Women In Translation Up To No Good

So here we are again. Another August and my Twitter and Instagram feeds are filling up with photos, lists and reviews of books by women in translation. Five years in and #WITMonth is bigger than ever. All thanks to Meytal, who founded and continues to grow what has become an international event. (If you want to learn more about Meytal, click the link to see last year’s thank you post or visit her blog to get the latest news, updates, and links to WITMonth content).

This month, like everyone else in the translation community, I’ll be posting reviews — new and old — of books by women in translation. One thing I’ve noticed, possibly because so few books in translation are published in general and even fewer of those are by women, is that we all seem to be reading the same books. It’s unavoidable, of course, but there it is. You can’t even say we’re all just reading new releases because that’s not the case either. It really reinforces how small the pool to choose from actually is. (Two examples of what I’m talking about occurred in the last week or so: Meytal mentioned she plans to post a review of Suzanne Dracius’ The Dancing Other and someone else, I can’t remember who, posted on Twitter that they were reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both books are sitting on my TBR&R pile. This happens all the time). It also highlights how small presses are carrying the load in publishing translations. And how so many of the reviewers I follow, and I myself am guilty of this, seem to focus on literary fiction in translation and overlook genre in our coverage.

In other news: I’m always on the lookout for novels that feature interesting, middle-aged and above female protagonists. I’ve had some success, but I wouldn’t call it a huge category. Betty Boo by Claudia Pineiro, Eventide by Therese Bohman (which I’ll be reviewing later this month) and Minae Mizumara’s novels immediately come to mind. Last year the Best Translated Book Award judges received a little book titled An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good: Stories by the Swedish writer Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy. The only word for it is DELIGHTFUL. It was a favorite among the judges, even though it didn’t make the longlist. Tursten is best known for her Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nystrom series, which I need to read. Both Hus and Nystrom make an appearance in the last of the five stories, but it’s the elderly lady who steals the book.

My favorite in the collection is An Elderly Lady Has An Accommodation Problem. Maud, who is 88-years-old, has been living in her rent-controlled apartment (rent-controlled = free) in a now gentrified (gentrified = expensive) section of Sweden since she was a child. The building’s housing association wants rid of her to no avail, her contract is ironclad. Her family is all dead, she never married, and she mostly keeps to herself. So when her young neighbor, a flighty artist named Jasmin, becomes extremely — even intrusively — friendly Maud can’t quite figure out why. Is the girl looking for a friend? A mother figure? A project?

It wasn’t until she read a new entry in Jasmin’s blog one day that things started to become clear. I’m so excited! I might soon be moving into a bigger apartment! Which means a bigger studio, of course!!!! I really need more space. And when I say bigger, I mean BIGGER! MUCH BIGGER!!!

…That little bitch was after her apartment.

Obviously, something will need to be done.

All the stories are Maud’s and each one is more deliciously wicked than the last. Tursten injects just the right amount of joie de vivre into the old biddy’s activities. It comes as a surprise to learn, in a brief note at the end, that Maud was a character born out of necessity. Her creator needed a short story for a Christmas anthology and had no idea what to write. Until she hit upon the idea that a frail old lady would make the perfect criminal. No one would suspect her. She could get away with murder! And so she does, quite literally, to all our amusement.

Which sounds a bit twisted when said out loud. It goes without saying that nobody likes a serial killer, even a clever one. And yet… there’s something truly endearing about Maud and her antics. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Honestly… all her victims had it coming. *side eye*

Title: An Elderly Lady Up To No Good
Author: Helene Tursten
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Soho Press, New York (2018)
ISBN: 978 1 64129 011 1

4 thoughts on “Women In Translation Up To No Good

  1. Funnily enough this one is on my list as well…I do love some good genre! Plus of course all the other works in translation I’ve been reading . Though you are right, the pool needs to grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, Melanie, which points to another uncomfortable thought: if all this reviewing and hashtagging hasn’t added much to the pool, why is that?
      One might assume that reviews generate interest, leading to sales. Sales make publishers interested in publishing more. In fact, you might even expect that big publishers might be doing what big publishers do i.e. let the small publishers test the waters and then poach the successful authors. But apparently this is not happening.
      So apart from The Faithful, who support the WIT agenda for reasons other than the books and are all reinforcing each others opinions, are the WIT reviews expanding interest, and sales? Maybe what Tara says about genre is a clue, and maybe we WIT reviewers need to consider the type of books we are reading. Looking at my WIT TBR of 15, they are all sobering reading. Angst-ridden. I know before I open them that they will depress me like Olmi’s Beside the Sea depressed me and depresses me still. It’s not a book you want to talk about with your friends, not like those Ferrantes that everybody loved.
      I like reading important books about significant themes, but not everyone does, and maybe we need to make WIT more appealing to the general reader?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going to speculate here that one of the reasons there are not as many women authors in translation is the attitude to women in certain countries. Maybe in very traditional male dominated cultures, women are not encouraged to write?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ladies, sorry for the delay in replying. (But I guess everyone is used to that by now! 🙂 )

    Melanie – I think we’re definitely playing a game of catch-up. Though I don’t think the negative attitude towards women writers is specific to certain countries. We see again and again in awards, reviews, etc. that books by male writers (and featuring male protagonists — which blows my mind!) receive more attention and accolades than those by and about women.

    Lisa – I had the chance to email Tim Parks last year (for an interview which I am sad to say will probably never see the light of day 😦 ) and he pointed out that the titles I used as examples in our exchange were by authors like Knausgaard, Ferrante and their ilk. And that most people when talking about translations overlook or ignore the fact that the Inspector Montalbano and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series have been international bestsellers. There was a lot of talk in the past about the ghettoization of genre — and he made me realize that banishing a book to an ivory tower is just as isolating. There are so many books that fall in between that we could be talking about — and I don’t think it would hurt to point out that translations don’t ALWAYS have to be serious and sad. (Olmi’s By the Sea still haunts me, as well).


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