Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘translation’ category

One of the public libraries near me is a “living library” – it’s meant for the local school population, is not silent, in fact can be quite animated when the students are there for the internet or to have a coffee in the “café” portion on the second floor. It’s a decent size, making it a wonderful resource for anyone living nearby. Also interesting is that the library only stocks “recent” books or magazines, those that were published in the last 10 years or so. (All books in French). It isn’t, then, a place to go looking for classics, but it’s a fantastic place to come across new-to-me Francophone writers.

I picked up Agnès Desarthe’s La Partie de Chasse (now in English as Hunting Party, tr. by Christiana Hills, Unnamed Press) this way a few months ago, and also books by Lydie Salvayre and Pascal Kramer and some others. In my endless quest for the perfect novella, I often pick out slim books by writers I’ve never heard of. Which is what I did last week, and this tactic awarded me with Valérie Zenatti’s Mensonges (Lies).

I am, obviously, always interested in translators who are writers (“interested” is a little slight, to be honest, I’m probably obsessed) and Zenatti is both. With that in mind, Mensonges was especially fascinating because it is many things at once: it is both fiction and personal essay, but it is also a comment on translation as well as the relationship between a translator and the author being translated.

Not all translators feel so strongly connected to “their writer” but some do, and Zenatti writes so beautifully about what the act of translating Aharon Appelfeld has brought her personally. The book—which is just 90 pages—is like a platonic love letter, an expression of extreme gratitude and grace.

The book begins with a first person biographical sketch that you only realize later has nothing to do with Zenatti. It’s a description of someone born in 1932, whose early life is marked forever by WWII: removal to a ghetto, death of his mother, deported to and escape from a concentration camp, years of hiding until he arrives in Israel (just before independence), and then his adolescence in Israel and the learning of a new language. She is writing in the voice of Appelfeld. A daring ventriloquism.

The next section begins in 1979, in Nice, and this is an 8-year-old Zenatti, coming to understand her Jewishness, how it situates her, how it will always define her. She writes of her childhood nightmares and she details what a Jewish child born at any point after the war, when so many survivors were still around to describe what it must have been like, must have felt: the specific fear of “this happened, this could happen again” but also the pointed understanding that “this would have happened to me.”

Each chapter then moves the reader through the different stages of her “encounter” with the Shoah. There are moments she admits how unable she was—her youth, her distance from the war—to truly comprehend the immensity of it, and there are moments when the immensity of it overwhelms her. She writes also of her time in Israel, learning Hebrew, forgetting French.

And then, in 2002, she “encounters” Appelfeld for the first time through his novel 1978 Les Temps des Prodiges (The Age of Wonders), and in 2004 she finally meets him in person in Jerusalem after beginning to translate his work. I won’t give details about her description of that meeting because it is, in many ways, the heart and the secret of Mensonges, and it leads to the final chapter – a fiction, a kind of fairy tale of two children, an older brother and a younger sister, lost in the woods, hunted by an army. It is haunting, and deeply moving.

I mentioned above that Zenatti’s ventriloquism of Appelfeld in the first section is daring, but it also makes sense she would dare it. Of anyone, after translating at least nine of his novels, I suspect she knows what it’s like to inhabit his words.

After finishing Mensonges, I did my research and Zenatti has a long and successful publishing history: she writes novels for adults and for children, she is a translator and a screenwriter. One of her young adult novels—Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea—was translated into many languages, including English, and was made into a film as well.

From what I can find, none of her novels for adults have made their way into English. I took one of them, Les Ames Soeurs, from the library and will start it soon. I’ve also never read Appelfeld and will remedy that immediately.

(I have read several books this year dealing specifically with the Holocaust, and others looking at political oppression and forms of fascism. This is no accident, obviously, and the echoes to the contemporary politics of several countries are deeply disturbing.)

Over at Necessary Fiction this week, I review Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja, translated by Shelley Frisch.

Maybe Esther takes on so much emotional and political territory that it can feel disorienting. I mean this is a compliment, because I believe the book’s offering of a slightly overwhelming reading experience is entirely intentional, and much to its point. Petrowskaja relates entire constellations of stories: the schools for deaf-mute children run by her maternal grandfather’s family; the political assassin, Judas Stern, who was tried and shot in Moscow in 1932; the great-great-grandmother and great-aunt who faithfully made their way through the streets to what would become the infamous Babi Yar massacre in Kiev; the long-lost American relative who made it through a ghetto, five concentration camps and a death march, and so many more family stories, as well as Petrowskaja’s own journeys around Europe. But it never feels as though Petrowskaja is sharing these stories and her questions about them in order to resolve their specific and personal mysteries. Instead, her persistent questioning and gentle paralleling to Greek tragedy and the Bible seems to suggest that the real mystery under investigation here is how did these events come to take place—historically, politically, humanly. How was all of this tragedy allowed to happen?

