If you agree that reading diverse benefits your brain, you’re probably open to reading novels in translation. If language affects thought, there can’t be a better way of accessing a mindset different to one’s own. Unfortunately, far less fiction is translated into English than from English, with the former comprising under 3% of the translation market. Furthermore, only about a quarter of literature translated into English is written by women; thankfully August’s Women in Translation Month, can help us get our hands on those rare gems.
When I began paying attention to Women in Translation Month, my consumption of books by eligible authors between one August and the next doubled, but only from a paltry three. As I’ll reveal on my blog at the end of the month, I’m running out of fingers and toes to count this year’s reading. Before that, I’m here to share eight of my favourites from previous years, representing eight different languages and cultures and five different independent publishers who, like Inspired Quill, support diverse reading. Click on the titles to go to the full reviews on my blog and, if you do follow my reading recommendations, I’d love to know if you enjoyed the books as much as I did.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Keiko has worked in a convenience store since it opened, eighteen years before. That’s half her life. Considered odd since early childhood – although she perceives herself as logical and accommodating – she seems to have found her niche. The beep of the tills is soothing and the rigid phrases with which she’s been trained to greet the customers removes all the messy uncertainties from social interaction. The management injunction to maintain her mind and body in a fit state to do the job ensures that she eats properly and gets enough sleep. Unfortunately, Keiko is about to be pushed out of her comfort zone.
If you relish the zany, be sure to grab a copy of this novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Portobello Books.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors
Sonja is learning to drive, but her first teacher won’t allow her to change gear and her second covers her hand on the gear stick with his. Now in her 40s, Sonja moved from rural Jutland to Copenhagen as a student, but now feels lonely, unable to reconnect with her sister and nostalgic for the dramatic landscapes of her childhood. It’s perhaps no coincidence that she finds herself better at reversing than driving forward, but can she embrace the future without backtracking on life?
With a perfect balance of poignancy and humour this, in Misha Hoekstra’s translation from Danish, is another lovely story about navigating contemporary life as a single woman, published by Pushkin Press.
The Unit by Ninni Holnqvist
Dorrit isn’t needed. With no dependents, no long-term cohabiting relationships and a patchy employment record, she’s never been needed. Relishing the freedom to please herself and having ample thinking space for her writing, she was fine with that. Until her fiftieth birthday loomed. Not because she was afraid of ageing but because at that point she’d be decreed dispensable and obliged to relocate to a community of similarly economically worthless men and women …
This dystopian novel, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Oneworld Publications, explores whether lives can be sacrificed for the greater good.
Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Eitan Green, a promising neurosurgeon, has relocated with his wife and two young sons from Tel Aviv to the culturally and geologically dusty city of Beersheba. One night, after an exhausting shift at the hospital, he knocks someone down in the desert. Seeing that the man, a migrant from Eritrea, is beyond help, Eitan drives off. He is still battling his guilt when the victim’s widow knocks at his door. There’s a price for Sirkit’s silence, to be paid not in money, but in sleepless nights running a makeshift hospital for illegal immigrants, which will risk his health, his marriage, his official job and, eventually, his life.
This engaging novel about the lengths to which we go to evade our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings is translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published by Pushkin Press.
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
At four and a half, the child is blissfully content in the Paris apartment she shares with her mother. The war means little to her and, while her grandmother disapproves of her freedom, her mother always takes her side. The only cloud in her blue-sky world is the lie told by the two older women when they insisted she’d imagined the baby sister presented to her mother in a Normandy hospital. Now the war is coming to an end and the father she’s never met will be returning home. The child is unable to share her mother’s excitement. All too quickly, this stranger has taken over the apartment. His standards are exacting, his rage when they are not met terrifying.
This poignant story of lost innocence, and of the casual mistreatment of children, is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and published by Peirene Press.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen
Cousins Roland and Edgar have grown up together, although they’ve never seen eye to eye. But they find their paths crossing as they hide out in the forest of their native Estonia, on the run from the Red Army. When the Nazis drive out the Communists, Roland goes deeper into hiding, while Edgar reinvents himself with a new name, and a post in the new regime. Edgar’s wife Juudit finds the love that he has never been able to give her in the arms of Helmuth, an officer in the German army. Roland realises he can use her to help members of the resistance escape to safety …
Moving back and forth between the early 1940s and 1960s, this complex novel, translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers and published by Atlantic Books, examines the near-impossibility of living a moral life under occupation by forces at both extremes of the political spectrum.
Lonely, and sick of life, forty-nine-year-old Jónas decides to end it all. Considering it far too messy to kill himself at home, he buys a one-way ticket to an erstwhile tourist destination, recently ravaged by civil war. But he can’t hold himself aloof from the horrors: a traumatised child; the assumption that everyone still alive has killed someone; rape as a tool of war. Then there are the opportunist entrepreneurs who perceive the chaos as potential profit, like the unpleasant man in the room a few doors down. Will Jónas rethink his decision?
Despite the painful topic, the tone is light: a quirky upbeat story of a handyman who takes his toolbox and thoughts of suicide to a troubled country, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon and published by Pushkin Press.
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
Under a bridge in Leibniz, East Germany, alongside the canal that has been part of her life since childhood, Gabriela writes her autobiography on stolen scraps of paper in the pauses between her daily struggles to find warmth and food. The only child of a top vascular surgeon and a popular society hostess, Gabriela’s early years are characterised by loneliness, obsession and the confusing contradictions of the State. As the years go by, her story is defined by a series of disappearances, unexplained to her but likely to result from the individual’s unpopularity with the Communist regime, such that, in the end, she can’t be sure she hasn’t been disappeared herself.
Translated from German by Jen Calleja, and published by Peirene Press, this is another cheerful novella about a cheerless subject: a woman who identifies as a writer and poet whose homelessness challenges the Communist ideal.
Which of these novels will you read first?
A former clinical psychologist, Anne Goodwin has published three books with Inspired Quill, the most recent being a collection of short stories on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone. Find out more on her website annethology or on her IQ author page.