The world’s best-selling book of all time, The Holy Bible, has sold almost 5 billion copies till date. Coincidentally, this also makes it the best-selling translated book of all time. Unless you are proficient in Hebrew (and Aramaic), chances are that you have read the Bible either in English or some other language.
In fact, many people’s first introduction to Shakespeare and other English-language classics are also most likely to be translations – not in the truest sense of the word, but editions that simplify and/or condense, using contemporary versions of the language. A number of classics have abridged versions – editors trim the fat to make the original text palatable to the modern reader in a way that often makes them indistinguishable from the other titles being published alongside.
The liberties taken with language and redesigning of the text in such cases are comparable to those of translated works, provided the end product remains faithful to the original text despite the alterations.
Yet, every so often, a translation feels so seamless, so natural, that it seems unbelievable to us that the work had ever existed in its “original” language. Perhaps it is this seamlessness that conceals the translator’s prowess.
Any translation demands the effortless merging of two authorial voices while simultaneously competing for the reader’s attention. Anita Desai, in her short story, “Translator, Translated” brings alive the conflict that every translator must confront – “As a translator, how do I make myself visible without betraying the original text?”
Though translating may be (incorrectly thought of as) an invisible art, thankfully it isn’t an unrecognised one. Every year, prestigious awards such as The International Booker Prize, International Dublin Literary Award, and National Book Award honour the best works in translations. And celebrations such as Women in Translation month – August – make readers aware of the vast and wonderful world of literature in translation. Here, in no particular order, is a selection of translated books by women, from India and around the world.
Untold Night and Day, Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
It’s 28-year-old Ayami’s final day at her box-office job in Seoul’s audio theatre. Her night is spent walking the sweltering streets of the city with her former boss in search of Yeoni, their missing elderly friend, and her day is spent looking after a mysterious, visiting poet. Their conversations take in art, love, food, and the inaccessible country to the north.
Almost immediately, in the heat of Seoul at the height of the summer, order gives way to chaos as the edges of reality start to fray, with Ayami becoming an unwitting escort into a fever-dream of increasingly tangled threads, all the while images of the characters’ overlapping realities repeat, collide, change, and reassert themselves. Untold Night and Day tells the story of a young woman’s journey through Seoul over the course of a night and a day.
The Women’s Courtyard, Khadija Mastur, translated from the Urdu by Daisy Rockwell
Aliya lives a life confined to the inner courtyard of her home with her older sister and irritable mother, while the men of the family engross themselves in the political movements of the day. She is tormented by the petty squabbles of the household and dreams of educating herself and venturing into the wider world. Aliya must endure many trials before she achieves her goals, but at what personal cost?
Set in the 1940s, with Partition looming on the horizon, The Women’s Courtyard focuses on the claustrophobic lives of women whose entire existence was circumscribed by the four walls of their homes, and for whom the outside world remained an inaccessible dream.
Bliss, Clara Magnani, translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Rome, 2014, late summer. While he is reading on his sun-drenched terrace, Giangiacomo’s heart stops. A quick, painless death – something he had always hoped for, his daughter, Elvira, remembers. A few days later, Elvira comes across an unfinished manuscript in her father’s flat. In it, she discovers a love story between Giangiacomo and a Belgian journalist, Clara, which had been going on for over four years.
Giangiacomo’s manuscript tells of how their “mature love”, an expression that became code between Gigi and Clara, blossomed unexpectedly and of the happiness of their meetings, the abandon of their bodies, their laughter, the films they watched and re-watched together. As she struggles to cope with the loss of Giangiacomo, Clara writes her own version of their story.
Her “journal of absence” is first addressed to Giangiacomo, then, gradually, to Elvira. She confides in the young woman on the threshold of adult life, with discretion and tenderness, describing the fullness of the hidden love she shared with her father.
Bedanabala, Mahashweta Devi, translated from the Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee
Starting from the late 19th century, the voice of Bedanabala bears witness to the experiences of many women who find themselves outside the safety of domestic walls for various reasons. They thereafter make their lives in the only ways open to them in a society where women did not work except as domestic servants – entertaining men, developing liaisons, intertwining their dreams and passions with the destiny of a country struggling for independence and questioning oppressive time-worn social custom.
Written in a first-person voice, Bedanabala seeks to empathise with a segment of society condemned even by other women as unworthy of decency and social acceptance.
Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Megan Backus
Mikage, the heroine of Kitchen, is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, she is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who was once his father), Eriko.
Soon the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses. Kitchen is a deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in Japan.
