Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘literature in translation’

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.)

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.

I have read very little Korean literature: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith), Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (tr. Kim Chi-young), and now Kim Yi-Seol’s Bienvenue/Welcome (tr. into French by Lim Yeong-Hee and Françoise Nagel). All three extremely dark novels, all three dealing with a woman’s (oppressed) place in society, all three dealing with serious family ruptures. All three written by women as well, which makes me wonder if the contemporary books coming from the Republic of Korea’s male writers might be different. Wikipedia tells me there is very little Korean literature translated into English or other languages – but I am curious to find what I can and dig in further. (I did find this link for a thorough, albeit slightly dated, list of Korean literature available in English, and here for some more contemporary listings.)

Bienvenue is the story of Yunyeong – a young, unschooled woman from a poor background, now living in Seoul and trying to earn enough money so that her boyfriend can finish studying for his civil service exams, thus propelling their small family (they have a one-year-old daughter) toward a better life. It seems, for just a short while that she will be able to climb out of poverty. But obviously Yunyeong’s carefully laid plans will go to waste because there are too many pressures at her heels: her family back home needs money from her, her boyfriend never studies, her daughter has some medical issues.

Yunyeong takes a job at a big restaurant, for something like fourteen hours a day. Her exhaustion is impressive, and the pay is not great. She must also stay away from her child for so long that the baby starts not to recognize her. Her boyfriend fails his exams, her sister (who is missing) calls her for money. At the same time she’s offered an opportunity – an offer presented so blandly even Yunyeong can’t really bat an eyelash when a regular customer makes a remark about her body, about the “possibility” of her. Just like that she begins sex work, like another of the restaurant’s servers. The novel continues on from here exploring in detail what life becomes for Yunyeong as this reality settles in over her.

Bienvenue is stark in many ways – which is as it should be when dealing with this kind of subject matter. There is very little lyricism to beautify Yunyeong’s experience. When the novel does hit these notes, they are quite pronounced. Something the novel does extremely well is look at female anger—there are hordes of ragingly angry women in the novel. Yunyeong’s disappointed and desperate mother who kicks her father as he’s dying in their home. Yunyeong’s co-workers with their petty, violent infighting. Yunyeong’s mother-in-law, who beats her son when he appears on her doorstep with a girlfriend and child. And then Yunyeong herself, who loses control at several key moments – lashing out verbally and physically, bent on destroying something or someone else in retaliation for the destruction she’s taken upon herself in the hope of a better life. This kind of outward violent anger isn’t often seen in western novels and it intrigued me.

Kim Yi-Seol is a younger writer (my age – ha!) and has three novels and a short story collection – none of which are yet translated into English. I was curious to see that the original Korean title of Bienvenue is Hwanyeong (환영) which appears to have a double meaning, both “welcome” and “ghost” or “phantom”. Alas the translation can’t contain those two nuances. I’d love to read more of her work, especially as it seems her work deals consistently with motherhood, vulnerable women, and family dynamics.

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!




Unusual first-person narrators are an obsession of mine—voices that jar or unique hybrid POVs—and so it was a pleasure to discover Conxa in Stone in a Landslide (Peirene Press, 2010) by Maria Barbal, and translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell. This is a Catalan novel, originally published in 1985, that begins in the early twentieth century and covers a lifetime.

The story begins when narrator Conxa is 13 years old and sent to live with her aunt in a village a day’s walk from her own. She settles in, works, falls in love and marries, and eventually has children—all against a background, gently described, of a changing region in the years building toward the Spanish Civil War. There are careful timestamps, like the Universal Exposition in Barcelona in 1929, the first uprisings in 1936 and so on and so forth. As the book deals with the personal side of the war, it is also describing a nation in the midst of a modernity crisis, and Barbal weaves the two elements together with a lot of grace.

Conxa has a deceptively straightforward voice and this is where the book really intrigued me. Technically, as a narrator, she is an old woman, and she’s telling the reader her story in retrospect. As fits this approach, there are tones of nostalgia in certain passages and foreshadowing in others for elements to come that are harder for her to relate. But she doesn’t play much with the voice of a “wise old woman” or even, more simply, with the reality of what might be known and understood in hindsight, and this creates a neat effect, in that we experience Conxa’s grappling with the changes around her—both personal and political—as she does, simply and honestly.

