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Classic and Contemporary Women in Translation

By Megha Ala, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinsonm


In celebration of International Women’s Day, this week’s issue highlights some incredible translated female writers. These women are talented writers but what makes them even more remarkable is their global reach. Their work has been translated into different languages around the world. These women truly embody the spirit of International Women’s Day as voices from different corners of the globe, unafraid to write about controversial topics and tell stories with powerful messages. 


Olga Tokarczuk


Photo by Graeme Robertson. The Guardian

Nobel Prize-winning Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk is known for her wry and complex novels that leap between centuries, places and perspectives. A best-selling author in Poland for decades, Tokarczuk was not well-known outside her homeland until she became the country’s first author to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for Flights (2017) – the English translation of her sixth novel, Bieguni (2007). The translation of this novel also skyrocketed Jennifer Croft into the pantheon of great literary translators.

Tokarczuk has written a wide range of novels, from collections of short stories such as Gra na wielu bębenkach (Beating on Many Drums) to an environmentalist murder mystery, Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead). In 2015, she received Poland’s prestigious Nike Prize for her historical novel Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) which chronicles the life of Jacob Frank, the 18th century Polish sect leader who encouraged his Jewish followers to convert to Islam and Catholicism.

Not afraid of controversy, Tokarczuk’s willingness to scrutinise Poland’s history makes her a contentious figure in her country, facing criticism mainly from right-wing nationalists. Her publisher once had to hire bodyguards to protect her after an outspoken TV interview. She is an inspiration both as a writer and as a woman. Therefore, as International Women’s Day is celebrated across the globe, what better time than now to explore the works of an international prize-winning author?


Isabel Allende


Photo by Lori Barra

Isabel Allende is an exceptional novelist with a deep sense of history, both national and global. She is the second cousin of Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, who died in 1973, following a US-sponsored military coup d’etat. She weaves Chile’s past into her written work, which encompasses novels and short stories, sometimes categorised as magical realism.

 

A second thread running throughout her writing, alongside history, is the predominance of female protagonists. In works such as Daughter of Fortune, the story of a Chinese immigrant to South America during the Gold Rush and her experience of racism and sexism; Violeta, a fictional autobiography in which the title character lives through the social upheavals of 20th century; and The House of Spirits, her most famous and celebrated work, which consciously echoes García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, relating the life of a single family over many generations, she details many aspects of the female experience. It is this focus on the feminine in her books that sets her apart from other (near) contemporaries such as Marquez and makes her one of Latin America’s most distinctive and vital voices.

 

Isabel Allende has been recognised by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and she has received Chile’s National Literature Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Yuko Tsushima


Photo by Horst Tappe. New Yorker

Fiction writer and essayist Satoko Tsushima, known by her pen name Yuko Tsushima, was regarded as one of the most important literary figures in Japan by the time of her death in 2016, having won numerous literary prizes for her work. Her writing often centres struggling women and other marginalized members of society, delving deep into the complexities of human emotions and relationships.

Despite receiving critical acclaim in Japan since the publication of her early works, it was Tsushima's 1979 novel, Territory of Light, translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt, that garnered her widespread recognition. The novel follows a young woman, abandoned by her husband, as she struggles to raise her three-year-old daughter alone; and explores themes of isolation and the invisibility of women in Japanese society. Additionally, the short story, ‘The Watery Realm,’ included in the collection Of Dogs and Walls, draws inspiration from the suicide of her father, the acclaimed writer Osamu Dazai, when Tsushima was just one year old, and examines the aftermath of this tragic event.

Tsushima's poignant exploration of personal tragedy and isolation within a broader social context shines through in her evocative prose, solidifying her legacy as a literary luminary whose works continue to resonate with readers worldwide.


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