Women Dreaming, Salma, translated from the Tamil by Meena Kandasamy
Mehar dreams of freedom and a life with her children. Asiya dreams of her daughter’s happiness. Sajida dreams of becoming a doctor. Subaida dreams of the day when her family will become free of woes. Parveen dreams of a little independence, a little space for herself in the world. Mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, neighbours...
In this tiny Muslim village in Tamil Nadu, the lives of these women are sustained by the faith they have in themselves, in one another, and the everyday compromises they make. Women Dreaming enters the interior world of women where they are held together by love, demarcated by religion, and comforted by the courage in dreaming of better futures.
A Bed for the King’s Daughter, Shahla Ujayli, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain
A Bed for the King’s Daughter uses surrealism and irony to examine such themes as women’s agency, the decline of collective life and imagination under modernity, and the effects of social and political corruption on daily life.
In “The Memoir of Cinderella’s Shoes,” Cinderella uses her famous glass slipper as a weapon in order to take justice into her own hands. In “Tell Me About Surrealism,” an art history professor’s writing assignment reveals the slipperiness of storytelling, and in “Merry Christmas,” the realities of apartheid interfere with one family’s celebration. Through twenty-two short stories, Ujayli animates themes relevant to both the particularities of life in the Arab world and life outside it.
Fence, Ila Arab Mehta, translated from the Gujarati by Rita Kothari
Fateema opened her diary and began writing: “Jihad as mentioned by the Prophet is a war against injustice and oppression. Islam means peace and surrender. Islam does not recommend killing innocent people. The Prophet released hundreds of slaves from bondage and sent them back to their native land.”
For a bright young woman like Fateema Lokhandwala, the idea that one day she might own her own house is a daring dream. Her father has spent his life, slaving away selling scrap metal so that his children lead a better life. Fateema dreams not only of owning her own house, but of higher education, a better job, a wider world.
Her brother, Kareem, is persuaded down a very different path – to join the jihad, to become a holy warrior. Fence follows one woman’s struggle to find her way in a world torn by communal violence, to reconcile her conflicting loyalties to her family and friends, and to find a place that she can truly call ‘home’.
An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence, Dana Grigorcea, translated from the Swiss-Romania by Alta L Price
Victoria has just recently moved from Zurich back to her hometown of Bucharest when the bank where she works is robbed. Put on leave so that she can process the trauma of the robbery, Victoria strolls around town. Each street triggers sudden visions as memories from her childhood under the Ceausescu regime begin to mix with the radically changed city and the strange world in which she now finds herself.
As the walls of reality begin to crumble, Victoria and her former self cross paths with the bank robber and a rich cast of characters, weaving a vivid portrait of Romania and one woman’s self-discovery.
Agnisakshi: Fire, My Witness, Lalithambika Antharajanam, translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan
Agnisakshi is an account of a woman’s life glowing as though purified in the “fire of sacrifice”. Set against the history of Kerala, and life, customs, habits, and culture of the Namboodiri community, along with the fervent cries of the Indian National Freedom struggle.
The characters act out their unforgettable roles: Tethi, the dazzling but disappointed bride who renounces worldly life; Unni Namboodiri, whose adherence to the Vedic way of life destroys his personal happiness; and Thankam, Unni’s Nair cousin and the mighty Aphan Namboodiri’s daughter, seeking her own liberation from the past.
The Method, Juli Zeh, translated from the German by Sally-Ann Spencer
Mia Holl lives in a state governed by The Method, where good health is the highest duty of the citizen. Everyone must submit medical data and sleep records to the authorities on a monthly basis, and regular exercise is mandatory.
Mia is young and beautiful, a successful scientist who is outwardly obedient but with an intellect that marks her as subversive. Convinced that her brother has been wrongfully convicted of a terrible crime, Mia comes up against the full force of a regime determined to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
Set in the middle of the 21st century, The Method deals with pressing questions: to what extent can the state curtail the rights of the individual? And does the individual have a right to resist?
The Music of Solitude, Krishna Sobti, translated from the Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia
Aranya and Ishan are neighbours. They are in the autumn of their lives. She is impulsive, anarchic and fiercely feminist. He is gentle, sensitive, orderly and believes in the institution of family, even though he has no one to call his own.
Aranya thinks about the many Delhis, from the older one glimmering on the other side of the river to the trans-Yamuna residential complex where she lives now. Ishan is deeply spiritual and draws strength from his Danish guide in the Himalayas.
The two of them banter about time, existentialism, changing landscapes, food, music and human nature. They think aloud about ageing and death, and wonder living the way they do amounts to biding time.
