ALTA Staff Picks for Women in Translation Month

As Women in Translation Month winds down, we at ALTA urge you to check out these recommendations of books featuring women in translation from Words Without Bordersthe Center for the Art of TranslationBook RiotBustle—and don’t forget to go to Biblibio, the blog that started it all.

This WiT Month, ALTA’s staff members—all women working in translation!—have some recommendations for you to close out this August:

From Executive Director Elisabeth Jaquette:

The Emissary
by Yoko Tawada
translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
New Directions, 2018

The book I most recommend among my #WITMonth reads this year is Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani. In it, Japan has suffered 9780811227629_emissaryan unnamed social and ecological disaster, and closed its borders with the outside world in the aftermath. The novel follows the elderly Yoshiro as he tends to his feeble great-grandson Mumei and frets over his declining health. Children are born weak in this new world, their bodies barely able to support the functions of living, while the elderly are cursed with everlasting life, charged with caring for their descendants, and “burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.” 

Though the subject matter may seem grim, Tawada’s treatment is anything but, and her slim latest novel is incandescent. Couched within human frailty are quiet, intimate moments of joy, as when Yoshiro realizes that Mumei’s teeth are too brittle to bite through an orange’s pulp, and so tenderly juices it for his great-grandson’s breakfast. English is banned under Japan’s new isolationist policy, and in Mitsutani’s deft translation, the subsequent permutations, workarounds, and governmental rebrandings take on humorous levity. Even environmental degradation gains a wondrous quality; while Yoshiro laments that that the outdoors are too toxic for his grandson to ever experience, he also marvels at new mutations resulting in jumbo dandelions and pinky-finger sized bamboo.

I read The Emissary this August while gathered with family to celebrate my grandmother’s hundredth birthday, and its depictions of intergenerational care felt all the more poignant. I watched my grandmother meet her great-granddaughters for the first time, grasp their hands, and share moments of tenderness. I stood on the shores where my grandfather fondly recalled catching dozens of different kinds of fish, now barren even of the diminished sealife I remember from my childhood, and watched my cousin’s children wade into the water and lift up shell after dead, empty shell. I thought about frailty of the elderly, the young, and the natural world, and how the fates of all are bound together.

As with the best dystopias, Tawada’s The Emissary shines a light of warning on our current world. Yet in contrast to the genre’s usual emotional tenor, Tawada writes of disaster without despair. Yoshiro shutters away his despondency and resignation, and the reader’s too, to devote himself more fully to caring for his great-grandson. Mumei, in turn, consistently surprises his great-grandfather with his contentment and wisdom. When Mumei tells him, “Grown-ups can live if children die, but if grown-ups die, children can’t live,” he does so in a singsong voice. Mumei is ebullient, optimistic, and somehow reassuring, and thus so is The Emissary. It holds a strange, unexpected luminance for dark times.


From Program Manager Kelsi Vanada:

The Ghetto
by Tamara Kamenszain
translated from the Spanish by Seth Michelson
Veliz Books, 2018

I asked an Argentine friend to describe Argentine poet Tamara Kamenszain, and theTheGhetto+frent word she used was “grosa”—meaning someone exceptional, intelligent, “cool.” Someone to be admired. Kamenszain’s a poet I’m very glad to be getting to know, thanks to Seth Michelson’s excellent translation, published by Veliz Books earlier this year.  

Kamenszain’s 2003 book The Ghetto examines the Jewish-Argentine experience (a sampling of poem titles: “Prepuce,” “Skullcap,” “Exile,” “Anne Frank,” “Wailing Wall”) and the feeling of a divided identity: “the Jew in the Argentine is from neither this side nor the other…but rather in between.” They’re moving poems, and I was struck by Kamenszain’s fresh way of writing about family and memory, without falling into the trap of mythologizing the past. In “Ancestors,” she writes with great humanity of

traveling to be Argentinian
immigrants who vomit on ship’s deck
spun around and then returned to us
like scratched Beatles records

Another thing I especially like about this book is that its themes also become the place for Kamenszain to tackle other issues of import to her, particularly women’s issues. In the poem “Kaddish,” for example, I read the following lines as an expression of feeling both liberated by and made an outsider in the context of Judaic tradition:

What’s a father?
Ten men aren’t enough
to enclose Friday
in their masculine circle
whose center frees me
orphaned.

My favorite poem in the book is “Jews,” which forms the final section of the book. It tells of a Jewish community on a tour bus to Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro. This image becomes a way for Kamenszain to play out on a small scale the Jewish diasporic narrative: “in the desert but together: this is what characterizes for me poetry in the state of exile.” There’s even a bit of subtle, smart humor in this and other poems, which I find delightful: “all is as it’s always been / on the other side of Christ.”

There’s a way in which translators read other translators’ work with special appreciation for the challenges we can tell that the process must have provided. Many poems in The Ghetto begin in complete sentences, but then shift to more fragmented phrases with less punctuation and tightly crafted, complex grammar that often allows for multiple readings. Michelson handles these moments deftly, giving just enough of the kind of connecting words needed to draw ideas together for English readers, while still maintaining openness. The lines that feel voiced are also beautiful and contain their own subtle commentary: “don’t push we’re already behind.”

