Tag Archives: Women in Translation 2020

Dead Girls by Selva Almada. Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

Dead Girls by Selva Almada could have been set in any part of the world, and that’s a tragedy really. Dead Girls, as the title suggests is a story of dead girls – the cases of three small-town teenagers murdered in the 1980s – three deaths whose perpetrators went unpunished, and there was nothing done about it. Three deaths without culprits even – just being overlooked – a casual affair almost. 

Dead Girls is about a time when violence against women goes unpunished (still does, doesn’t it? For most part?). There was nothing specifically outstanding about the women who died, nothing spectacular – just the virtue of them being women. That was enough for them to be dead. And that made me stop and think about India. India and Argentina in that sense are the same. Well, like I said it could’ve been set in any part of the world – given how femicide occurs everywhere. In some parts of the world not very much, in some others too much to want to warrant forgetfulness. 

Almada’s story is about three women – Andrea, Maria Luisa, and Sarita – a journalistic record of sorts (yet fiction and yet not) about what happened – written in the vein of In Cold Blood by Capote. It could be the story of so many women who are victims of violence, and some whose stories don’t see the light of the day. Crimes that go unreported. Bodies that are never found, and lives that aren’t acknowledged.

Almada takes into account all of it – the story morphs from what the narrator’s mother said to what someone else’s friend said – the friend who lived, the sister who survived, and accounts of other lives that are spoken about by way of gossip and nothing else. The writing doesn’t give any closure to the deaths of these women – don’t read this book expecting that. People are always judging these three women – their career choices, what they wore, how they behaved, somehow making their deaths justifiable. What hits the hardest is that it still happens almost everywhere. The negating of women’s voices, the drowning of what they have to say, and almost whitewashing all that took place and happened. 

The translation by Annie McDermott is on-spot – from the smells of a small crowded bus, to the food they eat, to the description of a run-down building, each sentence shines – resonating the original – interspersed with words from Spanish, and making you at times as a reader feel the reading experience is complete. 

Dead Girls is steeped in mystery, patriarchy and what it means and does, and ultimately validating lives lost, not only of these three women, but of so many more, so many – every single day.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s fiction is not for the weak. It isn’t for the ones who want happy endings, or maybe even believe in them. That doesn’t mean Ferrante’s characters aren’t happy or don’t aspire to be happy. If anything, because they are so broken, they want nothing else but that, or so it seems. 

The Lying Life of Adults is nothing like the Neapolitan quartet, which spanned more than half a century in the lives of two friends. The Lying Life of Adults is about adolescence and not the dreamy, rainbow-eyed, unicorn believing kind of adolescence (if you read Ferrante, you know you will never get that anyway), but a time when lies and deception loom large, and growing up means so much more than just changes of the body. 

The book opens amongst the educated, the elite, the affluent, and the ones who believe more in the nature of science than God (that also is a wonderful sub-text to the book). Giovanna’s father is all of the above and more. He is the center of her world whose validation is needed at every step in her life. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s friends Angela and Ida are daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. Everything is bright and happy in their bourgeoise world, until the day Giovanna overhears a conversation between her parents, which is also the start of the book. 

“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” 

The story moves on from here, where we as readers are introduced to Giovanna’s aunt, her father’s estranged sister Vittoria, who he compares her with – the aunt that her father has detested for the longest time. Ferrante then turns the story on its head by moving from the affluent spaces of Naples to the not so affluent space, the dingy, the dirty, the filthy industrial neighbourhood where her aunt lives. Giovanna decides to meet her aunt and see for herself how ugly she is and whether she will grow up to be this person or not. From here on, Vittoria becomes a permanent fixture in Giovanna’s life and things change drastically. 

Giovanna lies. Her parents lie. Her friends’ parents aren’t telling the truth either. The entire construct and fabric of her life falls apart as incidents are played out, and the past is brought to life. No one is perfect. No one is a villain. Maybe they all are the villains in their lives, and try as they might, they cannot change that. 

