Tag Archives: Julia Sanches

Women in translation 2020: my literary picks for the year that was…       

I had intended to post this piece in December, but the end of the year brought some unexpected challenges and I had to delay it until the new year. So although you may have left 2020 behind with relief, I hope you’ll still be willing to travel back there with me in books: 2020 will be remembered for many things (okay, mostly for one thing), but here’s a reminder of some of the great books that were released in a year none of us saw coming.

It feels strange now to look back on the post I wrote a year ago about the books I was excited to read in 2020. Throughout the year, I didn’t read as much as usual. The reasons are probably obvious: the concept of “free time” shifted radically with the lockdowns and restrictions. I read a total of 56 books, and there were quite a few I didn’t really connect with – I don’t know whether this is partly to do with the circumstances, or whether 2020 just wasn’t the year for me in terms of new releases – but it does mean that the ones I really, truly loved were very easy to pick. I’ve gone for a “top nine”, which I know is a little irregular, but these were the ones I didn’t hesitate about when I came to pick my favourite books from this strangest of years…

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Hurricane Season was the second book I read in 2020, and it set the bar. I felt a little sorry for everything I read in the weeks after this, as there was just no way anything could come close for me. Hurricane Season opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. A torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there, Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind. Bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, the translation by Sophie Hughes is astonishing: if I had to pick just one book for the year, this would be it. Full review

 

Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books)

Natsuko longs for a child of her own, while her sister Makiko thinks life will be better if she has breast enhancement surgery and her niece Midoriko has taken a vow of silence. All three women are trapped in social conventions, and Breasts and Eggs is a delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments. Full review

Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press)

I’ll be honest: Charco had me at “new Margarita García Robayo novel in 2020”. In Holiday Heart, García Robayo’s talent for blending tragedy with humour and offering a fresco in a snapshot were in full force. The characters always disappoint: Lucía and Pablo are middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, stagnating in their location, their social status, and their marriage. They left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but they are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped. This is an uncomfortable story, and García Robayo excels at depicting a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us. Full review

 

Lucy Fricke, Daughters, translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books)

Hilarious and emotional madcap road trip through Western Europe. Sold? You should be. Daughters was an outstanding release from new imprint V&Q Books, in which best friends Martha and Betty embark on a car journey to Switzerland to accompany Martha’s father to his appointment with euthanasia. Or so they think – a detour reveals a hidden agenda, and they never make it to Switzerland. There are losses, reunions, an accident, romantic intrigue, and the reappearance of someone long presumed dead… The storytelling of this fast-paced and eventful journey switches effortlessly between grief and humour, both of which are superbly communicated in Sinéad Crowe’s energetic translation. Full review

 

Claudia Hernández, Slash and Burn, translated from Spanish (El Salvador) by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

Slash and Burn follows the life of a Salvadoran woman who fought in her country’s civil war, and who struggles to keep her fragmented family together years later. Her first baby was taken from her during the war, and years later the spectre of the lost child hangs over the rural family life and its daily difficulties. Two family stories unfold simultaneously: the mother’s attempt to connect with her lost first child, and her efforts to keep together a slowly unravelling family back home. This simmering narrative is a story of resistance and resilience, quiet losses and enduring love, and is translated with great sensitivity by Julia Sanches. Full review

 

Négar Djavadi, Arène, Éditions Liana Levi (French; as yet untranslated)

Négar Djavadi’s second novel came out in French in the autumn, and it is magnificent. If you don’t read French, I highly recommend starting with her first novel Disoriental (tr. Tina Kover, Europa Editions), and then crossing your fingers that this one will be picked up for translation before long. The arena of the title is Paris: in a Belleville bar one night, a young man from a deprived housing estate knocks into the head of the biggest media streaming platform; neither of them are aware that this chance collision will draw them and everyone around them into a maelstrom of violence. Yet Arène is not just about the tragedy that unfolds, but also the chain of barely perceptible events that led there. Djavadi eschews facile stereotypes, and in a linguistically sumptuous narrative invites us to understand what lies behind our quick assumptions about power, race and relationships.