You can read the entire review here.

Also, if you missed it, you can also read my interview with _Maybe Esther’s_ translator, Shelley Frisch.

In May I spent a lot of my time sharing quotes from Katja Petrowskaja’s beautiful book, Maybe Esther. I was very taken with this book and it’s project of retracing 20th-century Europe through the stories of Petrowskaja’s family, but because of the nature of the book’s wordplay and linguistic focus (shifting constantly between Russian, Polish, and German), I was equally interested in the work that went into its translation into English. I had the opportunity to interview Shelley Frisch, who masterfully translated Maybe Esther and that interview is now published. Frisch answered my questions in great detail and it was a wonderful discussion of a unique book. Here is just a small taster:

In both form and content, Katja aimed at foregrounding the fragmentary nature of her quest to piece together her family history, and the jagged use of language that comes with foreign language proficiency acquired later in life is part and parcel of that fragmentation.

You can read the entire interview here at Necessary Fiction.

I’ve also written a review of Maybe Esther that will be published on Monday.

And just a quick word on the title of the interview and this blog post – Shelley mentioned the first two lines of an Emily Dickinson poem in the context of our discussion but I cannot stop thinking of this line as the best description of translation I’ve ever heard:

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

The second writer on the panel for BIBLIOTOPIA was Gazmend Kapllani, with his three novels A Short Border Handbook, Je m’appelle Europe (My name is Europe), and Le Dernier Page (The Last Page). Kapllani was born in and grew up in Albania, and then immigrated to Greece where he lived for something like twenty years. He writes, for now, in Greek. He currently lives and teaches in the US, however, and will probably be published directly in English at some point.

All three of his novels deal with immigration – the first, A Short Border Handbook, is told through the eyes of a migrant escaping Albania for Greece, and the difficulties of that journey. It also includes a kind of manual – the handbook in the title – for the illegal immigrant experience. It is funny at times, but the humor is sharp and pointed, as it should be, for a book describing the absurd cruelty of the modern migrant experience. It is also a poetic book, looking philosophically at the relationship between language and identity, between language and memory.

I think the tone of that book can be picked up from one of it’s opening lines:

My difficult relationship with borders goes back a very long way, back to my childhood, because whether or not you end up with border syndrome is largely a matter of luck: it depends where you’re born.

I was born in Albania.

The quote of the title of the post is also from A Short Border Handbook.

In one of his panels, Kapllani asked why there wasn’t a museum of immigration in Europe. Europe has museums for the smallest, most specific things, museums for the great wars, and yet nothing for immigration – arguably the longest “event” in Europe’s history. That last bit is my own paraphrasing, as his question and the point he was making really struck me.

In Je m’appelle Europe, an Albanian immigrant falls in love with a Greek woman name Europe. I loved the symbolic meaning of the premise of this book—that two people meet, an immigrant and a native, simply because a woman named Europe loses the key to her home. Their relationship is fraught with questions of the effect of language—occupying a new language, inhabiting a mother tongue—on relationships. Of the power dynamics of language – and these endless distinctions of migrant and immigrant and native as fixed entities that end up shredding our notions of a shared humanity.

Je suis convaincu qu’une langue n’a pas de frontière. A y regarder de près, dire « ma » langue représente un abus de langage. On peut dire « mon » portefeuille, « ma » voiture, « mon » parti politique, « mon » champ. Mais on ne peut s’approprier une langue. On peut la cultiver, la transmettre et accomplir de grandes choses grâce à elle. Mais une langue n’appartient à personne.

(I believe that a language doesn’t have a border. Considered carefully, to say “my” language is really an abuse of language. You can say “my” wallet, “my” car, “my” political party, “my” field. But you cannot appropriate a language for yourself. You can cultivate it, transmit it, you can accomplish great things because of it. But a language doesn’t belong to anyone.)

Je m’appelle Europe has two neat tricks in it as well. First, it is set in a near-future – where Europe, the country, has been transformed. Having the narrator look back, retrospectively on his love affair with Europe and his early life in Albania, but from the context of this new strange place, was really interesting – the juxtapositions, the sneaky predictions. Also, book is threaded with immigrant narratives, with chapters that rest alongside the main story, documenting the experiences of others as they have moved or fled their homes, as they have tried to establish lives in their new homes.

And finally, in Le Dernier Page (The Last Page), the reader follows a man named Melsi, an Albanian who has spent his life in Greece, a writer, who must return to Albania to bury his father who has passed away unexpectedly in China. This book goes backward, however, to the previous generation, to the story of Melsi’s parents and their own European migration experience. It’s the story of Albania in many ways, and its transformation and historical relationship to Italy and to Greece.

