As the year draws to a close, our staff, board members, and contributors share their favorite works-in-translation of 2017 and the titles they’re looking forward to in 2018.
Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury, translated by Eliza Marciniak, was one of my top reads in translation this year. Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, it’s an intimate coming-of-age story—drawn from the author’s own life—set in 1980s Poland and recounted through a collage of memories (from the claws and stitches of her father’s taxidermy to rumored visits from the Pope to simmering political unrest). Greg is a prize-winning poet and the colorful details she highlights bring such rich, bright texture to the lives of this close-knit rural community. Swallowing Mercury was published by a gem of a new publishing house, Transit Books, which is based out of Oakland, California. Keep an eye on their upcoming reads!
Coming in February of next year, don’t miss Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s new novel, Hotel Silence, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, published by Grove Atlantic. I have the great luck of working on this novel (full disclosure: I’m the editor) so I can tell you that it’s a whimsical, endearing, and surprising story of one man’s unexpected midlife journey to find happiness when he leaves his troubles behind. There’s such humor and tenderness in this story of transformation and second chances—it’s a wonderful celebration of life and its infinite possibilities.
Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, published by NYRB Classics, was one of the best books I read all year. Jenny McPhee’s translation brings each quirky character to life in this tale of a Turin family, set against a backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy.
In 2018, I’m particularly eager for Argentine writer Sara Gallardo’s English language debut, Land of Smoke, due out from Pushkin Press. Gallardo is a marvelous short story writer whose fantastical stories have gained her recognition as a writer in the tradition of Borges and Bioy Casares. One of her stories will appear in the April 2018 issue of Words Without Borders, which will focus on some of Argentina’s great writers who have few or no translations of their work in English. The translation is Jessica Sequeira’s.
One of my favorite books of 2017 was Swedish writer Karolina Ramqvist’s The White City, translated by Saskia Vogel and published by Grove Atlantic. Ramqvist’s novel is a visceral, intensely absorbing, and psychologically astute portrait of a young mother’s experience with isolation and vulnerability as she struggles to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I was completely gripped by Ramqvist’s descriptions of motherhood, loneliness, fear, and the stark Swedish landscape that underscores the story.
I’m looking forward to Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental, translated by Tina Kover, which will be out from Europa Editions in 2018. (An excerpt was published earlier this year in WWB.) And as a lover of all things Italian, I cannot wait for Anna Maria Ortese’s The Neopolitan Chronicles, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee and forthcoming from New Vessel Press.
One of my favorite books of 2017 was The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, published by Dorothy. The stories of Leonora Carrington have a peculiar combination of playfulness and ferocity that makes me think of children’s play. They can at first seem very lighthearted, with numerous and flamboyant plot twists that approach pure nonsense. But there’s something ominous about their characters and the surreal situations they end up, often unwittingly, involved with. It’s as if the stories become so invested in their own reverie that the line between reality and fantasy begins to collapse and the carefree turns of phrase acquire a nightmarish quality. Innocent mischiefs suddenly become a matter of life and death. The translations by Kathrine Talbot and Anthony Kerrigan keep the unsteady, disorienting pace that is so crucial to these stories, as well as the slightly affected and detached tone in which Carrington narrates the most gruesome events.
I’m looking forward to Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, translated by Michael Hofmann and forthcoming from NYRB Classics. A new English translation for this classic modernist novel was a long time coming—if I am not mistaken, this will actually be the first one since Eugene Jolas’s was published in 1931, which is quite surprising when we consider the relevance and influence of Döblin’s work. I’m curious to see how Hofmann deals with the many challenges presented by the original German text, such as the frequent puns, use of working-class slang, and the fragmented style that aimed to explore the possible literary applications of the (then nascent) language of cinema.
One of my favorite reads this year was a book published a number of years ago—Herta Müller’s The Appointment (Metropolitan Books/Picador), translated by Philip Boehm. Müller’s mastery is in her unflinching evocation of detail, in this case of a person’s experience of grueling interrogation, love, and despair under a brutal dictatorship. Boehm’s subtle translation captures the author’s potent imagery and psychological realism. A truly startling read.
