Women in Translation Recommendations

It’s Women in Translation Month!  The idea behind this is to use the month of August as an opportunity to read more translated books by women, as the vast majority of books translated into English are written by men.  There’s a readathon you can check out over on booktube (hosted by Matthew Sciarappa, Kendra Winchester, and Jennifer Insert Literary Pun Here, who’s recently decided to end her channel but we’re not talking about that as I’m still in mourning).  But even if you don’t want to participate or follow the prompts, #WITmonth is still a fantastic excuse to prioritize some translated books by women that you’ve been meaning to get to.  So I’m following Callum‘s example and posting some recommendations!

If Not, Winter by Sappho, translated from the Greek by Anne Carson: Most of Sappho’s lyric poetry (written to be accompanied by a lyre) is now lost, and most of what remains is only in fragments, sadly.  But this beautiful collection by Anne Carson is a must-read for anyone interested at all by antiquity, as Sappho provides a look at the daily lives and desires of women on the Ancient Greek island of Lesbos where she’s from.  I’m a huge fan of Anne Carson’s work, and she does a stunning job with this.

Medea by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by John Cullen: This is a stellar and politically-driven retelling of Euripides’ Medea, which focuses on the question of whether the court at Corinth had something to gain by Medea’s downfall.  With clear parallels to her own sociopolitical reality as she grew up in the GDR, Wolf spins this familiar story in an unfamiliar direction, while still staying faithful to the original.  I also think Cullen’s translation is just gorgeous.  This is such a thoughtful and powerful book.

Penance and Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Stephen Snyder (respectively): Both of these books follow a very similar formula, starting with a murder and culminating in acts of revenge.  They’re some of the best examinations of female rage that I’ve read in any contemporary thrillers, and Kanae Minato’s unique style reads with the air of a fable.  Her work is both twisted and darkly compelling.

The Vegetarian, The White Book, and Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith: Kind of a #basic recommendation because who hasn’t heard of Han Kang, but I adore her too much to leave her off this list.  The Vegetarian absolutely blew me away when I read it a couple of years ago, as it’s one of the darkest and strangest and most haunting things I’ve ever read.  But it’s her quietly breathtaking Human Acts that’s actually my favorite of her novels, which focuses on the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 and provides a brutal look at humanity’s capability for violence.  The subtly affecting White Book is probably my least favorite of the three, but I still gave it 4 stars.  I cannot recommend Han Kang highly enough.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein: I actually read this in Italian, but I’m sure the translation is excellent as Goldstein is a rather prolific Italian translator, well known for translating the works of Elena Ferrante (who I still haven’t read, shamefully).  But anyway.  This memoir is very close to my heart as I also spent some time living in Italy, which was an incredibly immersive experience in terms of both language and culture, and Lahiri deftly examines what it’s like to live in that country as a foreigner who’s learning the language purely by choice.  But I think it’s a memoir anyone can relate to who’s spent some time living in a foreign country, it doesn’t have to have been Italy.

My #WITmonth TBR is brief and overly ambitious since I’m also doing the Man Booker longlist thing, but if I manage to read any this month, it’ll be some combination of these three:

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Sora-Kim Russell.  This is the one I’m currently reading, though I’m not very far at all.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Jan van Heurck.

What are your favorite translated books by women?  And are you planning on participating in #WITmonth?  What’s your TBR?  Comment and chat with me about Women in Translation!

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44 thoughts on “Women in Translation Recommendations

  1. Fast work, and great post! I’ve had Kanae Minato’s books on my TBR for ages; I really must give her a go soon. Also, the translators are the same ones who translated the two Japanese books I read this month, and I thought they both did a great job with those, so that’s exciting too.

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    • Anything to procrastinate working. I think you’ll really like Kanae Minato! I think I preferred Confessions just a bit more, but both are fantastic. And one thing Women in Translation Month is bringing to my attention is just how many different books I’ve read translated by the same people. Translators are such unsung heroes, I really need to pay closer attention to their names.

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  2. Thank you for the recommendations – I have added pretty much all of them to my ‘want-to-read’ list on Goodreads and will try to track some of them down. One of my favourite works, both in Japanese and in translation is The Ink Dark Moon, which is poetry from women in the Heian Court. It’s beautiful!

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    • I’ve read a couple of articles on this and the general consensus seems to be that only around 30% of new translations are by women, which is so depressing. It’s such a cool way to support these writers and create demand for more women in translation. I just wish it weren’t in August so I’d have more time to devote to this without the Man Booker!

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      • I haven’t heard of that one but I just looked it up, it sounds super interesting! I’ll definitely keep that in mind next time I’m looking for historical nonfiction.

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      • It’s really interesting and written uniquely, month by month in little vignettes. I loved it. I think it’s even tougher to find good nonfiction in translation, in my experience at least. Asne Seierstad’s Two Sisters is another great one that recently came out in English. Those two are actually my only translated reads so far this year but they were both excellent!