All of Kapllani’s books deal with the world of writing, of translation, migration, historical connections, and political oppression. As someone who has been and continues to exist within this wave of movement (in a different way, obviously) – from Japan to the US, raised by an immigrant father, and now to Europe, as an immigrant myself, but a “welcome” one, for now anyway – and as a translator who is deeply interested in how language affects memory, how language shapes and controls identity, watching my own daughter grow up bilingual, with a deep love of several other languages that she uses with relative ease, these three books were a fantastic study for me, posing questions and settling over many of my own preoccupations. I look forward to Kapllani’s future work.

Of the three writers I interviewed for BIBLIOTOPIA, Xiaolu Guo has the largest body of work – and she is a filmmaker as well. I was not able to read all of her books in time for the weekend, but I managed four of them and am so glad that I did. Her work is a complex mix of biography and fiction, and she’s interested in issues of displacement (both within a culture and between different cultures) as well as sexual expression and feminism. She was also generous and engaging in person, a real delight to meet and discuss books with.

Village of Stone is the story of Coral, a young woman living in Beijing with her lover, a man named Red. One way to describe Coral would be to say that she is frozen, or stuck, and it’s only when a mysterious package arrives from her far away hometown that she begins to tell the reader the story of her childhood, giving us a chance to understand what has made her the way she is now. The book flips between the past and the present, revealing the tension that holds the two together. Coral was raised in the “village of stone” by her grandparents – two people who hated each other and lived on separate floors of their home – and she essentially lived as an orphan in a village of families, all of them at the mercy of a wild and merciless sea. The book is very much about loneliness and escape, about surviving trauma, and it plays endlessly with ideas of language and silence. (p.s. The title of this post is a line from Village of Stone.)

Once Upon a Time in the East is Guo’s most recent book, written in English, and published last year. This is her memoir, and many of its stories were achingly familiar after reading Village of Stone (which draws heavily from Guo’s own experiences). Here they are given more concrete detail and Guo’s own interpretations. The book also goes further, showing us when Guo meets her parents for the first time at the age of 7, the very fraught relationship she had with her mother, her family’s story during the Cultural Revolution and its lingering effects, as well as what happens when she leaves for Beijing to attend film school, and then when she travels to England and eventually stays. This book has a marvelous focus on what it means to create art, to write, from within a culture of censorship (which creates an equally strong self-censorship), and she talks a lot about how she was able to define herself outside of China, using English because for her it represented a switch from the patriarchal Chinese system and gave her a chance at equality. There is a lot about families here, too.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the first book that Guo wrote in English, and it accomplishes a very neat trick. She was learning English at the time, and so she used her unsteadiness in the language as the very basis of the book. It is written in broken English, a broken English that would be spoken by a Chinese immigrant. It’s a love story, as the title suggests, but it’s also a kind of travel narrative, and a book of self-discovery. There is nothing cheesy or simplistic about the novel but the directness of the language almost masks what is a lovely, careful story about losing one’s culture and oneself and trying to find a sense of wholeness again in a new place and a new language. That last sentence is the kind of sentence that gets so overused from a marketing standpoint, that I almost regret writing it, but the book very seriously and thoughtfully asks questions about what it is to love someone – physically, emotionally – and how loving someone else teaches you what loving yourself feels like. It is a deceptively light-seeming book with a much more serious heart.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the first novel Guo ever wrote. She wrote it when she was still in China, and she wrote it in Chinese but according to Western novelistic narrative conventions, a style that was newish in China at the time. She writes in her memoir that a first-person story with a continuous narrative arc felt modern and strange. 20 Fragments is about Fenfang, a young woman who travels from the countryside to Beijing hoping to become an artist. She dates all the wrong men and has a lot of rotten luck. Again, there is a certain false lightness to the book that belies the seriousness of Guo’s subject: the real struggle of a young woman to make it on her own in a big city without family connections or support, and in a professional setting that is mostly hostile to women. An interesting footnote to this book is that the English version is probably very different from the original Chinese version. Guo writes in her acknowledgements that the ten-year gap between the publication of the original and the translation brought her to make some changes to the text, mostly because her vision of that young woman had changed, but also because, “The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese.” I’m also curious if the English version is more overtly critical of elements of the Chinese system and culture than the original – something she may not have been able to do when the novel was first published.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you will already know that one of my favorite things to do is read an author from start to finish. My experience with Guo over the past few weeks was like a compressed version of that, and it was interesting to read and study the way the margins blurred between her biography and her fictional project. Village of Stone fictionalized her childhood, 20 Fragments fictionalized her early experiences in Beijing, and A Concise Dictionary fictionalized her own immigrant experience in the UK and Europe. The actual memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, added a ton of interesting nuance to those other stories.

