Note: This blog post was originally written for the Charlatan. An edited version was published on September 8, 2016, Volume 46, Issue 6.
With the end of August, the third annual Women in Translation Month has recently come to a close. In celebration I decided to talk a little about the project and some of my favourite translated books written by women that I’ve read so far this year.
In general, the English-speaking publishing world lags behind with translated books, leading to a dearth of world literature beyond the classics and already well known translated books. Books translated into English are an estimated three per cent of all published books in the US. Similar numbers can be found across the Atlantic in the UK. Some people suspect that percentage is too high though and that the real number may be much lower.
With such low numbers already, why specifically focus on books written by women? Similarly to other areas of publishing and literature, books written by women receive much less attention and critical acclaim than books written by men. It’s estimated that about a quarter of all translated books are written by women. And even though I was never terribly good at math, it doesn’t take me a calculator to figure out that 25 per cent of three per cent is a pitiably small number. Books written by women are far less likely to be translated than books written by men. And even when they are translated, they are much less likely to be nominated or to win awards.
This then kind of creates a cycle where people are not used to reading translated books, particularly books written by women, so they don’t buy them. Which leads to publishers not publishing more translated books because they don’t sell well, so then there continues to be a lack of translated literature. And it’s all a terrible shame really, as readers and publishers are missing out on such a wealth of amazing literature from across the globe. Women in Translation Month aims to change these statistics, drawing more attention to excellent books written by women in languages other than English. In addition, as we aim to change our reading habits and support women in translation, we should also look for books that are not written by European authors. There’s a lack of statistics in this area, but I found that when looking for translated books by women, too often are European authors overrepresented, erasing fantastic books written by women in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Han Kang is arguably currently one of the most well-known South Korean authors due to her novel The Vegetarian winning the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Yeong-hye lived an ordinary life before the nightmare. She subsequently decides to renounce meat, a decision that shocks and scandalizes her family, as they struggle to understand her reasoning. Told in three sections, from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister, The Vegetarian is a disturbing and beautiful allegorical novel that tells a story about choice and obsession as Yeong-hye seeks to free herself from her nightmare in an attempt to complete a metamorphosis of body and mind.
The Vegetarian was a twisted and disturbing read that didn’t end up where I thought it would. Yeong-hye’s nightmare lead me to believe that the book possibly contained bits of magic realism but this is firmly a contemporary novel of deceit, abuse, and the sudden destruction of a family. I went in knowing that the book was told in three different perspectives but didn’t exactly know how it would shape the story. It’s incredibly interesting to read a book about personal choice and never once see the story from the perspective of the person who made the decision. Yeong-hye is only partially formed through out the book, each narrator obsessive over different parts of her. Her husband is upset his previous obedient wife has ruined their marriage, her brother-in-law sexually obsesses over her, and her sister is forced to reconcile the destruction of her family with Yeong-hye’s deteriorating mental health. Yeong-hye is what shapes the narrative of The Vegetarian but she’s never really allowed any agency in doing so. Kang’s writing is beautifully lyrical, soft in a way that I often had to stop to breathe or reread certain passages again and again.
Born in Tirana, Albania, Ornela Vorpsi moved to Milan when she was 22, before finally ending up in Paris. The Country Where No One Ever Dies is a collection of short stories that takes place during the end of Albania’s communist regime. Vorpsi’s stories revolve around a young girl and her family, as the inescapable realities of sex, dictatorship and death shape their daily lives. As her father is constantly trying to kiss her, her aunt predicts she’ll grow up to be a whore, she and her friends skip out on school military practice, the narrator presents a dark, yet ironic look at Albania as it’s crumbling down around her.
It’s strangely surprisingly hard to find books by Albanian authors. It appears that publishers briefly went crazy for the works of Albanian literary giant Ismail Kadare and then went back to publishing books in English. Thankfully after a bit of digging I managed to find The Country Where No One Ever Dies. This is a brutally disturbing book. Vorpsi doesn’t rely on flowery or metaphorical language in her writing. The Country is a dark narrative that bends back upon itself, meandering along the hills and streets of Albania. I’m particularly fond of dark and twisted literary books, as well as short story collections and The Country didn’t disappoint. It’s a brutal look at what it means to be a young woman growing up in communist Albania. The stories slide into each other, building upon the previous as Vorpsi paints a darkly humorous narrative.
Margurite Abouet was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and was inspired to write a graphic novel that recalls her childhood in Ivory Coast in the 1970s. With beautiful and unique artwork by Clément Oubrerie, Aya tells a story about a working class town named Yopougon, focusing on the lives of three friends, Aya, Adjoua and Bintou, and their meddling relatives and neighbors. Aya is a funny account of the daily pleasures and troubles of life in Yopougon, as disco clubs are filling up, young lovers meet at night at the market square, when a love affair gone wrong suddenly changes everything.
Aya was such an interesting perspective on a particular historical moment in time for the Ivory Coast. Everything is going so well and no one can imagine the good times coming to an end. Although Aya is technically the main character, I found the book to spend more time telling Adjoua and Bintou’s stories. It’s a hilarious story that reads similarly to a soap opera or reality TV show. Everyone is in everyone else’s private business. Adjoua and Bintou are looking for love while Aya studies for medical school. Fathers don’t approve of certain boys and Mothers worry while their husbands try and get a head at work. The graphic novel format lends itself so well to the story, allowing Abouet’s voice and Oubrerie’s illustrations to work wonderfully together.