5 of the Best Translated Novels
As a literary translator and keen linguist, I have always greatly enjoyed reading novels in translation. I believe there is often a certain musicality to the way a translated book reads, conjuring unique images and stories. I always try to make sure that I keep my horizons broad in terms of the genres and styles of novel I enjoy; reading translated novels allows me to do just this, introducing a range of new styles and structures to my #TBR. Reading a translated novel gives you the chance to venture into unchartered territory, to explore new cultures, and to travel from the comfort of your armchair - this is more important now than ever. Interestingly, however, the trend of translated literature seems yet to catch on, with only 3% of English books translations from another language.
Whether you're looking to dip your toe into the world of translated literature, or are a seasoned translated-lit reader, here are my top 5 recommendations for some of the best translated novels.
Woman At Point Zero (Emra'a enda noktat el sifr)
Nawal El Saadawi | @nawalelsaadawi1
Translated by Sherif Hetata
It would be unthinkable not to include the iconic Woman At Point Zero in a list of the top translated novels. Originally published in Arabic in 1975, this novel has been pioneering for feminist literature around the world, exploring the idea of freedom and patriarchal oppression in a hard-hitting, poetic way. Saadawi tells the story of Firdaus: a woman who has been imprisoned for killing a man, following a difficult life of abuse and prostitution. As she awaits her execution, she recounts her experiences to a visiting psychologist, who listens to her tales until Firdaus is finally taken away to be killed herself. The novel's writing style is descriptive, personal, and melodious, evoking a deep sense of pity and rage on behalf of Firdaus, and the hardship she has endured. Although set in Egypt, Woman At Point Zero resonates with woman around the world, and was originally refused by a number of publishing houses for its groundbreaking ideas.
Even more harrowing? The novel is based on the true story of a woman named Firdaus.
Butterflies in November (Rigning í nóvember)
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translated by Brian Fitzgibbon
A charmingly eccentric novel involving a dead goose, a small child and a recent divorcee, Butterflies in November will tug at your heartstrings and simultaneously have you wiping away tears of laughter. Originally published in Icelandic in 2004, the book follows the newly-divorced narrator and her unexpected, deaf, 4-year-old companion, as they journey through the wild landscapes of Iceland, from Reykjavik to the East coast. Butterflies in November is a unique reflection on motherhood, and on what it means to suddenly find yourself liberated from a long-term relationship. Auður's blunt humour and emotion-led writing style makes the novel fun and feel-good, providing also an insight into Icelandic culture.
Auður's next novel, Miss Iceland, is due to be released this July.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych)
Olga Tokarczuk | @tokarczukolga_
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was originally written in Polish by one of the country's most acclaimed authors, Olga Tokarczuk. A haunting yet quirky novel, the book is a uniquely fantastical thriller, which reads almost as a dark fairytale. The story is narrated by peculiar Janina, who lives in a remote village in the Polish forests which border the Czech Republic. When Janina's neighbour is one day found dead, this sparks a chain of deaths throughout the village - and animal-crazed Janina is sure that she knows who committed the crime. A disturbing, entertaining, and decidedly surreal thriller, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a crime novel with a darkly comedic twist.
Tokarczuk is also the author of Flights.
The Reader (Der Vorleser)
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Published originally in German in 1995, The Reader has since become one of the most well-known stories based around the aftermath of Second World War. Said to be aimed specifically at the generation which followed the tragedies of this time, the novel deals with a number of difficult themes and ideas. Predominantly a story of hidden love, The Reader follows the life of Michael Berg when, as a teenager, he meets and falls in love with 36-year-old tram conductor Hanna Schmitz. As their affair develops and, eventually, tails out, their lives reconnect when Michael is at university, studying a legal case of war crimes. It is then that Hanna's past and her secrets begin to come to light, and Michael is forced to come to terms with his feelings towards her. A beautifully-written book about love, forgiveness, and humanity, The Reader is considered to be one of the most successful books in German literature.
The Reader has also been made into a film, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.
Convenience Store Woman (コンビニ人間)
Sayaka Murata | @sayakamurata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Inspired by the author's own part-time job in a local convenience store, Convenience Store Woman was published in Japanese in 2016, before being translated into English in 2018. A hilarious, whimsical commentary about life in Japan, the novel also touches on the expectations placed upon women in Japenese society, even in modern times. The story follows the day-to-day life of shy, unusual Keiko: a 36-year-old woman who works in a convenience store, but is persistently being urged by her friends and family to get a 'real job', or to marry and settle down. In order to deceive her peers, Keiko allows Shiraha - a man who can't seem to find steady work - to move in with her, pretending to the outside world that they are a couple. Murata's lighthearted, humorous writing style makes this novel an enjoyable story - readers can empathise with Keiko and her non-conformist opinions, and will appreciate her sharp wit and unconventional ways.