I was not able to read UFO in her Eyes, I am China, or Lovers in the Age of Indifference (a collection of stories). I will eventually read those three as well, and I am particularly keen to read I am China because one of its characters is a translator who pieces together a love story based on letters, and also because it deals with modern issues of asylum. It’s also maybe the only novel of Guo’s that is written in the 3rd person and I’m curious how she’s made that shift.

I’ve gone on and one here, and I feel like I could still say a lot more. I’m delighted to have been introduced to Guo’s writing and films, and I look forward to follow what she does in the future.

This past weekend was the first ever BIBLIOTOPIA festival at the Fondation Jan Michalski here in Switzerland. I was asked to moderate one of the sessions – a focus on Language and Identity – and in preparation had the pleasure of reading the following books from three very interesting writers:

  • Katja Petrowskaja – Maybe Esther (tr. Shelley Frisch), 2018
  • Gazmend Kapllani – A Short Border Handbook (tr. Anne-Marie Stanton Ife), 2009
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Je m’appelle Europe (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2013
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Le Dernier Page (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2015
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Village of Stone (tr. Cindy Carter), 2005
  • Xiaolu Guo – Once Upon a Time in the East, 2017
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, 2007
  • Xiaolu Guo – 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (tr. Rebecca Morris, rev. by Pamela Casey), 2009

Several things connect these writers – the first being that none of them are writing in their native language. Petrowskaja is Russophone but chose to write her book in German, Kapllani is originally from Albania but has written his three novels in Greek (which I then read in English or French translation), and Guo began her writing career in Mandarin (which was her 3rd language) before switching to English after she had moved to the UK. All of them are also writing about immigration, displacement, and/or escape, about the intricacies of family narratives – this often meaning silent or hidden stories – and all of them are writing about censorship in one form or another. There was so much linking the writers that I was excited to speak with them as a group. The actual panel conversation I got to have with them was far too short, but I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on how they located themselves—personally, politically, artistically—within their new language and culture.

Something I took away from the discussion and that I am still thinking about is the idea that it isn’t really that big of a deal to be writing in one’s 2nd or 3rd language. We talked about the idea of “betraying” one’s mother tongue, and how they each negotiated that tension in their work and over time, but eventually all three of them insisted on the normality/necessity of writing outside of one’s native language, and even expressed a sense of exasperation that Anglophones are continually astonished, as if this were an impossible task when, in fact, it is not. It was a gentle scolding of the idea that languages are impenetrable from outside their attached culture, in other words language can become another border that doesn’t need policing. We didn’t have time to go into the nuances of stylistic compromises, emotional engagements, etc – things about which I am still very curious. As a translator I know what it feels like to undress and dress a language, and although I consider myself almost bilingual, I very rarely write extensively in French. I found it both perplexing and liberating to think that I could just switch one language for another if I wanted to or needed to.

In any case, I’d like to write a bit about their books now that I’ve spent so much time with them, and I’ll start a new post to do so, beginning with Xiaolu Guo.

This month I have the pleasure of translating an art book about Rodin’s erotic drawings, and so I’m enjoying a glimpse into the art world of Paris in the early 1900s.

Research (mostly checking quotations from art critics and famous people about Rodin’s work) has thrown me into many a delightful rabbit hole, looking at the originals and any existing translations of a number of art books as well as The Goncourt Journal, which is mentioned several times in what I’m translating.

While looking for several quotes, I came across a few interesting anecdotes. One of Jules Goncourt happening upon Sarah Bernhardt wandering around in an art warehouse. It’s pouring down rain and she’s bundled up, musing over different art objects. And then she passes him and he describes her:

It is curious how this Sarah Bernhardt reminded me on this gray and rainy day of one of those elegant and emaciated convalescents who pass you in a hospital at about five o’clock, in the twilight, to attend prayers at the end of the hall.

There are also many mentions of evenings out or evenings in with Alphonse and Julia Daudet, as Edmond de Goncourt was great friends with Alphonse. The section I came across was one of Edmond spying a moment between the couple when Alphonse shows Julia the dedication of one of his newly printed editions.

We go down to the publishers; Daudet shows his wife the dedication, of which only a few copies have been printed, and which she has not yet seen. And Mme Daudet, reading it, denies her husband’s acknowledgments of her talent in words which have almost the emotional sputtering of a disappointed woman in love: “No, no, it’s too much. … I don’t want it … no, I don’t want it!”

(Both quotes are from an English (translator uncredited) edition published sometime in the first half of the 20th century.)

I’m so curious about this. Julia wrote and wrote, and I translated one of her beautiful short stories “The Unknown Woman” a few years ago for Spolia Mag, but she refused credit for all the editing and perhaps even writing she did of her husband’s manuscripts. It makes me think about Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife, and wonder how much “editing” Julia may have actually done.

