13 Nonfiction Titles to Celebrate Women in Translation Month

Three weeks of Women in Translation Month left to go, so plenty of time to pick up something to celebrate!

Over this past year, the number of books I’ve read since last year’s WITMonth surprised me — I think it was so many thanks to the Annie Ernaux odyssey I mentioned. Here’s what I read:

Putin’s Trolls: On the Frontlines of Russia’s Information War Against the World, by Jessikka Aro (I’ve been unable to find the translator’s name — publishers, do better! Translator’s name on the cover!) – Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro was chased out of her homeland due to her investigative reporting into Russia’s targeted information campaigns against other nations on a broad political scale and against individuals like herself. It’s reprehensible, dangerous behavior with lingering geopolitical consequences, and this account is extremely relevant right now. Used or new @SecondSale.com

The Familia Grande: A Memoir, by Camille Kouchner, translated from French by Adriana Hunter – An impressionistic memoir exploring her unconventional, high-profile French family, with the topics of incest, shame, and guilt at its core. Used or new @SecondSale.com

In the Shadows of Paris: The Nazi Concentration Camp that Dimmed the City of Light, by Anne Sinclair, translated from French by Sandra Smith – Journalist Sinclair researches and tells the story of her grandfather’s imprisonment in in Compiègne-Royallieu, a transit camp outside of Paris used to hold Jewish men rounded up in 1941. Used or new @SecondSale.com

And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Family Torn Apart by War, by Elisabeth Asbrink, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel – I haven’t reviewed this one, but it’s an interesting story partially set in Vienna, which I always love reading about and which I feel never gets enough literary attention. Otto Ullmann was sent to Sweden in 1939 to escape worsening conditions in Vienna, where his Jewish parents remained. Working on a farm in the province of Småland, he befriended Ingvar Kamprad, who would later found IKEA but who was also “actively engaged in Nazi organizations and a great supporter of the fascist Per Engdahl”. The book is pieced together through letters, interviews, and Asbrink‘s meticulous research. Used or new @SecondSale.com

Once Upon a Time We Ate Animals: The Future of Food, by Roanne van Voorst, translated from Dutch by Scott Emblen-Jarrett – A Dutch futures anthropologist (cool but depressing career alert) makes a case for why veganism is important for the future of human food consumption, from both a practical and an ethical standpoint. Used or new @SecondSale.com

Marina Abramovic: Writings 1960 – 2014, translated from Serbo-Croatian by Katarina Mišović and Helen Shiner – Although her 2018 memoir Walk Through Walls (haven’t reviewed but I love it) was co-written with a ghostwriter, this collection of performance artist Abramovic’s diaries dating back to her teens (!!!) was written in her native Serbo-Croatian. It is such a weird, wonderful glimpse into the workings of her unique mind, and fascinating to see how her thinking developed around significant — or seemingly insignificant — life events. It contains excerpts from letters, notes, descriptions of her dreams, and notes for performances. Used or new @SecondSale.com

Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, by Małgorzata Rejmer, translated from Polish by Zasia Krasodomska-Jones and Antonia Lloyd-Jones – Outstanding Polish reportage, Rejmer structures this as oral history based on interviews she conducted with hundreds of Albanians and creates a vivid picture of what life under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha was like. It’s haunting, but it’s also beautifully written, with a lot of Rejmer’s own commentary interspersed with the oral histories. I learned so much and I still remember many of the specific stories, it was so impactful. Used or new @SecondSale.com

In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale – I found this extraordinary book difficult to summarize in my review, but here was my best attempt: “hard-to-categorize memoir/literary theory and criticism/family history. The basic premise is Stepanova’s sorting of her aunt’s possessions after her death. Stepanova begins sifting through the memorabilia in her aunt’s apartment – letters, photos, diaries spanning her Jewish family’s existence: “a withered repository of an entire century of life in Russia.” Used or new @SecondSale.com

The rest are all Annie Ernaux, translated from French:

A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison Strayer – “How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, their ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

I do not envy him: I’m the one who is writing.”

This is about her first sexual experiences as a teenager and some subsequent typical adolescent issues – eating disorders, shoplifting, and how she makes sense of sex and rejection, memory and experience, looking at herself at age 17-18 from the perspective of 50 years having passed. And it’s a unique experience of seeing what life was like for a teenager in France in the 50s and 60s.

