Imagine you’re strolling along cobbled alleyways dotted with wine-stained traditional eateries which fill the air with unfamiliar yet intriguing flavours. The postcard perfect panorama bursting with vibrant colours calls for a no-filter snap. Regrettably, it took me almost 15 minutes to write these two sentences. Clearly, I’m no fit for a literary translator! Creating (or re-creating in translation) literary work requires a completely different set of skills than specialist translation, such as pharmaceutical translation, for example. However, I do like reading translated books, both fiction and non-fiction, because it’s the best thing next to travelling. It lets you experience different ways of life from the comfort of your sofa. Otherwise, how would you know what life is like for a dissatisfied young adult in an Indonesian jungle or a Dutch biologist who has created a new form of life. Besides, reading can hugely improve your writing style, a crucial skill not only for professional translators, but also for those who write documents intended for translation, especially those technical ones, such as patent applications, drug safety reports, summaries of medicinal product characteristics, which often are very badly structured. But most of all, discovering a different culture opens up your mind and lets you realise translation is so much more than just replacing words.
If like me, you aren’t able to take holiday this August, but still want to get away from your usual work routine, pick up a read from my very own list of best translated books for the summer.
- Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
Translated from Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring
- Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński
Translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska
- The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson
Translated from Swedish by Rachel Wilson-Broyles
- The Procedure by Harry Mulisch
Translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith
This is probably one of the most unusual novels I’ve read. It tells an intriguing story of a Javanese young man called Margio who has something inside him that triggers animal-like behaviours. That’s something happens to be a tigress proudly and unexpectedly inherited from his grandfather. The writing is heavily influenced by Indonesian storytelling traditions where the reality and the reason seem to sit easily alongside the supernatural and magic. Perhaps the most unusual thing about the book is one of its female characters ‘With a nose like a parrot’s beak, thick jaw, and cold patrician manners, Kasia was more the witch than the princess’. Now, that’s very creepy!
I’m a big fan of Kapuściński’s work and to me Imperium is the finest example of contemporary reportage. As someone who grew up in the declining years of Communism in Poland, I have only a vague recollection of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. In his book, Kapuściński takes us on a fascinating journey through the ruins of the Soviet Union to let us hear the stories of anonymous ordinary people oppressed by the Communist regime. It’s a fact-laden, first-hand account of an empire which still remains shrouded in secrecy.
This book is perfect if you’re looking for a really funny, almost absurd story with highly improbable twists. It’s a light read which may really test your patience if you aren’t prepared to take it with a pinch of salt. But sometimes you just need some fun. I read this book when I worked as a trainee translator at the European Parliament in Luxembourg so after eight hours of hearing, reading and translating politics, it really lightened up mood on my commute home on the 194 Eurobus!
It’s definitely one of those books that make you go: ‘What the hell have I just read’. I’d probably never have reached for this novel if it hadn’t been for my former Dutch literature professor who translated it into Polish and sent me a copy. It may sound like a cliché when I say the story is about life, but it isn’t the kind of Bridget-Jones-Diary style life. It’s about the very essence of life, from its creation to its end. It’s quirky, it’s intriguing, it’s thought-provoking. Highly recommended if you aren’t afraid of challenging your own values and beliefs.
If you read only one translated book this summer, it has to be The Vegetarian. This Korean novel has been on the lips of many avid readers and translators for many reasons. Firstly, it’s won the Man Booker International Prize this year. Secondly, it was translated by an English literature graduate with no previous connection with Korean culture who taught herself Korean in merely two years just because she considered it a niche in the translation market (this strangely reminds me my own rationale behind randomly enrolling on a Dutch programme as part of my MA!). Thirdly, it’s said to be a ‘completely unremarkable in every way’ (The Guardian, 24th January 2015) experimental piece of writing. Unlike other books on this list, I haven’t yet read this one, but I’m already buzzing with excitment!
And if you still feel the need to push the boundaries, both cultural and geographical, then make sure you go to Ann Morgan’s list of book recommendations from every country of the world. Yes, that’s right. In 2012 as part of her ‘A Year Reading the World’ project, Ann read a book from all 196 independent countries.
Please share below your own translated book recommendations.