Women in Translation: 5 books to read from North/East Asia

This month, August, is a chance to celebrate women in translation, specifically women authors who’s works have been translated. There’s so much good translated literature out there. For this month, I’ll be sharing some inspiration for women authors from around the world who have had their work translated into English.

I know a lot of people read works translated from English into their own language, and there’s so many languages that works need to be translated into. But since I only read in English, I’m going to be highlighting works that have been translated into English.

This week we’ll be visiting North/East Asia. Depending on the source, it may call the region either North or East Asia. This area typically includes countries like China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

Countries like Japan and South Korea are very prominent in translated literature because their governments actively support translation efforts. Their governments have prioritized translating their national literature as a way of cultural preservation and enabling their local talent to gain international recognition. I think this is amazing, and I would love to see more countries supporting their local talent in this way.

Due to this additional support, you’ll often see a lot of books recommended from these countries, especially when talking about books in translation. I’ve included a few books from Japan and South Korea, but I’ve also included a few others to diversify the list.

Photo by Uchral Sanjaadorj on Unsplash

Five books from North/East Asia

Here’s a list of five books of translated literature with women authors from North/East Asia.

  1. Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (China)
  2. Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin (Taiwan)
  3. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa (Japan)
  4. Human Acts by Han Kang (Korea)
  5. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (Japan)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published in their original language.

Love in a Fallen City (1946) – China

by Eileen Chang
Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury

  • Year Published: 1946
    (English version in 2006)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, short stories, emotional, mysterious, reflective, slow-paced

Eileen Chang is one of the great writers of twentieth-century China, where she enjoys a passionate following both on the mainland and in Taiwan. At the heart of Chang’s achievement is her short fiction—tales of love, longing, and the shifting and endlessly treacherous shoals of family life. Written when Chang was still in her twenties, these extraordinary stories combine an unsettled, probing, utterly contemporary sensibility, keenly alert to sexual politics and psychological ambiguity, with an intense lyricism that echoes the classics of Chinese literature. Love in a Fallen City, the first collection in English of this dazzling body of work, introduces American readers to the stark and glamorous vision of a modern master.


Notes of a Crocodile (1994) – Taiwan

by Qiu Miaojin
Translated by Bonnie Huie

  • Year Published: 1994
    (English version in 2017)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, lgbtqia+, literary, dark, emotional, reflective, medium-paced
  • Qiu Miaojin was posthumously awarded the China Times Literature Award in 1995 for this book

Set in the post-martial-law era of late 1980s Taipei, Notes of a Crocodile depicts the coming-of-age of a group of queer misfits discovering love, friendship, and artistic affinity while hardly studying at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. Told through the eyes of an anonymous lesbian narrator nicknamed Lazi, Qiu Miaojin’s cult classic novel is a postmodern pastiche of diaries, vignettes, mash notes, aphorisms, exegesis, and satire by an incisive prose stylist and countercultural icon.


The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003) – Japan

by Yōko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder

  • Year Published: 2003
    (English version in 2009)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, contemporary, literary, emotional, reflective, medium-paced
  • It received the Hon’ya Taisho award and a film adaptation was released in January 2006

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.

And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities–like the Housekeeper’s shoe size–and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.


Human Acts (2014) – South Korea

by Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith

  • Year Published: 2014
    (English version in 2016)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, dark, emotional, sad, medium-paced
  • It won Korea’s Manhae Prize for Literature and Italy’s Malaparte Prize

Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma.

Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.


Earthlings (2018) – Japan

by Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

  • Year Published: 2018
    (English version in 2020)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, horror, literary, magical realism, challenging, dark, medium-paced
  • Note, this novel deals with many difficult themes, I would recommend checking content warnings before reading if there are any subjects you want to avoid.

Natsuki isn’t like the other girls. She has a wand and a transformation mirror. She might be a witch, or an alien from another planet. Together with her cousin Yuu, Natsuki spends her summers in the wild mountains of Nagano, dreaming of other worlds. When a terrible sequence of events threatens to part the two children forever, they make a promise: survive, no matter what.

Now Natsuki is grown. She lives a quiet life with her asexual husband, surviving as best she can by pretending to be normal. But the demands of Natsuki’s family are increasing, her friends wonder why she’s still not pregnant, and dark shadows from Natsuki’s childhood are pursuing her. Fleeing the suburbs for the mountains of her childhood, Natsuki prepares herself with a reunion with Yuu. Will he still remember their promise? And will he help her keep it?


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books written by North/East Asian authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by a North/East Asian author, please feel free to share it in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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