Want some expert advice on what to read in translation? Then look no further. Top writers, literary scouts, critics and festival directors recommend books to give – and devour – during the festive season. Enjoy!
Lisa Appignanesi, writer Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall, translated by Phillip Boehm (Peirene Press). This short, taut novel conveys more about the Second World War in Poland than many a thicker volume. In a series of brief scenes, at once moving and surreal, the great writer, Hannah Krall, takes us through the extraordinary journey of one woman searching for her beloved husband who has disappeared from the Warsaw ghetto. Her quest takes her through broken teeth, changed identities, casual rape and more, before ultimately landing her in Auschwitz. The echoes of my parents’ experience, which I wrote in Losing the Dead (Virago), astonished me and gave me a greater sense of the reality of trajectories that now often seem unthinkable. This is an unsentimental novel about hard histories. It’s also moving and yes, at times funny. For anyone and everyone who loves literature. Claire Armitstead, literary editor, The GuardianThe Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Quercus). Shishkin is one of Russia’s greatest living writers – the only one to have won all three of his country’s big literary prizes – and his epistolary novel takes a metaphysical approach to life, love and war through a series of letters between two lovers, who appear to be living in different periods of history. Vovka is a soldier fighting in China in the early 20th century, while Sasha’s letters describe life in a Soviet city half a century later. Conflict, it suggests, is the great existential dislocator, which can only be challenged by love, faith and patience. ‘Time will be back in joint when we meet again.’ Geraldine D’Amico, festival director, Folkestone Literary Festival, and Spoken Word Curator, King’s Place Pig’s Foot by Carlos Acosta, translated by Frank Wynne (Bloomsbury). This is a wonderful romp of a book, the story of three generations spanning a hundred years of Cuban history through poverty, revolutions and dreams. Acosta is a passionate and sensual raconteur and the book is packed with energy, colours and feelings. Julian Evans, writer and literary criticA Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš translated by Duska Mikic-Mitchell (Dalkey Archive) & Mark Thompson’s Birth Certificate (Cornell University Press). When Mark Thompson started writing Birth Certificate, his biography of Danilo Kiš, Kiš’s work was all but out of print in English. Dalkey Archive Press has since re-translated five of his books, among them the superb anti-totalitarian flush of stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Kiš’s brilliant novelistic consciousness, his ability to draw the reader into a more imaginative relation with history, has yet to dawn fully upon us, so read Birth Certificate in tandem with Dalkey’s translations to appreciate why Milan Kundera called him Europe’s ‘great and invisible’ talent, and give Mark Thompson’s spirited and idiosyncratic book to any relative who professes to be a little blasé about conventional biographies. It will rouse them from their Christmas slumber. Kapka Kassabova, writer, translator, literary criticPushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov (Alma) introduces us – better late than never – to the author of The Zone, one of Russia’s most original modern writers. The translation by his daughter Katherine Dovlatov is a triumph in itself. This bitterly witty and startlingly vivid autobiographical novel set at the Pushkin Estate where the unpublished writer-narrator tries to get a grip on reality, is a modern classic that would delight all literary readers, and in addition those with a taste for satirical writing and those interested in off-beat stories of dissident Soviet life. Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (Peirene Press) is a masterpiece novella by the Polish journalist and author, masterfully translated by Philip Boehm. It tells the real story of a young woman in Nazi Europe who won’t give up though everything tells her to. Packed with finely shocking humour and almost magical in its impact on the reader, I can’t imagine anyone alive who wouldn’t be buoyed and swept away by it. Koukla MacLehose, literary scoutAstragal by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate (New Directions & Serpent’s Tail 2014)When this autobiographical novel first appeared more than 40 years ago it was a sensation. The author had written it while in jail and it follows her life closely after her escape from a prison for young women. Albertine was born in Algeria and had been abandoned as a baby. She was adopted at the age of two by a middle class couple in their fifties. She was abused at the age of ten by an uncle and in spite of being a brilliant pupil she quickly rebelled. When she was 15, after a robbery which went badly wrong, she was disowned by her parents and sent to a special institution where she was to remain for six years. It is from there that, a few months before her 20th birthday, she jumped out of a window 10 metres above the ground in the middle of the night and broke her ankle (specifically a bone called the ‘astragal’). She managed to crawl to the road and lay in the middle of it until a van stopped. The young driver – Julien – got out to help her. He was to be the love of her life. Julien had himself been in prison several times and they became soul mates immediately. After various adventures in which Julien had to choose between two women, is sent back to prison and Albertine becomes a prostitute to survive, they finally find each other.What makes this book very special is the extraordinary voice. The use of language is amazingly assured, with striking images and juxtaposition of words which astonish because they are so real, so perfectly accurate, whether describingphysical pain, anger or joy. There is humour, an immense love for life, and real vitality. It also feels so incredibly authentic. Rosie Goldsmith, journalist, European Literature Network The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss (Pushkin Press). This book introduced me to the great cultural city of Aleppo; to the literature of Syria; to a remarkable story and man; great characters and a grippingly-good story (beautifully translated by Max Weiss); to a writer of wit. His warmth, love of history and homeland – in spite of current exile – are inspirational. This slim volume gave me so much – and reminded me of what Syria has lost, is suffering and needs to protect – its culture. Michele Hutchinson, publisher, translatorThere are some wonderful Dutch language poets
