Spotlight On: Translated Literature

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

Inkheart (Inkworld, #1)

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.

Tender Is the Flesh

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.

The Iliad and the Odyssey

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.

Fever Dream

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!

The Liar

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.

Naty sets a WIT month TBR.

Ren suggests translated nonfiction.

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.

Vita Nostra

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.

The Emigrants (The Emigrants, #1)

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.

Your Turn

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

33 thoughts on “Spotlight On: Translated Literature”

  1. You make such a fantastic and important point about translators being granted cover space. I had no idea the Cornelia Funke books were translated either! (I haven’t read them, but worked for awhile during college in the kids section of a bookstore and they were so popular. I can’t believe I didn’t know that!) Translation is so difficult and time consuming, and I say that as a translator and editor of legal/financial/medical stuff, where we use special memory systems to ensure consistent terminology for specialist areas that end up saving you a lot of time, not to mention repeated sentences that always appear in these kind of documents and lots of other little time savers. I’m trying to translate a book just for practice, and because I wanted to read it and it’s not available in English, and it takes me soooo long that I’ve been working on it for like 2 years and making only minuscule progress.

    Seriously, literary translators don’t get nearly enough recognition. It’s like you only notice them if they’ve done their job badly, when they do it well it’s so easy to overlook something was even translated in the first place. All to say — thanks so much for this thoughtful write-up and for sharing so many excellent resources!! Bookmarking this for much future reference 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 I really appreciate you weighing in with some translating experience; learning languages is hard enough for me- I can only imagine the effort that must go into capturing the nuances of one language within another, in a work of art or even in an official capacity like you mention. (I don’t think I knew you were involved with translating, that’s awesome!) Two years is such a commitment for a single project, but that’s got to be rewarding to finish in the end! And that’s exactly why translator names deserve cover space- it may be a different type of work than creating the material, but the constraints involved in translating do not make it an easy or effortless task, and it really does feel important for written work to be available across the boundaries of culture and language. Especially when as you say doing it poorly invariably draws negative attention to the work. Those who do it well really deserve more acknowledgment. I feel less idiotic missing the fact that Funke’s books were translated knowing that I wasn’t the only one, but it is a shame that such a popular series isn’t more clear on its contributors. I just picked up a copy of Inkheart to reread and it’s a new edition, but I’m disappointed to see it STILL doesn’t have Anthea Bell’s name on the cover! It’s on the title page inside at least, but they could’ve done better. The writing is so good!

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      1. I definitely think it wasn’t only you that missed that those books were translated, I never heard it mentioned. It’s such a shame! I get the impression that it’s easy to discount the difficulty of it when people don’t have experience with it. What takes me so long in translating the book I’m working on are all the subtleties, and what word choice sounds lovely in addition to conveying meaning, and maintaining a consistent voice — and it’s reportage, not even a novel where those things might take on a whole different meaning! It’s just such a complex art, so I was really glad to read this where you make such an eloquent argument for its value and properly recognizing contributors 🙂

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      2. Ah, thank you, that’s so kind! I fully agree that it seems too easy to discount the skill involved in translating when one doesn’t have the experience. Or especially if one’s experience with second languages is limited to high school classes where you do literally translate word for word in a pretty basic way (at least in my experience). The work involved in bringing an entire book into a language it wasn’t necessarily built for really deserves more credit. I really appreciate you mentioning the little details that make translation challenging- keeping a consistent voice sounds the most difficult to me because shifting in tone and style is occasionally something that I struggle with even in my own writing, and that’s in my primary language without having a separate source I need to stay true to! Even in nonfiction I know word choice and flow is important, I’m sure it’s no small task. I wish you all the best of luck with it and hope you’ll be victorious in the end! 🙂

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    1. Thanks! Your WIT posts and reviews are always a big contributor for translation titles that make it onto my TBR- just giving credit where it’s due! 🙂

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  2. yes translated literature!! im a particular fan of Japanese lit, but i love reading literature in translation in general, though i probably dont read as much of it as i should…if you enjoyed The Memory Police i really recommend Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection Revenge! it’s so good and creepy, and im finding that even a year on, the stories are still memorable. always love reading your spotlight posts! 😊 (and thank you for linking my post!!)

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    1. I’ve really enjoyed all of the translated Japanese titles that I’ve read, it’s a great category to pay attention to! I should really make an effort to read more translations in general as well, I also feel that I’m not getting around to as much of it as I should based on my interests and the writers I want to support.

