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The Best Translated Books You Missed in 2020

By Words Without Borders

As we approach the end of 2020, we’ve been speaking with translators, critics, publishers, writers, and booksellers about outstanding books in translation that readers might have missed this year. Read on for recommendations from Daniel Hahn, Maya Jaggi, Meng Jin, Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, Boyd Tonkin, and more.

In the City a Mirror Wandering

By Upendranath Ashk, tr. from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Recommended by Jeffrey Angles

Like the modernist classics Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, this book, first published in Hindi in 1963, traces the experiences of a flaneur wandering through a city over the course of a single day, recording his experiences, memories, reflections, and emotional reactions to the world around him. The setting is the city of Jalandhar in 1930, an era of rapid change as India launched forward, fusing elements of its long, rich past with modern ideas and cultural elements to form a new, hybrid culture, amplified in all of its complexity by the country's dazzlingly complex multiethnic and multilingual nature.  

It is no wonder that people have sometimes called Upendranath Ashk the "Indian Proust." There is everything in this book: reflections on the state of modern society, complex life histories presented in intimate, soul-searching detail, comments on the amazing lengths people will go to to escape poverty, stories imbued with absurdity and humor, reflections on writing (and the plagiarism of) literature, and on and on. Over the five hundred pages of this book, an entire complex world of lower-class life comes alive in scintillatingly rich detail.    

The translator, Daisy Rockwell, is an outstanding translator of Hindi and Urdu literature who has also translated several masterpieces about India's Partition. Her sensitive work in this book retains large numbers of Indian words, concepts, and reflections, carefully showing the ways that a complex array of ideas and languages intersect in the lives and speech of the characters. (The characters speak not just Hindi—the language in which the book was published—and Urdu, but also Punjabi.) This book, so full of ideas, fun, and touching moments, is perhaps exactly what we need now to show us new ways of being in our multicultural, multilingual world, where ideas run up against one another in unexpected, unpredictable combinations. As this book proves, Ashk belongs alongside Joyce and Woolf as one of the world's great modernist writers.1

Jeffrey Angles is a poet, translator, and professor of Japanese literature at Western Michigan University.


The Book of Anna

By Carmen Boullosa, tr. from Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Recommended by Rachael Daum

After nearly 900 pages, who knew we needed the story to keep going? Carmen Boullosa brings us an imagining that follows Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: what happens to her children after the end of the book? How do they navigate a world of "people born of a womb" when they themselves were "born as characters, imagined by their author"? And what about that book that Anna was writing, Boullosa’s inspiration for this novel? The narrative presses the faltering Russian aristocracy against the beginnings of revolution, not so much weaving lines together as yanking them into place, rendering them as inevitable as Anna Karenina’s own fate. The tying together of fictional characters within a “real” world—which the reader knows is itself fictional!—is a masterwork in irony: playful and indulgent without ever becoming pretentious. The translation by WWB’s own Samantha Schnee glitters, firmly and fabulously navigating voice across class, time, and genre.  

Rachael Daum is a translator from Serbian, Russian, and German; a writer; and Communications & Awards Manager at the American Literary Translators Association.


An Inventory of Losses

By Judith Schalansky, tr. from German by Jackie Smith
Recommended by Daniel Hahn

Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses is, put most simply, a collection of essays themed around transience, around ideas of things lost and those traces that remain, around memory and decay. It covers ruined mansions, vanished documents, extinct animals, imagined things that perhaps never existed at all, pasts real and mythologized. Yet the book is stranger than that summary may sound, and it surprises you constantly, with each essay quite different in its structure or approach (the last and the first might be from quite different books)—though it is never not intricate and evocative, filled with mystery and suggested insights. Schalansky allows herself to be led by her curiosity and all the questions that it spawns (that perfect word “spawns” comes from Jackie Smith’s impressively confident translation)—and as a reader, your journey is fueled by that curiosity, too. You’ll find yourself taking an interest in the most surprising things, and seeing old things differently, in this rich, teasing, clever book.

Daniel Hahn is a translator, editor, and writer.


The Sword and the Spear

By Mia Couto, tr. from Portuguese by David Brookshaw
Recommended by Maya Jaggi

The second volume of Mia Couto’s magisterial historical trilogy The Sands of the Emperor, The Sword and the Spear is a sequel to Woman of the Ashes but can be devoured as a satisfyingly standalone read. Set during the dying days of the state of Gaza in southern Mozambique, a powerful African empire defeated by Portuguese forces in 1895, it tells a compelling tale of love and war from an alternating perspective: that of Imani, a young woman educated by Catholic priests to become a “frontier soul,” her colonial learning putting her at odds with her people and herself, and Germano, a Portuguese sergeant for whom she acts as a translator, and who falls in love with her. In this novel, which interweaves history and myth, letters and proverbs, they journey upriver to a hospital to save his life after a terrible injury. With its polyphonic structure and deep affinity with indigenous languages and African worldviews, The Sword and the Spear straddles worlds while translating between them, revealing, as the author once told me, “how official history is built from lies, and how it pushes out other stories.”

