August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may well know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my recent favourites.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, this one included. Matute’s story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, fourteen-year-old Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother, Aunt Emilia and duplicitous cousin, Borja – not a situation she relishes. This dark, visceral novel charts Matia’s awakening to the adult world, beautifully executed in the author’s lucid prose. Matute excels at heightening the sense of danger on the island through her vivid descriptions of the elements, e.g., the intense heat of the sun and the turbulent depths of the sea.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr Antonia Lloyd Jones)

This 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I loved it.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is something of a classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel featuring three sisters, set over three consecutive summer seasons. At first sight, it might appear as though the book is presenting a simple story, one of three very different young women growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world. Ultimately though it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities open to them and the limitations society may wish to dictate. This a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the world; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. (I read this book in the NYRB Classics livery, but Penguin have recently published a beautiful new edition as part of their European Writers series.)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, this is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the book conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

This novella, which revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, shares many similarities with Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a book I really adored. Like Territory, Child of Fortune explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations – the setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here. This is a haunting, beautifully written book – by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(You can find some of my other faves in last year’s WIT Month recommendations post from July 2020, including books by Françoise Sagan, Irmgard Keun, Yuko Tsushima and Tove Ditlevsen. There’s also my list of recommendations for foreign language films directed by women – a Twitter thread I may well repeat next month, with new suggestions of movies to seek out.)

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

33 thoughts on “August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Those are some great choices Jacqui – I am currently rounding up my pile of possibles and although it’s heavily weighted towards the Russians, there is at least one book on the pile that appears above… I’d struggle to recommend a book for you as you’re so widely read, but there are probably some Russians you haven’t tried yet so that might be a good road to go down!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I am woefully under-read when it comes to the Russians, especially the women – although I *have* read a few of Teffi’s books, all of which were excellent. Oh, and Nina Berberova, too – she’s amazing! I may well have a collection of her stories tucked away somewhere, definitely something for me to check. It’s great to hear that you’re planning to participate in #WITMonth this year – as ever, I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with, Russians and other nationalities alike!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I’m not sure I’ve read anything translated from Greek so Three Summers sounds like one for my list. My current favourite is Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, written by her in Italian and translated by her into English. I’m fascinated by Lahiri’s love affair with the Italian language.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, I had completely forgotten that Whereabouts is a book in translation until Ali included it in her pile of ‘possibles’ on Twitter the other day! Funnily enough, I’d heard Lahiri being interviewed about it (and the translation process) on the radio a couple of months ago – and yet, I’d still forgotten about it. Ah well, it’s back on my radar now – thank you. As for Three Summers, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. While Liberaki’s prose is not as literary or polished as Lahiri’s, it’s wonderfully evocative – as lush and sensual as a Mediterranean summer, floating in the breeze.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great – what a gold mine your favourite charity shop is turning out to be! Persephones, green Viragos, and now women in translation – that’s a very impressive mix. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of Plow, as and when. I’m seriously thinking of picking it for my book group as there’s quite a lot to discuss…

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    I am looking forward to #Witmonth. I have actually already two, because I am always behind in my reviewing. You remind me how much I wanted to get Three Summers after your enthusiasm for it , argh! And now I’m not supposed to be buying books. I do have Territory of Light tbr on my kindle though, so glad you rate that highly. I don’t know if you’ve read Alina Bronsky yet but I have enjoyed two books by her now. I suspect my favourite books in translation would be ones you’ve read. Abigail by Magda Szabo springs to mind.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t read Bronsky, but you’re right to remind me as she does sound very appealing. I have a Szabo in my TBR — not Abigail, but an earlier reissue from NYRB — and I’d like to read it in August if possible, depending on how my reading goes. She’s an author I’ve been meaning to try for ages, ever since you started writing about her a few years ago! As for Three Summers, it’s wonderful, very much the kind of novel you would enjoy. (Actually, I’ll DM you shortly about my NYRB copy.)

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    What great reads. I’m trying to only do challenges from my TBR and what do I have on it this year? No WIT books. None. Argh! I’m going to check it again just in case, but no. A favourite of mine is Banana Yoshimoto, though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m trying to do the same thing with reading events, only joining in if I have something suitable in the TBR rather than acquiring any more! Luckily, I already have a few suitable options on the shelves, so I’m all set for this year at least. Banana Yoshimoto is a great suggestion, though – I’ve done well with Japanese lit in the past, so she’d probably be a great fit.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks for the link. Yes, I’ll definitely take a look at your list – and it’s great to see how the Women in Translation movement has grown over the past few years.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    So difficult to pick a favorite translated book but I’m going to go with ‘Zuleikha’ by Guzel Yakhina because it’s from a viewpoint that’s not often heard from and is a first novel from a writer I hope we’ll hear more from.

    I’ve got a couple of books on my 20 Books of Summer reading challenge list that will fit nicely with #WITmonth and will probably veer off the list again to include at least one other.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Julé. That does sound excellent, especially for a debut – a powerful story, sensitively told…

      I’m looking forward to seeing what you read for WIT Month. That’s good planning to have included a couple of suitable choices in your 20 books of summer, a very smart move on your part!

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    I was going to suggest Magda Szabo and I have a couple of women writers new to me from New Vessel Press; Margriet de Moor, Sleepless Night, and Clara Beaudoux, The Madeleine Project. Then Tove Jansson is always worth reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with those books from NVP, especially as both of those writers are new to me – it’s always intriguing to learn more. I’ve been meaning to try Szabo for the longest time, so hopefully this will be the year!

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    This is a great list – but then, I would say that as I’ve read all of them apart from Three Summers which I plan to read next month! I’ve just been reading Merce Rodoreda’s Garden by the Sea which I think you would enjoy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha…I would expect nothing less from a translated lit expert such as yourself! The Merce Rodoreda sounds great, and she’s an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while. Would it be a good one to start with, do you think?

      Reply
  8. Jane

    Is WIT every August? I shall make a note for next year because it fits well with my reading targets! These are all new titles for me and sound excellent, I’m looking forward to your reviews Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. Yes, it’s an annual thing, every August – so, a good one to schedule in. I’m looking forward to seeing what others choose to read, and hopefully picking up some new ideas!

      Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    What a great list: I’m sure I’d happily read any of them (some of them are already on my TBR). Rather than share a favourite (too hard! LOL) I’ll mention one that I read recently that’s had me thinking: Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). Such a strange story about the friendship/relationship that develops between a young woman working in hospitality in the off-season when a writer comes to stay and work there. I keep thinking back to the pair of them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s so lovely to hear that you found Winter in Sokcho so intriguing! I love that book. (It’s actually in my WITMonth recommendations post from 2020 as I’d read it then.) Such as haunting story with an enigmatic ending. I suspect the characters will stay with you for months to come…

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        And whyyyyy? Nothing happens. The prose is tight but certainly not glamorous. I wish I could stop thinking about them. Heheh

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s hard to put into words, but there’s something about those characters that gets under the skin – partly a function of the ending, I think.

          Reply
  10. Rick

    I didn’t realise it was #WITmonth but coincidentally I’ve just started Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, one of the latest translations from Charco Press. I’m already riveted.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that sounds great! I’ve heard excellent things about some of Piñeiro’ds other books, so it’s brilliant to hear that this new release from Charco is so gripping. Thank you for mentioning it.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore) | JacquiWine's Journal

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