A Beginner's Guide To Works In Translation

These days, every single person I know could benefit from reading translated books as a way of broadening their viewpoints. Yes, every one.

The first time I consciously read a translated book, I was 18 and still recalibrating after my first time through Patti Smith's Just Kids. I'd spend hours combing through articles and interviews documenting my newfound patron saint of thoughtful prose, and took note of several mentions of Astragal, by Albertine Sarrazin.

I bought a copy of the book the next time I was New York and living out the fantasy shared by so many bookish Midwestern kids: reading, alone, at a cafe, drinking coffee and Thinking About Stuff. In her introduction for Astragal, Patti dedicates space to the translator's story; it had never occurred to me before that translating was an art form, as creative and intense as the initial writing (okay maybe not quite as, but definitely close). There's nuance and flow, intention and structure to take into consideration. In thinking about the act of translating, we can begin to understand the vastness of the world, its diversity, its incredible cache of cultures. We can begin to understand the idiosyncratic beauty that emerges within each specific language. Nothing has ever inspired in me more reverence for human communication than reading translated works.

If you need a crash course, try checking out the annual Best Translated Book Awards, presented by Three Percent. Their 2017 longlist was just released (and now I have like 20 more books to start reading.) Once you finish those, here are 12 more translated books you need to read:


'Eve Out Of Her Ruins' by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Mauritian writer Ananda Devi's devastating 2016 book, Eve Out Of Her Ruins (translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman), follows four friends struggling to carve out space in the darkest corners of Mauritius, far away from the sanitized tourist destinations. Awarded the Prix des cinq continents, for the best book written in French outside of France, Eve Out Of Her Ruins explores construction of identity amongst the ghosts of colonialism.

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'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Winner of 2016's Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Han Kang's The Vegetarian (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith) is a deeply unsettling, violent portrait of a woman's struggle for bodily autonomy. One of the best works of feminist fiction, which I recommend to everyone with a strong constitution.

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'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

OK, yeah, you've probably heard of the Neapolitan series and its story story of fierce female friendship blossoming in the slums of Naples, or, at the very least, of its reclusive, pseudonymous author, Elena Ferrante. But when discussing My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, I am always sure to mention that it's been translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, which accounts for its intoxicating cadence.

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'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin

Haruki Murakami has become the literary equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio - always, perennially, so close and yet so far from claiming The Big Award (in Murakami's case, the Nobel prize). The Japanese writer is incredibly prolific, but Norwegian Wood (translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin) is a personal favorite. Set in 1960s Tokyo, this novel has everything that makes me sad and addicted: sexuality! Nostalgia! Romance! The idealism of student revolutionaries!

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'Moonstone' by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb

The unsettling, simmering portrait of Máni Steinn, queer in 1918 Reykjavik, will get under your skin. I first happened upon Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb) because of the back cover reviews: both Junot Diaz and Bjork rave.

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'The Story of My Teeth' by Valerie Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney

Valerie Luiselli's The Story Of My Teeth (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney) carries you through the deeply eccentric corners of Mexico City, ferried there by Highway, storyteller, auctioneer, and collector of famous teeth. Yes, literally, teeth.

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'The Complete Stories' by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Recently, a customer came into my bookstore and asked which writers she should read to gain a sense of Brazilian culture; Clarice Lispector topped everyone's list. Her full collection of 85 stories, translated from Portuguese by Katrina Dodson, has only recently been made available to English-language readers.

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'My Struggle' by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett

If you're one of those readers within whom "six-volume autobiographical novel" inspires a special kind of "gimme gimme gimme" mentality, well, then, meet Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle. This deeply intimate portrait that embraces the finite and the mundane (translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett) of our actual lives has been drawing readers in since 2013. Join the club.

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'A Heart So White' by Javier Marias, translated by author

One of Spain's most celebrated contemporary writers, Javier Marias tends to top any list regarding Spanish-language writing. A Heart So White, which he translated, watches nearby as Juan, a newlywed, begins to sift through the secrecy and the ambivalence surrounding his father.

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"Beauty Is A Wound" by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker

Rising Indonesian star Eka Kurniawan's novel Beauty Is A Wound (translated from Indonesian by Annie Tucker) has a sparkler of a first line: "One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years." I mean, like... what else can I say?

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"Pushkin Hills" by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov

As an unsuccessful writer, alcoholic, and spurned husband and father, Boris Alikhanov, the protagonist of Pushkin Hills (translated from Russian by Katherine Dovlatov), is undoubtedly having "a tough time." To make some extra cash, he becomes a tour guide for the Pushkin Hills preserve and joins a cast of very Russian, very eccentric characters.

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"The Enormity of the Tragedy" by Quim Monzó, translated by Peter Bush

A balding, middle-aged trumpet player wakes up one morning with a massive, unending erection. Welcome to The Enormity of the Tragedy (translated from Spanish by Peter Bush). Considered throughout Europe as a masterpiece of dirty, menacing, Spanish-specific surrealism, this novel will screw with your head. Oh god that sounds so much dirtier given the context.

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