Reading translated fiction.

I’ve recently read Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali and it was beautiful. Without revealing too much, it is a story within a story as our narrator uncovers the story behind his colleague, Raif Efendi. It is about the 1920s Berlin art world and how a painting can change your life.

Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe translated this Turkish text into English and Penguin published it in 2016. It has taken 74 years for this miniature masterpiece to be translated into English. As a person who is only fluent in English, this made me think about the importance of translated fiction.

Without the literature from non-English speaking countries, we wouldn’t have some of the great British and American writers as we know them. Would the Beat Generation be the same without the influence of Existentialism? Would Patti Smith’s writing be different if she had not encountered Arthur Rimbaud?

The works of Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre are the cornerstones of existentialist literature – all texts are not originally in English. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables influenced so many British writers and is referenced throughout pop culture. Going back even further we have Dante’s Inferno which has shaped a lot of the Western literary canon. Whether it is Jacobean playwrights or contemporary authors like Dan Brown, the accessibility of his work has been influential. 

As students, we read the works of Nietzsche, Freud, Lyotard and so many others who shape our literary and philosophical landscape. Where would we be without a translation of these works?

Moving away from the world of academia and onto pleasure reading, translated fiction teaches us about different cultures and history. The politics discussed in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace are challenging. However, I came out of that reading experience with a tiny bit more knowledge on nineteenth-century Russian politics. 

I am really thankful for translators; some of my favourite works are pieces of translated fiction. The thought of me never reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita because it was only in Russian (which I cannot read) terrifies me. Translating work to make it accessible to as many people as possible across the globe is so important. Stories from different cultures enriches your reading experience. 

In saying that, the right translation for you is important. Some books, mainly classics, may have multiple translations. Some are old translations, some are new, and some are as close to the original text as possible. Unless you are studying the text, I don’t think it is vital to read the text closest to the original. Inevitably, some things will be lost in translation. Sample different editions of the book and see which version you prefer. 

There are a few publishing houses which publish translated works and can easily be found in bookshops. Penguin and Vintage books are a good place to find mainstream writers, such as classic European and Russian authors or more contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami. They also normally use different translators which helps for variety. Pushkin Press is also a good publisher for classic and contemporary works from across the world. Serpent’s Tail is not exclusively translated fiction, but it has some great lesser-known works available. 

I thought I would suggest a couple of books for people who do not usually read translated fiction and would like to start. 

1. The Vegetarian by Han Kang. 

I think this novel defines contemporary literature. It is a Korean novel which is split into three parts and centres around a woman who becomes a vegetarian. That is all I will say. 

2. Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin. 

I’m not going to lie I wasn’t too pleased with the translation and found several errors, but I am grateful to have access to this story. The semi-autobiographical piece written from a prison cell is about Anne who escapes from prison and breaks her ankle. She is picked up by a motorcyclist who is also on the run. It is a story about love and danger and is basically the book version of a Jean-Luc Godard film. Patti Smith also introduces the book so that’s a selling point. 

3. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. 

Tsukuru Tazaki’s friends all have colours in their names. Tazaki does not. One day his friends stop talking to him and Tazaki is left floating trying to figure out what happened. It is a relatable piece about isolation but it is also so much more than that – it is a work of art. As the novel progresses, an eerie atmosphere looms over the events. As a reader you have to put a lot into the book and find the missing puzzle pieces but that is what makes it so fantastic. 

This post is limited to my personal tastes and I know I am leaving out some key genres and discussions about translated fiction,  but I want this to be a useful introduction for some people. 

If anyone has any suggestions of translated works they like, I would love to know!


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