Women in Translation: The best of 2017
August is Women in Translation month, bringing attention to an underrepresented section of literature; here's q tip of the hat to the translators bringing this work to us & one writer's personal pick of titles for 2017, both published & in the pipeline
One of the key roles of literature is in allowing everyone to tell their stories. In these times of bigotry and rabid nationalism, translated literature is of paramount importance in broadening perspectives globally. In the last few years, translated literature has successfully made its way to the mainstream with books by non-English writers like Elena Ferrante and Han Kang gaining mass popularity. Their recent recognition is a heartening trend as female writers are woefully under-represented in the field of translated literature.
This lack of representation is not only evident in the amount of coverage (publicity, reviews etc) their work receives but also their presence on literary prize lists which are mostly dominated by male writers. According to the Women in Translation Tumblr page, books by women account for a measly 30% of the books translated in English.
WIT Month – held each August – is an initiative kickstarted by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to encourage and promote women who write in languages other than English. I, for one, love translated fiction and while I do not discriminate based on the gender of the writers, I realized that most of the translated books I’ve read this year have been written by women.
Translators deserve major credit for making diverse writing from across the world accessible to us. One of Radzinski's statistics interestingly showed that women translated far more books by women than men did. So I must mention two women translators of whom I’m personally a fan – Deborah Smith and Megan McDowell.
Deborah Smith, of course, is the reason we now know the literary powerhouse that is Han Kang. Her latest work, The White Book, is out in November in the UK. It is said to be Kang’s most experimental and autobiographical book to date, exploring the premature death of her older sister and the fragility of the human spirit. Another South Korean book Smith has translated is Bae Suah's Recitation which is a woman’s fragmentary recounting of her travels and an ambitious exploration of memory, language and storytelling.
Megan McDowell has translated three of my highlighted books of the year. The first, Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. It is a dark and surreal novella which reads like a feverish nightmare. It unnervingly explores the niggling terrors of motherhood and the flimsy boundary between dreams and reality. McDowell also translated Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, a book that is as absorbing as it is disturbing. A minor stroke renders our protagonist blind, and Meruane unflinchingly explores the effects of this impairment on her life and that of the people on whom she now increasingly depends. Mariana Enríquez is an Argentinian rising literary star and her powerful book, Things We Lost in the Fire plunges the reader into disturbing worlds tinged with the supernatural. These haunting and emotionally intense stories bring Argentina’s ruthless underbelly to life.
This year was rich specifically in terms of the many eclectic novels published by Women in Translation. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Danish writer Dorthe Nors is about Sonja, a middle-aged translator who is struggling with existential crisis. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, this witty and insightful novel gives us a peek into the anxieties of modern urban women. Another great Man Booker long listed book is Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, a coming of age story set in a Polish village. Narrated as a series of vignettes, this charming story deftly meshes folklore with politics.
Another impressive title to be aware of is Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan, a French novelist. It is an alluring novel that blurs the line between fiction and reality, a consistent theme in Vigan's work. With beautifully trenchant writing, Vigan deconstructs a twisted relationship between two women. In Bolivian literature, Our Dead World, by one of the most promising Latin American new writers Liliana Colanzi, features stories which push the boundaries in forms of storytelling and form. Earlier this year, the Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami, best known for her offbeat fiction, brought us a trio of Akutagawa Prize-winning novellas titled Record of a Night Too Brief. This haunting book features fantastical stories about young women experiencing love and loss.
If you are looking for some heartwarming and surreal fiction then you look no further than Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. Translated lucidly by Susan Bernofsky, this affecting story of three generations of polar bears is joyfully absurd and tender. Bernofsky also translates the works of one of the greatest contemporary European writers, Jenny Erpenbeck. Her new book out in the UK in September, is about a retired university professor’s quest to find meaning in life. This beautifully written novel is a timely reflection on race, privilege and nationality. One more fantastic book out in September is The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão, a vibrant and quirky debut from Brazilian writer Martha Batalha. Translated by Eric M. B. Becker, this is a darkly comic portrait of two rebellious sisters in 1940's Rio de Janeiro. Against the backdrop of the colourful city, Batalha vividly brings to life the inner world of a woman who dared to be different.
Another book I am really looking forward to this year is Abandon from Tilted Axis press, a not-for-profit press which encourages world literature and is founded by the aforementioned ace translator and writer Deborah Smith. Abandon is written by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, whom Niven Govinden hails as India’s Ferrante. Translated by Arunava Sinha, her latest book is about a woman who runs away from home, seeking to free herself from the shackles of society and familial attachments, and instead devote her attentions to writing a novel.
The same publishers also brought us the refreshingly original The Impossible Fairy Tale this year, the first book from the talented South Korean author Han Yujoo to be translated in the UK. It is a strange and terrifying exploration of classroom politics which tackles grave issues like bullying and neglect. Another inventive translated book to come out this year was The Last Summer by pioneering German writer Ricarda Huch. This 1910 epistolary novel was published for the first time in English by Peirene Press. Set in early 20th century Russia, this succinctly written book is at once a taut psychological thriller and a moving family portrait.
Next are two fantastic debuts from Mexican writers. Aura Xilonen's The Gringo Champion (translated by Andrea Rosenberg) is one of the breakout debuts of this year. Linguistically inventive, this novel is a migrant’s story of crossing borders and his experiences with loneliness, dislocation and love. Umami by Laia Jufresa was my top pick of 2016. Out in paperback now, this exuberant and oddly inspiring novel is about how different people in a community deal with grief and loss. Beautiful and eccentric, Umami offers a vivid portrayal of contemporary Mexico with vigorous insight.