Found in translation: insightful feminist books on male violence – Laura Waddell

Books translated into English, like Dead Girls by Selva Almada, tend to be the cream of the crop, writes Laura Waddell.

The violence in Dead Girls is shocking but such accounts have long been a backdrop to many women’s lives (Picture: Laura Dodsworth/Scottish Women's Aid)
The violence in Dead Girls is shocking but such accounts have long been a backdrop to many women’s lives (Picture: Laura Dodsworth/Scottish Women's Aid)

I am rarely disappointed when I read a translated book. I have a theory that the time and care spent on each one is why.

It takes extra effort for a publisher to seek out a work in a second language, to employ a translator to work with the book (many of whom are experts in their niche, of, for example, translating French literature to English), and then promote what might be an unknown author to a UK audience.

As a result, what breaks through tends to be the cream of the crop; the books that make publishers determined to go the extra mile. What the reader receives is a book that has had time and care spent on it at each stage.

For anyone stuck in a rut with their reading, whether partial to crime fiction or poetry, try something translated. Whatever you pick up has a strong chance of being good; the cultural references will be different. It may be the breath of fresh air you need.

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Evangelist publishers and translators have, through their passion, caused a rise in sales of translated fiction in the UK. Scottish publishers in particular have made the industry proud with their success in the Man Booker International award.

Sandstone Press, based in Inverness, won it in 2019 with the rich and wonderful Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth. It’s believed to be the first book by an Omani woman translated into English. Charco Press, based in Edinburgh, were shortlisted this year with The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh. The small press launched just a few years ago and are dedicated to bringing Latin American literature to English-speaking audiences. They are doing so remarkably well.

I picked up one of their latest recently. Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott. Almada is described in the inside cover as one of the foremost contemporary writers and feminist intellectuals of Latin America. Do not be put off by the title, which may call to mind grim, sensationalised true crime. Here, it’s wilfully upfront and stark. It’s exactly what the book is about, in an attempt to bring to light what happened to these lives.

Almada investivates the stories of three small-town girls who were murdered in 1980s Argentina, a time when the country was celebrating a return to democracy. They were 19-year-old Andrea Danne, found stabbed in her own bed. Fifteen-year-old Maria Luisa Quevedo, found strangled in wasteland. And 20-year-old Sarita Mundin, who vanished.

These stories are the unseen side of life in the provinces, shadows which hang over particular neighbourhoods and communities from which girls went missing and turned up dead. None of the cases came to justice. The stories are discussed between cups of maté as Almada talks to relatives of the girls, trekking by bus to seek information or to visit the wasteland where Quevedo was found. The violence, though shocking, has long been a backdrop to many women’s lives.

As I read, I coldn’t help but recall Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, which, although it contained an age-gap scenario where grooming of a minor resulted in a court case, largely fixed its attention on the inner desires and thoughts of the three women profiled. In Dead Girls, Selva Almada profiles three women also – but the women are dead, their endings bloody and shrouded in mystery, granted context and clues by the wider culture of sexual violence. The parallel between the two is a reminder how close by violence lurks; how high the stakes are for so many women around the world.

As the blurb on the back says, “this is not a police chronicle, although there is an investigation. This is not a thriller, although there is mystery and suspense.” Do not go into this book expecting a neat resolution. The dots do not join up, and what Almada conveys is the frustration and sadness in trying to find out what happened to the women.

The reader journeys with her through the eerie atmosphere of reticent or unreliable narrators, whisper networks, forlorn places, and discomfort; there is always lurking a sense of risk when she travels to track down sources. The interviews with family and friends are human and messy. Some are determined, decades later to fight on. Others, painfully, have grown quiet. It is not an easy book, but it feels like an important one – a work of investigative writing about how easily women’s lives are obscured.

Also in my reading pile was King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Fitzcarraldo, another high-achieving literary small press. There is reference to happy-slapping, pinpointing this as a republication of a mid-2000s book, in which time it has both remained extremely relevant and amassed praise from a starry roster of writers including Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, and Mona Eltahawy (whose electrifying The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is being published by Tramp Press in the UK next year).

Eltahawy said of the book, “I want feminism to disturb patriarchy. I want it to be rude, loud, and not give a f*** who it offends. Does that make you uncomfortable? Good! That’s why I want everyone to read King Kong Theory.”

A galvanising, bold collection of short essays, it gallops through feminist talking points, taking in porn, prostitution, beauty, masculinity and femininity, coming back repeatedly to the themes of double standards and a woman’s ability to go where and do what she wants versus the risk of sexual violence. She ruminates on her time as a ‘punkette’, the time of her life, bumming cigarettes and staking her claim to the street. It is uncompromising, raw, and fed up of being told how to be a woman in this world. Like Dead Girls, it wants to bring to light what is buried beneath society, brushed aside in conversation.

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