As we approach the end of the year, we’ve been speaking with translators, critics, publishers, writers, and booksellers about excellent works in translation that you may have missed in your 2019 reading. Margaret Busby, Edwin Frank, Ru Freeman, Gregory Pardlo, and more recommend works that they feel are deserving of greater attention.
The Scent of Buenos Aires and Parade
Recommended by Esther Allen
Hebe Uhart is a true writer’s writer; much admired by her literary compatriots, she kept a very low profile and died last year at age eighty-two, months before her first book in English translation appeared. The stories chosen for her collection, The Scent of Buenos Aires (tr. Maureen Shaughnessy, Archipelago Books), are acutely observed, but as if by a foreigner or a newcomer with no previous experience of what is being described; they’re told with a deceptive simplicity that draws the reader into deep labyrinths of everyday life.
Hiromi Kawakami’s Parade (tr. Allison Markin Powell, Soft Skull Press), the brief, haunting sequel to Strange Weather in Tokyo (2013), chronicles a lazy afternoon’s conversation between that novel’s two main characters. In an afterword, Kawakami wonders where “stories that have ended” go, and what happens to them there.
—Esther Allen, translator from French and Spanish, cofounder of the PEN World Voices Festival, and professor at CUNY’s Baruch College and Graduate Center
Recommended by Margaret Busby
It’s hard not to have one’s interest piqued by Naguib Mahfouz’s posthumous collection of stories, The Quarter, translated by Roger Allan and published in July by Saqi. Nobel-winner Mahfouz died in 2006, and the stories were recently discovered among his old papers with a note that they were “for publishing 1994” . . . “Better late than never” couldn’t be more apt.
—Margaret Busby, writer, editor (New Daughters of Africa), and cofounder of the publishing house Allison & Busby
Recommended by Robyn Creswell
The late Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély’s collection Final Matters (Princeton University Press) is undoubtedly the strangest, most visionary book of verse I’ve read this year. The poems stem from an impossibly brutal donnée—the murder of the poet’s parents by robbers who bludgeoned both to death on Christmas Eve in 2000. Through a combination of formal stringency and imaginative, even heretical theology, Borbély composes what his translator Ottilie Mulzet rightly calls “an ars moriendi”—a meditation on death as gorgeous as it is severe.
—Robyn Creswell, translator from Arabic and professor at Yale University
All My Goodbyes
Recommended by Jennifer Croft
I loved the Argentine novel All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos, beautifully translated by Alice Whitmore and published by Transit Books earlier in the year. This chilling, fascinating tale resonated with me so much, and it’s no surprise: Mariana Dimópulos is herself a translator (who has translated the likes of Walter Benjamin into Spanish) and literary critic who is so sensitive to the nuances of language and thought that what is admittedly a stunning plot is also vastly more. Highly recommended for fans of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, and I think this quote from All My Goodbyes does a good job explaining why:
If I stay, I stay. If I go, I go. This thought was soothing in the beginning, but then it wasn’t anymore. In the beginning I’d just think something logical, and it would calm me down. In the beginning I’d just say “it’s logical,” and I’d feel perfectly fine. I moved around logically, from one new city to the next, one new bedroom to the next. And it worked the other way, too: if I stayed, I stayed because it was rational to do so. But soon my reasons grew, like a big bouquet. In Berlin and Heilbronn I spent my time contemplating all those rational flowers, my own words; if I’d really had a bouquet of reasons, I would have wanted to count them and pull all their petals off. But my reasons had no petals, and no perfume.
—Jennifer Croft, translator from Spanish and Polish, author of the memoir Homesick, and cofounder of the Buenos Aires Review
A Dream Come True and Until the Lions
Recommended by Edwin Frank
That Latin American literature might not be magical realism is at last beginning to register with readers of English. One writer who deserves to be much better known to us than he is the wonderful Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti (a name of Irish, not Italian, origin), whose stories and novels offer an intoxicating cocktail of solitude, frustrated desire, smoldering anger, defeat, and despair, invariably served with a twist. Somehow they cheer me up. Onetti’s collected stories, masterfully translated by Katherine Silver, have now been published under the title A Dream Come True (Archipelago Books).
John Dryden famously spoke of translation taking three forms: metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Though written in English, Karthika Nair's Until the Lions (Archipelago Books) certainly fits this last category. Her feminist take on the Mahabharata, India’s great epic, is an astonishing demonstration of the power of translation to reshape and renew the literature of the past.
—Edwin Frank, founder and editorial director of New York Review Books Classics and author of the poetry collection Snake Train: Poems 1984–2013
The Old Woman and the River
Recommended by Ru Freeman
This year, I enjoyed Ismail Fahd Ismail's The Old Woman and the River (tr. Sophia Vasalou, Interlink Publishing). The wisdom of age (both in the writer and the protagonist) pervades this novel set in Iraq, in the delta of the storied Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is a story of personal and national bereavement, underlined by abundant resilience, with characters who are lush and full-bodied, whether dead or alive, and a war that decimates and yet cannot truly overcome the hearts and minds of a people. I wish more American novels could build their stories around women like Um Qasem or tell the story of mothers and widows in war to such profoundly moving effect.
