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Lockdown literature: Women in translation

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Lockdown Literature by Anne Goodwin

Diversity is the hallmark of the Ranch, with an international group of writers bringing our unique perspectives to the weekly flash fiction prompt. But what about diversity in our reading?

There is some evidence that reading diverse benefits our brains, and, if language affects thought, there can’t be a better way of accessing a mindset different to one’s own than reading novels in translation. Unfortunately, far less fiction is translated into English than from English, with the former comprising under 3% of the translation market. Furthermore, only about a quarter of literature translated into English is written by women; thankfully August’s Women in Translation Month, can help us get our hands on those rare gems.

Following on from my guest post in April on facing, fleeing or forgetting the virus through fiction, and June’s post on sleep, pandemics, healthcare and political satire, may I offer you some recommendations of novels by female authors translated into English (and/or American)? As physical international travel remains difficult, it’s a great way of virtually visiting other countries. If any of these novels seem promising, clicking on the link will take you to a longer review on my blog.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Keiko has worked in a convenience store since it opened, eighteen years before. That’s half her life. Considered odd since early childhood – although she perceives herself as logical and accommodating – she seems to have found her niche. The beep of the tills is soothing and the rigid phrases with which she’s been trained to greet the customers removes all the messy uncertainties from social interaction. The management injunction to maintain her mind and body in a fit state to do the job ensures that she eats properly and gets enough sleep. Unfortunately, Keiko is about to be pushed out of her comfort zone.

If you relish the zany, be sure to grab a copy of this novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Portobello Books.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

Sonja is learning to drive, but her first teacher won’t allow her to change gear and her second covers her hand on the gear stick with his. Now in her 40s, Sonja moved from rural Jutland to Copenhagen as a student, but now feels lonely, unable to reconnect with her sister and nostalgic for the dramatic landscapes of her childhood. It’s perhaps no coincidence that she finds herself better at reversing than driving forward, but can she embrace the future without backtracking on life?

With a perfect balance of poignancy and humour this, in Misha Hoekstra’s translation from Danish, is another lovely story about navigating contemporary life as a single woman, published by Pushkin Press.

The Unit by Ninni Holnqvist

Dorrit isn’t needed. With no dependents, no long-term cohabiting relationships and a patchy employment record, she’s never been needed. Relishing the freedom to please herself and having ample thinking space for her writing, she was fine with that. Until her fiftieth birthday loomed. Not because she was afraid of ageing but because at that point she’d be decreed dispensable and obliged to relocate to a community of similarly economically worthless men and women …

This dystopian novel, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Oneworld Publications, explores whether lives can be sacrificed for the greater good.

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Eitan Green, a promising neurosurgeon, has relocated with his wife and two young sons from Tel Aviv to the culturally and geologically dusty city of Beersheba. One night, after an exhausting shift at the hospital, he knocks someone down in the desert. Seeing that the man, a migrant from Eritrea, is beyond help, Eitan drives off. He is still battling his guilt when the victim’s widow knocks at his door. There’s a price for Sirkit’s silence, to be paid not in money, but in sleepless nights running a makeshift hospital for illegal immigrants, which will risk his health, his marriage, his official job and, eventually, his life.

This engaging novel about the lengths to which we go to evade our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings is translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published by Pushkin Press.

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

At four and a half, the child is blissfully content in the Paris apartment she shares with her mother. The war means little to her and, while her grandmother disapproves of her freedom, her mother always takes her side. The only cloud in her blue-sky world is the lie told by the two older women when they insisted she’d imagined the baby sister presented to her mother in a Normandy hospital. Now the war is coming to an end and the father she’s never met will be returning home. The child is unable to share her mother’s excitement. All too quickly, this stranger has taken over the apartment. His standards are exacting, his rage when they are not met terrifying.