Jewelry, mirrors, dolls, the smell, pleasure of adolescence and the need to derive it at any cost, education as a means of climbing the ladder – of proving your worth to others, keep constantly reappearing in the book. Ferrante shocks you with the familiar. There is no redemption for anyone. Characters accept the cards handed out to them, to point of them unabashed about their situations. It is what it is. 

Body image in The Lying Life of Adults is its own beast. We encounter it through almost every major and minor character and how they deal with it, is well not up to the people around them. Ferrante somehow ensures that it is only the readers that can feel pity, empathy, or any kind of emotion for Giovanna, Angela, Ida, or anyone else. In their interactions with each other, these people are harsh, cold, mean, and maybe rightly so. 

Ann Goldstein’s translation from the Italian as always is spot-on. You forget it is a translation, and most often than not you are reminded of the beautiful turn of phrase, or the clinical way in which emotions are dealt with, or the way somethings aren’t said and get stuck in characters’ throats – that you realise the beauty of a translation that makes you see this, feel this, and experience it to the optimum. 

“The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that,” Giovanna’s told, when she points out that adults she is learning to lie to have been doing that to each other all their lives . “Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” she observes. 

There is a lot going on in the book. You get used to it as a reader. The book however is deeply moving, brutal, honest, wise, holding its ground – balancing itself in the beautiful and ugliness of everyday life, manifesting itself on the body, and making sense of it all through the women – old, middle-aged, and young, one lie after another.

Thank you Europa Editions for the review copy.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim Title: Grass
Author: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770463622
Genre: Nonfiction, Graphic Memoir
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

 

Before reading Grass, I wasn’t aware of “comfort women”. I wasn’t aware of how they were treated by Japanese soldiers. These women were largely Korean and were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation of Korea before and during World War II. This is the account of how the atrocity of war ruins women’s lives – no matter the country, no matter the place – the suffering of women is universal. Men go to battle. Women get raped. Men go to battle. Women must bear all consequences.

Grass is the story of a Korean girl named Okseon Lee (becoming Granny Lee Ok-sun) – from her childhood to how she became a comfort woman to depicting the cost of war and the importance of peace. The “comfort woman” experience was most traumatic for Korean women that took place from 1910 to 1945, till they were liberated from the Japanese.

This book is painstakingly honest and brutal. It moves the reader but does not take away from the story and the truth, as should be the case. It is as I said before a woman’s story as a survivor – undergoing kidnapping, abuse, and rape in time of war and imperialism.

Grass opens at a time in Granny Lee Ok-sun’s life when she travels back home to Korea in 1996, having spent fifty-five years as a wife and a mother in China. Kim’s interviews with Granny is what forms the base of this book. Some memories surface clearly, some don’t, and yet it doesn’t take away from the book at all.

To tell such a story through the graphic medium doesn’t reduce the significance or the emotional quotient of the narrative. I found myself most moved so many times in the course of this read. Just the idea that these women were not given the agency to think or feel for themselves, and treated with such brutality, made me think of PTSD and how they didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain this or understand what they were going through. All they knew was they had to be alive, no matter what. In the hope of either being saved by strangers, or finding ways to escape “comfort houses”, to get away from conditions where getting a proper meal is a luxury, where your child is taken away from you, where men constantly enter and exit at will, and ultimately to feel human.

The artwork by Kim is brilliant. The scenes that are tough to digest are portrayed with such beauty – in the sense that it exists, hovers above you as you read it, and yet somehow makes you understand, keeping the dignity of the women. I think also to a large extent, the book is what it is because of the translation – which is so nuanced and on point when it comes to brevity and communicating what it has to.

Grass is a book that needs to be read to understand how people get away with the utmost damage to the human soul. Given the fight of haves and have-nots, of gender differences, of how unequal society is, this book should be read, and reread to understand where violence and also empathy comes from.