August is women in translation month (#WITMonth) — a literary celebration of women in translation. While it’s both for women writers who are being read in translation across the world and women translators themselves, the spotlight is really on the writers because they are more under-represented. Meytal Radzinski, who started this now-popular movement online in 2014, wrote about her reasoning:
Approximately 30% of new translations into English are of books by women writers. Given how few books are translated into English to begin with, this means that women are a minority within a minority. The problem then filters down to how books by women writers in translation are reviewed/covered in the media, recognized by award committees, promoted in bookstores, sent out to reviews, and ultimately reach readers themselves.
While imperfect, WITMonth gives many publishers the chance to promote their existing titles written by women in translation, while also giving readers an organized means of finding the books that already exist. WITMonth ultimately serves to help readers find excellent books to read … those books just happen to be by women writing in languages other than English!
In the US, this paucity of published/read literary translations by women is even more pronounced. Recently, Gabriella Page-Fort wrote about this:
As an editor focused on international literature, I ask this question often. People tell me Americans are not interested in other cultures; that we have plenty of great books in English to keep us busy, and that our privileged position creates cultural blindness. That publishers in the US resist works in translation because it takes time, money, and connections far more complex than publishing local writers, or because American editors are monolingual, unlike editors in other countries.
That said, of course, there are ongoing attempts to make translated works more mainstream. Literary awards are either now including them among existing categories or adding new categories just for translation. Reviewers and publishers are making more efforts to spotlight translated works. Editorial teams of literary magazines are also calling for more translation submissions. But, as with all such things, the pace is slow.
Edith Grossman is a Spanish-to-English translator and most well-known for her controversial translation of the classic, Don Quixote (HarperCollins, 2003). She is also one of the most important translators of Latin American fiction, notably the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In her book, Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press; 2011), she described one of the most fundamental reasons translation is necessary:
There are roughly six thousand extant languages in the world. Let us hypothesize that approximately one thousand of them are written. Not even the most gifted linguist could read complex literary texts in one thousand languages. We tend to be in awe of the few people who can read even ten languages well, and it clearly is an astonishing feat, although we have to remember that if there were no translations, even those multilingual prodigies would be deprived of any encounter with works written in the 990 tongues they don’t know. If this is true for the linguistically gifted, imagine the impact that the disappearance of translations would have on the rest of us. Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions, and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.
In the end, readers make the most difference by demanding more translated works so that publishing gatekeepers have to deliver them. I’ve often said that readers and writers are both translators too. The very act of reading involves translating and interpreting a writer’s meaning and intent. The act of writing involves translating and interpreting one’s own meaning of everything we have ourselves read, seen, heard, experienced.
With that, let’s go on to read five excellent short stories translated from around the world into English.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (Polish; translated by Jennifer Croft)
(Penguin Random House, August 2018)
This year’s Man Booker International winner is a novel but it’s more like a novel-in-stories due to its fragmented narratives. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the book looks at many aspects of how we travel through both fictional and factual accounts — 116 of them, to be exact. What unites them further is the single narrator, a rather philosophical woman who muses about many themes and subjects as she shares the stories.
Tokarczuk is an award-winning Polish writer and has had previous works translated into English. This book, however, has certainly made her more mainstream among the English-reading public.
Jennifer Croft is also an award-winning writer and translator herself. She translates from Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish.
The first trip I ever took was across the fields, on foot. It took them a long time to notice I was gone, which meant I was able to make it quite some distance. I covered the whole park and even-going down dirt roads, through the corn and the damp meadows teeming with cowslip flowers, sectioned into squares by ditches-reached the river. Though, of course, the river was ubiquitous in that valley, soaking up under the ground cover and lapping at the fields.
“A Clean Marriage“, by Sayaka Murata (Japanese; translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Murata has written the most popular translated novel of summer: Convenience Store Woman (Grove Atlantic; 2018.) In Japan, she is an award-winning writer and this novel sold more than 600,000 copies before it was translated into English.
Ginny Tapley Takemori is a British translator based in rural Ibaraki, Japan. She has translated fiction by several early modern and contemporary Japanese writers. Her translator’s note at the start of this story is worth a quick read.
This short story is not related to the latest novel, though they have two things in common: a couple that does not conform to societal norms and the deadpan narration. Here, the couple is married but living together asexually. So what happens when they want children but without having sex with other people or artificial insemination? There are many ways this plot could have gone but it unfolds in a rather unexpected direction and Murata manages to make us suspend disbelief with her careful prose.
Living with my husband is like living with an exceedingly clean, smart owl. It’s good to have a tidy animal around the house. We’ve been married three years and that hasn’t changed. A friend who married for love around the same time tells me she’s developed a visceral aversion to her husband, but that’s not at all the case with me. My husband has orderly table manners, and the toilet and bath are never left with evidence of his bodily fluids and excretions. I sometimes wonder whether we shouldn’t have put him in charge of cleaning when we divided up the household chores.