I spent a good portion of yesterday looking for an article on a exhibition that Rodin did in Holland in 1899, of some drawings that were inspired, in part or in whole, by Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden. I found myself, quite at random, stuck reading through all April editions of La Presse (Parisian newspaper) and found myself reading the listings of duels – who was hurt, why they fought, whether it was swords or pistols. It was hard not to laugh, and yet how sad this is. We disagree, we fight to the death (or near death). Albeit, no one listed in these April 1899 duels actually died! Many of the fights were about literary disputes – that made me smile.

This book I’m translating also talks about how Rodin (like so many other artists) was heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints – and while checking for the correct spelling of one of the artists who influenced him, I fell into a lovely hour of browsing Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige and many others.

I love woodblock prints of Kyushu, a place that is lesser known for anyone traveling to Japan – even today — and Mt. Sakurajima in Kagoshima was a big inspiration for many artists.

This one is Kawase Hasui:

Kawase Hasui

This is another Hasui that I have always loved….

Kawase Hasui 2

And probably my favorite artist was one who came a bit later – Kiyoshi Saito. If you do an image search for him, you’ll see that his work was darker, more gray scale, and more modern than many of the woodblock artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Kiyoshi Saito

And finally, to finish, here is Hiroshi Yoshida’s Matterhorn. He was born on Kyushu but travelled extensively, so here we have Japan and Switzerland from 1925.

Yoshida Matterhorn



Et je pensais que tout autour de moi vivait d’une vie mystérieuse et intense. Tout le monde avait des secrets. Tout le monde semblait en savoir plus long que moi. Je jouais à un jeu que je ne comprenais pas.

(And I felt that all about me churned a mysterious and intense life. Everyone had secrets. Everyone seemed to know more than me. I was playing at a game that I didn’t understand.)

Thus speaks the narrator of Elsa Triolet’s 1946 novel, Personne ne m’aime, which chronicles the life (and surrounding times) of two women in 1939 Paris, following their situation until 1945. This is pre-war Paris and occupied France placed under a microscope, detailed for the reader by Anne-Marie, who begins as an ordinary woman with no feeling for politics, no desire for anything but the bourgeois life she was born into.

That will change slowly as the novel unfolds, but Triolet makes it very clear that there are no instant heroes in wartime.

Through the proximity of their families, Anne-Marie was raised as kind of older sister to another woman, Jenny Borghèze, ten years her junior. When the novel opens in 1939, Anne-Marie is 37 years old and has returned from colonial France to Paris to establish a residence for her family who are meant to be joining her soon after. That won’t happen because of the war, but no one knows this yet—and this separation from her husband and two children is a fascinating element of the novel. So Anne-Marie visits Jenny, who has become a famous film star (she is likened to Greta Garbo so we understand her renown), and the women’s deep friendship is renewed. To the point that Jenny insists Anne-Marie move in with her in her vast apartment near Trocadero. And from here the novel takes flight.

Parties and love affairs (for Jenny), a new movie about to be released in which Jenny plays Joan of Arc, and the stifling atmosphere of pre-war Paris as the intellectuals and celebrities choose their sides for and against fascism. Jenny is outspokenly anti-Fascist but a very difficult person, while Anne-Marie refuses to even acknowledge the question but is generous, loving, intelligent. This juxtaposition is where the novel hinges, where it opens up a ragged line of inquiry on heroics, on wartime behavior. Something that Triolet, who was active in the French resistance, knew much about.

The novel contains a big event that I can’t mention here without giving the entire book away, but the event essentially breaks the novel into two distinct parts, and the second half sees Anne-Marie in a subtly-done and realistic awakening. She can no longer absent herself from what is happening around her. Triolet’s Anne-Marie is one of the best kinds of ordinary women: flawed but strong, sometimes deluded but always intelligent. Even her age – nearing 40 – is an interesting choice. More than anything, Anne-Marie is compassionate. Her compassion, and how it wanes and changes and evolves, is really the theme of the book, and this question already cited in the title – No one loves me – is repeated and examined and eventually enlarged to consider not just the women in the book but all of France, all of humanity. Who loves who in wartime? Who actually loves at all?

Anne-Marie’s story is continued in a second novel, Les Fantômes Armés, which was published in 1947.



For the second half of the month, I made the following casual recommendations to family and friends:

TO HELL WITH CRONJE by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke.

I’ll put this simply: if you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy-style writing, if you like gripping historical fiction that doesn’t feel in any real way historical, if you like intensely beautiful descriptions of the natural world, if you enjoy challenging questions of politics and racial issues, if you enjoy friendship narratives… then you will love this book. I wrote more about it when I read it.

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Chi-young Kim.

