What to Read When You Want to Read Women in Translation
August is Women in Translation Month, and we’re celebrating with a list of Rumpus editors’ favorite translated books written by women, books translated by women, and in many instances, both. Translating works across languages and cultures is always important, but especially in a political climate like the one we’re facing today. These books offer new, and much-needed, perspective on the wide world of experiences beyond our own. Dive in!
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
The first great adventure story in the Western canon, The Odyssey is a poem about violence and the aftermath of war; about wealth, poverty, and power; about marriage and family; about travelers, hospitality, and the yearning for home. In this fresh, authoritative version―the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman―this stirring tale of shipwrecks, monsters, and magic comes alive in an entirely new way. Wilson’s Odyssey captures the beauty and enchantment of this ancient poem as well as the suspense and drama of its narrative.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Highway is a late-in-life world traveler, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the “notorious infamous” like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli’s own literary influences.
The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tanella Boni, translated by Todd Fredson
Tanella Boni is a major African poet, and this book, The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn, is her first full collection to be translated into English. These poems wrestle with the ethnic violence and civil war that dominated life in West Africa’s Ivory Coast in the first decade of the new millennium. Boni maps these events onto a mythic topography where people live among their ancestors and are subject to the whims of the powerful, who are at once magical and all too petty. Boni affirms her desire for hope in the face of ethno‑cultural and state violence although she acknowledges that desiring to hope and hoping are not the same.
Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, translated by Sophie Lewis
On a flight from Berlin to Paris, a woman haunted by German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s self-portrait reflects on her romantic encounter with a German-American pianist-composer. Obsessive, darkly comic, and full of angst, Blue Self-Portrait unfolds among Berlin’s cultural institutions, but is located in the mid-air flux between contrary impulses, with repetitions and variations that explore the possibilities and limitations of art, history, and connection.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim
When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?
Talking to My Body by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan
Swir was one of Poland’s most distinguished poets, and she was open in her feminism and eroticism, with poetry that explored the life of the female body—from the agonizing depths of wartime to delirious sensual delight. A member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation and a military nurse in a makeshift hospital during the Warsaw Uprising, Swir once waited an hour fully expecting to be executed. Affected deeply by her experience, she wrote a poetry which rejected the grand gestures of war in favor of a world cast in miniature, a world in which the body and individual survive.
Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Piznarik, translated by Yvette Siegert
Revered by the likes of Octavio Paz and Roberto Bolano, Alejandra Pizarnik is still a hidden treasure in the US. Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 comprises all of her middle to late work, as well as a selection of posthumously published verse. Obsessed with themes of solitude, childhood, madness and death, Pizarnik explored the shifting valences of the self and the border between speech and silence.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson
Now, for the first time in English, are all the stories that made Lispector a Brazilian legend: from teenagers coming into awareness of their sexual and artistic powers to humdrum housewives whose lives are shattered by unexpected epiphanies to old people who don’t know what to do with themselves. Lispector’s stories take us through their lives―and ours.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
He is a brilliant math professor with a peculiar problem―ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young housekeeper―with a ten-year-old son―who is hired to care for the professor. And every morning, as the professor and the housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.
Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang, translated by Karen S. Kingsbury
Shen Shijun, a young engineer, has fallen in love with his colleague, the beautiful Gu Manzhen. He is determined to resist his family’s efforts to match him with his wealthy cousin so that he can marry her. But dark circumstances—a lustful brother-in-law, a treacherous sister, a family secret—force the two young lovers apart. As Manzhen and Shijun go on their separate paths, they lose track of one another, and their lives become filled with feints and schemes, missed connections and tragic misunderstandings. At every turn, societal expectations seem to thwart their prospects for happiness. Still, Manzhen and Shijun dare to hold out hope—however slim—that they might one day meet again.
Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Following her mother’s untimely and mysterious death, Delia embarks on a voyage of discovery through the chaotic, suffocating streets of her native Naples in search of the truth about her family. A series of mysterious telephone calls leads her to compelling and disturbing revelations about her mother’s final days. This debut novel by bestselling author Elena Ferrante tells a story about mothers and daughters and the complicated knot of lies, emotions, and shared history than binds them.
Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane
Known for sharp imagery, startling metaphors and deceptively simple diction, Tomas Tranströmer’s luminous poems offer mysterious glimpses into the deepest facets of humanity, often through the lens of the natural world. These new translations by Patty Crane, presented side by side with the original Swedish, are tautly rendered and elegantly cadenced. They are also deeply informed by Crane’s personal relationship with the poet and his wife during the years she lived in Sweden, where she was afforded greater insight into the nuances of his poetics and the man himself.
Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent
Death in Spring tells the story of the bizarre and destructive customs of a nameless town through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who must come to terms with the rhyme and reason of this ritual violence, and with his wild, child-like, and teenage stepmother, who becomes his playmate. It is through these rituals, and the developing relationships between the boy and the townspeople, that Rodoreda portrays a fully articulated, though quite disturbing, society.
Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, translated by Christina MacSweeney
How do you draw an affair? A family? Can a Venn diagram show the ways overlaps turn into absences, tree rings tell us what happens when mothers leave? Can we fall in love according to the hop skip of an acrostic? Empty Set is a novel of patterns, its young narrator’s attempt at making sense of inevitable loss, tracing her way forward in loops, triangles, and broken lines.
The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer
The Years is a personal narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present—even projections into the future—photos, books, songs, radio, television and decades of advertising, headlines, contrasted with intimate conflicts and writing notes from six decades of diaries. Local dialect, words of the times, slogans, brands and names for the ever-proliferating objects, are given voice here. The voice we recognize as the author’s continually dissolves and re-emerges. Ernaux makes the passage of time palpable. Time itself, inexorable, narrates its own course, consigning all other narrators to anonymity. A new kind of autobiography emerges, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective.
A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor: Selected Poems by Maram al-Massri, translated by Khaled Mattawa
Syrian poet Maram al-Massri writes of love and the place of women in the modern age with striking candor and intensity. Her poems invoke a world where women are trapped and men flow freely, of the intoxicating power of seduction and the intensity of lust, of the security of relationships and muffled explosions of emotion. Born in Latakia, Syria, Al-Massri moved to Paris in 1984 and has since refused to return. Despite being fluent in French and English, she writes in Arabic, following traditional forms. A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is al-Massri’s first book published in the United States, and appears in a bilingual Arabic-English edition.
Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Asa Yoneda
Yoshie’s much-loved musician father has died in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. It is only when Yoshie and her mother move to Shimokitazawa, a traditional Tokyo neighborhood of narrow streets, quirky shops, and friendly residents, that they can finally start to put their painful past behind them. However, despite their attempts to move forward, Yoshie is haunted by nightmares. Is her dead father trying to communicate a message to her through these dreams? With the lightness of touch and surreal detachment that are the hallmarks of her writing, Banana Yoshimoto turns a potential tragedy into a poignant coming-of-age ghost story and a life-affirming homage to the healing powers of community, food, and family.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
Emma Bovary is the original desperate housewife. Beautiful but bored, she spends lavishly on clothes and on her home and embarks on two disappointing affairs in an effort to make her life everything she believes it should be. Soon heartbroken and crippled by debts, she takes drastic action, with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter. In this landmark new translation of Gustave Flaubert’s masterwork, award-winning writer and translator Lydia Davis honors the nuances and particulars of Flaubert’s legendary prose style, giving new life in English to the book that redefined the novel as an art form.
The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa translated by Sawako Nakayasu
The first comprehensive collection of one of Japan’s foremost modernists to appear in English translation, this is an essential book. The project received a grant from the Japan Foundation, and poems from it have appeared in Poetry, Asymptote, Fascicle, and elsewhere.
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
In a surreal but familiar vision of modern day Egypt, a centralized authority known as “the Gate” has risen to power in the aftermath of the “Disgraceful Events,” a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer. Written with dark, subtle humor, The Queue describes the sinister nature of authoritarianism, and illuminates the way that absolute authority manipulates information, mobilizes others in service to it, and fails to uphold the rights of even those faithful to it.
This Little Art by Kate Briggs
An essay with the reach and momentum of a novel, Kate Briggs’s This Little Art is a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others. Taking her own experience of translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes as a starting point, the author threads various stories together to give us this portrait of translation as a compelling, complex and intensely relational activity.