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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.”
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation

Our Favorite International Reads from 2018 (and What We’ll Be Reading in 2019)

By Words Without Borders


As the year draws to a close, our staff, contributors, and board members share their favorite works-in-translation of 2018 and the titles they’re looking forward to in 2019.

 

Elisa Wouk Almino
Contributing Writer

Ana Cristina Cesar’s At Your Feet (Parlor Press) introduced a tremendous voice in Brazilian literature to an English-reading audience. Ana Cristina Cesar, or Ana C. as she is known in Brazil, published her poetry in the 1970s and early 1980s—while also working as a translator, journalist, and literary critic—before she died of suicide at the age of thirty-one. Brenda Hillman has translated Ana C.’s most important collection with the help of her mother, Helen Hillman (who was born in Brazil), and the Brazilian poet and scholar Sebastião Edson Macedo; translator Katrina Dodson edited the book. Ana C. is not easy to translate. Her language is colloquial, daring, purposeful, incisive, and startling. But collectively this team of translators has done a very thoughtful and thorough job.

With Ana Luísa Amaral’s What’s in a Name, Margaret Jull Costa is yet again translating an excellent title from the Portuguese. Ana Luísa Amaral, who is Portuguese, writes limpid, elegant, and observant poems, and it will be a true pleasure to see them collected in book form from New Directions next year.
 

 

Josh Ascherman
Development Assistant

Two acts of translation make up Mario Montalbetti’s Language Is a Revolver for Two, published this year by Ugly Duckling Presse. There is translator Clare Sullivan’s delightful eagerness to stay faithful to the original Spanish, as when the verb “graz / nar,” split over a line, becomes “squawk / ing.” And then there is the poet’s own project to “express a private sentiment / in public language,” a kind of translation in itself. I loved reading this collection.

In 2019, I’m looking forward to César Aira’s Birthday, translated by Chris Andrews and forthcoming from New Directions. I was introduced to Aira recently (late) and I can’t wait to read further.
 

 

Corinna Barsan
Board Member & Chair of the Young Publishers Committee

Little Beast by Julie Demers, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins and published by the indie Canadian publisher Coach House Books, is a slim debut novel—a great afternoon read—that feels so full in its authenticity of character and spirit. It’s the story of an eleven-year-old girl who suddenly grows a beard, to the horror of her parents and the community, and she decides to run away to escape their judgment. The details of the natural world are transportive and the senses come alive as we follow her on her journey to find a place in the world. It’s a beautiful, dark fairy tale of sorts that reflects on identity, shame, femininity, conformity, and self-love.   

Looking ahead to 2019, I can’t wait to get my hands on Lina Wolff’s new novel, The Polyglot Lovers—which won the August Prize a couple years back—translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel and to be published by And Other Stories in April. I loved Wolff’s debut novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, and I’m eager to read more of her work. 
 

 

Eric M. B. Becker
Editor

Mathias Énard’s novel Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (New Directions) had everything I was looking for, indulging my longstanding interest in the Renaissance, in East-West relations, and in the figure of Michelangelo. (It made a great companion to the Renaissance art podcast I was listening to at the time, notable for, among other things, its host’s inability to pronounce the word sacristy.) Charlotte Mandell is up to her usual translating wizardry.

Too many books, frankly, I’m looking forward to next year. But having to choose, I’d have to say Wioletta Greg’s Accommodations (Transit Books), billed as a tale of “secrets, shame, and a woman’s independence in post-Communist Poland.” Jennifer Croft is behind the Englishing wheel again, another reason I’m eager to read this. Eagerly awaiting the arrival of July.
 