Kamenszain has published ten books of poetry, as well as scholarly books on poetry. The Ghetto ends with a beautiful (and beautifully translated) critical essay on some aspects of her poetic oeuvre over the more than forty years of her writing career. I’m especially intrigued by her descriptions of how poetic language can provide a “word-canopy, a refuge of meaning” despite physical, theoretical, or language “ghettos.”

In recommending Tamara Kamenszain’s The Ghetto, I hope to celebrate women writers, women scholars, feminist translators, and a small press founded by women editors! ¡Viva!


From Assistant Managing Director Rachael Daum:

The White Book
by Han Kang
translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 2018

One weekend this Women in Translation Month, I found myself hypnotized by The White9781846276958 Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. The scene was almost too idyllic: it was a rainy night, and surprisingly cool for Belgrade—appropriately, Serbian for the white city—in August. The White Book is one that you read when it is cold out—or when you want to feel a chill in your bones, when you want to be reminded of the whiteness within your body, of all that will eventually be left.

The concept of the book is simple: it is a meditation on things white. Snow, swaddling bands, rice—but also shrouds, bones. The text illuminates the line of the fragility between life and death, and how one can mean the other for yourself, for someone you know, or someone you never got to know. Here, the author meditates on the deaths of the siblings who came before her and died a few hours after birth, knowing that had they lived, she would never have been born:

This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.
       My life means yours is impossible.
       Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

In reading this text, one cannot help but ponder the black and white—this book, in being The White Book, tosses that black, that ether, to the reader to consider for herself—and the knowledge that real life is fuzzy. But sometimes it is also ultimate, as here. And that finality looks at itself, a dark mirror.

That human beings are constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck.

This meditation on fragility, on luck, is poignant: Who doesn’t think about all of the events that had to fall into place in order for us to simply exist? Like the “sharp implement” used to carve the number into the door of the apartment the narrator lives in, the text drives this condition into the reader’s eyes and mind.

One cannot meditate on the text without drawing attention to the language, rendered—would it be a pun to say incandescently?—into English from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Fog obscuring the world as it moves from night to day is described with “each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness”; waves are literally highlighted as “each wave becomes dazzlingly white at the moment of its shattering.” The text is itself shattering; it reads as poetry boiled overnight in a pot and served up as prose.

This book is preoccupied with transformation. Skin into bones, swaddling bands into shrouds, snow into waves, life into death. This preoccupation is appropriate, as the book, being a translation, is itself a transformed text. It will only take you a few hours to read it—but the light it casts and the darkness you see emanating from that casting will follow you long after.

Only a little time is needed now, and the whiteness will leave those wings completely. They will become something other, no longer wings, and the butterfly will be something that is no longer butterfly.


Don’t forget to tell us what you’re reading to make August (and every month) #WITMonth. Tweet @LitTranslate and use the hashtags #womenintranslation and #WITMonth to continue the discussion!


Elisabeth Jaquette joined ALTA in April 2017 as Managing Director. She is also a jaquettetranslator from Arabic; her book-length translations include The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (TA First Translation Prize shortlist; Best Translated Book Award longlist) and The Apartment in Bab el-Louk by Donia Maher, Ganzeer, and Ahmed Nady, among others. Elisabeth is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and an English PEN Translates Award, and has served as a judge for the NEA Literary Translation Fellowships, the PEN Center USA Translation Award, and the PEN America Translation Prize. She holds an MA from Columbia University, a BA from Swarthmore College, and was a CASA Fellow at the American University in Cairo. Elisabeth is also an instructor of translation at Hunter College, CUNY. Find her on Twitter at @lissiejaquette.

Rachael Daum has worked with ALTA since 2014, and became ALTA’s Assistant1528185410639 (2) Managing Director in 2017. She received her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Rochester and MA in Slavic Studies from Indiana University; she also received Certificates in Literary Translation from both institutions. Her original work and translations have appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Airship Daily, Wolfskin JournalMt. Island MagazineLiterary Laundry, and elsewhere. Rachael lives and works in Belgrade, Serbia, where she also runs a teaching and translation agency called Black Birch, and translates from Serbian, Russian, and German. Find her on Twitter at @rclouisedaum.

Kelsi Vanada joined ALTA as Program Manager in July 2018. She writes poems and Headshot - Kelsitranslates from Spanish and collaboratively from Swedish. Her translation of The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet came out in 2018 with Song Bridge Press, and Toward Muteness by Sergio Espinosa is forthcoming from Veliz Books. She holds MFAs in Poetry (The Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and Literary Translation (The University of Iowa). Other poems and translations have been published most recently or are forthcoming in The Iowa ReviewThe Bennington ReviewAnomaly, and elsewhere. She was a 2016 ALTA Travel Fellow, and enjoys building a readership for literature in translation by writing reviews.

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