Favorite Fiction: Translation


Translation fever is in the air.  Kun je het voelen?

Recently, both the shortlist for the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize were announced.  Tomorrow morning carries the promise of the official announcement of the 2013 Best Translated Book Award longlist.  Needless to say, csak nem elég.

In honor of these awards, we thought it only appropriate to put together a Favorite Fiction entry detailing some of our favorite translated works from the past few years.  We tried to be balanced, choosing recent favorites as well as some older titles, and weighing accessibility against impenetrability.  What we’ve settled on are ten titles that we love with all our hearts that we strongly believe you’ll enjoy as well.

Listeye üzerine!

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Kafka_On_The_ShoreTeenager Kafka Tamura has runaway from home to escape his father and search for his missing mother and sister.  As he embarks on this journey, his world quickly becomes populated by talking cats, raining fish, and brutal murder.  Murakami’s output has been inconsistent at best (see our review of 1Q84), but this particular novel finds him at the height of his literary powers.  Some say if you’re going to dive into the weird worlds that he loves to create that you should start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, we say start here.

Scars by Juan Jose Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph

ScarsJuan Jose Saer’s Scars opens and closes with the murder of a woman referred to only as La Gringa on May Day of an unknown year. We know that her death was intentionally caused by her husband, but what we don’t know is why. Told by the way of four uniquely different stories featuring characters that overlap from one tale to the next, the novel doesn’t attempt to wrap things up in a nice neat bow for the reader. Oh no, that would be far too easy. Scars, much like life, is a beautifully messy affair. [Read our entire review]

The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

The_Darkest_RoomTheorin is the other Swedish journalist turned crime fiction writer, you know, the one that isn’t named Stieg Larsson, and isn’t dead.  After finishing his first novel Echoes of the Dead, the last thing I expected him to write was a ghost story.  Think Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, but with an actual plot.  Heart-breaking and masterfully written The Darkest Room, for me, was the novel that established Theorin as a talent to keep my eye on.  There’s just enough crime hear to keep those interested in a blood bath happy, but the real treat of course is in the haunting.

Fame by Daniel Kehlmann
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

FameA lot of different things can come to mind when one thinks about the meaning of the word fame: money, adoration, success, and stalkers just to name a few, but what Kehlmann’s attempting to do throughout his collection, and he’s quite successful in my opinion, is to introduce famous characters and put them into situations where the one thing they’re know most for, their fame, becomes utterly useless to them, in an experiment to see how they’ll react.  Are they more than the sum of their fame?  Can they rise above and survive the situations he presents them with? [Read our entire review]

All the Names by Jose Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

All_The_NamesI’ve said it before and it’s worth stating again that Saramago’s writing style is not the easiest to digest. He seems to loathe punctuation and paragraph breaks. He writes what feel like extremely long run on sentences. There are no quotation marks or proper formatting when characters are speaking so sometimes a best guess approach is needed when multiple characters are conversing. Very rarely does he give any of his characters proper names, instead choosing to define then by their job title or role in life. It takes a bit of adjusting to, but once you’re acclimated, it’s worth the effort.  Using “All the Names” as his vehicle, Saramago addresses age old questions like: Is anyone ever truly alone? Why do we feel the need to seek comfort through relationships with others? Can obsession be healthy? [Read our entire review]

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to you in all the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah 

Buzz_Aldrin_What_Happened_To_You_In_All_The_ConfusionHarstad’s writing (and Deborah Dawkins’ translation of it) shimmers with life.  Mattias’ inner dialog reads like a conversation with a trusted friend.  He’s spilling his guts out, but it’s never for our amusement or our entertainment.  The emotions expressed and explored are honest and universally relatable.  Harstad uses sparse language to eloquently state things we’ve all thought or felt at some point in our lives. Through Mattias he questions the very meaning of our existence on this planet and what the end result of all our struggles translates to. [Read our entire review]

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein
Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen

The_CanvasI’m going to fail miserably at describing this book.  Not just its contents, but the physicality of the object, which is so important in this particular instance because it represents a uniqueness that could never be properly replicated digitally in this current age of massive e-reading adoption.  This is not a book to be read on your Kindle or your iPad or your nook.  This is an object that you have to interact with beyond the expected page turning that normally goes along with cracking open a book and it serves as a reminder that no matter how handy our electronic devices may be; in some instances they simply can’t replace the experience of reading a physical book. [Read our entire review]

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves

The_Angels_GameSet in the time period before the events that transpired in The Shadow of the WindThe Angel’s Game introduces the opposite side of the coin, forcing the reader to experience the pain, suffering, and sacrifices that a writer must endure in order to create great literature and ensure that their work is distributed to the largest possible audience. It’s a much darker, but ultimately more rewarding piece, thanks largely in part to the author’s decision to challenge the reader to draw their own conclusions about what they’ve read based on their own unique life experiences and individual perspectives. [Read our entire review]

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith

Children_In_Reindeer_WoodsFirst published in 2004, this darkly bizarre novel was beautifully translated into English in 2012 by Lytton Smith.  Told from the perspective of an 11 year-old girl named Billie, Children in Reindeer Woods explores the horrors and traumas of violence and war from the vantage point of a child forced to come of age far too early.  When we read this book, we called it strange, fascinating, dazzling, and troubling, but no adjective in the world can accurately describe how unique and engrossing this novel is.  [Read our entire review]

The Dinner by Herman Koch
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

The_DinnerWe know what you’re thinking.  We just reviewed this book last week, so how can it make it to a Favorite Fiction list already??  If you’ve read this book, then you know the answer to that question. If you haven’t yet, you should.  Like, immediately.  Told over the course of a single family dinner conversation, The Dinner is a book that readers have been devouring since it was translated to English by Sam Garrett.  Tense, fast-paced, and full of carefully crafted dialog, this is a novel that will leave you hungry and begging for more. [Read our entire review]

That’s our list! What are some of your favorite translated works of fiction?

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.