August seems to be a gift for lovers of the printed word: August 9 is National Book Lovers’ Day, and I just recently discovered that it is also Women in Translation Month.
Founded by Meytal Radzinski, WITmonth was first celebrated in 2014 aiming to honor the work of women writers and to give recognition to their work in translation. Apparently, only 30% of work that has been translated in English are by women. This means that there is still so much literature out there, from critical and necessary voices, that the rest of the world don’t have access to.
There are some complexities though that I do want to acknowledge, such as the assignation of English as the de facto language of the world, and how this celebration caters to English speakers and readers only. It can be said in the same vein that we all need to seek out the work, voices and stories written in other languages, by perhaps learning a little bit of other languages ourselves.
I also have my own self-criticism when it comes to language. Even though my first language is an ethno-dialect (Kapampangan, since I grew up in the province of Pampanga in the Philippines) followed by Tagalog, I can read and write more effectively in English. I guess you can say that that’s how pervasive and all-encompassing Western influences are in my home country, but I’ll save that story for another post.
But complexities within the self, in the translation and publishing industries aside, I am ecstatic that at the moment, there is movement towards a global collaborative project to help remedy the discrepancy between the amount of works by women published in English translation, and how they are critically received. And I am all for it.
Three writers come to mind immediately: Filipino writer Lualhati Bautista, Hungarian writer Magda Szabó and Rabih Alameddine’s book An Unnecessary Woman.
I read and reviewed Lualhati Bautista’s book Desaparesidos a few weeks ago, a novel about a family who survived martial law in the Philippines. The book was written entirely in Filipino and it took me some time to get through parts of it. I wanted to read more texts by Bautista after finishing the book, to delve more into Filipino literature specially work written only in our language. Still, I knew that there was a lot of significance in ensuring that her work is also accessible to non-Filipino folks, who could gain a lot in understanding the people’s historical and political contexts.
The Door by Magda Szabó was another searing read, set in a small town in Hungary.The book was originally published in 1987 and was translated in 1995 for American publication by Stefan Draughon, and again in 2005 by Len Rix for British publication. This was a searing read for me. I still remember Emerence, one of the main characters in book, quite vividly.
I remembered Alameddine’s book An Unnecessary Woman too, a book about a woman who translated books and noted classics for herself, starting with a new book at the beginning of every year. A woman who reveled in the company of books, in the dutiful work of translating, not for other people but only for herself.
Other than these titles, I haven’t really come across other books by women authors in translation, but it’s something I want to read more of. This list from Words Without Borders is aspirational, and I’ve noted so many titles that I plan on adding to my own TBR list.
I’m particularly interested in the work of Asian writers like Han Kang, although I wouldn’t shy away from Svetlana Alexievich or Elana Ferrante. I want to read about perspectives that challenge the American norm, style and voice. I want to engage in text that views the world outside of my own very Western-centric bubble.
After combing through lists online and this non-exhaustive trove of newly translated work by women authors, here are five women authors you and I should read this year:
The South Korean novelist Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on Tuesday for her surreal, unsettling novel, The Vegetarian, about a woman who believes she is turning into a tree. Widely praised by critics in the United States and Britain, The Vegetarian is Ms. Han’s first work to be translated into English. (The New York Times)
“One day it dawned on me as if I were writing my own name for the first time,” the narrator of Notes of a Crocodile declares in the early pages. “Cruelty and mercy are one and the same.” This way of reframing dualities within a binary system — and pummeling that system — is the soul of this thrillingly transgressive coming-of-age story by the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin. Bonnie Huie’s translation is nothing short of remarkable — loving, even; one gets the sense that great pains have been taken to preserve the voice behind this lush, ontological masterwork. (The New York Times)
Carmen Boullosa (born in Mexico City in 1954) is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. She has published fifteen novels, the most recent of which are El complot de los románticos, Las paredes hablan, and La virgen y el violin, all with Editorial Siruela in Madrid. Her works in English translation include They´re Cows, We’re Pigs; Leaving Tabasco; and Cleopatra Dismounts, all published by Grove Press, and Jump of the Manta Ray, with illustrations by Philip Hughes, published by The Old Press. Her novels have also been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Russian. (Words Without Borders)
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature. (The Guardian)
Basma Abdel Aziz
Basma Abdel Aziz is a psychiatrist, writer, and sculptor. A long-standing vocal critic of government oppression in Egypt, she is the author of several works of nonfiction. In 2016 she was named one of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers for her debut novel, The Queue, which was also nominated for the longlist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. She lives in Cairo. (Words Without Borders)
If you have any other recommendations, leave them in the comments below and happy WITmonth!
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.