As the director of Open Letter Books and Three Percent—and former Associate Director of Dalkey Archive Press—I’ve spent most of my adult life reading literature in translation. Why? In part because I find it fascinating to learn about other parts of the world, but mostly because there are so many incredibly good works in translation available to English readers.
On the surface, this seems to run counter to the commonly cited statistic that only 3% (or less) of the books published in the United States are originally written in another language. Quantity doesn’t necessarily relate to quality though. Even though there are just over 400 original translations of fiction and poetry being published in the States every year, the vast majority of these are top notch books—titles that are critically acclaimed in their own country, and often are written with a style and structure that can expand your ideas of what’s possible in fiction.
When Stephen Sparks of Green Apple Books and I started talking about putting together a 20-book list of translations, we immediately wanted to get away from some of the more obvious authors that populate lists of this sort—Garcia, Cortázar, Proust, Kafka, Tolstoy, etc. Not that these books aren’t amazing—they definitely are—but those are authors that most engaged readers have already heard of, oftentimes in a college class, or from one’s reading buddies.
So instead, we chose 20 of our favorite translations from around the world. Obviously, this could be expanded and expanded, but hopefully you’ll find at least a few new works of international literature to check out.
The Box Man, Kobo Abe, translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders (Vintage)
Imagine a Japanese Samuel Beckett. But weirder. Multiply that weirdness by two and add a dose of extra intellectualism and humor. Now you have a sense of what The Box Man is like.
Act of the Damned, António Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith (Grove Press)
Along with José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa, Antunes is considered to be one of the literary giants of Portugal. Unlike Saramago and Pessoa, his work is much more Faulknerian in the way it incorporates a range of unique voices and complex literary structures. Act of the Damned details the dismantling of a once wealthy, now incredibly dysfunctional family trying to escape the socialist revolution.
Concrete, Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by David McLintock (Vintage)
Everyone’s favorite misanthrope, any number of Bernhard books could be included on this list. His single-paragraph, ranting style has influenced dozens of writers and continues to be just as scathing and poignant to read today as when it was first written.
Dolly City, Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Dalkey Archive Press)
Castel-Bloom’s satire on everything from motherhood to the state of Israel is as scathing as they come. Doctor Dolly, a doctor in name only who practices illegally in her home laboratory, finds a baby in a plastic bag, names him Son and grows increasingly, hysterically concerned about this well-being. It might not help you understand the political situation in Israel, but it’ll give you an idea of its insanity.
Zero, Ignacio de Loyola Brandão, translated from the Portuguese by Ellen Watson (Dalkey Archive Press)
Brandão, the author of eight novels and a dozen other works, is one of Brazil’s greatest contemporary writers. A number of his works—including Zero, which is definitely his best—focus on the period of the military dictatorship in Brazil, while also incorporating certain dsytopic, sci-fi elements.
The Obscene Bird of Night, José Donoso, translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin and Leonard Mades (David R. Godine)
Although many of the other “boom” writers may have received more attention—especially Fuentes and Vargas Llosa—Donoso and his masterpiece may be the most lasting, visionary, strangest of the books from this time period. Seriously, it’s a novel about the last member of an aristocratic family, a monstrous mutant, who is surrounded by other freaks so as to not feel out of place.
The Zafarani Files, Gamal al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahad (American University in Cairo Press)
A refreshingly atypical Egyptian novel, The Zafarani Files is a hysterical novel about a wicked curse that a sheikh puts on Zafarani Alley, causing all of the men to suddenly become impotent. Related through a series of notes and observations from an unnamed observer, al-Ghitani’s novel reads like a comic Arabian version of a French Nouveau Roman novel.
Mysteries, Knut Hamsun, translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad (Penguin)
Hamsun is most well-known for Hunger, his first novel about a starving artist, but Mysteries is a much more seductive, beguiling book. Centering around a mysterious man who appears in a small Norwegian town and upends everyone’s lives with his bizarre attitudes and actions, it also contains “The Midget,” one of the best characters in all of literature.
The Blind Owl, Sadegh Hedayat, translated from the Persian by D. P. Costello (Grove Press)
A claustrophobic, feverish novel about a painter of miniatures whose life unravels after his wife cheats on him (or does she?). Hedayat’s circular novel has been compared to the work of Poe and Dostoevsky and mines a dark vein of psychological horror and black comedy.
That Smell, Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)
In flat, unaffected prose that works more by what’s left unsaid--or what, for political reasons, couldn’t be said--Ibrahim’s 1966 novel provides insight into Egypt that’s still relevant today. Written as a diary of an ex-prisoner finding his way back into the world, That Smell is a stark and haunting chronicle of life under constant threat of lock and key.
The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books Classics)
A perfectly constructed book about truth and deceit, and deceiving through truth, it’s obvious why this book won the Best Translated Book Award in 2011. And it’s the perfect accompaniment to reading all of Jansson’s Moomin books.
Kassandra and the Wolf, Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by N.C. Germanacos (Clockroot Books)
Karapanou’s Kassandra is an uncomfortable mix of the girlish and wolvish. This ambiguous novel is about victims, the victimized and the gray area in-between, leaving the reader on unsteady ground as the story, told in a series of vignettes, rolls towards its inexorable conclusion.
Satantango, László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Georges Szirtes (New Directions)
Winner of the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, Satantango was first published in 1984 and took master translator Georges Szirtes over two decades to translate. For that reason alone it’s worth reading. Also, it’s a diabolical, haunting deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism that was made into a stunning seven-hour long movie by Béla Tarr.
Stone Upon Stone, Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books)
“Having a tomb built.” That’s the opening line of Stone Upon Stone and its main plot. Narrated by the unforgettable Szymek, a farmer who hates reading but loves him some booze and women, this is an epic novel about modernization in rural Poland.
Life, a User’s Manual, Georges Perec, translated from the French by David Bellos (David R. Godine)
A literary game and puzzle about a man who spends his life traveling around the world painting watercolors, having them made into puzzles that he then solves, before dipping them in water and watching the paintings float away. But it’s about so much more than that. Life is one of the best books to come out of the Oulipo—a French literary movement in which writers use explicit constraints to create their texts—and is about, well, life. There are a number of constraints at work in this novel, the main one being that Perec took a 10x10 gridded picture of an apartment building and applied the “knight’s move” from chess to determine each of the 100 chapters—one for each space in the building.
A Broken Mirror, Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Josep Miquel Sobrer (University of Nebraska Press)
One of Catalonia’s most beloved writers, Rodoreda wrote a number of books that could be included here, including In Diamond Square and Death in Spring. But A Broken Mirror is the most ambitious of her novels, a family saga that opens in the 1870s and ending in the 1930s, the storytelling evolves throughout the book, from a very Victorian opening, to something more modernist, to a very fragmented end—reflecting the lives and times of the various characters.
The Event, Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane (Serpent’s Tail)
Saer’s novels—which read like a cross between Alain Robbe-Grillet and Javier Marias—are all magical and worth reading, but this one, about a discredited magician trying to recover his life in the Argentine pampas is particularly moving and well-crafted. Besides, everyone loves magic, right?
Maidenhair, Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Open Letter Books)
One of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, Maidenhair is the sort of densely beautiful book where, after reading 50 pages, you may not know what’s going on—there are three distinct storylines, all of which bounce off one another, without completely connecting until the very end—but you’ll know that what you’re reading is an absolute masterpiece of world literature.
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions)
If the world were a fair place, Dubrakva Ugresic would win the Nobel Prize. A great chronicler of contemporary Europe, nostalgia, and life in exile, Ugresic’s novels, essays, and stories are all worth reading—especially this book comprised of such a wide variety of literary forms.
Five Spice Street, Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Zeping Chen (Yale University Press)
It’s safe to say that there’s no other writer in China like Can Xue. Over the past thirty years she’s produced a ton of work—120 stories, a dozen novellas, five novels—all of which are strange, surreal, and very compelling. Reading Can Xue is like participating in a literary performance as you puzzle out the logic beneath these engrossing dreamscapes. A number of her works are available in English, but this novel is probably the best place to start.
Sep 27, 2013