      Thanks for the recommendation- I’ve seen so many good remarks about Ogawa’s other work that I’m eager to try more of it but was having a hard time deciding where to start. Revenge sounds fantastic!

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    1. Crime novels seem to be a popular subset of translated lit- it can be really fun to see how writing traditions for crime/mystery/thrillers differ and compare between countries! They tend to be very imaginative, I think. Luckily some of these are popular enough that it’s easy enough to pick them up without consciously seeking translated lit.

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  3. I also have Camus’s The Plague on my TBR, inspired by “the general situation,” as my friend Lou likes to call it. Most of the translated lit I’ve read is memoirs from other countries that I read to help me get a more personal look at a moment in history that just reads like names and dates when I learned this history. I read Convenience Store Woman and didn’t really like it, but I know many others have. I’m not sure what other translated fiction I’ve read. I did teach a collection of poems called Alphabet by Inger Christensen a few times.

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    1. I also had a hard time pinning down any translations I might have read before a time when I was really paying attention to them- it’s a shame that translators can put in so much work and still go largely unnoticed. Memoirs sound like a particularly great way to use translated lit for learning about the world; I’ve not really dived into translated nonfiction yet, but reading specific stories does help me make sense of historical events and personalities too so I can see that being a helpful method for learning.

      Translating poetry must be so hard!! I took a class on translation in college but it was a lit class rather than a language one, so we mostly focused on translating stories from one medium to another rather than between languages. But we did have an Arabic (I think) poet come in and talk about translating his work into English, and he would go through a poem line by line and explain how easily cadences and metaphors could be lost while trying to make the language fit. And of course the characters looked nothing alike on the page, and poets like to consider appearance as well sound and meaning. It gave me so much anxiety seeing how hard that puzzle would be to put together, but the translations really were beautiful in the end.

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      1. Oh, wow. That sounds like an amazing class, especially if you’re focus in school is creative writing. There’s so much attention on getting creative writing students into professor jobs, but the reality is there aren’t any. There’s too many MFA and PhD programs in creative writing, and not even close to enough jobs to match. However, looking into other aspects of writing — publishing, translation, working in marketing, editing, etc. — is a great way to show students there are many ways to use your education.

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      2. It was a challenging class, but definitely one of the most rewarding and memorable writing classes I took! I still think about it often. I also took a short class on how to make a career from an English degree with a “how not to resort to teaching” focus, but it didn’t help me as much as I’d hoped. The teacher really emphasized that your specific degree doesn’t matter so much and that you can do quite a lot with an English background, but that was too broad an approach to help me narrow my focus. I think my main problem was just that I always wanted to be an author, which is such an uncertain career to stake your time on, lol. ‘Full-time author’ did not come up in that career class at all- it’s a hard one to plan for.

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      3. It wasn’t popular then like it is now, but freelance writing is truly a thing people do to pay bills. However, that doesn’t includes insurance or retirement, even though you can make money like a full-time job. This is one of the reasons — the gig economy, I mean — that I believe we need health insurance for all. Many of us are taking or keeping jobs for that reason alone, which hinders growth.

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      4. I do know a few people who make a successful go of freelance writing, and that would be the most “normal” job I could see myself doing if the author thing really doesn’t pan out. But I do agree, it is hard committing to jobs that don’t come with benefits (which should be called necessities, really), and I’m all for universal health coverage!

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  4. Great suggestions and post (thanks for the mention!). Russian classics come to my mind, but it is also true that I read most of them in the original. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov are always great. I am having a difficult relationship with Japanese lit this month. I found out that Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is not always a writer for me and I want to try other Yoko Ogawa books too. Murakami’s 1Q84 will be my next review and it will be rather negative 🙂 Oh, well. I still have much hope pinned on other Japanese writers which I want to read in future, including Yasushi Inoue and Shūsaku Endō. I also really want to read your recommended Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant and Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls. There is always something special about foreign language crime thrillers. I hope you enjoy Murata’s Convenience Store Woman – it is a very good book.

