Tag Archives: Warwick prize for Women in Translation

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This is such an interesting book. It caught my eye because it won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation this year. I had been hearing and reading about it on twitter and elsewhere. It seemed unusual that this book was gaining popularity and respect but was not a novel. That doesn’t happen very often. Or is it fiction? Is it that strange genre called auto fiction? 

It’s a kind of memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It’s a kind of collective memoir and it was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

The Years

There is a strong thread that follows the chronology of the years, related in the voice of the ‘choral we’. Conversation at family meals, friendships, political involvement, films, books, significant political events, world events and descriptions of photographs – these mark out the passing of time.

The memoir, then, is not of an individual’s life, the events and thoughts of Annie Ernaux from 1940 until 2006. Rather it is a collective memoir of the things we talked about, were involved in, the trends we were caught up in and the receding importance of the war that had absorbed our parents. It becomes a sociological text, but to describe it that way is to omit its literary qualities. For example:

For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn. Excesses in clothing and make-up were always monitored: too short, too long, too low-cut, too flashy etc. The height of their heels, whom they saw, what time they went out and came in, the crotch of their underwear, month after month, were subject to all-pervasive surveillance by society. (71-2)

Reading The Years

I found reading this book quite disorienting. To start with she had insights into stuff that I thought was particularly mine: books, attitudes, relationships and ambitions. She noticed things that I thought other people had not picked up on.

She noted major shifts in attitudes and political trends which I had thought were unique to me, but it turns out were widely shared. Furthermore her analysis was good and added to my understanding of my own passage through the same years.

I found that much of what she was reporting had a French and perhaps even European dimension, but yet applied to my life too. Her experience of Paris in 1968 was more acute (I was safely in the university rebellion at Warwick). In the UK active women could hardly avoid the Greenham Common protests (1981 – 2000) and their significance. But mostly the engagements were broadly similar, despite country and despite a decade’s difference in age.

It was an unsettling experience to read The Years. It was a little like those endless, cyclical debates of adolescence about free will and determinism. What is my life, like hers, like all who are included in the collective voice, what is our life but something to live through in a crowd of other people?

And in the end my individuality was lost. I was not surprised to read these comments by Annie Ernaux in a Guardian interview in April 2019:

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. In the autobiographical tradition we speak about ourselves and the events are the background. I have reversed this. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

But she is also provocative when she proposes the idea that all this will change as the generations replace us and ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

The writing of The Years

Annie Ernaux has said that the main character of The Years is time itself, as indicated by the title. 

There is chronology in the passage of the reader and author through the years since 1940. The war is left behind, we read through the climax of the 1968 uprisings and the comfortable years that follow. In passing she remarks that they had no fear of the future in 1968, but now they fear it, despite a short resurgence of optimism with Mitterand in 1981.

We see all this through non-judgmental descriptions of family meals, films, books, homes, work, political changes, Algeria, the Gulf War and so on. I could read my own history as part of a whole, the well-off left-wing, public sector workers sharing so much of this with France.

Descriptions of photos appear periodically in the text, and they mark the passing of time. They are all, it is implied, of the author as she grows from infancy, through childhood to adulthood. Occasionally her own story intrudes, and both serve to provide some individuality to a text mostly told by the choral ‘we’.

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and brought up in Normandy in a working class family. She became a school teacher, her subject was literature until she retired in 2000. She was able to find time to write The Years after she retired, although this work had been in her mind for much longer. She already had several novels published, all apparently based on the same close observation of real things and events.

The Guardian describes her as France’s great truth teller. The book has received many awards, including the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019, and the Francois Mauriac Prize from the French Académie and Marguerite Duras Prize for her life’s work. 

The Lonesome Reader blog reviewed The Years after it was placed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize International. 

The Years by Annie Ernaux, first published in 2008. I read the English version published by Fitzcarraldo in 2019. Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer 227pp

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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International Translation Day 2017

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. It’s a good day to celebrate their work and it’s a good day to focus on books in translation. We need to do this from time to time because books in translation do not form a very large part of our reading diet – just 4%. Not much is published, not much is read.

Fiction in Translation

Daniel Hahn is a translator. He suggests that literary translations are founded on these principles:

It assumes that just because you’re from Here doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reading stories from There. That it’s possible to strip a story of its language, wrest it thousands of miles, re-clothe it in a strange new language, and keep its essence intact – because stories can be citizens of the world, just like we can. That just because something is particular doesn’t mean it’s not universal. (A basic principle for all great literature, surely?) That openness to other literatures – and other narratives, and lives, and worlds – doesn’t threaten our own, it strengthens and enlivens it.

[From Carrying Across, in The Author, Summer 2017].

Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Of that 4% about 20% is by women. Partly to correct this Meytal Radzinski who writes the Biblibio blog promoted events with the hashtag #WITMonth: Women in Translation month for August, and encouraged people to join in. This year it was very successful again. There were articles in advance that included lists of recommendations. Here’s an example: 13 books by women writers to add to your Reading List for #WITMonth from the Booksatchel Blog. And here’s another list from Jacquiwine’s blog for the same event.

And recently (13th September) the long list for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has been published. You can find it here.

These events and posts feature many recommended books in translation.

On Bookword

To maintain the impetus of #WITMonth I announced in August my project to read at least one book by a woman in translation every month and to write a response here on Bookword blog. These are my reasons:

Fiction in English does not hold the monopoly on quality. A great deal of excellent fiction is written in other languages. If the job of fiction is to take you to new worlds I want to explore those other worlds written in another language as well as those in English. Promoting fiction in translation is part of my intention for this blog.

Fiction by men does not hold the monopoly on quality either. Promoting fiction by women is another purpose of my blog. Women’s fiction gets less space in the printed media than men’s. See VIDA statistics for how much less.

I will promote women in translation over the next year or so and I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours creating barriers not making connections across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

Here are recommendations from the last 12 months, some of which appear in the linked lists and posts above:

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I’m planning to read these novels very soon:

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, (1968) translated by Christopher Middleton.

Go, Went, Gone by Jennifer Erpenbeck, (2017) translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Tell us which novels in translation would you recommend from your reading?

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