For myself, the joys of being an avid fan of fiction come not just in reading, but also in discovering books and authors. It may be something that’s new, passed me by before, or come before my time.
Fortunately in this sense, the last decade or so has seen translated fiction widen as an avenue which to explore. My knowledge of the publishing industry is limited to say the least, so I’m not sure whether this is mostly down to a conscious effort on some part or just the way publishing and the literary world has evolved; all I know is that translated fiction accounts for some of the best books I’ve read in recent years.
I obviously only get to greedily enjoy the end product of translated fiction as a monolingual reader (ashamedly, I might add!) who never sees nor would understand the original text. The translation process is never far from my mind when I’m reading, though. A lot of the time the prose flows so naturally that it’s unnoticeable that someone has gone to agonising lengths to capture the essence of the source text. Other times you detect evidence of a translator’s work, which often serves to give the novel a special charm that only a translation can give. Certain words and phrases stand out which you realise must have been derived from words wholly unique to the source language. Take fictional French detective Commissaire Adamsberg for instance, who is frequently referred to as a ‘cloud shoveller’ in the novel listed below. It’s a translated phrase you’ll never hear in the English language, yet it has a unique meaning in French which is described by Fred Vargas (translated by Sian Reynolds) and perfectly epitomises Adamsberg’s character. And no, I don’t know what the original French term is!
Below are some of my all-time favourite translated works and some recently published ones well worth a place on your bookshelf or kindle. There is a particular emphasis on the Latin American fiction that has captivated me since first reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Grizzly Scandinavian crime fiction seems to have got the sort of exposure only topped by ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ lately, so doesn’t make the list!
Purgatory by Tomas Eloy Martinez (translated by Frank Wynne)
An absorbing and deeply personal semi-ghost story from Tomas Eloy Martinez, underpinned by the fascist regime in 1970s Argentina. An Argentine woman in exile in the States finds a man in a restaurant identical to her husband presumed killed in conflict thirty previously, and from there unfolds a stunning narrative that proves why Martinez is one of Latin America’s most celebrated literary greats.
The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov (translated by Amanda Love Darragh)
A pessimistic portrayal of a Russia saturated with greed and corruption is all too relevant in these turbulent times for the country. Kurkov intertwines several bizarre storylines, including a man having an affair in his sleep and a cat arisen from the dead, in this compelling combination of black humour and social commentary.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (translated by Lucia Graves)
You’ll be unlikely to question why this tale stemming from young a boy’s discovery of a mysterious volume in a labyrinthine library has sold 15 million copies and counting sold worldwide after reading it for the first time. It has the style and suspense you would expect of an international bestseller, whilst at the same time being thought-provoking and capturing the claustrophobia of Franco-era Spain.
The Blue Hour by Alonso Cueto (translated by Frank Wynne)
A wealthy lawyer serves as the The Blue Hour’s main character, but this is no bland legal thriller. Similar in ways to Purgatory in that the past of a bloody civil war catches up to engulf those in the present, Cueto unlocks the horrors of Peru’s history to a dramatic yet beautiful narrative.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marcia Marquez (translated by Gregory Rabassa)
South American literature shines just as brightly in Colombia, too. This classic from the country’s most acclaimed author isn’t always easy to follow and is one of those novels in which you will notice new subtleties each time you read it that escaped your attentions previously. It’s magical in a way that detracts nothing from the realism of the events that hugely inspired it.
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro (translated by Ian Barnett)
Carlos Gamerro tackles more dark South American themes in a full-on action-packed and at times even hilarious fashion not attempted before, as the protagonist Felix still suffering from the traumatic effects of the Falklands War is drawn into an explosive present-day narrative. Perfect for those who want a thrilling page-turner that doesn’t sacrifice literary prowess.
Death and the Olive Grove by Marco Vichi (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)
Who would of thought that Italy would eventually come to rival the English in producing classic murder mysteries and detective novels? You know roughly what you’re going to get from detectives like Inspector Montelbano and Inspector Bordelli, the latter of whom on this occasion is tasked with finding the culprit of a series of gruesome murders. Still, it’s a genre that never gets tiresome if delivered with the panache, humour and wit with which Vichi writes.
Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand by Fred Vargas (translated by Sian Reynolds)
Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series is a refreshingly quirky alternative to so many ultra-slick modern crimes series knocking about these days. The award-winning fifth installment sees Adamsberg forced to clear his own name while a trident-wielding serial killer runs amok – a plot that brings about a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud moments and philosophical musings.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)
The oldest title on this list and perhaps the most prestigious. The Leopard is the ultimate historical novel, set amidst the turbulence in Sicily during the Rigordimento and navigating themes of class, loyalty and family. The labour and skill that must have gone into producing such a layered and intricate masterpiece – and translating it – is difficult to comprehend.
Robert Davies is Marketing Manager at London Translation Agency.