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      • Do you read exclusively nonfiction? I really should read more of it. But I can imagine it’s tricky to find good translated nonfiction. I think the two on my radar are Zinky Boys (female author yay) and A River in Darkness but I really need to find more! Two Sisters sounds fantastic as well, adding that to the TBR.

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      • My brain must be fried by the end of the week, as soon as you mentioned those titles I remembered that I read A River in Darkness when it came out (it was exceptional) and I finally started reading Svetlana Alexievich this year and was just blown away by her work. I haven’t read Zinky Boys yet but Unwomanly Face of War and Voices From Chernobyl were both incredible if you haven’t read them yet (I feel like I’m the last one to get around to reading her!)

        These days I do read exclusively nonfiction, although I read my first fiction in many years a few months ago when my favorite short story author had a new collection finally come out (also in translation!!! lolol it was such an exhausting week, I’m not usually so dense). It was by Tatyana Tolstaya, if you’re not familiar with her I really recommend White Walls, it’s my favorite short story collection and it’s so lyrical and strange and excellent even in translation. You’ll have to let me know if you know/come across any good nonfiction in translation, I’m really interested in it!

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      • It’s been one of Those weeks for me as well, I feel your pain. And I’m SO glad to hear A River in Darkness was excellent, I’m really fascinated by North Korea and that one’s high up on my list. I actually haven’t read any Svetlana Alexievich either so you’re not the last one! For some reason I was more interested in Zinky Boys, but now I’m not sure why that is because I’ve heard nothing but phenomenal things about Voices from Chernobyl.

        I’ve never even heard of Tatyana Tolstaya but I just looked up White Walls and that sounds EXCELLENT, added to the TBR. It’s funny that I assumed you read fiction because we’d talked about Maggie Nelson, even though she’s a nonfiction writer?! But I think she’s popular among fiction readers so that’s probably why I thought that. I’m getting a lot better at reading memoirs this year, but in the future I’m definitely going to try to branch out a bit more and get to some more nonfiction that’s been on my list for ages. You should do a post about translated nonfiction if you find enough, that would be really interesting! I’ll definitely keep you posted if any others come to mind.

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      • I’m so glad White Walls piqued your interest, it’s such a unique and wonderful book! Her latest translated into English, Aetherial Worlds, is what I read earlier this year and it was also really good but nothing compares to that one. I hope you try it! And I can’t recommend Alexievich enough either, like I said, I was blown away. The way she curates people’s stories and words, it’s just so impacting.

        Maggie Nelson is definitely really popular among fiction readers thanks to her narrative style, I think. Actually I’ve read tons of fiction, for the better part of my life it outnumbered nonfiction in what I picked up by far. But now it’s like something has shifted and I’m very interested in true stories or experiences or just learning about something (I know you learn a lot from fiction too, but hopefully you know what I mean.) Maybe it’ll shift back one day, who knows!

        That’s a great idea about a post for translated nonfiction! Normally I just write reviews but I’ve been trying to incorporate some list posts too. Maybe I’ll try to do one for women in translated nonfiction before the month is over…thanks for the wonderful idea! And hope your weekend is lovely after one of THOSE weeks but glad I’m not alone there! 🙂

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      • Alexievich sounds so good and so relevant to my interests, I love that kind of nonfiction. I’ll definitely need to check her out soon.

        And I definitely know what you mean! I feel like most of the learning and teaching that’s done in fiction is done in a very circuitous manner and almost always requires the reader to do some of their own research afterward, so sometimes it’s nice just to deal strictly in facts. And I do think it’s very interesting to track how our reading tastes shift over time. Even a couple of years ago I wasn’t interested in memoirs at all and now I’m loving them. I’m hoping my nonfiction reading will get more consistent in the future as well. I don’t ever see myself abandoning fiction but I would like to read more broadly!

        I’m thinking about incorporating more list posts into my blog as well, in the past I’ve just followed top 5 Wednesday prompts but I’m thinking I need to just do my own thing more often. I’d love to read your post if you get around to it! And I hope you have an excellent weekend as well!

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      • PS I can’t remember if I’ve already recommended this to you already, but an excellent North Korea read is Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. It’s not in translation but it’s truly amazing, a group biography of a somewhat loosely collected group of people who eventually defected from Chongjin, a coastal city. The subject matter is astonishing and the writing is completely engrossing, I have yet to read something better on the country (but A River in Darkness is still a must-read!)

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      • That sounds SO GOOD, just added to the TBR! Thanks for the rec, I can’t believe I’d never heard of it. I love nonfiction like that that tells individual stories and links them together with overarching commentary. I’ll try to get to this and A River in Darkness sooner rather than later!