Maya Jaggi is the WWB Critic at Large.


Lake Like a Mirror

By Ho Sok Fong, tr. from Chinese by Natascha Bruce
Recommended by Meng Jin

I read the stories in this haunting book during the loneliest hours of quarantine, and they were honest companions—mirrors that reflected the invisible, the hidden, the bandaged, and the scabbed back at me. Ho Sok Fong's prose creeps under your skin and brings your unsaid aches and darknesses to a low simmer, holding you in a state of hushed uncertainty, awe, and tenderness. 

Whenever I read translated literature, I am reminded of how literature in English has its own very specific conventions and expectations, and how the cadences of other languages and worlds can open such different cadences of thought and imagination. This collection was such a discovery. The stories are effortlessly original in form, and illuminate the lives of women in ways that are totally unexpected yet somehow timeless.

Meng Jin is a writer and the author of the novel Little Gods.


Unexpected Vanilla

By Lee Hyemi, tr. from Korean by Soje
Recommended by Paige Aniyah Morris

I think it’s rather telling that I can’t describe Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press) without first invoking food. That is to say, this book was a meal I devoured, the flavors of which I would recall unprompted days, weeks, and months later. This is a decadent collection of poems—not merely a light appetizer, but the most indulgent table spread. So much blooms, sprouts, festers, and melts in these pages. I have elsewhere described Soje’s dulcet translations as “sumptuous” and Lee Hyemi’s poems themselves as full-bodied, like a dark wine. Dealing with the stickiness of human life and love, all the textures of the natural world, and the sheer density of the senses, these poems surprised me line after line. At the end of a year that saw many fantastic Korean works in translation receiving much well-deserved attention and praise, I invite any readers who may have somehow missed this collection to savor it now and for a long time after.

Paige Aniyah Morris is a writer and translator.


Last Witnesses and The Lying Life of Adults

By Svetlana Alexievich, tr. from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; and by Elena Ferrante, tr. from Italian by Ann Goldstein
Recommended by Ricardo Alberto Maldonado

Of what I’ve learned in the past ten months, this: that the act of translation seems to require of me an initial sense of generative bewilderment (or wonderment) and the recourse of form to carry that bewilderment elsewhere. And therefore reorient myself. By that measure, the most consequential act of translation this year is one I see almost every day on trains and buses in New York City, where we are conveyed, transported, by signs, to health: “stand six feet apart," with decals on the floor placed six feet apart, a useful refrain not without its aesthetics and practicality. The books I’ve gravitated to this year seem to spell out for me a future for our bewilderment: from Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, which I’ve reread in English (tr. Keith Gessen) and Spanish (tr. Ricardo San Vicente) to her Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II (tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). Why do we remember? And how do we remember? And how will we talk and write about this? What will be the texture of our collective grieving? In Alexievich, I see the frenetic energy of a world failed by bureaucracy and hubris. And in this sense, her work is prophecy. I can’t think of a better writer for now. In my search for things to read this year, I felt compelled to look for what I had seen around before, but never read (Alexievich being one example), and also for works of creative and intentional destruction and reorientation. Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (tr. Ann Goldstein) reminded me to look at my own childhood in Puerto Rico, my own bewilderment at the confounding language and cruelty of adults, with a kind of mercy and impetus toward revision and retranslation.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado is the author of The Life Assignment and the co-editor of Puerto Rico en mi corazón.


Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way

By Tayeb Salih, tr. from Arabic by Adil Babikir
Recommended by M. Lynx Qualey

The gods of literature are nothing if not mercurial. One book by the towering Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih (1929–2009), Season of Migration to the North, has become an icon, a classic, a staple of university curricula. But his others remain largely in the shadows. Some have never been translated. His Bandershah seems to have fallen out of print.

This is not to say that Tayeb Salih was a prolific author. Yet in the last five years of his life, many of his nonfiction essays were gathered together in collections. Mansi is particularly effective, as it offers a series of snapshots of a man who called himself Mansi Yousif Bastawrous, Michael Joseph, and sometimes Ahmed Mansi Yousif. The book is both a portrait of this trickster-character and a memoir of Salih’s own life.

Adil Babikir’s translation brings us the quick humor and brightness of Salih’s writing. And while the book came out in the spring, I have yet to see any reviews. There is just the lonely statement by the novelist Leila Aboulela on Amaz*n that “it was a joy to keep company with the genius behind Season of Migration and I hope that more of his nonfiction writing will be made available to English language readers.”

M. Lynx Qualey is an editor, translator, critic, and cofounder of the ArabLit website.



By Leesa Gazi, tr. from Bangla by Shabnam Nadiya
Recommended by Arunava Sinha

The pandemic may have forced a massive lockdown on people across the world, but for some individuals, being locked down can be a way of life. In Leesa Gazi's Bangla novel Rourob, translated into English as Hellfire by Shabnam Nadiya, this is how Lovely has been living till her fortieth birthday, as has her younger sister Beauty, caged in her own home by her mother ever since their transgression of going up to the roof alone as children.

