August has been celebrated as Women in Translation month since 2014, when book blogger Meytal Radzinksi brought attention to the underrepresentation of women’s work in translated literature. One of the great powers of the written word is its ability to articulate the human mind across boundaries and to envelop us in other worlds. With so many phenomenal women writers across the globe, our shelves are expanded to include an exciting and diverse array of books when translators bring us women’s words from many languages.
One of our Adult Summer Reading Categories this month involves reading a translated book, so if you’re in the midst of the challenge or just looking for an interesting new read, check out this list of works by women translated into English. From short stories and little novels that tug on the heart strings, to surrealist fiction and thrillers, these books transcend genres and show how many exciting literary talents are at our fingertips through the acts of imagination and translation.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles, Hiro Arikawa (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel)
Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles creeps in on little cat feet, starting as a whimsical novel narrated by a feline companion and gradually becoming both sad and heartwarming. Satoru brings his cat Nana on a road trip across Japan, visiting old friends and trying to find his beloved pet a new owner. What memories lurk in Satoru’s past and why must he give away Nana? Answers unfold throughout this little book that has become a bestseller around the world.
The Dry Heart, Natalia Ginzburg (translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye)
In a review of the recent republication of Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart, the New York Times declared, “Natalia Ginzburg can only sound like herself,” one of the highest compliments to bestow upon any writer. “The Dry Heart begins and ends with the matter-of-fact pronouncement: ‘I shot him between the eyes.’ As the tale―a plunge into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation, and bitterness―proceeds, the narrator’s murder of her flighty husband takes on a certain logical inevitability. Natalia Ginzberg transforms an unhappy tale of an ordinary dull marriage into a rich psychological thriller” (Bookmarks). The original English translation was published in 1952, but the 2019 edition is already garnering much attention.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)
The Vegetarian is Kang’s English language debut and the first Korean translation to win the Man Booker International Prize. The novel is told in three parts, conveying the story of two sisters, one of whom (Yeong-hye) decides to break with tradition and become a vegetarian. The slim novel probes family relationships and veers toward the Kafka-esque. Kirkus Reviews describes it as a book that “insists on a reader’s attention, with an almost hypnotically serene atmosphere interrupted by surreal images and frighteningly recognizable moments of ordinary despair. … An unusual and mesmerizing novel, gracefully written and deeply disturbing.”
Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Sayaka Murata has written ten novels, but Convenience Store Woman is the first of her works to be translated into English. It is “an offbeat exploration of what we must each leave behind to participate in the world” (The New York Times). Protagonist Keiko has always been on the margins but feels more at ease in the structures of the convenience store job she has held for eighteen years. The story now finds her involved with a cynical male coworker and follows the repercussions. In her Akutagawa-prize winning novel, Murata deals with the question of conformity: What is the right choice to make for oneself when the pressures to have one’s life follow a socially acceptable narrative arc feel terribly constricting?
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra)
In this Man Booker International Prize finalist, middle-aged Sonja lives in Copenhagen, where she is learning to drive for the first time and translating Swedish crime novels for a living. Isolated from her family, potential friends, and the rural area of her childhood, Sonja finds herself living a dejected life of indirect action: nonconfrontationally avoiding her abrasive driving instructor and writing postcards to the sister who seems to want nothing to do with her. Sonja seeks a kind of solace in the memory of the rye fields she traversed as a girl while fighting against episodes of vertigo and her own despondency. In unembellished prose, Nors conveys both sadness and humor. Kirkus Reviews describes her as “an exquisitely precise writer, and in rendering her heroine’s small disruptions and, yes, victories, she is writing for, and of, every one of us.”
Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell)
Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream has been described as “terrifying but brilliant” (The Guardian), evoking precisely the nightmarish quality its title implies. The novel begins with a woman named Amanda lying in a hospital with a boy—not her son—by her side. What ensues is “a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, looming environmental and spiritual catastrophes, and the ties that bind a parent to a child” (from the publisher).
The Murmur of Bees, Sofía Segovia (translated from the Spanish by Simon Bruni)
Segovia’s The Murmur of Bees, her first work to be translated into English, melds historical fiction and magical realism and has been likened to the work of Isabel Allende. Booklist describes it as “a gorgeous novel of family, friendship, land, and murderous envy.” The story takes place during the Mexican Revolution of 1918, following the enveloping story of the young child Simonopio, who can both divine the future and is protectively followed by a swarm of bees. Segovia follows Simonopio’s extraordinary journey in its relationship to his family and town.
Flights, Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft)
Tokarczuk’s critically acclaimed Flights won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and has been described by The New Yorker as “a cabinet of curiosities that must include itself in the cabinet” as it grapples with themes of “mobility and curiosity.” According to World Literature Today, “Tokarczuk describes the book as a constellation novel, in reference to its complex, nonlinear structure. It is a fiendishly difficult book to describe. Flights combines essayistic reflections, fictional stories, and fictionalized histories, varying in length from thirty-odd pages to a paragraph or two, interwoven around two main themes: travel and the preservation of the human body.” The result is a book that oscillates between fiction and thought experiment, beckoning the reader through to see what thread holds these flights together.
Aetherial Worlds: Stories, Tatyana Tolstaya (translated from the Russian by Anya Migdal)
Tatyana Tolstaya’s Aetherial Worlds was longlisted for both the National Book Award for Translated Literature and the PEN Translation Prize. The Moscow-based writer’s book includes eighteen stories that are grounded in reality but take flight into the titular aetherial worlds, covering both the personal and the political. From the publisher: “A woman’s deceased father appears in her dreams with clues about the afterlife. A man falls in love with a marble statue as his marriage falls apart. A child glimpses heaven through a stained-glass window.” These are just some of the glimpses into realms both sorrowful and strangely hopeful.
Written by Nora Curry