Today’s book is one I meant to mention much earlier in the month but forgot about, which is ironic because it is about an elderly woman with dementia who gets separated from her family in a subway station. There is a fascinating diversity of narrative perspectives in this book – you learn about what happens to the mother from several different voices. And at the same time you learn so much about contemporary South Korea. The family theme of the book made it completely relatable on a purely human level. I absolutely loved this book.

INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS by Nancy Huston, translated by Nancy Huston.

If you asked me what superpower I might want, I would consider invisibility for a short while but then I’d say – the ability to write in two languages. I don’t just mean the practical way I have to use French and English for work, I mean great sweeping complicated novels in two languages. Huston was not raised bilingual – she’s English-speaking originally but moved to France in her twenties and found her literary voice in French. She writes incredibly rich, complex novels in French and then does the translation herself into English. I wrote about the book years ago.

MILDEW by Paulette Jonguitud, translated from Spanish by Paulette Jonguitud

I discovered this fantastic novella among CB Editions marvelous catalogue some time last year. The story is about a woman who discovers a spot of mildew growing on her leg just 24 hours before her daughter’s wedding. Weird, yes. Excellent, yes. A little bit magical realism, a little bit family drama, Mildew is strange and dark and filled with surprises. I wrote a longer review for Mildew in 2015.

IT DOES NOT DIE by Maitreyi Devi, translated from the Bengali by Maitreyi Devi

This book was an incredible find a year or so ago in my book group. We first read a novel called BENGAL NIGHTS by Mircea Eliade (which was about a man who falls in love with a young woman in the 1930s India – it was a beautiful book, and quite provocative – and based on Eliade’s own travels as a young man), but it turns out that the woman in question was Maitreyi Devi and she wrote her own version of events – extremely different – from the original book. Her story is fascinating, as are the cultural elements behind both books – and reading the two books in tandem was excellent. This essay gives more background on the two novels.

THE WAITING YEARS by Enchi Fumiko, translated by John Bester

Originally published in Japanese in 1957, The Waiting Years is about Tomo, a wife in a “good family” in Tokyo. Enchi is exploding stereotypes in this book, and uncovering ugly hidden realities as the reader watches Tomo suffer within the bounds of her perfectly “good” marriage. The book is really gripping and Enchi’s writing is so lovely. I wrote about this one in more detail a few years ago.

THE TALE OF GENJI by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by various translators over time.

My favorite translation is now Royall Tyler’s amazing, footnoted, heavily researched absolute work-of-art, that came out in 2001. It’s stunning. Also, what other book may have taken a translator as much time as the Genji?

CHASING THE KING OF HEARTS by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Here is part of what I had to say about the book when I reviewed it for Necessary Fiction a few years ago.

This premise—that something as intangible and fragile as the connection and love between Shayek and Izolda should trump all impossible distances and insane governmental decrees and genocidal rules—is where the novella hinges. It is not so much that Izolda believes that within the context of the war she still deserves the success of her life and love, but rather despite it. On a purely psychological level, Izolda operates as if the war simply does not touch her. While her actions and movements are all prescribed and countered by what is happening in the Polish ghetto, in various prison camps, in Vienna, even in the Guben labor camp, her mindset remains firmly beyond these prescriptions. And this is this novella’s most remarkable offering.

You can read the entire review here.

COMMENTARY by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis

This very slim novella, originally published in 1933, is actually a series of fierce and powerful letters, written by a young woman to her former lover, written from the sanatorium in which she would die a year later from tuberculosis at the age of 34. It’s an incredibly feminist text for its time, it’s also angry, sad, poetic, and complicated. The kind of short book you can read again and again, understanding different parts of it each time. The notes in the back of my edition discussing the various writers and critics who were impressed or affected by Commentary is also worth devouring.

JULETANE by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, translated from the French by Betty Wilson.

Warner Vieyra is a Guadeloupean writer who now lives in Senegal, and JULETANE gracefully brings together three very different places that Warner must know very well: the Caribbean, Paris, and Senegal. The book is a framework story, and the reader follows Hélène in Paris (an independent and wealthy woman about to be married) as she finds a diary while packing up her apartment. The diary belongs to Juletane, a young West Indian woman who met and married a man from Senegal while living in Paris but then followed him to his home in Africa, where she cannot manage to find her place. The two women’s stories contrast beautifully and reveal all the complexities of both.

THE TRUE DECEIVER by Tove Janssen, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Very different in tone from Jansson’s The Summer Book, which I mentioned earlier this month, The True Deceiver is darker and a bit more complicated. I wrote about the book here.

THE NOTEBOOK, THE PROOF, THE THIRD LIE by Agota Kristof, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, David Watson, & Marc Romano.

