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.

The perfect protective membrane

Excerpt from The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

The ocean made a perfect protective membrane, a thick, robust barrier that could shield humans, animals, and plants from ultraviolet radiation.

Plus, the ocean was the primordial birthplace of all earth’s plants and animals. Back when there was no life on land, it was the ocean that generated the earliest vegetation, and the ocean that eventually produced our most primitive ancestors, These earliest plants and animals evolved in water because sunlight was lethal; the ozone layer had not yet formed. Only when the collective gases exhaled by the denizens of the ocean had reached a critical mass and erupted through the surface and into the atmosphere was the radiation-filtering protective layer formed. And only under the shelter of this newly formed barrier could the first brave organisms crawl to the shore and withstand the assault of sunlight on their vulnerable bodies.

who could have imagined that eons later, in the twenty-first century, they would return to their old ocean home?

But humans, unlike fish or shrimp, were not designed to swim, so it would be necessary to build subaquatic cities. Fortunately, the ocean was abundant with natural resources, and with the right adjustments the sea floor could be adapted for human habitation. Not only that, but the technology for harnessing solar power was improving by the day and could now be used to convert great quantities of energy collected aboveground for use on the ocean floor. Since the sun had forced humanity back into the ocean, it was only fair that humanity took some of its power in return.

But the middle of the twenty-first century there was little habitable land left, and humankind finally invaded the oceans en masse, a process euphemistically referred to as “migration.” During the process of “reclaiming wasteland,” new reserves of crude oil were discovered one after another. This accelerated the rate of underwater construction, which in turn provided a solution to the problem of high unemployment, a surprise benefit of migration to the ocean floor! With great “humanity,” they told themselves, humankind “rescued” all manner of favored flora and fauna by bringing them them along to the bottom of the sea. This time, of course they made sure not to bring cockroaches and mosquitoes, but they also left behind many critical organisms, Waves of human settlers inevitably led to the ecological devastation of the ocean floor, but people felt they’d done their best to act humanely. Don’t blame us, they thought, we did the best we could.

By 2060, the majority of humanity had migrated to the ocean, with only one percent left to eke out a living on the surface. Pretty much all the main infrastructure of human civilization had migrated to the ocean floor, including industrial agriculture and animal husbandry. All that remained aboveground were those historical sites too large to be moved—the pyramids, for example, or the February 28th Incident Memorial Plaques ubiquitous on the island of Taiwan—tough archeologist and tourists still visited the surface. The new sea dwellers also left behind unwanted structures like pollution producing factories and nuclear power plants (which meant, however, that some key personnel were forced to remain on the surface to man the reactors). Also abandoned were prisons and various tools of punishment, since governments universally recognized that leaving convicts on the surface was actually a convenient punishment in and of itself. (Let them burn—who needed the electric chair!)

The earth’s surface, which had once struggled to bear the burden of overpopulation, was now almost completely deserted. Though even now humankind proved reluctant to surrender the legacy of its battles for power, still everything—everything—on the surface of the earth went the way of the Great Wall off China To think that these ambitious marvels of engineering built on the backs of the common people, wound up the playthings of the tourism industry! Their majesty was reduced to an absurd footnotes.

But new man-made landscapes were also propagated on the surface, These new landscapes would have been inconceivable to the people who came before: more extravagant than works by the twentieth-century environmental artist Christo, but also more practical. For example, there were the metastasizing “fields” of solar panel arrays stretching as far as the eye could see, used to harvest solar power for the population under the ocean.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Membranes – Summary

Here is the book summary:

It is the late twenty-first century, and Momo is the most celebrated dermal care technician in all of T City. Humanity has migrated to domes at the bottom of the sea to escape devastating climate change. The world is dominated by powerful media conglomerates and runs on exploited cyborg labor. Momo prefers to keep to herself, and anyway she’s too busy for other relationships: her clients include some of the city’s best-known media personalities. But after meeting her estranged mother, she begins to explore her true identity, a journey that leads to questioning the bounds of gender, memory, self, and reality.

First published in Taiwan in 1995, The Membranes is a classic of queer speculative fiction in Chinese. Chi Ta-wei weaves dystopian tropes–heirloom animals, radiation-proof combat drones, sinister surveillance technologies–into a sensitive portrait of one young woman’s quest for self-understanding. Predicting everything from fitness tracking to social media saturation, this visionary and sublime novel stands out for its queer and trans themes. The Membranes reveals the diversity and originality of contemporary speculative fiction in Chinese, exploring gender and sexuality, technological domination, and regimes of capital, all while applying an unflinching self-reflexivity to the reader’s own role. Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation brings Chi’s hybrid punk sensibility to all readers interested in books that test the limits of where speculative fiction can go.

Copyright © 1995 by Chi Ta-Wei.

Translated by: Ari Larissa Heinrich

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.