Reading Women in Translation: Ten Tips

Reading Women in Translation: Ten Tips

The past week has been quite an exciting one, what with World Book Day and International Women’s Day (not to mention Pancake Day)! My social media feeds have been filled with inspirational and interesting posts about women and books, with countless pictures of kids dressing up as their favourite characters and generally getting very excited about books and reading, which has been great to see. This week has also brought the positive news that translated fiction from Europe is enjoying a surge in popularity in the UK and that much of it is literary fiction (rather than only being the old Scandi crime hits). So in honour of all the amazing women who are out there writing, and all the brilliant translators who are tirelessly translating their work into English – as well as for all you lovely readers who are buying the books – I thought I’d do a quick roundup of ten translated books, written by women, that I have read and enjoyed over the years.

I should at this point add a shout out to all the editors and publishers who have given these books a home in the UK, and to PEN Translates, the translation grant programme run by English PEN and funded by the Arts Council England, as they have funded at least three of the books on this list. Translation grants are absolutely crucial for publishers who want to publish translations, so we are all very grateful to PEN for the work they do.

So here we go, my ten picks, in no particular order:

The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
Orenda Books, 2016

The Bird Tribunal tells the chilling story of Allis Hagtorn, who leaves everything behind to go and work for a strange man who wants someone to look after him and his house while his wife is away. But who is this man, and where has his wife actually gone? Is she ever really going to come back? Beautifully presented, this haunting, atmospheric novel can be read in one sitting.

Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Oneworld Publications, 2016

Umami is one of my favourite novels. Set in Laia Jufresa’s native Mexico, it’s the story of a group of neighbours who in their own ways are all dealing with grief and loss. The protagonist, Ana, is coming to terms with the death of her little sister, and as she tends her little garden in the courtyard, her neighbours all begin to reflect on the things and the people they are missing too. Readers are transported to Mexico City, and with beautiful language, dark humour and engaging characters, this is a real treat.

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm
Peirene Press, 2013

Chasing the King of Hearts is an incredible, true story set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. When her husband is arrested by the Gestapo, Izolda is determined to do whatever it takes to find him and bring him home. Utterly moving, and bringing war-torn Poland skilfully to life, this international bestseller is a must-read.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
MacLehose Press, 2014

Set in Germany in 1990, just a few months after the fall of the border that divided Germany for so long, this is a remarkable debut and a passionate love story set against the backdrop of a country trying to readjust to the present and rebuild itself for the future. Daniela Krien’s new novel Die Liebe im Ernstfall (‘Love in Case of Emergency’), a contemporary novel told from the perspectives of five striking women, has just been published in German, so will hopefully find a home here in the UK soon too!

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Oneworld Publications, 2017

Samanta Schweblin’s debut novella Fever Dream caused a huge stir when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Set in rural Argentina, it’s creepy, strange and utterly addictive, and perfect if you are looking for a quick but mesmerising read. Samanta is definitely one to watch, and if you want more – which you will – her collection of short stories Mouthful of Birds has just been published in English by Oneworld (also translated by Megan McDowell).

Back to Back by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Harvill Secker, 2013

Julia Franck is an incredible, award-winning writer whose stories all focus on the division of Germany. In Back to Back, which is set in East Berlin, Käthe has emerged from the Nazi era as a passionate socialist. But as her children grow older, they begin to feel increasingly constrained by the Berlin Wall that sets a very real limit on their world. A tragic and moving family story that will truly transport readers back to East Berlin, this is highly recommended for anyone wanting to find out more about this period of German history.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Oneworld Publications, 2018 (reissue)

In The Unit, if you don’t get married and have children your days are numbered – eventually, you will be sent to the Unit, where you will gradually donate each of your organs to the more ‘productive’ members of society. Dorrit has accepted her fate, until a last chance at true love throws her whole future into doubt. For fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, this is a chilling novel that you won’t be able to put down.

For Every Solution, A Problem by Kerstin Gier, translated from the German by Erik J. Macki
AmazonCrossing, 2013

Kerstin Gier is a great writer of upmarket commercial women’s fiction (and YA/crossover) and I love the way she writes her female characters. Thirty-something Gerri has no husband in sight and is struggling under the weight of the ever-growing pressure from her family to settle down and have kids, so she decides to take matters into her own hands. After posting a stack of brutally honest goodbye letters to her family and friends, she sets off with her sleeping pills and vodka. But when she wakes up the next morning, very much alive, she realises that her life is about to get much, much worse before it gets better… The issue at the heart of this story is a serious one, but it is witty and heart-warming and generally a great read.

Things that Fall from the Sky by Selja Ahava, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah
Oneworld Publications, April 2019

This Finnish novel is another of my absolute favourites. Saara is just a child when her mother dies suddenly when a block of ice falls from the sky. Her aunt wins the lottery jackpot – twice – and somewhere in Scotland, a man is hit by lightning four times and miraculously lives to tell the tale. This utterly moving story of fate, fortune and grief is stunningly told, and Saara’s narrative voice is absolutely captivating.

City of Jasmine by Olga Grjasnowa, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Oneworld Publications, March 2019

City of Jasmine is the third novel by Olga Grjasnowa (the second to be published in English, and the first to be published in the UK). It tells the story of three young Syrians – a newly qualified doctor, a budding actress and aspiring director – who are all desperately trying to build a future for themselves as the Assad regime tightens its grip and the country falls apart around them. Focusing on some very real issues that are highly relevant to global society today, this is a heart-breaking and truly important read.

2 thoughts on “Reading Women in Translation: Ten Tips

  1. So many intriguing books here! I was especially pleased to see The Bird Tribunal as it is already on my TBR for my Scandinavian Book Club this spring. I was also happy to see The Unit which is on my radar. The others look very interesting too, especially City of Jasmine. Thanks for the list!

    1. Ooh I love the sound of the Scandinavian Book Club! I hope you enjoy The Bird Tribunal too, and I’d definitely really recommend The Unit. What else have you been reading? I’d love to discover some new Scandinavian authors!

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