In some sense, Barbal gives Conxa a kind of naivety—to put it another way, you could describe her as simple, unassuming—and she only tempers this when we reach the end of her life. At first I struggled with this a little, because I wondered at the truth of it, wondered whether Conxa might have been a stereotype of a “woman from a small village” at that time in Catalan history. (Stone in a Landslide was Barbal’s first novel, and although she’s a Barcelona-based writer, this novel is, more than others it seems, centered on the rural region where she grew up). As Conxa moved further through her story, though, I stopped feeling this way completely, and felt more that Barbal was giving her character (and the reader) the space to experience what must have been a massive cultural upheaval without a retrospective agenda. Conxa is somehow both naïve and incredibly realistic, and while she may not be as brave as others, and spends more time avoiding change and politics, she lives her experiences fully—the good and the bad—and relates both with the same honest emotion that I ultimately found really compelling.

It is a quiet book in many ways, but I never mean that negatively. It felt in places like a gentle documentary, and yet I turned each page with real interest to see how Conxa’s life would turn out. The ending shifts tone—more poetic, and a voice that is hard-earned at this point—and this was extremely moving.


Quick note for Women in Translation month: from what I can see, Barbal has eleven novels, and Stone in a Landslide is the only one so far available in English translation. I hope there are more planned as one of my laments about so little ‘literature-in-translation’ available in English is that it is often hard to follow a writer’s evolution over time, and selfishly, I find this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of reading and discovering new writers. How have they changed, what do they read like twenty years into their careers?

December was a markedly different reading month compared to the rest of 2016, and in a very good way. I read some wonderful books in 2016, but not enough, and much of my reading time was spent on manuscripts – my own and those of friends, and reading for work. That is often wonderful, interesting reading in its own right, but I did miss the larger range of books I usually choose to read over a year. As I mentioned in my last post, I filled December with a wonderful list of essays and short stories and this brought me reading wildly again. Such a pleasure.

More than this, however, I spent the last week and a half of December at home without any work projects. Aside from a few larger family responsibilities for the holidays, it was a very quiet break. Can you guess how I spent it? Curled up in my favorite spot, with a large pot of tea at hand and a stack of books, some of which I’d read before and were in need of a re-read. For some reason Japanese modernism fit my mood (there’s probably a political analogy in there somewhere) and I began with Enchi Fumiko’s 1958 Masks, translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter in 1983. Masks (referring to Noh masks and to overlaid representations of the self) is a dark little novel about desire and revenge and, in some sense, too, about scripted drama. I remember loving it the first time I read it, and I found it no less interesting this second time around.

I was still in the mood for something I’d read before, so I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1935-1937). I’d forgotten how interesting Kawabata is, and so I followed this with Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (1949-1954), which I hadn’t read before. I loved it more than Snow Country. And then, not willing to stop until I’d finished all the Kawabata sitting on my shelves, I then read his Thousand Cranes (1949 – 1951), finishing it up in the early morning of December 31st in a quiet house with a stunning winter dawn breaking over the mountains and the lake outside the window of my favorite reading spot.

These are all beautiful little books (all of them translated by Edward Seidensticker in the 1970s and 80s). Kawabata has a gentle lyrical style and a very perceptive eye for distinguishing character traits. I love his lens, because the “eyes” of all three novels are male, but their gaze is tightly focused—either in a curious or an obsessive way—upon a series of eccentric women characters.

That word “eccentric” is a hesitant choice. I don’t mean to say that these women characters are outlandish or bizarre. I mean it in the sense of “unconventional” and this seems to me to lie at the heart of Kawabata’s queries in these novels, which are all looking at fundamental social shifts and generational changes in Japan. The relationships tethering his male narrators to their female family members and lovers and friends open up a window onto either a hint or a fully realized portrait of some unconventional trait in each of the women. He tends to play with ideals and traditional stereotypes and explodes them over and over again—but it’s all done in a soft and quiet way.

