Today is International Translation Day! There’s been a bit more about fiction in translation in the UK press lately, with the success of Han Kang‘s The Vegetarian and big sellers like Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård, but sadly translators (and translated fiction in general) are still massively under-appreciated in the UK. You really see the difference when you visit bookshops in other parts of Europe: in France, for example, you’ll often have entire sections devoted to Anglophone, Germanic and Hispanic authors translated into French, whereas I think here translated fiction makes up about 3% of books published, and probably even less in the children’s and YA market. (Daniel Hahn wrote a great article about this recently.)
I studied languages and translate texts from Spanish and Catalan as part of my day job, so I know how hard it is even to find equivalent expressions or match tone and nuance even for fairly straightforward texts. I’m kind of in awe of people who can do the same for fiction, especially between languages which are very different and have different cultural references. To me, the thought of one day having a book published is obviously incredibly exciting, but the thought of having one published in translation perhaps even more so. (I would find it super frustrating not to be able to read it, though. I’d probably end up studying Albanian for five years so I could check two lines of dialogue.)
Here are some of the translations I’ve most enjoyed. I realise they are very Europe-centric, with some Japanese exceptions, so if you have any recommendations from other parts of the world please let me know!
Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
Translated by William Weaver
Composed of prose poems describe 55 cities, this is a must for any writer interested in creating fictional worlds. Interestingly, Calvino himself was also a translator; he translated Les Fleurs bleues by Raymond Queneau, which was said to help him develop his own fictional voice and the possibilities of writing in Italian.
Where Europe Begins – Yoko Tawada
Translated by Susan Bernofsky & Yumi Selden
Tawada is from Japan, but has lived in Berlin for many years and now writes in German and Japanese. This book brings together pieces written in both languages, so the English version has two translators – a fascinating exercise in and of itself, paired with very interesting (if strange) depictions on life between cultures within the texts.
The Reason I Jump – Naoki Higashida
Translated from Japanese by David Mitchell (one of my favourite writers, as it happens) and his wife KA Yoshida, this is a memoir written by a then 13-year-old Japanese boy with autism and limited vocal communication skills. It’s so insightful and for those who, like me, don’t know a lot about autism, it will make you reassess your assumptions and prejudices.
The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende
Translated by Magda Bogin
When I was at university, one lecturer – herself a translator – said she almost never read books in translation as she knew from experience how much was lost in the jump from one language to another. I don’t know how much I agree but I do usually read Spanish books in the original, even though it’s a struggle compared to French or Catalan. For some, though, I have to make an exception, and this is one such book: there is so much depth and detail that would be lost on me in the Spanish. I’ll give it a go one day, though!
Falling Out of Time – David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen
I actually read this in French (Tombé hors du temps, translated by Emmanuel Moses) and thought it was excellent: a very moving and intimate depiction of parents’ grief over the loss of their children, with a masterful if simple command of language. Much like The Vegetarian, it makes you appreciate the translator’s skill even if you don’t know the original language – Hebrew, in this case.
Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
I do and don’t envy Murkami’s translators: I do, because how amazing would it be to translate Murakami, but I don’t, because how insanely difficult would it be?! If you read other languages, it’s really interesting to read other translations of his books and compare them to the English – I read After the Quake in Catalan and it was cool to see how similar the tone was.
The Six Bullerby Children – Astrid Lindgren
Translated by Susan Beard
These were some of my favourite books when I was little: six Swedish kids living in a three-house village where they had to ski to school… the dream! It didn’t occur to me back then that they were translated, obviously – I probably didn’t even know what ‘translation’ meant. As Daniel Hahn writes in his article (linked above), reading books from other cultures gives kids a chance to expand their literary horizons without even realising they’re doing so. It’s sad that many English-speaking kids are being deprived of that nowadays.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translated by Lola Rogers
This one is from Pushkin Press, who specialise in foreign literature and have an amazing list (with gorgeous covers, too). This is one of my favourites: a literary mystery about a much-loved children’s author who has formed an elite and mysterious Society of writers in the small Finnish town of Rabbit Back. A whimsical take on Nordic noir.
Naive. Super – Erlend Loe
Translated by Tor Ketil Solberg
I’ve been going on about this Norwegian novel loads recently, as I re-read it in June and experienced some sort of quasi-spiritual moment of elation on an Jet2 flight home from Ibiza, so I won’t say more than read it, enjoy it, and take a moment to appreciate the translation.