 

Tobias Carroll
Watchlist Editor

My favorite work in translation from 2018—and possibly my favorite book of 2018—was Ondjaki’s Transparent City (Biblioasis), translated by Stephen Henighan. It blends a hauntingly surreal image—its protagonist slowly fading from reality—with a host of starkly realistic scenes of city life. Throw in a prose style that reads like verse and you have a singular reading experience that’s both immersive and unpredictable. Kim Sagwa’s Mina (Two Lines Press, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) summons a powerful sense of its protagonist’s psychological unraveling and throws in one of the most shocking scenes I’ve encountered in literature in a while; the end result is somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, which is to say: magnificently creepy. And Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (Riverhead, tr. Jennifer Croft) was a gripping blend of numerous seemingly disparate narratives, like nothing I’ve read before. It’s prompted me to venture more deeply into her bibliography: I delved into Primeval and Other Times a couple of weeks ago, and picked up a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead when traveling last month. 

As for 2019? Well, a couple of days ago a package from the University of Texas Press arrived at my apartment. I opened it to discover a galley of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter (translated by Eduardo Aparicio) and emitted a joyful yelp. I’d been unfamiliar with Rey Rosa’s work until I read about him in Veronica Scott Esposito’s The Latin American Mixtape; since then, I’ve tracked down several of his books and been uniformly floored by their command of atmosphere, their bold structural risks, and the haunting ways in which their characters interact. 
 

 

Jessie Chaffee
WWB Daily Editor & Outreach Coordinator

In my years as an educator, I taught Homer’s The Odyssey to both middle schoolers and college students, and I wish I’d had Emily Wilson’s recent translation (W. W. Norton & Company) of this canonical work on hand then. I appreciate it for the pacing (in part a result of Wilson’s decision to keep her text to the same number of lines as the original); the many voices, tones, and moods that she captures, including the poem’s humor; and the rich but not overly ornate language. I can’t wait for her translation of The Iliad. Another 2018 favorite was Petra Hůlová’s fierce, funny, and affecting Three Plastic Rooms (Jantar Publishing), expertly translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker. I also loved Piero (New York Review Comics), Edmond Baudoin’s poignant graphic memoir, in Matt Madden’s translation, of growing up with his brother and growing into his identity as an artist.

In 2019, I’m eagerly anticipating Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams (Feminist Press), translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul; Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (Tilted Axis Press), translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles and recently excerpted in WWB; and Marcus Malte’s The Boy (Restless Books), translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge.
 

 

Núria Codina
Editorial Fellow, Spring 2018

Uljana Wolf’s Subsisters: Selected Poems, translated from German by Sophie Seita, was one of my most exciting literary discoveries in 2018. The original is already a work in translation due to Wolf’s playful use of language and code-switching, and Belladonna’s bilingual edition enables the reader to be part of the game and to engage with Seita’s wit for multilingual poetry.

In 2019, I am particularly looking forward to I’m Not Here to Give a Speech, a collection of speeches by Gabriel García Márquez, forthcoming from Penguin Random House. It provides fascinating insights into Márquez’s thoughts on literature and into the social contexts with which authors and literary works interact. 
 

 

Miguel Conde
Book Review Editor

The author I most enjoyed discovering this year was undoubtedly Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza. Her novel The Iliac Crest (And Other Stories, tr. Sarah Booker) is a disturbing and original work—part gothic story, part psychological thriller—in which the reader is always left unsure of the true nature of the events being recounted and the characters involved. What we do know is that this tale of the encounter between a doctor and the two female visitors (one expected, the other not), who appear on the doorstep of his seaside residence, soon develops into an arresting fictional experiment. The mysteries surrounding the plot and its protagonists are skillfully deployed by Rivera Garza in a way that leads the reader into more disturbing reflections concerning the fictionality of personal identity and the violence of gender relations. There is an uncanny duplication at work here. The book’s bending of the conventions of genre finds an echo in its characters’ unraveling sense of gender and individual personality. 

