Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what translated literature means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!
What is Translated Lit?
This is a category rather than a genre. Translated literature is any fiction or nonfiction originally published in one language and then translated to another. Since English is my primary language, the translations I read (and thus the titles that will feature here) are editions now printed in English that originally came from… any other language. This is a personal limitation, not a boundary of translated literature, though I think English translations are among the most common.
Because this is a broader category, translated lit can fall into any genre, and indeed I’ve already mentioned some of the books highlighted below in other spotlight posts that focus more specifically on genre. I’m not sure whether literary fiction is actually the most often translated, or whether it’s simply the genre I’m most aware of in recent years and thus I’m a bit biased in that direction. Generally I think the books that are translated and the translated books most commonly read tend to be prestigious or popular in some way that makes them stand out; they’re linked to book prizes or selling particularly well in their original language, etc. But I don’t know enough about publishing politics to really comment on the process of what gets chosen or why.
My History with Translation
It was actually not until earlier this year that I realized one of my favorite series from childhood is actually a translation: the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, a fantasy in which fiction is brought to life as it is read. My recent realization here is a good example of why it’s important for translator names to be granted space on book covers- Bell must have put a lot of time and consideration into translating each of the three (long) books in this series, and I never would have known about her involvement if I hadn’t seen an offhand comment from someone with a sharper eye. Because translators are not always granted cover space and because I didn’t spare the time as a kid to investigate details like this, I honestly am not sure what other translated works I may have read unknowingly before adulthood. I think fairy tales especially are often translated.
I can’t specifically think of any other MG or YA books I’ve read that are translations. Even in adulthood, translations are a fairly recent interest and underrepresented in my reading life, unfortunately. The reason I’m now trying to actively increase my translation consumption is twofold- I want to learn more about the world, and I’ve learned more about publishing and privilege. I know books printed in English tend to have the upper hand in the kind of sales that allow an author to make a living solely from writing. I know that the amount of books that are translated into English is limited. I know that women authors, in particular, have been historically less likely to see their work translated, hence the establishment of WIT month – to celebrate women in translation throughout August and show publishers that there is a demand for women in translated literature.
I try to make WIT a priority in August, though some years I manage more than others, and August isn’t the only time I read translations. My most recent translated read, in fact, is one I picked up in the spirit of WIT month- Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses. This is a brutal satire of factory farming and capitalism that shines a dark, cannibalistic light on modern society.
Translated Classics and Staples
Classics are a big facet of translated literature, and another of my main entrance points into reading translations. I was big on the Greeks and Romans for a while (aren’t we all at some point?) and got a good, proper start with translations in college by reading things like:
The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by C. Day Lewis, the mythologized account of the foundation of Rome following the destruction of Troy.
The Erotic Poems by Ovid, translated by Peter Green, a self-explanatory collection of poetry focused on love.
The Poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Green, another collection of Roman poetry preoccupied with illicit love.
Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated (creatively) by Mary Jo Bang; this is an updated version of the classic story of Dante and Virgil’s descent into hell, in which Bang trades old allusions out for modern ones meant to give the contemporary reader the effect that the original would have had back in its own era.
However, it was my more recent experience with The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler, that convinced me that translation style is really as crucial as the original content. It seems obvious, but it is important to keep in mind that languages can differ greatly- in grammar, in style, even in vocabulary. It is not always possible to do a direct word for word translation, and especially in poems and fiction prose, the way something is said can be as important as what is said. Translation is not a task that can be accomplished by anyone with a language-to-language dictionary, but requires particular artistic skill. Sometimes the best way to honor an original piece is to take a new approach in the format, or change words to achieve technical effects lost between one language and the next, etc. It took reading Butler’s very literal translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which takes Homer’s epic poems and delivers a dry word-for-word prose in its place, to teach me how important the artistic element is to translation. This is also the reason that it can be worthwhile to read multiple translations of the same work- translators can produce very different results from the same source material, and generally speaking none of them are “wrong.”
Further Translation Recommendations
If you’re just getting started with translated lit and aren’t sure what to pick up, here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed, labelled with descriptors you might already be interested in:
If you like sad literary tales: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. This is a tragic coming of age story about a college student and the erratic girl he loves.
