women in translation month

Women In Translation Month

For anyone growing up and getting hers or his education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, translation is a matter of fact. Throughout our primary and secondary school, we all receive our share of major European writers (mostly English, German, French and Russian). One could even argue that we read more foreign literature than our own. Maybe it’s a bit different now, I am not sure… In any case, thus was the principle: first one learns about Romanticism in Europe for instance, its historical background, themes, motives and so on, then one reads Goethe, Byron, Pushkin, to name a few, and after that one’s being informed about the influence Romanticism had on Yugoslav literature which is then topped with reading some of the representative authors (whole texts or just excerpts from different works of epic poetry).

In a way, (and in hindsight) some people take pride in making acquaintance with such a wide scope of literature even if years or decades later they cannot remember anything of it. On the other hand, maybe the scope was too wide – I finished high school with what I consider to be an embarrassingly poor command of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian literature which I’ve managed to improve only slightly.

Women authors in our curriculum were scarce – mostly children’s literature authors, a couple of poets – and the only four women in translation were Astrid Lindgren, Johanna Spyri (if memory serves me right), Anne Frank (primary) and Virginia Woolf (secondary school).

Curricula aside, during those formative years I’ve read a fair amount of translated fiction written by women. It was mostly by British and American authors, though – George Eliot, Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Pearl Buck… Later, when I started feeling English as my second language I began avoiding reading translations from it.

Female writers of other nationalities were (still are, save for Swedish) seldom on my nightstand. It is prime time to do something about it.

August is (for the third year in a row now) the Women In Translation Month so I resolved to take part in this celebration by reading literature originally written in any of the world languages except English and Swedish. Literature by women, of course.

Going through my bookshelves I found out that, out of roughly 550 books I own, only 86 were written by women. If I count out those written in and translated from English as well as those written in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian I am left with 31 books. Further on, when I count out books in Swedish I get to a number of 20 – three from German, two from Japanese, one from Finnish, six from French, one from Danish, three from Norwegian and four from Swedish. Twenty books by women in translation in a library of 550 books. I thought I had more, to be honest.

I can only comfort myself with the fact that I’ve read more than I own.

Next, going through my current Kindle content I found the situation more satisfactory. Out of total 145 titles 99 are British or American (I am well aware of my Anglophilia), 75 titles belong to women authors in general, while 23 titles are women in translation, 17 of which is Tove Jansson!, which leaves me with the number of 6.. Somehow I thought I would find much more to suit this particular event.

Statistics aside, here’s a Women In Translation list I came up with:

  1. The Mussel Feast. Birgit Vanderbeke13942586_1785490451710629_551854688_n
  2. Chasing the King of Hearts. Hanna Krall
  3. Beside the Sea. Véronique Olmi
  4. Mr Darwin’s Gardner. Kristina Carlson
  5. The Pillow Book. Sei Shōnagon
  6. The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu
  7. La Petite Fadette. Georges Sand
  8. Cassandra. Christa Wolf
  9. Death in Spring. Mercè Rodoreda
  10. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Muriel Barbery

Its obvious Eurocentricity annoys me – no authors from Africa or South America, South Asia. Another thing I have to work on…


12 thoughts on “Women In Translation Month

  1. Very interesting post. I think I have a reasonable amount of translated women on my shelves, mostly because of my French and Russian books – in fact, the Colettes and the Simone de Beauvoirs probably make up a good part of my translated women. Germany is a more recent arrival on the scene and also Scandinavia because of Tove Jansson. Still very Eurocentric, though I do have a Japanese book lurking which would help a little!

    1. If it wasn’t for the recently bought Ariadna Efron and Boris Pasternak Correspondence, my Russian shelf would be completely masculine. I am even having a hard time remembering any female writers from that country besides Anna Akhmatova and Marina Cvetaeva.. And Teffi, of whom I’ve first heard only several months ago!

      1. Alexandra Kollontai, Tatyana Tolstoya, Yevgenia Ginsberg, Irina Ratushinskaya, Zinaida Gippius – there are more from modern times than more modern ones, but there may be plenty who’ve never been translated that I haven’t heard of…..

  2. I don’t seem to have as many translated women authors on my shelves as I’d like. But I’m working on it! Just finished my first book for WIT month – Maryse Conde – and now reading the second which is by Yoko Ogawa

    1. I’ve heard good things about Ogawa and noted her name on my list although I suspect that it’s going to take a while to pick up one of her novels.. Yet, one never knows..
      Of Maryse Conde I’ve never heard before. Will investigate.

  3. I remember coming to that awareness of how I’d been influenced over the reading years and not really by my own reading inclinations, often we are not even aware of what it is we are looking for, we are constantly seduced by blurbs, bookshops and traditional media.

    Since I started keeping notes on my blog about books I read, I became so much more aware of the discrepancies, I knew I liked reading books from other cultures and was always interested when I saw a name that looked foreign, but they were still originally written in English and often immigrant stories (second generation).

    When I came to live in France my eyes really opened to what we were missing out on, my French friends were casually reading Colombian, Chilean, Japanese, and Korean authors without searching for them, they are what are being displayed on the front tables of the bookshops, because 50% of the fiction they read is translated and not just from English! For an avid reader, I felt so ignorant, and so excited at the same time, what a treasure trove of literature!

    Since then I’ve been reading around the world, both translated and English works and had a subscription with Peirene and love how my reading has broadened. I’ve discovered I really love works by women writers from the Caribbean, there is something about their way of storytelling that really appeals, that in the little i have read so far, but there’s so much more to explore.

    So I have a few on the shelves to read for #WITMonth and thanks to the initiative I’m accumulating a few more recommendations as well. I’ve ordered Christ Wolf’s Medea, Cassandra sounds great too! Happy Reading!

    1. I agree with you – oftentimes I feel I am being pulled away from literature that strongly interests me only to read something that’s being hyped or something that I know has no desired depth or quality to it. I’m angry at myself for doing so and regularly wonder why I am doing it.
      I also noticed that over time I had grown a tendency to read faster and reflect less about what I’ve just read. The issue had to be dealt with so I started this blog. It does help me think and hold a certain book in my thoughts longer.

      I did not know that France translates that much. It really is wonderful and you were – are lucky!
      Here, the industry is fairly small and the state of affairs for publishers is not an enviable one, but still we translate a lot. I hope it will be better in years to come and that there will be a bit more diversity..

      Since last couple of years I’ve read more books by women than ever before in my life. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, though. Somehow, it came naturally. While picking the next book to read I would try to find the one ”whose time has come” (by tasting the first couple of lines) and very often it would be a book by a woman author. So I discovered Byatt, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald…
      All British and American yes, but I am eager to explore and I find your description of Caribbean literature very, very appealing!

      I have Medea on my shelf as well.. I think I read it ten years ago but I am not certain. Will have to (re)read it.

      Happy reading to you too!

  4. You make a good point, often I’m troubled by the lack of women on my bookshelves and the one’s I name check off hand Janssen, Woolf, Nemirovsky are European, thankfully there are blogs such as yours that help point me in the right direction as well as realise how little I have actually read and need to!

    1. You know what they say – the more you know the more you know you don’t know. The beauty of life..
      It’s a thing of great value that we all can get suggestions and directions from each other!

      1. I have added some more ladies to the bok pile of late thanks to the books I have been reading as well as your posts and other blogs so it’s looking like a fun end of year is coming my way.

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