Igiaba Scego’s Adua (New Vessel, tr. Jamie Richards), published in 2017, is a powerful story about the broken promises of immigration and the (still) untold pasts of European colonial rule. Between memory and hope, past and future, Scego created a moving tale in which the large events of history touch the most personal feelings and experiences. There are very few writers of Scego’s generation whose work feel as urgent and timely (I’d mention Portuguese writer Isabela Figueiredo, still unpublished in English), so I’m looking forward to Scego’s Beyond Babylon, which will be published in May by Two Lines Press, translated by Aaron Robertson.
 

 

Lori Feathers
Best of the B-Sides Editor

Thanks to Europa Editions and translator Jhumpa Lahiri, English readers are able to experience the wonderful fiction of Italian writer Domenico Starnone. In 2017 I thoroughly enjoyed his short novel Ties, and this year I was even more impressed with Trick, a novel about ambition, aging, and memory. Starnone builds tension quietly by detailing his elderly protagonist’s anxieties and perceptions. Trick’s plot is structured as a colloquy with The Jolly Corner, a short story by Henry James, and Starnone and Lahiri execute this impressive feat of storytelling flawlessly.

As for 2019, I’m excited to distraction about NYRB’s publication of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. This is the prequel to Grossman’s monumental work, Life and Fate, the fictionalized portrait of ordinary Soviet citizens and soldiers enduring the hardships of Hitler’s invasion and the terrors wrought by Stalin’s totalitarianism. As with Life and Fate, I plan to be entirely consumed by the grandeur and ambition of Stalingrad!
 

 

Susannah Greenblatt
Contributing Writer

2018 introduced me to the writing of Argentine journalist María Sonia Cristoff, who made her English-language debut with False Calmtranslated by Katherine Silver and published by Transit Books. Wandering through the ghost towns of Patagonia, Cristoff populates a desolate landscape with sensitively observed characters (even in the gruffest of Fernet-drenched silences), with airplane mechanics, omnipresent TV personalities, and long-gone, near-mythic figures of Patagonian history. There’s nothing empty in this loneliness, not to Cristoff’s eye. Another flooring English-language debut of 2018 was Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest and Other Storiestranslated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson and out with New Directions. I recommend devouring it bit by bit and warn that it does bite back.

I am eagerly awaiting 2019 for Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection Mouthful of Birdstranslated by Megan McDowell, coming out from Riverhead Books in January 2019. 
 

 

Susan Harris
Editorial Director

In a year of daily upheaval, disasters natural and manmade, and general free-floating chaos, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (Grove Atlantic) offered an alluring glimpse of order. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s pitch-perfect translation renders the narrator’s preference for the rigid structure and unvarying routine of Smile Mart not only understandable but irrefutable.  I also liked Jennifer Croft’s brilliant rendering of Olga Tokarczuk’s genre-bending Flights

In 2019, I'm looking forward to Zahia Rahmani’s Muslim (Deep Vellum Publishing, tr. Matthew Reeck)as well as Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds (if not to the sleepness night bound to follow). 
 

 

Nadia Kalman
Editor & Curriculum Designer of WWB Campus

In 2018, I enjoyed Aisha Franz’s graphic novel Shit is Real (Drawn & Quarterly) about a lost (yet resourceful) young woman in a terrifying (yet humorous) alternate reality. Translated by Nicholas Houde.

For 2019, I’m looking forward—if that’s the right phrase to use here—to Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad (New York Review Books), translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. 

 

 

Alane Mason
Founder & President

I am certainly biased in saying that my favorite work in translation of the year is one of my own editorial projects, Giorgio Bassani’s twentieth-century anti-fascist Italian masterwork The Novel of Ferrara (W. W. Norton & Company), in a beautiful new translation by acclaimed British poet Jamie McKendrick, and clothed in the most gorgeous book jacket I’ve ever had the pleasure to approve. It’s a bit eerie to have waited ten years for the completion of this project and then have it come out at a time when it seems to speak so directly to the present—an unimaginable and yet actual present in which anti-Semitic graffiti has appeared even in New York City, even in the office of a professor at Columbia University, as well as on homes and synagogues in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Important, necessary, moving, and lovely—what else does one want in a book?