If you’ve been reading my site for any length of time, you’ll know how much this trilogy affected me. Written by a Hungarian-Swiss writer and it is not an easy one to read, but is one of the most thought-provoking series of books I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. The trilogy follows the lives of a set of young twins as they deal with WWII and its aftermath. The books deal with abandonment, with war, with identity, with authoritarian regimes. The stories are grim in many ways, but Kristof also has a keen eye for the humane where it honestly resides. I wrote about each book here, so if you’re interested you can have a look at “Agota Kristof” and it will all come up.

THE BRIEFCASE by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.

On the surface this a book about a woman in her late thirties and a man in his seventies and the strange romance in which they find themselves engaged. That word romance is a little misleading, because what happens between Tsukiko and Sensei is far more serious than what that simple word might lead one to believe. The Briefcase is less a study of an unconventional relationship and more a query of what happens when two resolutely lonely individuals find that when they are together, their loneliness is eased.

My full review at Necessary Fiction is here.

THE CRUEL WAY by Ella Maillart (I can’t find a reference to who did this translation, so perhaps it was actually Maillart?)

Adventurer, travel writer and sportswoman, Ella Maillart is an incredible figure. She traveled alone in 1932 in Turkestan and wrote the book TURKESTAN SOLO. In 1939 she traveled with a friend (the famous Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach) from Europe through Istanbul, Kabul and Teheren, and wrote THE CRUEL WAY. Those are the two of her books that I know, but please see this site for more information about her. She was a fascinating and brave woman and her work deserves to be more widely known.

ALL THE ROADS ARE OPEN by Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole

This is a memoir of the same journey taken by Ella Maillart, written from the other traveler.

From Seagull’s page for the book:

In June 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and fellow writer Ella Maillart set out from Geneva in a Ford, heading for Afghanistan. The first women to travel Afghanistan’s Northern Road, they fled the storm brewing in Europe to seek a place untouched by what they considered to be Western neuroses. The Afghan journey documented in All the Roads Are Open is one of the most important episodes of Schwarzenbach’s turbulent life.

THE MAN WHO SNAPPED HIS FINGERS by Fariba Hachtroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

My last book for the month is one I read in the last week, and it was quite a book. It’s about the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and an incredibly brave female prisoner, and about a colonel in charge of the prison and his wife —another fascinating female figure. I found it a very difficult read in the sense that it was disturbing and violent. I could not read it at night, but the questions it asks are tremendous and I am still thinking about it and planning to write about it properly in a few days.


Well! After all this recommending, I would love to hear what your favorite books by women in translation are. I know I missed so many wonderful books, and I’d love to add to my own lists – so please do leave a comment with a book title.

This month I gave myself a small challenge to send 31 women-in-translation book recommendations to my family and friends. I wanted to do this in a casual way, especially as many who are getting these recommendations are not avid readers nor familiar with much foreign fiction. But I’d like to compile the list here, along with my off-the-cuff introductions to each book. I have now finished half of the recommendations and so here they are:

August 1: THE SUMMER BOOK, translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

What I love about this book is how the simple story of the summer companionship between a granddaughter/grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland is sad, funny, dark, and uplifting all at the same time. This is a book that I’ve read several times and I love it more with each re-read.

Aug 2: HER NOT ALL HER by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls.

This tiny little chapbook-style book is extraordinary. It is essentially Jelinek having a stream-of-consciousness “conversation” with Robert Walser’s entire oeuvre. (That sold you, right? I know it did.)  It is stunning and unusual and complicated, and there is no story (who needs story all the time? Sometimes you just need poetry and voice…) and it’s a part of the equally stunning Cahiers Series. As proof I give you the first line:

“Wait, don’t sit down! Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep.”

August 3: THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (Austria), translated from German by Shaun Whiteside

Being alone in a forest is lovely, but I wouldn’t want to wake up alone in a friend’s chalet in the woods and discover that I was presumably the last woman alive on the planet. Which is exactly what happens in this very psychological novel from 1963. She has a dog – which would save me too – and she has a cow, but she must learn to survive, on her own, and it slowly dawns on her that this is for forever. It’s really dark, but it’s so incredibly good.

August 4: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Set in South Korea, The Vegetarian is a novella about a woman who decides to become a vegetarian. But it’s also about spousal abuse, family obligations, about gender roles, about mental illness, about art and so much more. This book prompted one of the best book group discussions I’ve ever had in my lovely book group. I’m still thinking about how to understand it and it’s challenging and dark and weird – all excellent things.

August 5: SWORN VIRGIN by Elvira Dones (Albania/US), translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford.

This is a book set in Albania and the US, and it’s about Hana, and how she became Mark upon her father’s death. As ‘Mark’, she is one of Albania’s “sworn virgins” — women who vow to live their lives as chaste men in exchange for an independence that most women cannot have — but who gets the chance, by moving to America, to become Hana again. By the time she gets to the US she’s been a man for 15 years. The book is: psychological, sociological, contemporary, poetic, pretty gripping, and ultimately, very moving.

