22 Essential Women Writers to Read in Translation


2015 has seen Can Xue’s The Last Lover honored with the Best Translated Book Award and the publication of the great Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, so one could be forgiven for thinking that translated literature by women writers is a mainstay of the American publishing scene — it isn’t. As Meytal Radzinski of the blog Bibliobio points out, women writers represent only 30% of translations into English. Not to mention, as Radzinksi also explains, “women writers in translation seem significantly less likely to get profiled by major literary outlets and are less likely to have their books sent for review.”

With this in mind, and given that August is Women in Translation Month (or WITMO2015), we decided to put together a starter list of essential women writers in translation. Certainly it’s an incomplete list, but we did our best to take the long view, from Murasaki Shikibu to Minae Mizumura.

Elena Ferrante (The Neapolitan Novels, The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter)

Elena Ferrante’s four novels tracing one friendship between two women in Naples is causing Ferrante Fever for a reason; dense, complex, and full of high emotion and wise reflection, they are like reading in technicolor. The Story of The Lost Child arrives September 1. Other novels, like The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, put her on the map.

Colette (The Claudine novels, Chéri)

Sex, satire, and manners. Colette is the patron saint of lady novelists, sex bloggers, and all manner of women with satirical pens. The Claudine novels in particular are essential reading.

Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji)

“In 11th-century Japan,” writes Steven Moore in The Novel: An Alternative History, “Murasaki Shikibu composed a huge novel (The Tale of Genji) more sophisticated than anything produced in the West until the Renaissance.” In fact, her Genji, a complex survey of the politics of desire, is sometimes considered the first psychological novel.

Herta Müller (The Hunger Angel, The Land of Green Plums, The Appointment)

The Romanian-born Müller won the Nobel Prize for her body of work that deals with, in the words of the Nobel committee, “the experience of oppression, of exile and of conforming to family and state.”

Clarice Lispector (The Complete Stories)

Although Lispector is already a curriculum staple in South American schools, she’s just now in the middle of her English-language rollout. This year in particular has seen the publication of her Collected Stories, a series of more than 80 short masterpieces, which often feature women characters at various stages of middle-class life, in a variety of languorous or distraught or agitated psychological states.

Banana Yoshimoto (Kitchen, Asleep, The Lake)

Yoshimoto’s warm and poignant novels about contemporary Japanese life have made her a bestseller in her native country and earned her a serious fanbase abroad, too. “Yoshimoto’s characters deal with youthful troubles and urban existentialism — two themes that have been beaten many times but never seem to die. Yet unlike Bret Easton Ellis, and all the other urban writers with their detached, bird’s-eye perspectives, Yoshimoto writes gritty stories with warmth and dogged innocence,” wrote Rowan Riley in his introduction to an interview with Yoshimoto for Bookslut.

Alejandra Pizarnik (Extracting the Stone of Madness)

An Argentine poet who lived to be only 36 years old, Pizarnik will be more properly introduced to American audiences in November, with the release of her Extracting the Stone of Madness (trans. by Yvette Siegert). Her brilliant, taut poems construct, as the magazine Music and Literature put it, “architecture of abjection, of desperation, and intermittently, as well as ultimately, of absolute despair.”

Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex)

One of the most important women writers of the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir’s output included novels, essays, and autobiography, alongside the literary-philosophical writings that changed the course of feminism and helped establish existentialism as a mid-century intellectual force.

Anne Garréta (Sphinx)

A genderless love affair made Sphinx a cult classic in French, and now that it’s been translated, it’s well on its way to attaining the same status in the English-speaking world. Read an excerpt here, describing the narrator’s first encounter with a mysterious lover. Garréta is a member of the literary movement OuLiPo, which prized writing written under “mathematic and linguistic restaraints.” In another of her novels, La Décomposition, not translated yet, a character kills off Proust’s characters.