This poignant story of lost innocence, and of the casual mistreatment of children, is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and published by Peirene Press.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

Cousins Roland and Edgar have grown up together, although they’ve never seen eye to eye. But they find their paths crossing as they hide out in the forest of their native Estonia, on the run from the Red Army. When the Nazis drive out the Communists, Roland goes deeper into hiding, while Edgar reinvents himself with a new name, and a post in the new regime. Edgar’s wife Juudit finds the love that he has never been able to give her in the arms of Helmuth, an officer in the German army. Roland realises he can use her to help members of the resistance escape to safety …

Moving back and forth between the early 1940s and 1960s, this complex novel, translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers and published by Atlantic Books, examines the near-impossibility of living a moral life under occupation by forces at both extremes of the political spectrum.

Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Lonely, and sick of life, forty-nine-year-old Jónas decides to end it all. Considering it far too messy to kill himself at home, he buys a one-way ticket to an erstwhile tourist destination, recently ravaged by civil war. But he can’t hold himself aloof from the horrors: a traumatised child; the assumption that everyone still alive has killed someone; rape as a tool of war. Then there are the opportunist entrepreneurs who perceive the chaos as potential profit, like the unpleasant man in the room a few doors down. Will Jónas rethink his decision?

Despite the painful topic, the tone is light: a quirky upbeat story of a handyman who takes his toolbox and thoughts of suicide to a troubled country, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon and published by Pushkin Press.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Under a bridge in Leibniz, East Germany, alongside the canal that has been part of her life since childhood, Gabriela writes her autobiography on stolen scraps of paper in the pauses between her daily struggles to find warmth and food. The only child of a top vascular surgeon and a popular society hostess, Gabriela’s early years are characterised by loneliness, obsession and the confusing contradictions of the State. As the years go by, her story is defined by a series of disappearances, unexplained to her but likely to result from the individual’s unpopularity with the Communist regime, such that, in the end, she can’t be sure she hasn’t been disappeared herself.

Translated from German by Jen Calleja, and published by Peirene Press, this is another cheerful novella about a cheerless subject: a woman who identifies as a writer and poet whose homelessness challenges the Communist ideal.

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg

Raped by her father since the age of seven, and witnessing her mother’s chaotic dependence, it’s perhaps not surprising Valerie Solanas dreams of a world without men. Leaving home with the typewriter she got for her fifteenth birthday, she finds a soulmate in a male prostitute she befriends on a campsite, but only she has the wherewithal to get to college. Then it’s on to grad school to study psychology, which seems to consist of tinkering with the physiology of mice. It’s here, along with her lover, Cosmogirl, that the seeds of the SCUM Manifesto – a radical feminist thesis which is both satirical and deadly serious – are sown.

Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by Maclehose Press, this is a literary fantasy derived from the life and work of Valerie Solanas, radical feminist and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

Although now an adult, Johanne is still preparing for life to begin. Sharing a cramped Oslo apartment with her mother, she’s studying hard at the university, dreaming of, and saving for, her future as a clinical psychologist in an idyllic woodland setting. While the mother-daughter relationship is enmeshed, the pair spending their leisure time together, they have separate lives during the weekday 9-to-5. The mother also has a lover – albeit one who is unlikely to leave his wife and family – but the relationship sours when Johanne acquires a lover too.

Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin and published by Peirene Press in 2014, this is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s sexual awakening conflicting with her desire to please and protect her mother.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada

It’s ten years since Reverend Pearson abandoned his wife and her suitcase by the side of the road, and he’s been travelling with his teenage daughter, Leni, across northern Argentina ever since. When their car breaks down miles out of town, he trusts that God, through the mechanic, Gringo Brauer, will put it right. While he waits, he tries a spot of evangelising with the mechanic’s assistant, Tapioca. At sixteen, the boy is the same age as Leni, and also without a mother, having been left at the isolated garage half his lifetime ago. Brauer has treated him well enough, although, given he could already read and write, saw no need to send him to school, or church.

Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by Charco Press, this is about the unexpected intimacy forced upon four lonely people – two motherless teenagers, an evangelical preacher and a cynical mechanic – when a car breaks down in the pause before a storm in rural Argentina.

Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette

Life’s hard for sheep and cattle farmers on the bleak Patagonian steppe, but it’s rendered yet harsher for four boys brought up on a ruined estancia without love. Especially for Rafael, born after their father’s departure, and relentlessly bullied by his big brothers from almost the moment he emerged from the womb. Raised on thrashings herself, the mother turns a blind eye to the child’s maltreatment and pins the blame on him when he staggers home, dirty, scratched and bruised. When the mother gambles one of the boys in a poker game, it seems that things can’t get any worse. But it could be that leaving the homestead is exactly what he needs. Although it might be too sentimental to expect an altogether happy ending, this is nevertheless an uplifting story of endurance and survival against the odds.

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson this is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.

Sorry I’ve got a bit carried away here! So many great books! And all of them read before August 2019. If you’d like to know about the women in translation I’ve been reading since then (18 novels at the time of writing), come and visit my blog towards the end of next month.


I hope you’ve found something here to whet your appetite and do use the comments to add recommendations of your own. If you want advice on finding a novel on a particular theme or in a specific location, just ask. If I can’t help you, someone else probably can.

In my next slot at the Ranch:

September 22: Fictional therapists (because I reckon half the world will be having therapy and the other half delivering it after this)


This post comes from Rough Writer Anne Goodwin

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ANNE GOODWIN

Anne Goodwin posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal, with around ten novel reviews a month. A former clinical psychologist, she’s also the author of two novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill. Her second novel, about a man who keeps a woman locked up down in a cellar is another potential lockdown read.

Subscribe to Anne’s newsletter for a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com

Twitter @Annecdotist.


31 Comments

  1. Susan Scott says:

    Thanks Anne so much. Such diverse themes too (reminds me of foreign films that hold a different tone, place, theme).

    I was recently given ‘The Seamstress’ by Maria Dueñas translated by Daniel Hahn (from Spanish I think. Will read it in next couple of months I guess. It’s had good reviews I believe. An author I loved was Henning Mankell, whose books were translations from Swedish. Some of Isabel Allende’s books were translations –

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ritu says:

    I read Convenience Store Woman. One at least from what sound’s like a great list of recommendations!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. denmaniacs4 says:

    An excellent list of books totally unknown to me. I’ll add them to my never ending list, Anne.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Miss Judy says:

    I recently read “Latitudes of Longing” by Shubhangi Swarup. She is a new author from India and award winner for this, her first novel . You can read my review at https://gardensandmore.wordpress.com/category/books/page/4/

    Liked by 2 people

  5. That’s a lovely collection of novels. Diverse but with interesting synopsis. Will try to check out atleast one of them. Thanks Anne.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Charli Mills says:

    It’s interesting, Anne, to see how Lockdown Literature has evolved in unprecedented times. This post offers a stronger spine of women’s fiction, not for escape but for contemplating the experiences of people throughout the world. I have admired your commitment to reading translations and have several of the books you’ve reviewed (Nothing but Dust, and Waking Lions). My commitment to diversity differs in that I want to amplify #ownvoices, reading books by BIPOC authors, especially women. In the Keweenaw, we are anticipating the fall release of Mason House by T. Marie Bertineau. While many have written about Native Americans in our region, she is a Native author and her book is a memoir. Through my peers and professors, I’m learning about the barriers many BIPOC authors face in America, and given the small percentage of global translations into English, I’d say it’s a broader issue. Great set of books to highlight for lockdown reading. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I’m grateful for the opportunity and wondering when it will have to evolve into out-of-lockdown literature! You’ve made me realise there is a real gap in my list regarding PoC (I think, I didn’t actually check!) Although I do read generally around 20% (my target is 25% but don’t usually meet it) with three novels by women out of my five recent favourites listed here

      https://annegoodwin.weebly.com/annecdotal/racism-entitlement-and-political-protest-in-the-age-of-covid

      maybe that’s what I should have focused on? Next time? There’s a real gap in my reading regarding Native American authors, the only one I can think I’ve read is Louise Erdrich. Any recommendations? I’m afraid it has to be fiction!

      Like

      • Charli Mills says:

        Free to Roam About Literature? Regardless, locked-down, emerging, locked-down again, or vaccinated, these times will long resonate with us and influence what we seek to read or what seeks our attention.