August 6: BUILDING WAVES by Taeko Tomioka, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. I’m linking to my full review, but here’s a small taste:

“Building Waves is the kind of book that comes out of a fault line, an unstable geography of changing mores and shifting cultural practices. It is a feminist book—in the way that Tomioka so baldly addresses issues of female sexuality, marriage and child-rearing—but it’s also deeply interested in what it means to be alive, what does living mean to an individual, to an entire population, and to each careful and interested reader.”

August 7: NIHILIST GIRL by Sofya Kovalevskaya, translated from the Russian by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirim

A coming-of-age story set in mid-19th century Russia, about a young aristocratic woman who finds she wants to completely transform her society – politically and socially. Love! Social upheaval! Injustice! Many famous Russian male writers (*cough* Tolstoy, *cough* Chekov) have written about the same time period. Kovalevskaya’s is the first I’ve ever read from the female perspective. Also, she was a kick-ass mathematician.

August 8: THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gøhril Gabrielsen (Norway), translated by John Irons.

This is a novel of two sisters, one who is ill and the other who cares for her. The sisters are bound by this difficult relationship, but also their loneliness in a house far out in the country. When the healthy sister falls in love and marries, bringing her husband home to live with them, the other sister (who is narrating) begins to suspect the two of plotting against her. This is an intensely psychological novel—very dark, very fascinating.

August 9: THE RED SOFA by Michèle Lesbre, translated from French by Nicole and David Ball.

A tiny book with two interweaving stories. The first is of Anne’s train journey across Siberia to find her lover Gyl, and the other is about Anne’s friendship with an older woman named Clémence. As Anne travels, she remembers her conversations with Clémence, how they talked of the young man Clémence once loved, who died when they were nineteen, but also of the famous women artists they discussed. It sounds very quiet but the book does something really interesting with the two stories and how they connect… which I won’t give away!

August 10:  BABA DUNJA’S LAST LOVE by Alina Bronsky, translated from German by Tim Mohr.

Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Baby Dunja has returned to her small evacuated and radioactive town to live out the rest of her days. An eccentric cast of people are there alongside her, snubbing their noses at the government and living how they please. Until a small child – who is not terminally ill – is brought to the village by a strange man. I leave you to discover the rest. Despite the dark subject matter, the book is quite light and often very funny.

August 11: THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson.

Hedgehog is a book about Paris, about concierges, about precocious 12 year olds. It’s about life and love, about class and intellect. It looks at philosophy and art and aesthetics, and it nods to Japanese culture, too. It’s also an excellent example of how a book can distill voice, and the two narrators – Renée (concierge) and Paloma (precious 12 year old) are fascinating. I reread my 2009 review of Hedgehog and found I was rather severe – which is curious to me now, because it’s a book I’ve continued thinking about, and I remember that everyone in my book group loved it. So I leave it for you all to decide!

August 12: ADIOS, COWBOY by Olga Savičević, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth.

Adios, Cowboy is about Dada, a character of contradictions—tough and sensual, clever and lost, romantic and resigned—who returns from the big city to her small seaside hometown several years after the death of her younger brother. She finds her mother addicted to medication and her sister embittered. And Dada has a question—she wants to resolve the questions surrounding Daniel’s death.

August 13: LOVE, ANGER, MADNESS by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur.

I reviewed the book years ago, writing: “Often called a trilogy, Love, Anger, and Madness is actually a triptych of three thematically connected novellas. The overarching preoccupation of all three stories centers on the idea of fear as a force of social destruction. Vieux-Chauvet’s characters live in fear of their political and community leaders and, ultimately, of their neighbors and friends. Even the tightest family unit warps and deforms under the influence of this pervasive fear. The novel’s stories create a three-paneled portrait of what Haitian society had become by the mid 1960s—impoverished, environmentally ravaged, chaotic and violent.”

There is extra room for celebration because another novel by Vieux-Chauvet, DANCE ON THE VOLCANO was published in English in 2016.


I started with HOUR OF THE STAR and absolutely fell in love with her unique, poetic vision. These books are hard to describe. They’re breathless and odd and philosophical and challenging. She is an incredibly innovative writer, but there is also something classic in her vision. I have also read and loved AGUA VIVA, THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H., and THE BREATH OF LIFE. I am slowly working through her complete short stories.

August 15: I, TITUBA, BLACK WITCH OF SALEM by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé (translated from the French by Richard Philcox)

TITUBA is loosely based on an actual person, a black slave woman who was tried for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Condé does a magnificent re-imagining of this dark period of American history and the novel feels both historical and fairytale-esque. It’s provocative and gripping, and there is even a cameo appearance by none other than Hester Prynne!