What will happen on this day that Lovely's mother Farida Khanam allows her out of the house alone for the first time? Not even the most febrile imagination, besides Gazi's own, could conceive of what follows. Set in modern Dhaka—the capital of Bangladesh—this extraordinary novel has been translated with a matching fire and passion by Nadiya. The novel thrusts suffocation down our throats and takes us toward the gruesome in the most unbearably compelling fashion. Hellfire shows us where we can go no matter where in the world we live. 

Arunava Sinha is the translator of more than sixty books from Bangla to English.


Difficult Light and Katabasis

By Tomás González, tr. from Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg; and by Lucía Estrada, tr. from Spanish by Olivia Lott
Recommended by Jennifer Shyue

Difficult Light, Archipelago Books’ second Tomás González novel (tr. Andrea Rosenberg), is a quiet meditation on many of life’s Big Things: grief, love, art. The opening paragraph introduces one of the central tensions: “I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in New York.” From there, González’s narrator unwinds his time- and space-hopping narrative in a voice, carried deftly by Rosenberg, that does not waver in its gentle warmth.

Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis, translated by Olivia Lott and published by Eulalia Books, is said to be the first book-length poetry collection by a Colombian woman to appear in English translation. That alone is a good reason to pick it up; open it for the cogent translator’s preface, sharp, surreal imagery that yields such gems as “They’ve laid out traps for you instead of ears,” and a translation that is sure-handed in a way that’s always a pleasure to behold, especially in poetry.

Jennifer Shyue is a translator from Spanish.


The Eighth Life

By Nino Haratischvili, tr. from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin
Recommended by Boyd Tonkin

Five years ago, on a visit to Tbilisi, I first heard about a stupendous German-language epic that told the nation of Georgia’s twentieth-century history—through Tsarist and Soviet rule and into fragile independence—through the fluctuating fortunes of one family across six generations. When it finally reached English, thanks to a consistently brilliant, resourceful, many-voiced translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (Scribe) not only lived up to the hype, but far outshone it. For sure, this friendly monster of a novel is an immersive saga that embraces the reader in its sumptuous tapestry of woven tales. It also delivers a shrewd exploration of the ways that the steamroller of history—which, for Georgia, has included the worst of modern tyranny and terror—still leaves space for human (especially women’s) choice and agency. Haratischvili shows too how the healing art of narrative itself can help to reunite all “the things that had fallen apart.” I recently co-judged Warwick University’s Women in Translation award—which The Eighth Life won—and have seldom felt so sure about a prize decision. 

Boyd Tonkin is a Benson Medalist 2020 of the Royal Society of Literature; a critic for The EconomistFinancial TimesWall Street Journal, etc; and the author of The 100 Best Novels in Translation (Galileo Publishing).


That Time of Year

By Marie NDiaye, tr. from French by Jordan Stump
Recommended by Jeff Waxman

It was a strange year for reading: in March I read An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (tr. Jackie Smith) and just knew it would be the book that I would spend the year talking about. Instead, publication was pushed to December as stores shuttered and passing ambulances painted my ceiling red at night, but it's finally out next week. Back in March, however, I found myself in the same position that many people did: on an indefinite kind of vacation that began with casual concern and then tiptoed downhill toward alienated privation, government violence, and fear of death. In the midst of all this, Two Lines quietly published That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye (tr. Jordan Stump), a book that felt like a thinly veiled allegory for the moment at hand. There’s no novel I read this year so apropos of our current moment: when Herman, NDiaye’s protagonist, decides not to return from vacation at the end of the season, he finds the sunny country resort town transformed overnight into an unfriendly and insular place with customs he doesn't understand, and his wife and son have transformed into ghosts of their former selves. Finding a way to live in these new circumstances requires the action of a ponderous and baffling bureaucracy and—oh gosh, I forget whether I'm describing NDiaye's book or the last nine months of our lives . . . in any case, this book is not about disease or a public health crisis or anything like that. It's about what happens to a person inside when faced with circumstances at once out of the ordinary and well out of control.

Jeff Waxman is the Bookmobile Director for the House of SpeakEasy, co-creator of Open Borders Books and the Bookstore at the End of the World, and a freelance promotions consultant.

1. Editors' Note: In the City a Mirror Wandering was published in 2019 by India Penguin Modern Classics, but readers outside of India might have missed it.

Looking for more WWB reading lists? Check out the following:

The Watchlist: November 2020

New Canons: 9 Anthologies of Translated Literature

10 Translated Books from India to Read Now

Disclosure: Words Without Borders is an affiliate of and will earn a commission if you use the links above to make a purchase.

Published Dec 10, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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