Looking ahead to 2018, I’m eagerly anticipating Yoko Tawada’s new novel, The Emissary, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani and forthcoming from New Directions.
This year was a knockout for Argentine women writers. My two favorite books of 2017 are similar in that they’re unlike anything I’ve ever read. Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell and out from Riverhead Books, was so formally bold and tactful, so consuming in its horrifying haze. And Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez, also translated by Megan McDowell and published by Hogarth, has not left my nightstand all year. Enriquez wields her journalistic prowess with such art and imagination in her stories, peeling back the layers of everyday life to reveal a haunting underbelly that’s as surreal as it is photographic. She transports me to my old neighborhood in Buenos Aires with every rereading.
Here’s to 2018 bringing another Argentine literary giantess into English translation for the first time. And Other Stories will be publishing Norah Lange’s People in the Room in August, translated by Charlotte Whittle. Be on the lookout.
Startlingly, one of my favorites this year is not only an English-language original, but nonfiction: Kate Briggs’s This Little Art, an impressionistic meditation on translating and translation. Briggs is a translator of Roland Barthes, and her book echoes his wit and delight in language, as well as his dazzling erudition. As she writes, teens just outside her window are practicing parkour, and Briggs herself leaps nimbly from point to point in her acrobatic musings, working without a net to deliver a thrilling and joyous performance.
Among the many books I’m looking forward to in 2018 is Gébé’s graphic novel Letter to Survivors, translated by comics maître Edward Gauvin. Neither snow nor rain nor nuclear warfare: a mail carrier in a hazmat suit makes his rounds in a postapocalyptic landscape, delivering ominous letters to a lone family cowering in a fallout shelter. We published an excerpt in January 2010, when the topic, and the threat, seemed far less relevant than it does today.
I’m looking forward to reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, translated by Anna Summers, which was published this year by Penguin Random House.
Alane Salierno Mason
Founder and President
In 2018, I’m looking forward to The Novel of Ferrara, Giorgio Bassani’s classic suite of six novellas about the northern Italian city of Ferrara and its Jewish citizens in the years around World War II, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in a new translation by acclaimed British poet Jamie McKendrick. Before his death, Bassani reworked the various parts to form one epic volume, which will finally appear in English for the first time in the fall, published by W.W. Norton. It was a huge treat for me as an editor and Italophile to be involved with this project, truly a great and lasting work of literature, and like all such, ahead of its time in some ways. (The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles in particular is astonishing.)
In 2017, one of my favorite books was Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, translated from the French by Jordan Stump and published by Two Lines Press. It tells the story of two schoolteachers in Bordeaux—Nadia and her husband, Ange—who realize with a vague and insidious sense of dread that their community is rejecting them. Suspenseful and allegorical, the novel probes the disturbing forces of racism and xenophobia in France through the fog of myth.
Next year, I’m looking forward to getting a copy of the not-quite-graphic-novel The Apartment in Bab El-Louk, by Egyptian writers and artists Donia Maher, Ahmed Nady, and Ganzeer, and due out from Darf Publishers in April. WWB featured an excerpt of the work, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, in 2014.
Having been to Turkey last year, I was keen to find out about the hype around Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, and published by Other Press. It’s a little like The Catcher in the Rye, set in Germany. A young man who is studying abroad falls in love at first sight with a beautiful girl he sees outside a nightclub; naturally, the outcome is tragic.
And sticking with the Turkish theme, I’m looking forward to reading The Stone Building and Other Places by Aslı Erdoğan, translated by Sevinç Türkkan, and forthcoming from City Lights Publishers. Since the book was published in Turkey in 2009, the author has been in and out of prison for her political activism. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has said Erdogan “always produces perfect literary texts.” High praise indeed!
