Top Five Translated Fiction

Translated Fiction

Tilted Axis Press who published the award winning Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts asked me to write an article about why I read translated fiction, so rather than repeat myself, if you are interested in a deeper explanation you can read more about my motivations by clicking on the link below:

“Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution” by Claire McAlpine

At the end of the article is a list of titles I recommended with links to my reviews. But for today I’m just going to pull up from my memory five books that have stayed with me that at the time of reading transported me elsewhere and that I remember being excellent and memorable reads.

That’s one of the reasons I continue to love reading translations, they’re a form of armchair travel, not to see the sights of other countries, but to enter the minds of their storytellers, to see things from another perspective or delight in discovering one similar one to our own. To break out and away from the narrow influence of the culture we are within. Most of what we are offered to read from traditional channels was imagined, created and published only in English, less than 5% of fiction originates from other languages.

Women in Translation

It’s hard to only choose five especially as I’m going to refrain from choosing titles I have mentioned already in a list I made in August 2019 leading up to #WITMonth.  Do check out the list below, it contains some of all time favourites.

My Top 10 Books by Women in Translation in 2019

To put this into context, I have read approximately 180 books translated from other languages. In choosing the five listed below, I’m trying to be mindful of what I think people might enjoy during this time of isolation.

My Top Five Works of Translated Fiction

1. The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares tr. Margaret Jull Costa (Spain)

This was a fabulous read for me and one I’ve never forgotten and often recommended, it’s a quiet, short read, an elegy that evokes the end of an era, in this case one man living alone in a village in the Pyrenees long after everyone else has abandoned it. It might sound melancholic, but this is the nearest literature comes to being like staring at a painting and admiring the creation. Here’s what I said in my review (click on the title to read the whole review):

Written in the future, the past and the present, in a lyrical style that for me never depresses though we might think it bleak, this ode to a changing landscape that is reverting back to its true nature is haunting, gripping, colourful and soul destroying all at the same time.

2. Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira tr. Eric M.B. Becker (Brazil)

This is one of the more recent translations I’ve read, and one of the most accomplished, for it dares to tell a potted history of Brazil through interconnected stories of daughters, from 1500 to the modern age. They are grouped into five eras providing an insight into how easily humanity loses its connection to its  origins, thinking itself above the rest.

There are occasional traits that pass from one generation to another, in this line of women who range

from slaves to slave-owners, revolutionaries to idle society ladies, muses to artists, powerful matriarchs to powerless victims, Indians to respectable “white” women whose eyes would “light up in shock” if they found out about their indigenous (and African, and working class) ancestry. Enrico Cioni

3. Nothing But Dust by Sandra Colline tr. Alison Anderson (France)

Although it is a French novel, it’s set in the Patagonia steppe, Argentina, about four boys growing up in harsh conditions on a farm under the rule of a tyrannical mother. It’s one of those novels that makes you feel like you are there, willing the youngest son Raphael on as he is challenged by his two older brothers and harsh mother.

It evokes a strong sense of place whether that is the dry, dusty, harshness of the plateau or the lush, fertile, freedom of the forest the youngest son encounters when he must track down two missing horses. It’s a fantastic, compelling novel of the human condition, in an original setting and family dynamic. Thought provoking, atmospheric, charged with tension, it will stay with you long after reading.

4. The Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb (Iceland)

I remember reading this novella and the wonderful feeling it evoked as it was New Years Day in 2016 and my first read of the year. The story takes place on a ship in 1949, the narrator is a passenger and Caeneus, the second mate of the freighter, is a storyteller.

Each night he tells part of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC), so reading the book necessitated a number of welcome diversions to look up that story and an increasing awareness of the connection between what we are reading and that ancient myth. Entertaining, intriguing, intellectually stimulating and fun, I scribbled all over that book in pencil and had fun learning so much more than what was written between the pages.

5. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash (France)

Because I live in France, I probably read more French books (in translation or original language) than any other foreign language, despite reading from more than 20 countries annually, so it’s not surprising to find a second French title on my list.

Bonjour Tristesse is a slim, coming-of-age classic of Cecile, a 17 year-old girl on holiday with her father at a villa on the Meditarranean, near St Raphael. I loved it.

Jealous of her father’s intentions to remarry she behaves badly and then regrets it, at the same time expressing remarkable insight into her flaws and misgivings. She knows this marriage will turn her and her father into happy, civilised beings, yet she deeply resents it.

Utterly engaging, I was riveted, I loved the ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked; not to mention this was written when the author was only 18 years old herself. I’m not usually a big fan of classics, but the French writers Françoise Sagan and Colette have me overcoming my usual reluctance.

Do you have an all time favourite read of translated fiction? Share in the comments below. I’m always looking to add other people’s favourites!

If you missed them, here are the rest in the series I’ve posted so far, more still to come!

Further Reading During Our Confinement

My Top 5 on the TBR (To Be Read)

My Top 5 Spiritual Well-Being Reads

My Top 5 Nature Inspired Reads

My Top 5 Uplifting Fiction Reads

20 thoughts on “Top Five Translated Fiction

  1. Oh, such intriguing selections, Claire. The only one I’ve read is Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, which I loved! The rest all sound wonderful, but I’m most interested in Nothing But Dust… I’ve read many books where the father is tyrannical but don’t recall reading anything in which the mother is the tyrant. Thanks for the tip off

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’d really enjoy and appreciate Nothing But Dust too, it’s a Europa Editions book too, I remember seeing this and feeling the sense of it right from the cover. The mother, well, I look forward to what you’ll have to say about her.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was greatly looking forward to this list, and it didn’t disappoint! I love how you describe The Yellow Rain as like ‘looking at a painting’ – that’s a beautiful comparison and one that has made me want to pick it up right away. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, not everyone is looking for a painting in a book, but this gem of a novella is not only a wonderful story, I really do think it elevates itself to be able to be described in such a way. I do hope you track down a copy, mine was an old library copy fortunately for me, abandoned by them.


  3. I totally agree about translated fiction allowing us to travel from our armchair. I have read Bonjour Tristesse twice, it’s a gorgeous novel. I really like the sound of The Yellow Rain, a striking cover too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bonjour Claire 💓 I have Maria Josè Silvera’s, Sjon’s & Françoise Sagan’s novel on my tbr.
    Making note of Yellow Rain & Nothing but Dust.
    Thank you Claire for these inspiring reads.
    I am currently reading The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré which is not a novel in translation, yet the author grew up in Nigeria.

    Take care Claire, be safe 🤗💓🌺🎶

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would have thought you’d already read Bonjour Tristesse Sylvie, and in French of course. Maybe a reread for you, though it seems one that people do like to reread.
      Yes, there are some we are lucky enough to be able to read in English, yet have a flavour or sense of another culture and not just those who have been transplanted into an Anglo/American culture and way of storytelling.


  5. Bonjour Tristesse is one of my all time favourites. I had to read it, in French for my A Level and it has stuck in my mind ever since. I can remember whole passages and descriptions. Great list Claire!


  6. Add me to the list of fans of Bonjour Tristesse. If I could turn back the clock I would choose to read it at Cecile’s age – seventeen, if I recall correctly? It feels like the sort of book every young woman should read at that stage of life.

    Nothing But Dust sounds excellent, too – especially the sense of place. That’s something I always look for in this type of novel. An evocative setting, beautifully evoked.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Oh I like the older ones that have stood the test of time, and this is a title I recognise but haven’t read, so thank you kindly for the recommendation and for sharing it. And thanks for following and commenting, your blog is a treasure trove of history, wisdom and interesting anecdotes of Brittany, I’m happy to have discovered it!

      Liked by 1 person

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