If you like learning about culture and history: The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, are not to be missed. The former focuses on societal expectations and nonconformity as we see one woman adopt vegetarianism through the eyes of those around her; the latter tells a brutal tale of humanity’s violence as it recounts a deadly student uprising in 1980 Korea.
If you like magical elements: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. In this otherworldly tale, a secluded society stumbles onward as ordinary things disappear en masse around them.
If you like short books that pack a punch, with a hint of puzzle to the plot: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Here we have a family in crisis, the mother weaving in and out of reality as she tries to piece back together what has happened.
If you like modern classics about family, love, and identity: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, follows a young girl’s sexual awakening as she enters an affair with an older man in an attempt to escape her struggling family.
If you like murder mysteries, there are plenty of choices, as these are oft-translated from many different cultures: you can go for a fast-paced whodunnit in which a writer is the top suspect, as in Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant, translated from the Danish by Tara Chace; or you can dig into a police procedural with historic and societal commentary as in Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls translated from the Danish by Signe Rod Golly; or if you’re looking for something compelling but light with a fantastic character study try Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Fiction is clearly what I gravitate towards, but even the fiction reader can enjoy nonfiction pieces like Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. This is a small collection of essays about the responsibility of the artist, freedom, and perseverance.
Because this list is short and my own experience is limited, I’m going to link some other bloggers’ 2020 WIT posts and other related content to put some additional titles on your radar. These posts feature books I’m excited to read and/or learn more about, and all of these bloggers are worth a follow for more excellent translated lit (and other) content! This is a quick list mostly of posts I’ve read and enjoyed in August that I think contain a good variety of content and some further links, and it is not by any means exhaustive; if you have any WIT posts or other translation posts you’d like to add to the conversation, please link them in the comments below!
Callum has rounded up a fresh list of WIT recommendations; he’s also been reviewing additional WIT titles all through August.
Rachel discusses WIT month, including the official readathon (now concluded, but keep this in mind for next year!) and some personal TBR picks.
Fatma has compiled a list of translations, focused specifically on Japan.
Diana creates and answers the prompts of the Translated Literature Book Tag. This post is from last year, but I’d love to see more answers to this tag and encourage you to join the fun if you haven’t yet!
Translations on my TBR:
So many! I’ve really liked most of the translated books I’ve read so far, and so a fair portion of my translated lit TBR is further work from authors I’ve already read, including titles like Han Kang’s The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith; Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft; Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, translated by Stephen Snyder; Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell.
I also want to read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, a staple that focuses on societal expectations, identity, and conformity. Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey, a Ukranian sci-fi/fantasy featuring a magic school; Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, translated by Diane Oatley, a generational tale of beekeepers that investigates the relationship between humans and nature over time.
There are some translated books on my TBR for particular reasons as well, like Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth, and Mareike Lukas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michele Hutchison- the last two Booker International winners. Thanks to 2020, I’ve also got Albert Camus’s The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, on my list. I have a few translations on my list that I’d like to read both the original and translated versions of in order to test my skill at languages I’ve studied in the past- Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, and Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney from the Old English. And of course, I pick up so many recommendations on the strength of reviews alone!
Why Read Translated Literature?
To expand one’s knowledge of the world. Reading directly from writers in countries foreign to you is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in new cultures and experience styles that may differ from what is common where you live. Narrative traditions and popular content can vary greatly, and experiencing those through translations is a great way to learn about people and their stories and storytelling methods from around the world.
But it isn’t always about branching out- thanks to translated literature, I was able last year to read a Swedish series about emigration that helped me better understand a piece of my own family history that might otherwise have remained nebulous for me. I read Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, translated from the Swedish by Gustaf Lannestock, to get a closer look at a story of immigration similar to my family’s past; if your family have ties to another place that is not very present in your life now, translated lit may be the answer that’ll bring you closer to another part of yourself, too.
It’s a way of bridging the gap. Of bringing people together. Of using the ways in which we are different to see also the ways in which we are the same.
We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for translated lit, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.
Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂
The Literary Elephant