—Ru Freeman, critic, activist, poet, and author of the novels A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane
This Tilting World
Recommended by Lauren LeBlanc
This Tilting World (tr. Sophie Lewis, Two Lines Press) is a mournful tribute to author Colette Fellous’s homeland, Tunisia. After years of traveling back and forth between Paris and Tunisia, it’s the attacks on the beach at Sousse, coinciding with the death of a precious friend and fellow writer, that prompt her to abandon Tunisia for Paris. With exquisite, adoring language, Fellous captures the pull of memory and loss, recognizing a parallel between her inner struggle and that of her parents, as well as the refugees who cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life.
—Lauren LeBlanc, writer, editor, and books columnist at the Observer
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming and Space Invaders
Recommended by Daniel Medin
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (New Directions) may have won the National Book Award, but if “missed” means “worthy of having more readers,” then László Krasznahorkai’s juggernaut of a novel still deserves a mention. The scene depicting Wenckheim’s arrival in the small town of his youth is the most sublime thing I have read in years. Kudos to Ottilie Mulzet for rendering Krasznahorkai’s carnivalesque polyphony into English with such dexterity.
Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders (Graywolf Press) is a superlative example of a slim work that casts a long shadow. This haunting and elliptical novella about a group of classmates in Pinochet’s Chile—translated impeccably by Natasha Wimmer—provides a tantalizing hint of what Fernández, one of Latin America’s leading writers, is capable of. I can hardly wait for The Twilight Zone (La dimensión desconocida), now in the pipeline from Graywolf.
—Daniel Medin, a professor at the American University of Paris and associate director of its Center for Writers and Translators, is co-editor of Music and Literature magazine
Recommended by Gregory Pardlo
I loved Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space (tr. Ani Gjika, New Directions). I’m fascinated by Lleshanaku’s balance of surreal imagery and explicit social criticism. Her explorations of intuition and emotional life seem both timeless and iconoclastic, wisdom custom made for the twenty-first century.
—Gregory Pardlo, translator from Danish and author of the memoir-in-essays Air Traffic and the poetry collections Totem and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Digest
Recommended by Chris Power
A few years ago, when I wrote an essay about Silvina Ocampo’s short fiction, I was frustrated by the knowledge that I, who cannot read Spanish, could access only a third of her stories. So it’s been a highlight of 2019 to encounter City Lights’s publication of Ocampo’s debut collection of 1937, Forgotten Journey, translated into English for the first time by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan. “The country was so flat,” one story begins, “that the horizon would climb up the sky on all four sides, in the shape of a bathroom sink.” This kind of warping of physical and psychological spaces occurs again and again in Ocampo’s work, always manifesting in new, unexpected ways. She is an extraordinary writer.
—Chris Power, literary critic for the Guardian and author of the short-story collection Mothers
Maresi Red Mantle
Recommended by Meytal Radzinski
Maria Turtschaninoff's Red Abbey Chronicles series is one of the hidden gems in the translation world, and the recently released third installment, Maresi Red Mantle (tr. Anna Prime, Pushkin Press), was by far my favorite of a series I already loved. This is occasionally-dark-but-ultimately-optimistic feminist young adult fantasy of the first order, with its fair share of politics and morality alongside adventure, romance, and emotional impact. While very much a sequel and best read in the context of the whole series, Maresi Red Mantle can also stand alone as a wonderful feminist story for all readers, regardless of gender or age.
—Meytal Radzinski, founder of Women in Translation Month and book blogger at Biblibio
Die, My Love
Recommended by Emma Ramadan
No one writes quite as convincingly and honestly as Ariana Harwicz does about what it feels like to be alive and to be a woman. In Die, My Love (tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff, Charco Press), Harwicz describes the darkest parts of our psyches with violence and verve, and it's impossible to look away.
—Emma Ramadan, translator from French and co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar
Diary of a Malayali Madman and Freedom Fables
Recommended by Arshia Sattar
N. Prabhakaran’s collection of stories Diary of a Malayali Madman (HarperCollins India) reassures us that the absurd, the surreal, and the hyperreal belong to all languages and cultures equally; that we are all overwhelmed by the world in which we live; and that if we cannot impose order upon it, we must observe its unpredictability with a detached gaze. Jayasree Kalathil’s translation is light and transparent, allowing Prabhakaran’s gentle dismay to shine through.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in what is now Bangladesh in 1880 and is best known for her feminist utopia, Sultana’s Dream. The collection Freedom Fables (tr. Kalyani Dutta, Zubaan Books) brings together her other satirical pieces as well as her overtly polemical writing about women’s rights and social justice. Never more timely, this volume reminds us of battles still to be won even as it allows us the pleasures of laughter.
—Arshia Sattar, translator from Sanskrit and children’s book author
Recommended by Jeremy Tiang
The disquieting short stories in Asja Bakić’s Mars (Feminist Press) get under your skin not just because of the bizarre worlds they evoke but also how plausible they make this strangeness feel. These off-kilter tales never quite end up where you expect—going from a novelist who finds herself at the launch of a book she has no memory of writing to a dystopian future in which all authors have been banished to Mars. A jagged, quietly disturbing collection, translated with verve by Jennifer Zoble.
—Jeremy Tiang, translator from Chinese and author of State of Emergency and It Never Rains on National Day
Published Dec 17, 2019 Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders