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Memoirs in Translation

By Jane Bentham, Rob Tomlinson, Megha Alam

Memoirs have always been a popular genre, as they provide readers with the opportunity to discover inspiring and intimate perspectives and experiences outside of their own. Nevertheless, memoirs and other non-fiction works written by non-English speaking authors have often been overlooked in the anglophone world. Here are our recommendations for thought-provoking translated memoirs, written by authors from a variety of cultures and countries.

Distant Fathers by Marina Jarre, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

Published in 1987 and translated into English in 2021, this evocative, non-linear memoir has received much critical acclaim in Italy, spanning various languages, countries and time periods. Born in Latvia to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, Jarre recounts her early childhood in Riga where she was raised speaking German. We follow her later move to a Francophone Protestant community in Northern Italy, to join her grandparents after her parents’ divorce. Faced with this blend of cultures, languages and religions, Jarre describes how her identity is ultimately unfixed and ever-changing and urges the reader to question the nature of belonging.

In line with the book’s title, she evokes her distant relationship with her father, who was murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War. When recounting these more dramatic events in her life, she emphasises how they have affected her sense of self, rather than explaining the historical significance of these experiences. The memoir alternates between past and present and blurs the boundaries of time, with the older narrator reflecting not only on how her memories have impacted who she is today but also their fallibility. Writing allows the author to embark on these reflections, and the reader acts as a partner to Jarre’s writing process as she examines her life and fragmented identity.

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli, translated from Spanish by Kristina Cordero

In The Country Under My Skin, originally published in Spanish in 2001 and in English in 2003, Gioconda Belli tells the story of her life: political, emotional and romantic, tracing her own journey alongside that of her homeland Nicaragua, the titular country. The memoir was nominated for the 2003 Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Following the outbreak of the Nicaraguan civil war in the 1970s, Belli turned her back on her middle-class, religious upbringing; seeking to assuage her “guilt of privilege,” she joined the Sandinista revolutionary forces that revolted against the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. The eventual success of the revolution brought educational and social reform and she finally ascended to the position of Head of State Television. However, this period of revolutionary change eventually gave way to renewed repression, this time by the party for whom she had fought, and Belli fled to the US. Against this compelling political backdrop, which is wonderfully narrated, The Country Under My Skin reckons the position of a woman in the revolution, negotiating the complexities of motherhood, the position of woman in a patriarchal society and political action. Her loves and betrayals, including hiding political pamphlets and an affair from her first husband, are described with searing accuracy as Belli turns the critical analysis of life which led her to join the Sandinistas onto herself.

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen translated from Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman

Released as a collection in 2019 but initially published from 1967 to 1971, The Copenhagen Trilogy is a series of memoirs by the Danish poet and author Tove Ditlevsen detailing her experience growing up in working-class Copenhagen, her journey to becoming a writer and her struggle with drug abuse and addiction.

Childhood follows a young Ditlevsen growing up in the working-class district of Vesterbro and contending with a harsh mother and an overwhelming sense of being an outsider. She perceives her childhood as restrictive and endeavours to escape its confines through reading and writing poems in her diary. In Youth, Ditlevsen enters adolescence, leaving school early to work. Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Europe with Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Ditlevsen breaks free, spending time with friends and boys and passionately pursuing her writing. Eventually, at the age of eighteen, she moves out, marking the beginning of her journey towards success. The final part, Dependency, is the darkest of them all despite her literary successes. It explores Ditlevsen's twenties and beyond, encompassing her marriages, children, abortions, descent into substance abuse and her subsequent recovery.

Ditlevsen’s confessional writing style is poetic, honest and immersive, evolving throughout the trilogy to align with the respective phases of her life. From the intensity of girlhood to the wittiness of youth and, ultimately, the darkness of dependency, the trilogy offers a deep and nuanced exploration of Ditlevsen’s life.


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