I want to write about Sound of the Mountain in more detail, mostly because I absolutely adored Shingo Ogata’s character and perspective, but also because I braved reading the English and Japanese side by side, and found myself curious about many of Seidensticker’s translation choices. Not arguing with them necessarily, although sometimes that, too, but just looking at the way his translation shapes a reader’s perception of the story. Always fascinating for me.

In any case, I’ll stop here and just say Happy New Year, leaving off with a line from Thousand Cranes that fits what is outside my window right this second:

For the rest, the night was so dark that he had trouble following the line between trees and sky.

Wishing you all a chance to read everything and anything in 2017.


Again in the spirit of women-in-translation month, here are four books in translation, of women writers, which I had the pleasure to review over the last few years.

The first is Swiss even! Noelle Revaz’s With the Animals, translated by W. Donald Wilson. Here is a part of my review which can be seen here at The Rumpus:

The book involves an element of the grotesque that rises up from time to time as a bizarre form of comedy. Paul is so ridiculously out-of-touch, so pathetically calculating and selfish. And so he can only lose, no matter his stubborn violence and wretched attempts to assert his power. Watching his downward spiral would be more thrilling if the reader wasn’t so certain he will cause plenty of damage in his descent. The book isn’t interested in revenge or balance or catharsis – despite a gentle movement in those directions.

If Rousseau, a Swiss writer of an altogether different generation, wanted to convince us of primitive man’s inherent nobility, than Revaz is calling out his theory in the plainest terms. There is nothing ennobling about Paul’s love of dirt and cow shit. Nothing but cruel freedom in his disassociation from other members of his species. But that very challenge makes the book a thoughtful and provocative read. And Revaz’s writing is both daring and defiant.

The second is Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall and translated by Philip Boehm, published by the wonderful Peirene Press:

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.

The entire review can be seen here.

The third I want to mention is Taeko Tomioka’s Building Waves, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. Much has been said about another of Dalkey’s Japanese list (and for good reason!), Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase. But Tomioka’s novel is wonderful and interesting and bizarre and deserves to be more widely read. Here is part of what I said about it, and the whole review can be read here:

Tomioka wanders through this socio-economic context using a feminist lens. Kyoko and the other women in the book—Kumiko (who becomes Katsumi’s lover after Kyoko), Ayako (Katsumi’s wife), Yoko (one of Kyoko’s friends whose husband leaves her), Amiko (a young mother), and Misawa (an older woman and artist)—are all bumping up against these expectations of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife. Kyoko sits at the farthest end of the spectrum, the woman who has mostly decided to reject traditional roles, and the other women fall in an untidy line somewhere along the range. What binds them all, to Tomioka’s credit, is that each is more searching than resolute, more hesitant than decided. And the book’s ultimate tragedy—although represented through a single and sad event—is a kind of despair at the paradox of refusing the superficiality of an unexamined life but knowing, at the same, that there are no easy answers, if there are answers at all, to any of your questions.

And the fourth is an old favorite of mine, always worth revisiting. Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur. I so wish more of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s work would be translated. Her novel Fille d’Haiti is incredible and powerful and deserves to be read widely. I reviewed the book at The Quarterly Conversation, here is part of what I had to say:

Love, Anger, and Madness also demonstrates Vieux-Chauvet’s impressive stylistic range. The diary technique in Love renders Claire, an otherwise despicable and dangerous woman, sympathetic. Granting the reader such unfiltered access to her thoughts reveals the complex nature of her situation and the influence of her troubled past. Vieux-Chauvet’s confident use of the third-person omniscient in Anger places each family member within the reader’s confidence. Yet suddenly, halfway through this second novella, Vieux-Chauvet switches into two back-to-back monologues by siblings Paul and Rose. These two narratives are powerful laments, swan songs about the dashed hopes and disillusionment of a generation of Haitian youth. And finally, Madnessreads much like a play, with clear echoes of Greek drama, a technique which highlights the “staged” or “forced” quality of the very violence the story seeks to indict.