 

Europa28, edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press)

2020 wasn’t just the year of Covid-19, but also the year the UK left the European Union. In response, Comma Press teamed up with Hay Festival and Wom@rts to commission Europa28, a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe. In this visionary project, editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean: from the personal to the allegorical, the real to the fantastic, this collection is by turns gentle and fierce, witty and emotional, bringing together 28 very different stories with a common purpose of discussing Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility. Full review

 

Salma, Women Dreaming, translated from Tamil by Meena Kandasamy (Tilted Axis Press)

This beautiful story of a community of women in a small Muslim village in Tamil Nadu is exquisite in its style, pace, and depictions of the reality of life for women who have no real autonomy. When Mehar’s husband Hasan takes a second wife, she exercises her legal right to divorce him, and finds herself ostracised by the community. Goaded by Hasan’s righteous wrath and no longer able to bear her mother’s constantly-voiced fears for her future, Mehar marries again in order to regain her status, but she loses her children in the process. Eloquent, emotional and powerful, Women Dreaming is essential reading, in a dynamic yet delicate translation by Meena Kandasamy.

 

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis Press)

The final offering from Tilted Axis in 2020 is astonishing – possibly my favourite Tilted Axis book of all time. I had already read and loved Yan’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press (and reviewed here), so I was excited to read this earlier work. Yet I wasn’t quite expecting to be so moved by this tale where humans and fantastical beasts co-exist (unharmoniously) in a Chinese city, trying to ignore the reality that sometimes the beasts are more human than the people and the humans more monstruous than the beasts. Though there is plenty of allegory in Strange Beasts of China, I just loved it for its compelling storytelling, the mystery at its core, and the heart of all the characters – whether human or beast. The translation by Jeremy Tiang is outstanding; I kept pausing to admire a turn of phrase, a beautifully crafted sentence, or a sensitivity to register.

 

 

So that’s my slightly belated round-up of my favourite releases of 2020. I hope there’s something in here that will pique your interest, and offer a small ray of joy from a challenging year. Happy New Year to all friends of Translating Women, and thank you as always for reading!

REVIEW: Claudia Hernández, SLASH AND BURN & Juan Pablo Villalobos, I DON’T EXPECT ANYONE TO BELIEVE ME

Claudia Hernández, Slash and Burn, translated from Spanish (El Salvador) by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2021)

Slash and Burn is the first novel in English of Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández. Technically exquisite and sensitively translated by Julia Sanches, Slash and Burn follows the life of a Salvadoran woman who fought in her country’s civil war, and who struggles to keep her family together years later. The unnamed woman gave birth to a daughter during the war, but the child was taken from her so she could continue to fight; her husband died in the war and she later had three other daughters, but hanging over the rural family life and its daily difficulties is the spectre of the child who was taken away. The mother desperately wants to be reunited with her daughter, and embarks on a voyage of discovery that takes her to France, a country distant in every way from anything she has experienced. There she finds an uptight bourgeois girl who is prone to bouts of depression and wants nothing to do with her, and so two family stories unfold simultaneously: the mother’s attempt to connect with her lost first child, and her efforts to keep together a slowly unravelling family back home.

Silence reigns over the household, the village, and the country: an unwritten code of honour means that the ex combatants internalise pain and try to provide a better future for their children without explaining to them what came before. However noble the mother’s silence may be, ultimately it rips through her family, creating fault lines between them that the children try to cross while each generation struggles to understand the other: “She couldn’t expect her to get married, have kids, and stay there for ever, looking after the children, the fields, and the chickens. Why not? She would’ve liked to do that herself. She would’ve preferred it to going about the mountains, weapon to shoulder. But she’d done it so they could have everything she was claiming not to want.” Yet it is the silence itself that perpetuates this lack of understanding, as the mother’s insistence on keeping her pain secret alienates her from her children: “Why couldn’t they appreciate the sacrifices she’d made? In part because she’d never shared any of the particulars.”

