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!

book review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson



★★★★★ translation
WW Norton, 2017
originally composed in the 8th century BCE


It usually surprises people who know how much I love the Iliad and the Aeneid that I’m not half as passionate about the Odyssey. There isn’t necessarily one overwhelming reason, but it mostly boils down to the fact that as a reader, I am much more compelled by characters and internal struggles than I am by plot, and consequently, the Iliad and the Aeneid are more thematically compelling to me than the Odyssey is. I don’t meant to imply that Odysseus isn’t a complex character in his own right, because he is, of course, but I’m much less interested in his straightforward desire to reclaim his home from the threat of the suitors than I am in Achilles’ conflict of choosing not to fight because his honor was insulted, or Aeneas’ debate of whether he should continue on his fated journey to found Rome, when he has short-term happiness at his fingertips in Carthage. There’s some fun and excitement in the Odyssey, but ultimately I struggle to stay invested from start to finish.  It’s just not my favorite of the classics, and this re-read didn’t do much to change that.

What I did want to talk about though is Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation. This is only my second time reading the Odyssey – the first time I read Robert Fagles’ translation, which I’m also fond of, but Emily Wilson just raised the bar. Here are just a few of my favorite things about it:

  • Wilson translated the ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ line differently every time. If you’ve read the Odyssey, you know just how frequently this line appears. What a feat.  The effect I think honors the repetition of the original, but the poetic license serves to enliven the reader’s reaction to it.  (I know the last time I read the Odyssey my eyes started to glaze over this phrase after a while, failing to take it in.)
  • It’s both readable and lyrical from start to finish.  Wilson doesn’t dress up her translation in showy vocabulary that obscures the meaning of the text.  It’s honest, direct, and concise, but still written beautifully.  Here are the opening lines:

    Tell me about a complicated man.
    Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
    when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
    and where he went, and who he met, the pain
    he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
    he worked to save his life and bring his men
    back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
    they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
    kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
    tell the old story for our modern times.
    Find the beginning.


  • This entire translation is written in iambic pentameter. While that was not the meter of the original, dactylic hexameter isn’t a commonly used meter in the English language, so instead Wilson chose to render the poem in iambic pentameter, to lend it rhythm and musicality.
  • Wilson eradicated a lot of the misogynistic language that has been used up until now by contemporary male translators, but which was not present in the original Greek. (e.g., referring to the slave girls in Penelope’s household as ‘whores.’)

Also, I just wanted to share this excerpt from Wilson’s Translator’s Note, which almost made me cry, reading it as a woman with such a huge vested interest in the classics and translation:

It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail’s one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

This meant a lot.  Female translators, scholars, and classicists all deserve to have their voices heard.  I’m hopeful that the recent publications of Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are just the start of a bigger trend of making way for women in such a male-dominated field.

If you haven’t read the Odyssey, this is the translation you should read, and if you have, it’s worth revisiting to experience Wilson’s skill and artistry.