        I appreciate your global focus. Another interesting collection might be intersections — commonalities between diverse groups.

        Oh, yes — I have some recommendations. Sherman Alexie writes some of the most powerful poetry, fiction, and now memoir. I love The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, but you might find Little Indian Killer. He’s Spokane. James Welch (Blackfeet) was a prominent Montana author. Fools Crow is my favorite of his books. There There by Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho). Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna) is a literary work about injustice. You’d like the short stories (Women on the Run) by Janet Campbell Hale (Couer D’Alene). All fiction!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Charli, I’ll check them out and be sure to order at least one if they are available in the UK

        Like

  7. Norah says:

    Thanks, Anne, another interesting post with some more titles to add to the ever-increasing list.
    What intrigued me in your introduction was the number of books translated into English compared to the number (not that you gave it) from English. It had me asking all sorts of questions about how many books might be translated into other languages and which languages they might be. I know some pictures books are translated into a variety of languages. I recently interviewed an author whose books are simultaneously published in Mandarin and English.
    Anyway I searched for some numbers and found this article on statistics. https://www.worldometers.info/books/
    It seems that about 1/3 of the books published each year are published in English. That might account for some of the difference. There are already so many books in English available, it may seem less important to publish more? (I counted the books published in the USA, UK, India, Canada, Australia and NZ)
    While China and India have the largest populations, the number of books published annually in those countries trails significantly (I think) behind the USA and the UK. I think it’s worthy of note that the UK, which doesn’t rank in the top 20 by population, ranks 2nd in the number of books published. Do we in the English speaking world read more? Is that what those numbers indicate?
    I wondered also how many books written in LOTE (languages other than English) are translated into another LOTE.
    So many questions …
    Anyway, I’m probably off the track a bit, but that’s where you post sent me and isn’t that what we do here at the Ranch?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Norah, that’s fascinating! I do recall reading somewhere that we publish a disproportionate number of books here in the UK which potentially makes it more difficult to get noticed. So it’s possible that publishers don’t want to add to the volume. Relative to other Europeans, we are way behind in learning/speaking other languages, perhaps because we don’t think we need to when English is so widely spoken (although we’re likely to get left behind by Spanish and Chinese) and maybe that reduces our curiosity.

      I’m glad this sparked your curiosity and thanks for sharing the results of your research.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this great-sounding list! I could do with diversifying my reading more, so I’ll definitely look out for these in the future 🙂

    I’ve not read any of their publications yet, but I know that the Emma Press has a growing list of international work translated into English: https://theemmapress.com/

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for checking out my recommendations and for the reminder about the Emma press. I haven’t read any of their stuff either – I think it’s mostly children’s, poetry and short fiction – but it’s always great to support small presses when we can.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Jules says:

    Anne,

    You’ve given some good brief descriptions… I’m going to have to make a list and check out my library. ~ Thanks, Jules

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Very interesting subject! I didn’t realize that things were more often translated *from* English than *to* English. It surprises me because I would think English a top choice to translate anything into – many people can read English as a first or second language, so I would have thought it a big goal to get done. Great selection of books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norah’s suggestion was that there are already so many books published in English it might be less viable commercially to bring out more, especially as there’s the double expense of paying authors and translators – not that either are likely to live in luxury because of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That makes sense. I have read few translations, especially of new works (19th century French works are often important).

        Whether or not anyone cares, the language of science is definitely English. Even several German, Japanese, and Chinese scientific journals publish in English. Angewandte is the most notable.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a good point about the scientific journals. I believe at one point German was also quite useful for some technical subjects (probably quite a while ago)

        Liked by 1 person

      • German still pops upon occasion – but most of the super important German papers seem to be written prior to WWII. I bet their loss in that war was what made the allies suspicious and the language lost its scientific luster. Just an opinion, though.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Chel Owens says:

    I may only get to one or two of these, but appreciate your recommendations. I love opening my perspective in seeing how others think, feel, and live.

    Liked by 1 person

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