WordsWithoutBorders.com“Draupadi“, by Mahasweta Devi (Bengali; translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
Mahasweta Devi was, till her death in 2016 at age 90, a formidable, award-winning Indian writer, activist, and professor. Her prolific fiction — 100+ novels and 20+ collections of short stories — and nonfiction have been widely translated in India in several languages. Her main focus was the oppression and exploitation of the lower castes (tribals, untouchables) by the upper castes (landowners, money-lenders) and government officials. This, of course, still continues today in many parts of India.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a world-renowned literary and postcolonial scholar and professor. She has translated several of Devi’s works and written critical appreciations of her writing and life.
This story is one of Devi’s most famous because of how it depicts the violence inflicted on poor, rural women, especially when they fight for their rights and refuse to submit. The protagonist here is an illiterate and uneducated tribal woman named Dopdi but the story’s title recalls the mythical and royal Draupadi from the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata. In equating these two women, Devi has highlighted the main differences between them. Where Draupadi, in the epic, has to be saved and avenged by the men through war, Dopdi revolts and fights back alone. Where Draupadi is stripped by the powerful enemies of her husbands (yes, plural), Dopdi refuses to let the officials cover her nakedness. It’s quite a powerful ending there no matter how many times you read it.
Dopdi was proceeding slowly, with some rice knotted into her belt. Mushai tudu’s wife had cooked her some. She does so occasionally. When the rice is cold, Dopdi knots it into her waistcloth and walks slowly. As she walked, she picked out and killed the lice in her hair. If she had some kerosene, she’d rub it into her scalp and get rid of her lice. Then she could wash her hair with baking soda. But the bastards put traps at every bend of the falls. If they smell kerosene in the water, they will follow the scent.
“Delusion” by Malika Moustadraf (Arabic; translated by Alice Guthrie)
Moustadraf was a well-known Moroccan writer and Morocco’s pioneer of the short story genre. She died early at age 44 and left a collection of short stories and a novel. Her focus areas were marginalization and feminism. A sense of place comes through strongly in her fiction.
Alice Guthrie is a British translator and editor who focuses on Arabic literature, particularly from Syria. She also produces Arab-related arts and culture events.
This story is about a young man raging over his sister, who married a Frenchman and left them in Morocco with the promise that she would send for him and their parents. But, of course, it is also about a lot of other things. It shows us how it feels to be a Moroccan man at a certain time in the country. It also shows us the many divides that exist due to religion, gender, and class.
When his sister had come to see them and break the news that she would be marrying a Frenchman, her elderly father had opposed it, ranting and raving and making threats, swearing that he’d disown her if she married “that damn Christian.” He even started talking at length about halal and haram, and about hellfire. Meanwhile her mother was wailing and cursing the day she’d given birth to a female child, and mourning the days when girls were buried alive at birth.
“Hygge: The Dark Side of Danish Comfort“, by Dorthe Nors (Danish; translated by Misha Hoekstra)
Nors was a translator herself before she became a writer. She burst onto the English scene with her short story collection, Karate Chop (Graywolf Press; 2014.) In 2017, she was one of the finalists for the Man Booker International.
Misha Hoekstra was also Nors’ translator for that Man Booker International finalist book, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Graywolf Press; 2018.) She’s a writer, editor, and translator of Danish-to-English for all kinds of works: literary, corporate, nonprofit, etc.
This story, from Longreads, turns a Danish tradition called Hygge on its head. Essentially, the tradition is about self-care and companionship by making yourself “cozy” when you have the blues — especially the winter blues — with hot/alcoholic drinks, open fires, warm candles, books, comfort food, woolly clothes, etc. Nors explains more in her introduction.
Then we were sitting there, Lilly and me, and she had made coffee and baked one of those chocolate cakes that are soft in the middle. During the afternoon she’d also vacuumed and cleared the dead leaves off the windowsills. The budgie was no longer chattering in its cage but had been put under a dishtowel to rest, and on the tube there was some show we could guess along with. When I’d come by in the afternoon, it hadn’t been so nice. We’d had a falling out about her manner, about the way she’d act up when we were at the senior club, her jealousy and her sweetness, which just seemed vulgar. And then she’d said that business about my face—that she didn’t like it.
To close, here’s a helpful checklist from Meytal Radzinski on things that we all can do to participate in #WITMonth:
— Booksellers and librarians: Make a #WITMonth table and promote your favorite books by women writers in translation, alongside newer releases. If someone is looking for some different recommendations, help guide them to some of the brilliant women in translation out there.
— Bloggers and journalists: Talk about the issue! Look at your own stats and ratios, question your reading biases. Address the issue and help raise awareness.
— Reviewers: Review new and backlog titles by women writers in translation, from all languages and from all over the world. Help bring these books to the public’s notice.
— Publishers: Release your existing ratios and acknowledge any imbalances you might have. Try to find more of the brilliant women writers we all know are writing in all sorts of languages, all over the world!
— Readers: Read! Discuss! Share!