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    • AHHH I should have just lent you my copy of that as well but I can always bring it down for Troy?? It’s similar and different… like essentially both novels are about whether it’s possible to live a non-violent life as a human but The Vegetarian is much more insular and looks at the life of one woman through the eyes of three people in her life and it’s also really disturbing but in a different way than Human Acts?? I love them both… Han Kang goes so hard.

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  3. My #WITmonth participation has also been somewhat #basic, but I’ve just read Convenience Store Woman and THE RUMOURS ARE TRUE: it’s great. Weird, funny, quite dark, bizarrely joyful. I was a big fan.

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  4. This is such a good post!!!

    I’m always so hesitant to read translated literature; I feel like the translation often ends up awkward and stilted, stiff and unnatural somehow. But maybe I’ve just had bad experiences. I DNF’d Out by Natsuo Kirino, also incidentally translated by Stephen Snyder. And I’ve read some stuff translated from Arabic that definitely did not have the same a natural feel to it.

    But I definitely would like to sample more Japanese literature – for someone who harbors a deep interest in Japanese culture, I haven’t read much at all! Kanae Minato sounds like the perfect place to start! Which one of her books is the one you said had an unbelievable twist or something in the second chapter?

    And Anne Carson! I definitely need to try out some of her work soon.

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    • That’s interesting because I know Callum loved Out! I own a copy of that and really want to get to it soon. I definitely prefer to read books in their original language which is why I actually haven’t read very many Italian novels in translation, but there comes a point where I just have to admit that I’m not going to learn all the languages I want to learn, and depriving myself of all that foreign lit is a bit silly. Plus, with the fact that two of my favorite books are Les Mis and the Iliad, I’m SO fascinated by the art of translation and the different ways in which translators attempt to capture the tone of the original text.

      Confessions is the one with the crazy twist at the end of the first chapter! I think that’s the one I do prefer just a bit more… but Penance has the bonus of being told in different perspectives by all-female characters; there are a few male POVs in Confessions and they’re notably the weaker chapters.

      Anne Carson is BRILLIANT. Autobiography of Red is so weird and striking, and her translation of Antigone is very innovative and strange. I really need to read more of her poetry collections.

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  5. I know she’s *basic*, but which Han Kang would you recommend? THE VEGETARIAN is the one I’m most familiar with, but HUMAN ACTS sounds great too! I don’t know where to start! Shamefully, I don’t read a lot of translated fiction, so I really want to jump on the bandwagon.

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    • It’s funny because I usually have really strong feelings about where to start with an author, but with Han Kang I can never decide! Thematically they’re quite similar; both are interested in the question of whether it’s possible to live a non-violent life or whether human beings are tied inextricably to violence. But Human Acts operates on a much broader scale, focusing on this horrific historical event and how it affected the lives of a group of individuals at the center of that… and The Vegetarian is a bit more abstract and also more intimate, as it just focuses on one woman, told in three sections from the POVs of three different people in her life. So I think it partially depends on which appeals to you more? I started with The Vegetarian and LOVED it, though it’s very, very strange and not quite what I was expecting. Also admittedly I felt a strong pull toward The Vegetarian since I’m a vegetarian and even though that turns out to not be The Point of the book at all, it did help with the initial connection I felt to it. All this to say that I think you could start with either one!! But if I had to choose I think my heart says Human Acts.

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  6. Lovely post, and thank you for all the amazing translated recommendations! Han Kang is definitely the most famous one, but I loved Jhumpa Lahiri’s the Namesake so I’m excited to pick up more books by her.

    I’d like to recommend a translated book by an Indonesian woman author that I wish more internationals would read, which is Pulang (translated to “Home”) by Leila. S Chudori, a wonderful historical fiction family saga, that everyone should read if they are interested in Indonesian history. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25074155-home

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    • In Other Words is still the only Lahiri I’ve read, which I need to rectify, I know The Namesake is one of my mom’s all-time favorite books so I’ve been meaning to get to that one for ages.

      And thanks for the recommendation, I don’t think I’ve read any Indonesian writers before which is such a shame! All of the Asian historical fiction I’ve read has been in the more obvious countries like China/Japan/Korea/etc so I’d love to expand my horizons a bit!

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  7. Revenge is incredible, not just an amazing read, but an example of a stunning writing ability, how she manages to write those stories and make the connections, in awe.

    Human Acts is also one of my favourite reads, for books that don’t leave you, much more poignant for me than The Vegetarian, a gifted writer indeed.

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    • I’ve just started Revenge! Only read 2 stories so far but I’m excited about it.

      I really adored both The Vegetarian and Human Acts, but I agree, Human Acts has stayed with me in a more significant way.

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    • I’m not a big poetry person either! I’m trying to build up my tolerance to it, lol, but something like If Not, Winter is a good place to start as it’s a very very quick and simple read, but still lovely.

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