While with my editorial nose to the grindstone my reading of other translations has been embarrassingly paltry this year, I do look enviously down the hall to the offices of my colleagues at Liveright and their recent publications of Aladdin, in a critically celebrated new translation by French-Syrian translator Yasmine Seale, and Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island, translated by Ann Goldstein, known for her bestselling renditions of Elena Ferrante. I’d had my eye on that Morante as my own retirement project, so am grumbly that Ann got to it first, but it’s a magnificent book, a bit similar in mood to Lampedusa’s famous The Leopard, but with (as my fuzzy memory recalls) an entirely different and more sympathetic protagonist and a quality of wistfulness.
 

 

Maaza Mengiste
Board Member

What better way to help stabilize a whirlwind of a year than through books? In 2018, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone (New Directions) provided a lens into the life of one complicated, sometimes infuriating German professor who finds himself both baffled by and sympathetic to refugees seeking asylum in his country. It was a good time after that to double back and reread Erpenbeck’s magnificent Visitation, both books translated by the incredible Susan Bernofsky. Both these books offered ways to consider history, trauma, and language. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (Riverhead Books), translated by Jennifer Croft, and Giorgio Bassani’s The Novel of Ferrara (W. W. Norton & Company), translated by Jamie McKendrick, have kept me transfixed on the possibilities of fiction. Gaël Faye’s Small Country (Hogarth), translated by Sarah Ardizzone, has been that perfect book on days when I’ve wanted to remind myself of what really matters in this world. 

I’m most looking forward to the last books written by the great Daša Drndić, whose time has finally come: EEG (New Directions, tr. Celia Hawkesworth) and Doppleganger. It breaks my heart that the world is discovering her just as she has passed away from cancer. I’m very eager to read Stories of the Sahara (Bloomsbury Publishing) by the late Taiwanese writer Sanmao, translated by Mike Fu; and Eric M. B. Becker has a translation of Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories coming out in February 2019 that I’m excited about. It’s going to be a good year for reading.
 

 

Karen Phillips
Executive Director

In Richard Marnier’s Who Left the Light On?, a resident of a monotonous neighborhood dares to be different and sets off an architectural revolution that culminates in a boisterous celebration of creativity. My three-year-old daughter loves flipping back in the book to trace how the neighborhood changes in Aude Maurel’s whimsical illustrations. This captivating technique—focusing on a single setting that slowly transforms over the course of the story—recalls books by Mitsumasa Anno, another favorite in our house. And thanks to Emma Ramadan’s translation from the French, which maintains a nice rhythm and rhyme, this is a fun book to read aloud. Who Left the Light On? joins a growing collection of (much-needed) kids literature that portrays diversity as a source of inspiration and strength. This is Yonder Books’s first picture book, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next.

In 2019 I’m looking forward to reading Charcoal Boys by Roger Mello (in translation from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn), which will be published by Elsewhere Editions.
 

 

Kalpana Raina
Board Member

This year I enjoyed reading Jasmine Days (Juggernaut Publications) by Benyamin, translated from Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib. The book describes the lives of migrant workers in an unnamed country in the Middle East at the time of the Arab Spring. Its exploration of issues of migration, labor, identity, and patriarchy through a young female protagonist are particularly pertinent now. The novel won the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature in India, a first for a work in translation.

Amongst the stack of books on my table, I am looking forward to reading Good Will Come From the Sea by Christos Ikonomou and translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Archipelago Books, February 2019). This is a collection of four stories exploring desperation, discontent, and hopelessness in post-economic-crisis Greece.
 

