Historical Fiction in Translation

1st Aug 2016

It's August, and that means Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) is here once again. To celebrate, we've got author and HerStoryNovels.com founder Jyotsna Sreenivasan, with the lowdown on the best translated historical fiction written by women. Take a tour round the world with these four fantastic historical novels, exploring witches, mystery, religion and seduction...

Did you know that gender discrimination in publishing extends to translation? Only 30% of new English translations are books by women, according to Meytal Radzinski’s web site, Biblibio.

In response to this disparity, Radzinski (a former Hebrew-English translator who lives in Israel) spearheaded Women in Translation Month (August). As she states on her web site, “As a bilingual reader, I know just how many gems are lying around untranslated.”

I’ve recently started a website and blog devoted to historical fiction by women, about women (HerStoryNovels.com). I’m focusing on classic and “literary” historical novels, and aim to include comprehensive lists of fiction available in English that fit my criteria.

Predictably, most of the books on my lists take place in English-speaking countries, and most are written by authors whose native language is English. But I have recently read some wonderful historical fiction in translation, which – in celebration of Women in Translation Month – I’ll be highlighting below.

So, if you’re in need of #WITMonth inspiration August, here’s four fantastic options to explore…

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé (translated from French by Richard Philcox)

Maryse Condé is an African-Caribbean writer who became fascinated by the historical figure Tituba, a slave from Barbados who was accused of witchcraft in the 1692 Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials.

Condé could find very few facts about her life, so she decided to imagine her life in fictional form. This short novel is told by Tituba herself, and spans a lifetime, from her conception to her death.

She is a healer who normally uses her skills to help people, although she can be provoked to revenge. Because Tituba is telling her story from beyond the curtain of death, she is sometimes detached and even mocking when describing her own suffering.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers)

Although she lives in Finland and writes in Finnish, Oksanen is of Estonian origin, and Purge takes place in Estonia. The novel alternates between chapters that take place in the 1990s, and chapters from the 1930s to 1950s.

The story begins with an elderly woman, Aliide, finding an injured young woman in her yard. Against her better judgment Aliide invites the young woman (Zara) into the house and takes care of her.

We soon realize that Zara knows who Aliide is and has been looking for her, although Aliide does not know Zara. What is the connection between Zara and Aliide? Why is Zara looking for her?

These are just the first of many mysteries which the author develops in this gripping political novel. Originally published in 2010, this novel has since been translated into more than fifty languages.

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally)

You may have heard of this book; the author won a Nobel Prize. Originally published in 1920, this is a coming-of-age novel of a young Catholic woman living in Norway in the 1300s.

The characters are vivid and Kristin’s anguish about love and religion is very relatable. The author excels at bringing to life the scenery and way of life of medieval Norway. If you have not read this book yet, you are in for a treat.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan (translated from Chinese by Cathy Silber)

Even though Geling Yan lives in the United States, she prefers to write in Chinese. First published in Taiwan in 1996, this novel takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1860s and 1870s.

It tells the story of the mysterious, beautiful Chinese woman, Fusang, and her effect on those around her. The novel is told from multiple points of view: a conventional narration in third person, as well as first-person sections told by a 21st century Chinese-American researcher, who addresses Fusang as “you.” An unusual, beautiful novel.


Jyotsna Sreenivasan‘s novel And Laughter Fell from the Sky was published in 2012 by HarperCollins. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She is also the author of novels for children and reference books for high school and college students. She is the founder of HerStoryNovels.com, which showcases the best in historical fiction by and about women.