One of my favorites this year was Such Small Hands (Transit Books) by Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman, described as “Shirley Jackson meets The Virgin Suicides in a masterwork from the Spanish writer at the peak of his powers.” Edmund White writes, “Every once in a while a novel does not record reality but creates a whole new reality, one that casts a light on our darkest feelings. Kafka did that. Bruno Schulz did that. Now the Spanish writer Andrés Barba has done it.” Another favorite was Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes, brilliantly translated from French by Frank Wynne. Volume One was published in the UK by MacLehose Press in 2017, and is forthcoming in the US from FSG. Volume Two will be out in 2018 and I can’t wait! The Unholy Face of War (Penguin Random House) by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, was one of this year’s must-reads.
In 2018, I’m looking forward to reading the Italian bestseller The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, and forthcoming from Atria Books. Think Shataram . . .
I’m a buyer of books, so many that I find myself too busy to read them, so they sit in neat piles all over my home. This year, I started working through the stacks. I recommend two slightly older titles from previous years I’m so glad I could get to: Lovers, by Daniel Arsand, translated from the French by Howard Curtis, and published by Europa Editions in 2012. It’s a remarkably compact novel, told in lyrical, compressed passages that read like prose poems, telling the story of an eighteenth-century French peasant, Sébastien Faure, and his lifelong love affair with Count Balthazar de Créon. The Count flaunts social codes and rules of the court of Louis XVI, refusing to hide his homosexual love, and pays the ultimate price. Jhumpa Lahiri praises Arsand’s book. She’s rumored to be writing a novel in Italian modeled on its wonderful form.
Also: The Crocodiles, by Youssef Rakha, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger, and published by Seven Stories Press in 2014. Influenced by Roberto Bolaño’s “ultrarealist” group of young poets in The Savage Detectives, and also by the American “Beat Generation,” Rhaka’s book is a collage-form account, told in paragraph-length, numbered passages that read like diary entries, about a generation of young writers and artists in Cairo. This novel is exuberant with the passions and energies of youth, and what young people endured to become artists and activists during the Mubarak regime from just before the turn of the millennium until the revolution and disillusioning aftermath of the Arab Spring. The form of it, too, is most welcome, as it can be read in very short bursts without losing anything.
For next year, I’ve got my eye on The Chandelier, the second novel by Clarice Lispector, the most innovative of Brazil’s postwar generation, now a classic, translated by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards, and forthcoming from New Directions. I have Lispector’s The Complete Stories, translated by Katrina Dobson, that I’ve been sampling and savoring at bedside for the past year and a half―Lispector’s stories set off the most memorable dreams.
Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language—translated by Sam Taylor and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux—was by far the weirdest, and for that reason the most notable, new book in translation I read this year. Binet won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel HHhH, a fictional take on the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. In The Seventh Function of Language, another historical thriller, he imagines an international conspiracy behind the death of Roland Barthes, drawing together a hardboiled detective and his reluctant grad student assistant, the French and Bulgarian governments, and a who’s who of French intellectuals—Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault all play key roles. Binet takes many liberties with these and other already larger-than-life figures, and watching them play out the narrative is surreal, fun, and often unsettling. With its heady blending of fact and fiction, linguistic theory and plot, it sometimes took work (for this reader at least) to stay afloat, but I’d recommend it to anyone who’s ever dipped a toe into the waters of French postmodernism and wanted to splash around for awhile.
In 2018 I’m looking forward to reading Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, translated by Sophie Lewis, who translates quite a bit for WWB, and forthcoming from Transit Books.
My favorite book of 2017 had to be The Book of Emma Reyes, the epistolary memoir written by the Colombian artist Emma Reyes. Published by Penguin Classics and beautifully translated by Daniel Alarcón, the book is gripping on every page, saturated with painterly details and intense emotions. From the vantage point of a mature artist, Emma reflected on her harrowing childhood, and effortlessly captured a young girl’s difficult journey to self-realization.
For 2018, Steven T. Murray’s translation of Dag Solstad’s novel Armand V, due out from New Directions in May, is on the top of my reading list. It is tricky to discuss global political issues in a literary novel, and the way it is written—“told exclusively in footnotes to an unwritten book”—truly piqued my interest. I can’t wait to be surprised by “Norway’s bravest, most intelligent novelist.”