The Music of Solitude wonders about sharing solitudes and growing old in a city that is at once keenly private and aggressively collective.
Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past.
As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus.
Fever Dream creates an aura of strange and deeply unsettling psychological menace in a cautionary tale of maternal love, broken souls, and the power and desperation of family.
Written in Tears, Arupa Patangia Kalita, translated from the Assamese by Ranjita Biswas
A half-burnt bus passes through a city charring everything alive and beautiful in its wake. The newly wed Arunima watches helplessly as the aftermath of her insurgent brother-in-law’s absence engulfs her husband’s large, loving family. Ayengla secretly supplies food to the insurgents until, one day, a horrible act of violence changes her life irrevocably.
Written in Tears brings together some of Kalita’s best novellas and stories set against a surreally beautiful landscape torn and scarred by conflict. This is a chronicle of the disturbing and searing history of aggression and hate that has plagued Assam for decades.
Arturo’s Island, Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
On a remote island in the Bay of Naples, a young boy roams the shore with only his dog for company. Arturo’s mother died in childbirth and his wayward father Wilhelm rarely returns to the island. Left in isolation, he dreams up a world of romantic exploits in which his father sails the seas like the heroes in his favourite stories.
When Wilhelm suddenly reappears with his new young wife Nunziata, Arturo’s imagined world bursts apart, and he falls in passionate, tormented love. As Wilhelm’s behaviour grows increasingly erratic, Arturo must begin to face the reality of his father’s life, and of his own feelings. Arturo’s Island is a deeply affecting tale of childhood disenchantment.
That Empty Space, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Nivedita Menon
A bomb explodes in a university cafe, claiming the lives of nineteen students. The Empty Space begins with the identification of those nineteen dead. The mother who enters the cafe last to identify the nineteenth body brings home her dead eighteen-year-old son packed in a box, as well as the of the sole survivor the blast, a three-year-old boy who, by a strange twist of fate, is found lying in a small empty space, alive and breathing.
The Empty Space chronicles the memories of the boy gone, the story of the boy brought home, and the cataclysmic crossing of life and death.
Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community. She has a black cat called Blackie. Her father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Her mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. She must never enter the seamstress’s ‘secret’ room. She collects matchbox labels. She is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland that is both very recent and lost in time.
Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. From stories of childhood to adolescence, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s.
Mother Wit, Urmila Pawar, translated from the Marathi by Veena Deo
A Dalit, a Buddhist and a feminist: Urmila Pawar’s self-definition as all three identities informs her stories about women who are brave in the face of caste oppression, strong in the face of family pressures, defiant when at the receiving end of insult, and determined when guarding their interests and those of their sisters.
Pawar brings to life strong and clever women. Her harsh, sometimes vulgar and hard-hitting language subverts another stereotype – that of the soft-spoken woman writer.
The Core of the Sun, Johanna Sinisalo, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
Set in an alternative historical present, in a “eusistocracy”, an extreme welfare state that holds public health and social stability above all else, it follows a young woman whose growing addiction to illegal chili peppers leads her on an adventure into a world where love, sex, and free will are all controlled by the state.
The Eusistocratic Republic of Finland has bred a new human sub-species of receptive, submissive women, called eloi, for sex and procreation, while intelligent, independent women are relegated to menial labor and sterilized so that they do not carry on their “defective” line.
Vanna, raised as an eloi but secretly intelligent, needs money to help her doll-like sister, who has disappeared. Vanna forms a friendship with a man named Jare, and they become involved in buying and selling a stimulant known to the Health Authority to be extremely dangerous: chili peppers. Then Jare comes across a strange religious cult in possession of the Core of the Sun, a chili so hot that it is rumored to cause hallucinations.
Does this chili have effects that justify its prohibition? How did Finland turn into the North Korea of Europe? And will Vanna succeed in her quest to find her sister, or will her growing need to satisfy her chili addiction destroy her?
Giving Away the Girl and Other Plays, Malini Bhattacharya, translated from the Bengali by Sarmishtha Dutta Gupta and Paramita Banerjee
This volume brings together three street plays from the Indian women’s movement, written in the 1980s and widely performed as part of the vibrant cultural activism of the time. Giving Away the Girl and The Monkey Dance are both anti-dowry plays, while Why All This Bloodshed? was written in the wake of the landmark Shah Bano case in the mid-80s, centering on a Muslim woman’s right to maintenance.
All the plays remain remarkably relevant, opening up key issues of the movement in a complex and nuanced manner, facilitating debate rather than offering simplistic solutions. These plays document a significant period in the history of women’s activism in India.