31 August 2023
Women in Translation Month 2023
August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative that celebrates and promotes literature by women from around the world in English translation. As in past years, members of our team have picked some titles to recommend. We hope they will inspire you!
Heda Margolius Kovály, Under a Cruel Star: a Life in Prague 1941-1968, translated from the Czech by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author (London, 2021) YK.2012.a.24219
Chosen by Alice Pappon, British Library Trainee
Under a Cruel Star memoirs the life of author Heda Margolius Kovály who was born in Prague in 1919. In describing her experiences living in Auschwitz and Communist Czechoslovakia, this memoir offers a magnificent and raw account of human endurance in the face of the most brutal atrocities. Kovály provides a chilling recollection of operating under constant scrutiny and suspicion from the Communist regime and a life of constantly looking over one’s shoulder. This book was first published in 1973 with a British edition published the same year under the title I Do Not Want to Remember (X.809/18317). It has since been re-translated by Franci and Helen Epstein who worked with Kovály herself to capture the truest version of the author’s experience.
J.S. Margot, Mazel Tov: the Story of my Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family, translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle (London, 2020 ) ELD.DS.484114
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (Dutch and Flemish Languages)
Margot Vanderstraeten’s memoir Mazel Tov (published in English under the name J.S. Margot) was one of the books in the goody bag at the launch in April this year of ‘Flip Through Flanders’, the campaign to promote translated Flemish literature in the UK. It is the story of the author as a student in 1987, when she tutored the children of an orthodox Jewish family in Antwerp. These people could almost not have been more different from herself. She knows nothing of Jewish orthodox culture, which leads to some embarrassing moments. Her having an Iranian boyfriend doesn’t help either. However, over time both parties come to understand and appreciate each other more and they even become friends. It is a story about identity and coming of age that feels very uplifting.
Mazel Tov is translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle who has translated books from Dutch into English for over ten years.
Petra Procházková, Freshta, translated by Julia Sherwood (London, 2012). H.2014/.5570.
Chosen by Olga Topol, Curator Czech, Slavonic and East European Collections
Petra Procházková is a Czech war correspondent, humanitarian worker and journalist, recipient of Medal of Merit awarded by President Václav Havel. She is known for her in-depth interviews with women struggling to survive in conflict-ridden areas of the post-Soviet world. Procházková covered news from Abkhazia, Ossetia, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. For reporting on the atrocities of Chechen War, she was forbidden to enter Russia for many years. In her novel Freshta, set in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power in 2021, Procházková explores Afghan culture following Herra, a Russian-Tajik woman who falls in love with an Afghan man. Colourful characters, and a sensitivity towards local culture and customs gained through the author’s personal experience, make Procházková’s book a captivating read.
Kathrin Rohmann, Apple Cake and Baklava, illustrated by Franziska Harvey, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (London, 2018) YKL.2019.a.17272
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
Kathrin Rohmann’s children’s story Apple Cake and Baklava, translated by Ruth Ahmedazi Kemp, is told from the perspectives of two children, Leila and Max. Leila is a Syrian refugee who has just arrived with her mother and brothers in the German village where Max lives. As her family try to settle into their new home, they wait anxiously for news of the children’s father and grandmother, still in Syria. Leila treasures a walnut from her grandmother’s garden that carries memories of home for her. When she loses it she is deeply upset and Max, who feels drawn to his new classmate, offers to help her find it. A friendship develops between the two, and also between Leila and Max’s grandmother Gertrud, who herself was a refugee from Pomerania after the Second World War. Gertrud still bakes apple cake and lebkuchen to her own grandmother’s recipes as a link with her lost home and family, just as Leila’s brothers try to recreate the baklava that their father used to make in his bakery (there are recipes for all three at the end of the book).
Apple Cake and Baklava is a touching story of friendship, family and food and a good introduction for younger readers to the themes of exile and loss.
Alki Zei, The Mauve Umbrella, translated by Ian Barnes (London, 2016) H.2020/.5039
Chosen by Lydia Georgiadou, Curator Modern Greek Collections
In the summer of 1940, shortly before the Second World War reaches Greece, 10 year-old Eleftheria lives with her parents and twin brothers in Athens. She despises the household chores expected from women of the time, while she adores anything her father does not approve of: reading fanatically, going to the theatre, hoping to one day become a lawyer, inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone. One floor above, lives the Frenchman Mr Marcel, whose nephew Benoit becomes an inseparable friend of the children. Their toys are few, but their imagination endless. Their enchanting games are only constrained by the grownups’ harsh experiences.
A book about two completely different worlds – that of children and that of the adults – each one carrying its own truth. A book that puzzles and entertains at the same time. Through its pages, the beloved Greek novelist Alki Zei (1923-2020) depicts the characters’ ethos, childhood innocence, the agony of war and the upheavals in our lives. Yesterday meets today on a journey… with a purple umbrella.