Thank you for visiting the Translating Women site. I’m Helen, and I write most of the content here. My “official” (though sorely in need of updating) professional profile can be found here, but this blog is a more informal space that represents the public-facing side of my research project into the UK independent publishing industry and the translated literature market. Twenty years of research have been leading towards this: in 1999 I studied for a Masters in Literary Translation, which led to a PhD, during which my focus shifted from translation to literary analysis. I worked in the field of contemporary women’s writing for fifteen years, but always with an interest in translation in both my research and my teaching. This was fuelled by – and developed with – Richard Mansell, a brilliant academic specialising in translation history, who I had the great fortune to marry in 2011 and whose passion for his subject re-ignited my own interest in translation as a discipline. In 2016 my path came back to translation more fully, and the people I have worked with and met along the way have been instrumental in shaping this project, which brings together almost everything I love: reading and talking about books, language and translation, women’s writing and women’s rights… it’s the first time that I have worked on something irrespective of the source language, and has opened up to me a wealth of literature from around the world that I very much enjoy sharing in my regular reviews and opinion posts. You can find out all about the project here, and sign up on the sidebar for blog posts to come directly to your inbox. In the meantime, read on below to find out about my life in books, or visit my virtual bookshelf for women in translation recommendations.
Reading for life
Every book has a personal story attached to it; I can always remember where I was when I read something I loved. Throwing The Animals of Farthing Wood down on my hospital bed after having my appendix removed age 8 (it wasn’t that I didn’t love The Animals of Farthing Wood, it was that I couldn’t bear to read what happened to Fox and Badger after their accident in the river); reading Les Liaisons dangereuses while sunbathing in my parents’ garden as a moody teenager; in 1999 holding Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True with one hand while trying to pull clothes on with the other because I couldn’t put it down long enough to get dressed; making my way through five volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography during a cold Paris winter, wrapped in a duvet by a window looking out on the Hôtel la Louisiane; finally reading Les Misérables from start to finish when I got my first Kindle in 2012; sitting on our sofa in the early hours of the morning, heavily pregnant and unable to sleep, reading Rose Tremain’s Restoration; cuddling up with my children to read Nadia Shireen’s The Bumblebear… all of these books have accompanied me through my life and given me milestones to remember stages of my life by. And finally, after years of feeling that there was an unbridgeable gap between the books I enjoyed reading and the books I studied for my research, it was the joy of reading a new book that led me to this project. I can’t wait to see how it develops, and I hope you’ll read along with me.
What do I like to read?
The author with whom I have the most enduring relationship is Margaret Atwood. Like many British teenagers in the 1990s, I studied The Handmaid’s Tale for my English Literature A level, and 25 years later I can still remember reading it for the first time. It’s a book that has accompanied me throughout my life: as a teenager I thought it was an exciting novel of resistance but I did not yet understand just how horrific the dystopian future described actually was – and how frighteningly close it could have been. When I re-read it in my twenties it aroused all my feminist sensibilities with its themes of restriction, control, and complicity. In my thirties I read it as a mother, and wept at Offred’s memories of her former life, and the daughter that was taken from her. Cat’s Eye is another I’ve read and enjoyed at different stages of my life, as is The Blind Assassin. Of her more recent work, I loved the Maddaddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam), as well as The Heart Goes Last.
I also love to read Jeanette Winterson, though my favourite novels of hers aren’t the most famous ones. That’s not to say I didn’t like Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry, because I did – but it’s Lighthousekeeping and The Stone Gods that really moved me, along with Winterson’s autobiographical Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
When I was a PhD student, my housemate (and best friend to this day) was writing her thesis on Angela Carter. For Christmas in 2000 she gave me a copy of Nights at the Circus. It’s one of the few books I’ve read more than twice (and of all Carter’s work, for me is rivalled only by Wise Children).
So, do I only read 20th and 21st-century authors?
No, not at all. I discovered Edith Wharton in 1994 thanks to the Hollywood adaptation of The Age of Innocence (I had a thing for Daniel Day-Lewis after seeing him jump into a waterfall shouting “I will find you!” in Last of the Mohicans). My brother bought me the novel for my 18th birthday and I loved it – and realised that the film had been one of the few adaptations that remains close to the novel. It’s still one of my favourite books, though now I’ve read almost all of Wharton’s work and would put House of Mirth, The Bunner Sisters and Summer up there too: for me, Wharton still writes the tragedy of missed opportunities and regret better than anyone I’ve experienced.
I can’t compile a list of my favourite authors without mentioning Jane Austen. I read Pride and Prejudice regularly, though I do love Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey too. OK, and Persuasion. Basically all of her six “famous” novels (though slightly less enthusiastic about Emma and Sense and Sensibility), with the novellas thrown in for good measure.
I tried to choose one Brontë sister to round off my list, but I just couldn’t. I *think* Charlotte just edges it with the duo of Jane Eyre and Villette, but I do love Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall too. I don’t believe that it’s possible to look at one period of literature without any awareness of what went before it, and these women writers were pioneers, paving the way for movements such as The Year of Publishing Women, #ReadWomen, and Women Write Now.
These novels, and their authors, are like a literary soundtrack to my life, and the benchmark against which all others are measured. I’m excited to think that in the course of this project I might find another writer who will come to mean as much to me as one of the magnificent women in the list above.