Reading Women Authors in Translation by Bronwen Griffiths

Last month was Women in Translation Month. Meytal Radzinksi started WIT in 2014 with the aim of highlighting the brilliant women writers, translators and publishers who bring us literature from around the world. Radzinksi was concerned that women authors made up less than 30% of the books translated into English and WIT has been a means of promoting such women to the wider reading public.

UK book readers are less likely than their European counterparts to read books in translation although that is beginning to change – 2018 saw a 5.5 increase in the market. However, a substantial part of this growth was down to best-selling Scandinavian crime thrillers - authors such as Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo. (Research by Nielsen for the Man Booker Prize, March 2019) – and overall we in the UK read far less in translation than other comparative countries. This can be partly explained by the fact that we can also read books written in English from countries like India, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, but is also perhaps down to the fact that most pupils at school don’t study non-English speaking authors. We also don’t have enough bi-lingual and multi-lingual people working in publishing.

On a positive note are now quite a number of well-known female authors in translation, such as Olga Tokarczuk, whose book Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) won the Man Booker International in 2018. The same prize was awarded to Jokha Alharthi and her translator Marilyn Booth for Celestial Bodies, the first book written by an Omani woman to be translated into English. The writer Elena Ferrante is well known for her series of novels set in Naples and her new book is out this month.

 Why read books in translation? Because books in translation allow us see the world in new ways. Books may not be able to change the world but they can change our perceptions and widen our horizons.

 A number of publishers specialise in books in translation, including And Other Stories, Dalkey Archive, Istros and Peirene Press (the latter has a marvellous yearly subscription service). A number of bloggers promote authors in translation including @arablit and Words Without Borders.

I am quite a fan of Japanese writers, male and female. Of the women authors I have read I would recommend Hiromi Kawakami (my favourite is Strange Weather in Tokyo), Sayaka Murata (her novel, Convenience Store Woman is a delight and she has a new book coming out soon) and the books of Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Onawara.

Of the European women in translation I would definitely recommend the works of the Danish author Dorthe Nors whose quirky books are hard to categorise. I recently enjoyed the spooky Ankomst by the Norwegian Gohril Gabrielsen and the French writer Veronique Olmi’s book Beside the Sea – another haunting book – both are published by Peirene.  I’d also recommend Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg from Poland, winner of the PEN award.

 The starkly funny memoir Sharon and my Mother-in-Law – Ramallah Diaries by Suad Amiry – the struggles of a family living in the Occupied Territories is translated from Arabic, as it the chilling novel, The Queue by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz, a Kafkaesque tale of an authoritarian regime.

 This is just a personal list. It’s up to you to discover the writers you might enjoy – whether that is crime fiction, non-fiction, poetry or literary fiction – or all of these.

 I’d like to thank all the wonderful translators out there who bring us these books and the publishers who take the risk of publishing them.


Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels and two collections of flash fiction. Her flash has been published online and in a number of anthologies.



Griselda Heppel said…
Ooh lots of good suggestions here - thank you. I agree that not to read authors in translation is to miss out on so much. I've just been given The Lying Lives of Adults by Elena Ferrante and I can't wait to read it, having loved her Neapolitan Quartet. I also recently discovered All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski - an eye-opening, searing view of ordinary people in eastern Germany about to be overrun by the Red Army at the end of WW2.
Peter Leyland said…
This is interesting Bronwen. I was lucky enough to see Sayaka Murata at the Japan Now day in The British Library. She read extracts from her novel in Japanese while her translator read them in English. It made a great start to a course I was planning on Japanese novels.
Eden Baylee said…
Great piece Bronwen, and more books to add to my reading list. :)

One recent one I read was by Han Kang, a Korean author whose book THE VEGETARIAN was translated in English by Deborah Smith, a Brit.

It won Man Booker in 2016 and was mired in some controversy over the translation, though the author stands by the translation.

Umberto Tosi said…
I too have enjoyed many fabulous novels in translation. Makes we wonder what else out there we are missing. The dearth of skilled multilingual translators is as lamentable as the apparent lack of motivated publishers.
Very good to read this - I've been reading a lot of serious novels by writers from Arab/Muslim backgrounds but mostly written in English - and enjoyed David Olusoga's recent programme on African writing. Here's more to investigate! It's such an interesting voyage into cultures quite unlike our own. Our local large bookshop (Blackwell's) has tables of 'in translation', which I have browsed and found interesting novels - hopefully others will begin to stock similarly...
Peter Leyland said…
I just happened to find Strange Weather in Tokyo at Leakey’s In Inverness, and David Olusoga’s programme was excellent with lots of ideas for a post-colonial novels course.
bronwengriff said…
Thanks everyone for your useful and interesting comments.

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