly excellent, blending culture and landscape portraits with personal impressions, conversations, and both the delights and unique frustrations of travel. Also interesting to see how her experiences on this trip clearly laid the groundwork for the next, more ambitious one.
The Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende, translated from Spanish – The beloved novelist’s memoir is a treasure, collecting years’ worth of her experiences around topics like feminism, gender, patriarchy, relationships, professional success, and getting older. Lest that sound a bit grim and dry, I can assure it’s anything but. I was nearly in tears of happiness by the end of this short but powerful book. It was an immediate, heartwarming and reassuring favorite.
Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe – A Memoir, A History, A Warning, by Geraldine Schwarz, translated from French by Laura Marris – What I loved about this book were Schwarz’s explorations of the concept of “memory work” and looks at how different countries have approached it post-WWII (Germany and France have done it rigorously; Austria is lagging.) Speaking of Austria, this is a rare book that looks at current political issues in that country, often overlooked since it’s not a NATO member or a particular big player on the world stage. Again, underscoring the importance of translated nonfiction to expand worldviews.
The Age of Skin: Essays, by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac – I absolutely loved this collection of essays by the Croatian writer, now living in The Netherlands after being forced to emigrate, on topics around immigration and refugees in Europe, the ex-Yugoslavian diaspora, and many facets of culture, identity, language, and politics. It was so unique in how she approached and combined these topics, and her writing absolutely brilliant even in translation.
So, a slimmer year than usual in this area. To compensate, here are a few from my list; I hope to get to at least one this month:
Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale), which has gotten a surprising amount of coverage and buzz, in my opinion, for its genre, including being shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. “With the death of her aunt, the narrator is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.”
I hesitated on this one because it seems autofiction-y and I don’t feel up to fiction anymore, but I did absolutely love Annie Ernaux’s The Years which is similarly hard to classify, and I have her memoirs A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, memoirs about her parents, on my list as well (all in translation). So this genre-bending can work well sometimes and I love the idea of exploring memory and living history, as it sounds like Stepanova’s book does. It combines “essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents.”
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece, by Camille Laurens, translated from French by Willard Wood, tells the story of the instantly recognizable but otherwise little-known Marie van Goethem, the young model for Degas’s sculpture. Her work, as both a dancer and artist’s model, sounded intense and exhausting, and to think she was so young while trying to support her family just boggles the mind.
I also want to read Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (translated from Polish by Alissa Valles), a National Jewish Book Award winner that’s “part history, part memoir” about the citizens of a Polish town turning on their Jewish neighbors in 1941. I know this sounds depressingly bleak, but it’s a renowned work of Polish reportage, one of my favorite genres in translation, and Bikont’s approach sounds especially worthwhile, particularly in light of the importance of memory work I mentioned above: it includes “both the story of the massacre told through oral histories of survivors and witnesses, and a portrait of a Polish town coming to terms with its dark past. Including the perspectives of both heroes and perpetrators, Bikont chronicles the sources of the hatred that exploded against Jews and asks what myths grow on hidden memories, what destruction they cause, and what happens to a society that refuses to accept a horrific truth.”
What are you reading for Women in Translation Month? Did any of these make your list?