Anna Akhmatova (Selected Poems)

One of the greatest Russian poets, and among the best of the Soviet Silver Age, Akhmatova might be best known for her Modernist-style masterpiece Requiem, a lyric cycle which tells of the despair and suffering of Soviets during the Great Purge.

Fariba Vafi ( My Bird )

Prizewinning Iranian short story writer and novelist Vafi chronicles the lives of women in today’s Tehran in “minimalist” prose. Vafi overcame economic and social setbacks to pursue her writing. “I also had constant fights with my husband, who did not consider writing novels a profession,” she told the New York Times.

Christa Wolf (Kassandra)

Among the best of all East German writers — and, in my opinion of all post-war German writers — Christa Wolf is arguably most remembered for her novel Kassandra, which reimagines the Trojan War from the prophetess’ eyes.

Sigrid Undset (Kristin Lavransdatter)

A Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel in 1928, Undset’s best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a vast, three-book trilogy about a Norwegian woman who lives in the 14th century.

Nathalie Sarraute (The Age of Suspicion, Portrait of a Man Unknown)

Indispensable to the development of the French nouveau roman, the effects of which we’re still feeling today, Sarraute sought, in her novels and essays, to alter our ideas about literary depth and characterization. Her essay The Age of Suspicion should be read alongside her own novels, like Portrait of a Man Unknown, as well as those of Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate)

Like Water For Chocolate is treasured for a reason: its mix of poignancy, dark magical realism, and delicious recipe. Esquivel’s novel is a rumination on the way food, love, and loss intertwine in one Mexican family.

Can Xue (The Last Lover)

The pen name Can Xue can (apparently) mean either “dirty snow” or “pure snow,” and her writing is likewise poised on the threshold of interpretation. A metalworker who later became a tailor, Can Xue is increasingly among the most revered writers in translation. Her novel The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

Elfriede Jelinek (The Piano Teacher, Lust, Women as Lovers)

Another Nobel Prize winner, Austrian Jelinek is a communist- and feminist-affiliated writer who is nothing if not controversial. “Her texts are perceived to be obscene, irritating and full of biting derision,” says the Nobel biography of the woman whose writing “revealed the absurdity of society’s cliches.”

Minae Mizumura (A True Novel, The Fall of Language in the Age of English)

The fascinating Mizumura, whose A True Novel, a retelling of Wuthering Heights, was published to acclaim in 2012, is also an unsparing critic of the dominance of the English language. Her book The Fall of Language in the Age of English deserves wider coverage (and debate).

Marta Traba (Mothers and Shadows)

Traba was a distinguished and controversial art critic who also published memorable novels about the effect of war on women in her native Argentina. Of her Mothers and Shadows, The Christian Science Monitor wrote, “it is not a dogmatic political novel; on the contrary, it is a lyrical work of fiction that shows with great skill and subtlety how the political life of a country affects the intimate lives of ordinary people, how everybody is drawn in and becomes involved in one way or another. Traba demonstrates in a totally convincing fashion that, in a dictatorship, there is no neutral ground.”

Alina Bronsky (Broken Glass Park, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, Just Call Me Superhero)

“Alina Bronsky’s brilliance,” one critic writes of the Russian-born German novelist, “is the perfect distance at which she holds her characters, letting them twist in the wind, so that it becomes almost impossible to know how she wants her readers to feel about them.”

Albertine Sarrazin (Astragal)

Sarrazin is a cult figure, a young Franco-Algerian woman who died young after living a “life of crime” in Southern France. She wrote her novels in prison. “My Albertine, how I adored her! Her luminous eyes led me through the darkness of my youth. She was my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps,” Patti Smith reminisced in her introduction to the book.

Mariama Bâ (So Long a Letter)

Senagalese writer Bâ is considered one of the essential feminist novelists of her country on the strength of her first novel, which follows two women married to the same man who mourn his death. A chronicler of hopes and disappointments of the political and social revolutions she witnessed and an advocate for women, sadly, she died before her second novel was published.