 

Samantha Schnee
Founding Editor & Chairman of the Board

Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock, Shatila Stories was born from a writers workshop conducted in the Shatila refugee camp. The collection was the brainchild of Peirene Press’s Meike Ziervogel, who is living in Beirut for the next twelve months. The immediacy of these stories and the urgency of the situation they portray make this a deeply compelling read that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. Latvian author Nora Ikstena won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for her autobiographical novel about “the bloody polka of history.” Soviet Milk (Pereine Press), translated by Margita Gailitis, illuminates the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual, toggling between the perspectives of a mother and her daughter, and addressing themes of women’s reproductive health, reluctant motherhood, and depression. Beautifully crafted and deeply moving. 

 

Rebecca Servadio
Board Member

One of my favorite works this year is by the massively talented Palestinian writer Mazen Maarouf. He is known for his poetry already and has turned his hand to prose and has just won a big prize—the Almultaqa Short Story Prize—for Jokes for the Gunmen (Granta Books). There are fourteen stories and Jonathan Wright is the translator. Imagine if David Szalay was writing from/of Palestine? 

Coming soon but not soon enough is the new novel by the brilliant young Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, The Dad Clause. The same could be said for new novels by Álvaro EnrigueEmiliano Monge, Claudia Hernández, Martín Caparrós, and, crucially, a new book by the utterly brilliant, transformational, and transgressive writer and artist Paul B. Preciado. Given the daily horrors and widespread and international political unraveling, thank heavens that excellent books are still being written, translated, agented, published. 
 

 

Douglas Unger
Board Member & Education Chair of WWB Campus

This has been a year spent taking in thousands of words per hour from my desktop monitor or handscreen, morning until night, such that language begins to feel way too external and remote, to be responded to anxiously or blinked away as swiftly as possible. Maybe this is why I’m so drawn to the writing of Clarice Lispector, for language that can’t be read in any rush, that must be paused over and gradually absorbed to appreciate fully its mind-altering experimentation.

Adding to her monumental Complete Stories, translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Katrina Dodson and published in 2015, New Directions released this year Lispector’s second novel, first published in 1946, The Chandelier, a surreal, tragic coming-of-age story, translated by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards with what seems like magical sensitivity to the eccentricities of the main character. Virginia feels trapped in her senses as in “a great still life in which she was living” and yearns for completion by sculpting her identity like she would a clay figure, but “there was an incredible sliding in her truth, she was like her own error.” She falls in love and discovers “the incomprehensible reality of the dance floating like a lie,” and the transience of love. This book is an antidote for a too-rushed world. The way Jorge Luis Borges writes speculatively into the infinite, making the abstract concrete in language and creating mystical time, Clarice Lispector describes a journey into the spiraling labyrinth of Virginia’s interior, exploring intensely every thought and sensation to its minutest parts until time stops.

The novel I’m anticipating most this next year is Fu Ping by Wang Anyi, translated by Howard Goldblatt for Columbia University Press. Wang Anyi is among Shanghai’s most accomplished writers; her musical, long sentences describe an alternative history of her landmark city. She’s also a pioneer for her independent women characters, written against a China that represses individuality and punishes difference. I’ve just finished teaching her signature 1995 novel, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, which was enthusiastically embraced by my students. Fu Ping renders the life of a poor woman who, exemplary of uprooted millions, emigrates from a rural area to China’s most populous city. I’m looking forward to slowing down with this book, too, and to savoring how the translation reshapes the English language through the source of Wang Anyi’s poetic style.
 

 

Savannah Whiting
Former Coordinator of Strategic Communications & Development

I was new to César Aira’s work when I picked up The Linden Tree (New Directions), and reading it made clear why Aira’s prolific novellas have developed a cult following. A slight 128 pages, this fictional memoir conveys all the detail of a much longer novel in impressionist brushstrokes. The images Aira evokes of life in his hometown, Buenos Aires, during the Perón years swirled in my own memory for months after I had finished reading.

In 2019, I’m looking forward to the new translation of Adonis’s Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and forthcoming with New Directions. 


Published Dec 17, 2018   Copyright 2018 Words Without Borders

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