The peripheral characters are also beautifully sketched, giving a sense of both rural and urban life, and an insight into how history has affected every household. Simple, almost throwaway clauses show the reality of life both generally (“they had an itinerary to keep and a specific time to be back by if they didn’t want roadside thieves to seize everything they’d gone to the capital for”) and specifically for households where no man was present to protect the family (“the robbers respected the men’s presence, even those who were elderly or weaker than they were. They viewed the women as they had before the war, even though they’d fought beside them, saved their lives on occasion, and could even kill them now, claiming they’d trespassed on their property. But they knew none of them would.”) This kind of understatement is characteristic of the novel, where a loved one’s brutal death is mentioned obliquely while remembering a lost wedding ring (“It can’t have been left in the place where he was turned into a thousand pieces. And it wasn’t at home. That much she was sure of: he’d have told her”) and an unwritten wartime law is explained impassively (“they could end up on trial in their camps and lose their lives after being forced to dig the ditch their bodies would lie in”).

No character is named, and many of them have two names (neither of which is ever used explicitly) – one given at birth, and another in wartime. This is occasionally confusing, and must have been extremely challenging for the translation, but Sanches is never heavy-handed: “her name, not the one she got from her mother but the one she was given in battle. She’ll call her by her given name unless she goes by the one on her birth certificate. Some ex combatants had gone back to their earlier ones.” The lack of names both reflects the ex combatants’ need for anonymity and elevates the experience of individual characters to a more universal one – this is a close scrutiny of one family, but it is also representative of a generation.

The translator’s note at the end is excellent, and offers insight into the complexities of the political situation, as well as the challenges of translating a text where no-one is named. Sanches also makes a vital point about the importance of circulating narratives from parts of the world that don’t receive much attention, and adding to the diversity of the literary landscape. Slash and Burn is a triumph from beginning to end, truly extraordinary in style and scope, its simmering narrative swelling towards an emotional conclusion.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories, 2020)

My next recommendation is also published by And Other Stories, and is about as different from Slash and Burn as you could imagine, but equally brilliant. I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is a gangster-crime-campus-novel from Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos: equal parts hilarious and horrifying, it is translated with sublime deadpan humour by Daniel Hahn.

Juan Pablo is a hapless doctoral student from Mexico who gets caught up in a gangster underworld that takes him to Barcelona, where he is tasked with making the (lesbian) daughter of a high-ranking official fall in love with him. If he fails in his mission… well, this is a gangster underworld, so you can imagine the stakes. He might meet the same fate as the would-be-entrepreneur cousin who got him caught up in this mess in the first place (let’s just say it was a closed coffin).

From the first page I laughed out loud: “When I arrive, there are three of them there, plus my cousin. All with dark fuzz on their upper lips (we’re sixteen at this point, maybe seventeen), faces covered in spots oozing a viscous yellowish liquid, with four enormous noses (one apiece)” – it’s the “one apiece” that got me, and this kind of humorous parenthesis continues riotously through the entire novel – even when brains are splattered across basements and mistaken identity has fatal consequences. There are some hilarious send-ups of cultural stereotypes (“you know what Catalans think when Barça’s five-nil up? That the other guys are about to bring them to a draw”) alongside serious indictments of corrupt western regimes (“We’re giving him the opportunity of a lifetime, if he makes the most of it he could end up as a minister, or president of the autonomous government, if that’s what he wants, or rather if that’s what we want”), epistolary appearances from a neurotic mother and a dead relative, and a severe case of dermatitis nervosa.

The story is engaging and the storytelling wickedly funny, but it was the ending that absolutely knocked me for six: I have a no-spoiler policy here, so all I can say is read it and watch out for those final three chapters, and how different threads fall away until… well, until you’re left with an unexpected voice and an unpredictable ending.

Like Slash and Burn, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is followed by an exceptional translator’s note. Hahn dissects knotty translation problems with a sardonic humour: this translator’s note is as glorious as the novel itself. I read and re-read it, and then pored over page 243 (there’s a challenge, readers, and I dare you to pick up the gauntlet). Brimming with black humour, self-deprecating irony and surreal shenanigans, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is simultaneously witty and dark, an escapist read that will stay with you after the laughter has faded.