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    1. Thank you! (And you’re welcome! 🙂 ) I can’t believe I forgot the Russians- I loved Anna Karenina, and have Dostoyevsky and Chekhov on my TBR too.
      I’m sorry to hear you haven’t been loving the Japanese lit you’ve been reading; I’ll be sure to check out your Murakami review! I’ve only read one of his books, which I liked, but I do tend to hear complaints about his work so am a bit hesitant to try again. I will be interested in your opinion. Ogawa I’m definitely excited to try more of, she seems very beloved. As does Murata- I can’t believe I haven’t read Convenience Store Woman yet, it’s so short and most everyone seems to love it! I’ll have to rectify that soon. I hope the other Japanese writers on your TBR will live up to hopes as well!
      The Engberg and Blaedel books weren’t favorites for me, but both were fun and memorable and I would definitely recommend them if you like foreign crime mysteries.

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      1. Anna Karenina is amazing. At least Murakami’s Norwegian Wood may be nostalgic and evocative – 1Q84 is anything but. In fact, I am a bit astonished how manipulative, pretentious and dragging I found it. Having said that, my self of ten years younger would have enjoyed it more probably.

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      2. Ah, it’s always sad feeling like you’ve come to a book at the wrong time. I think you’re right about the nostalgic feel helping Norwegian Wood, that does give it more of a timeless appeal.

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  5. Hi! I’m chiming in with my love of translated literature from Quebec. So, from French to English. I haven’t read enough of it yet, but I’m slowly working on it. Great post – I love all the lists and recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, thanks for adding to the discussion, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂 I’m very limited in French-to-English translations but would love to read more- I have Negar Djevadi’s novel Disoriental on my must-read list! I’m hoping in future years to focus more specifically on reading translations, as they offer such a wealth and variety of stories.

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  6. I always love yer posts like these and adored Kang and Ogawa. I have Tokarczuk and Dyachenko on me list already and now I am going to add Schweblin. The White Book skewered my heart unexpectedly and it makes me wonder what the impact would be in the original language.
    x The Captain

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    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 Kang, Ogawa, and Tokarczuk are fantastic writers- and I’m so looking forward to the Dyachenkos as well! Schweblin would be a great addition to your list, I think: Fever Dream is wild but so impressive. (And nice and short!) I’m so glad to hear you found The White Book so effective as well, that’s a must-read for me. I bet it’s phenomenal in the Korean!

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  7. This is such a great post! I think about translations constantly, since until high school I read exclusively in my own language, and then I switched to books in English and I haven’t read a book in my own language in so long (unless it’s a book by an author from my country). I have found I now get frustrated with translations to my own language for some reason haha. It’s also interesting to see the translators’ names highlighted on book covers and even Goodreads (I think that’s great!) – that’s definitely not the usual practice in translated books I read when I was younger.

    Anyways, I also LOVED Inkheart so much when I was younger. I also bought The Liar recently, and I am really excited to get to it and Tender is the Flesh as well!

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad you’ve pointed out that anyone who reads in multiple languages or in a language other than their first language would probably put a lot more thought and experience into reading translations. It’s shockingly easy for someone who has always spoken and read in English to pay no attention to translation at all, which is certainly a privileged perspective and worth remembering that it’s not necessarily the “norm.” I don’t think translation was discussed in any of my lit classes prior to college, which is… a little alarming to realize. That’s really interesting as well that translations to your own language frustrate you now! But it is good to hear from someone who’s paid attention to it longer that there’s a trend toward making translator names more easy to find, on GR and beyond. That’s so important, I think.

      Ah, a fellow Inkheart stan! I had so much fun with that trilogy! And I’d love to see your thoughts on The Liar and Tender is the Flesh when you get to them- I hope you’ll enjoy both! I’m really looking forward to The Liar as well.

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    1. Thank you! This is definitely an area I want to focus on more in the future as well. I haven’t read The Murmur of Bees but it sounds like a fantastic novel! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it, and I hope you have good luck with future translation reads as well! 🙂

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  8. Brilliant post! You raise some excellent points and it is always great to see readers branching out into translated literature. It’s also interesting how sometimes we don’t notice or are not aware that a book may be translated which highlights the point of how much of an art translation is and the complexity involved in ensuring fluency and no clunky sentences. Thank you also for the reading suggestions!

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    1. Thanks so much! You’re absolutely right, translation really is an art in itself; the stories may read similarly to work published in its original language, but there’s definitely a particular skill set needed for translation that deserves to be recognized and celebrated, especially when it’s done very well. It’s ironic that ideally the text of the translation should be so smooth that the switch is hardly noticeable, though the translators who can accomplish that should certainly not go unnoticed. There is SO much to learn and enjoy in translated literature, I’d love to see more readers picking it up. I hope you have a good time with any recommended reading you pick up from my post, and with all your translation reading in general! 🙂

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