What I love about her is that there are always some stunningly resonant moments, and if what memoir should be able to do is capture something of universal experience in the telling of one’s own, I think she does that remarkably, if not always consistently. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of hers without having tears in my eyes at one point because I just feel her so much. Used or new @SecondSale.com

Exteriors, translated by Tanya Leslie – Up there in my favorites of hers: this is a strange but lovely collection of Ernaux’s observances in diary-like entries spanning 1985 to 1992 of people she noticed and overheard conversations on the metro and RER trains, in shopping centers and parking lots. Ernaux’s gifts of observation are incredible, like if David Sedaris was very serious and emotional. Used or new @SecondSale.com

Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie  – This account of Ernaux’s illegal abortion while a university student is harrowing, haunting, and says everything that can be said about this issue. My favorite of hers after The Years. Used or new @SecondSale.com

A Woman’s Story, translated by Tanya Leslie – Ernaux wrote this about her mother’s life after her death from Alzheimer’s. It’s a poignant attempt to create a record of her mother’s life, to place her life in context and establish who she was and I love that idea, even if this left me feeling very sad (like anything to do with Alzheimer’s). It’s a heavily mother-daughter story too, as she considers her own autonomy next to her mother. Used or new @SecondSale.com

A Man’s Place – This was my least favorite, but although I didn’t love it, I was still intrigued enough by it and impressed by her gorgeous writing to keep working through Ernaux’s catalog. This is her telling of her father’s story, and it’s the heaviest addressing issues of the rigid French class structure, which comes up at some point in all of her writing. It begins with his death, doubles back to tell the story of his early life, then ends again with the scene of his death. Used or new @SecondSale.com

That’s my year in women in translation! What’s yours been like?

12 thoughts on “13 Nonfiction Titles to Celebrate Women in Translation Month

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  1. I don’t seem to have read anything in translation this year, shamefully. I’ll have to make up for that next year! You’ve brought up a lot of interesting possibilities as usual.

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    1. This event definitely made me aware of how much I was reading in translation before (not much) so it’s helped me actively increase my reading there. Hope you’ll find something good for next year!

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  2. These days I don’t read so much about World War II. Somehow, I think I know it enough, but that is of course not true. There are many more stories coming out. One I did read and loved was ‘And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Family Torn Apart by War’, by Elisabeth Asbrink. A wonderful story. I think it touches you even more since it is written from the view of a child. Åsbrink really let us come very close to Otto. I really loved a line at the end of the book, said by Otto’s son-in-law about when they were tolling a car through a roundabout, where Otto did not look left/right to check the traffic, but just drove straight ahead. He described his father-in-law as a man who emphasised the importance of going forward without looking back. In all aspects of life it seems. For me as a Swede, I was shocked by the lack of sympathy for the refugees from the Swedish society, and the resistance to help people. I certainly have to read up on this part of Swedish history.

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    1. It was really a moving story, wasn’t it? I didn’t pick up on the specifics of Swedish society’s reaction (or maybe don’t remember) but that’s so interesting to hear from your perspective, that it was so shocking.

      And I’m the same – I feel like I’ve read so much about WWII that I tend not to prioritize it but it’s amazing how much feels “new” in that category when you do read it!

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  3. What a brilliant summary of a brilliant selection of books, I loved reading this. The only translated book I have read this year that comes to mind is The Impostor, about the Spanish chap who pretended to have been in a concentration camp in WW2. Re the Vienna Woods book, I see that the IKEA founder was a Nazi type. Really there is almost no product I can buy with a clear conscience. My house is full of brands giving me an uneasy conscience (but not enough to prevent me buying them in the first place, hangs head in shame…) Re Mud is Sweeter, that Hoxha chap seems to follow me around, if not in books, it’s my husband reminiscing about his old uni tutor who pretended to be an ardent Hoxha supporter..

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    1. Oh thank you!! You know I owe you for that recommendation, you were the one to first put me onto Annie Ernaux, I hadn’t even heard of her before you mentioned The Years to me. I’ve loved reading her memoirs, thank you!!

      Ugh it’s awful about the IKEA guy and I had no idea. To be fair he was quite minor in comparison to some of the bigger baddies, but still!! He was more of a fanboy of a Swedish fascist. It’s actually a smaller part of the story told in that one, I enjoyed their family story more. Reminded me a bit of East West Street, although I far preferred that one! It’s the same for me — I like knowing who the bad companies are but it’s way too many of them 😦 Especially when we’re in Germany, it seems like every single brand there has a dark and sinister history…

      I remember that story of your husband’s, what a weird thing to do! Hoxha, of all the dictators one could choose to be a fan of…curious.

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  4. Even not counting all of the Annie Ernaux, you’ve done so much reading translated nonfiction this past year! It seems like that might also be driven by your interest in European history. I also wonder if more nonfiction is being translated than previously, even if still a small amount. I feel like it can be pretty hard to find.

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    1. This event has really helped me be aware of and on the lookout for more nonfiction in translation! You’re definitely right, a big part of finding stuff is also that I love European history. Looking back over the list I see how limited it is when you consider that! Maybe I need to try and broaden the scope a bit, but it is kind of hard to find as you say, and I wouldn’t be surprised if publishing gravitated towards Eurocentric texts over other regions…

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