• Jean Casella
  • Lost (and Found) in Translation: Top Ten Books by International Women Writers
Lost (and Found) in Translation: Top Ten Books by International Women Writers
Written by
Jean Casella
November 2009
Written by
Jean Casella
November 2009
Where are women writers most underrepresented (other than this year's PW Ten Best Books list)? In translation. In fact, international women writers receive a double dose of underrepresentation. To begin with, only about 3 percent of the books published in the United States each year are translated from other languages. And within that 3 percent, a pathetically small portion are works written by women. I've yet to hear a convincing explanation for this imbalance, which far exceeds anything found among American books as a whole. But it's a disparity with serious consequences. As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Without translation, the stories of women in other countries remain inaccessible to us, and we are denied a deeper understanding of their lives, as well as their creative energies. So for my She Writes Day of Action post, I'm offering an opinionated and undoubtedly incomplete list of the best books of 2009 that were originally written in languages other than English by women from around the world. (The list also happens to be a rundown of some great small, independent presses who are doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to publishing literature in translation.) 1. Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums. Translated from the German by Michael Hoffman. When this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I'm sorry to say that my response was the same as most of the American public's: "Who?" Not surprising, since despite having an incredible life story and unique body of work, Müller has only a couple of books in print in English translation, published by university presses. This novel, from Northwestern UP, is a powerful depiction of the corrosive effects of totalitarianism on the human spirit, set in Ceausescu's Romania. 2. Marie NDiaye, Rosie Carpe. Translated from the French by Tamsin Black. Marie NDiaye shook up the French literary establishment by becoming the first black woman to win France's most prestigious book prize, the Prix Goncourt, with her novel of immigrant life in Paris's impoverished banlieue. Her prize-winning book, Trois femmes puissantes ("Three Powerful Women"), hasn't yet been translated into English, but this one has, by University of Nebraska Press. 3. Mercè Rodoreda, Death in Spring. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant. Rodoreda, who died in 1983, is considered the greatest contemporary writer of the Catalan language. I haven't yet read this newly translated work, published by the independent press Open Letter, which is devoted solely to literature in translation. But her best-known book, The Time of the Doves--which one reviewer describes as "gorgeously sad"--is an absolute stunner. 4. Fatima Sadiqi, Amira Nowaira, Azza El Kholy, and Moha Ennaji, editors, Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region. This collection completes the Feminist Press's momumental four-volume series of anthologies of women's writing from the African continent, which I guarantee will transform your understanding of the lives and creative works of African women. This huge, rich volume begins in ancient Egypt and stretches through the present. 5. Chiara Stangalino and Maxim Jakubowski, editors, Rome Noir. While this latest volume in Akashic Books' city noir series is co-ed, it earns a place on this list as an example of how to put together a balanced anthology. Many of the male writers in the collection are already well known and widely published in English, while nearly all of the women--who make up somewhere close to half of the contributors--are being translated for the first time. In other words, whether by choice or by chance, the editors took the opportunity to correct the disparity and introduce a whole new set of terrific, tough-talking Italian women, writing in a male-dominated genre. 6. Gail Hareven, The Confessions of Noa Weber. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. Published by Melville House, this is a wise, beautifully written contemporary Israeli novel about self-knowledge and obsessive love. 7. Céline Curiol, Voice Over. Translated from the French by Sam Richard. This dark, funny, erotically charged novel about a lonely young woman who works as an train announcer in the Gare du Nord was published by Seven Stories Press. 8. Nina Berberova, Billancourt Tales. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. Published by New Directions, these stories bring to life the Russian emigre community in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. 9. Muriel Barbery, Gourment Rhapsody. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Just out from Europa Editions is this newly translated novel by the author of the sublime Elegance of the Hedgehog. 10. The Afghan Women Writers Project. This last item on my list isn't a book but a web site. In countries where war, chaos, and women's oppression render print publication all but impossible, projects like this one are the only thing that brings women's voices out of silence. I first learned about the project here on She Writes, and have been blown away by both the content and quality of the writing.

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  • Wendy Breuer

    I am so happy to see The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Haveren on this list. The voice of the central character has stayed in my head since I read the book this summer, with all her strengths, her weaknesses and her contradictions. Haveren weaves in the historical and political as it frames Noa's life, but done with breath-taking sublety. This book deserves a wide readership.

  • Marilyn Yalom

    Dear Eunice,

    Thanks for doing this! Irv and I are in moscow speaking to the psychological and psychiatric community. here, too, women are underrepresented in so many important ways; though Irv is the major, my feminist ideas are also getting much attention.

    We've just come from Vienna where Irv's book, When Nietzsche Wept, was the book of the year for the Vienna "Eine Stadt, Ein Buch" program. Imagine 100,000 copies distributed free to the Viennese! And a gala banquet in city hall! I'm pleased to say that Herta Muller was also a recipient of this award. The Viennese are certainly trying to include women in their cultural world, and I met a number of well-placed powerful women during our week's stay there.

    Yes, women's international relations are essential, and translation is an excellent means of pursuing our feminist goals.

    Bravo! Marilyn

  • Millicent O\'Reilly

    Wow, thanks for this fantastic list Jean.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Jean, this is fabulous. I have promoted it every way I know how -- and if we even get a few of these women some sales today or in the future, I will feel so proud. Thank you!!!

  • Renate Stendhal

    As an occasional translator myself, I appreciate your perception, Jean. Same old story, whereever you look!
    Does everyone, anyone remember that things were quite a bit different in the seventies, thanks to feminist activism?