being translated into English at the moment. Try for example, Judith Wilkinson’s translations of Toon Tellegen’s work or Martinus Nijhoff’s classic Awater (Anvill Press). Last month, Archipelago Books published a new selection of Hugo Claus’ poems, Even Now, beautifully translated by David Colmer and printed on lovely, thick, creamy paper. I was totally blown away by it. An elegant gift for any poetry lover, young or old. Lucy Popescu, literary critic The following four books are the perfect present for those interested in human rights and fighting injustice.Horses of God (Granta) by Mahi Binebine translated by Lulu Norman. Based on the 2003 suicide bombings of Casablanca’s Grand Hotel, the book is narrated from beyond the grave. Binebene movingly portrays the path from disillusionment to violence and Horses of God is a timely reminder of how poverty crushes hope and breeds hatred. A fine translation. A small masterpiece, Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (Peirene Press) is set in Nazi-occupied Poland and describes the experiences of a young woman who is determined to rescue her husband from a concentration camp. It’s beautifully structured and Krall’s stunning prose is crisply translated by Philip Boehm. In Quesadillas (And Other Stories), Juan Pablo Villalobos uses a child’s perspective to describe the corruption and economic volatility of 1980s Mexico. Quesadillas is gloriously absurd, celebrates the fantastical, and plays with notions of magic realism. It is his delight in language that marks out Villalobos as a writer of distinction. He is well served by Rosalind Harvey’s flawless translation. I am only half way through but absolutely loving The Assassin from Apricot City by Witold Szablowski (Stork Press). It’s terrific reportage from contemporary Turkey written by an award-wining Polish journalist. Szablowski covers honour killings, gender difference, immigration, Islamophobia and more. If, like me, you love the works of Ryszard Kapuściński this is the book for you. Hard-hitting prose in a limber translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Rebecca Servadio, literary scoutI would like to recommend Davide Longo’s The Last Man Standing, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (MacLehose Press). This book had me rooted to the spot unable to breathe until I finished it and then silent as I thought it over for a long time. It is a semi dystopian novel and a road movie – where The Road by Cormac McCarthy meets Le Cite des Enfants Perdu. Jane Southern, literary scoutIf I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre, translated from the Brazilian Portugese by Nick Caistor (Doubleday). A Brazilian novel which combines a coming-of-age theme with murder. A mutilated woman’s body is found by two 12-yr-old boys, who find the authorities less than interested when they try to report it, so they end up investigating themselves, only to uncover sexual cruelty, misogyny and corruption at the heart of 1960s Brazil. Catherine Taylor, publisher, literary criticThe Infatuations, by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Hamish Hamilton). A young editor, Maria, becomes obsessed with the Perfect Couple she observes daily in a Madrid cafe, imagining every aspect of their lives. When the man is murdered, apparently by a random lunatic, Maria goes from outsider status into being drawn intimately into the complex scenario. This is typical Marias – ambiguous, shocking, wholly erudite, with sinister undertones and philosophical asides, impeccably translated as always by Margaret Jull Costa. The perfect gift for someone who prefers their crime psychological rather than visceral. Sylvie Zannier, literary scout The book in translation which impressed me the most this year is not a newcomer but a book published in 2009, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first volume of his six-part autobiographical masterpiece. Starting with A Death in the Family, the Norwegian author’s existential journey is terribly addictive. I can’t wait to revisit his world and mind with the second book, A Man in Love, published in paperback by Vintage and ready to be consumed over the holiday. And a few books to look out for in the New Year (or to be read now in the original language): Koukla MacLehose, literary scoutThe Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated by Sam Taylor (MacLehose Press). Not out yet, but almost, so this is your reading for the New Year. A 27 year old Swiss man from Geneva who dared to write an American novel! Be prepared, its 670 pages long! But frankly, you’ll devour them. It’s like sitting with the first volume of Stieg Larsson, you just want to understand who is behind all this and you just go on.The setting is New Hampshire America and it reads absolutely like a translation of an American novel. It is also certainly inspired by the cinema, films like Chinatown or The Big Sleep. The pace is fantastic and the last 100 pages completely overturn all the suspicions you had earlier. Simply brilliant.The novel wanders between the summer of 1975, when a 15 years old girl named Nola Kellergan disappears in the town of Aurora, and 2008 – the year of Obama’s election – when her body is finally found. The story is told by a young writer, Markus Goldmann, who decides to visit his former literature teacher and mentor- and famous writer himself, Harry Quebert – who lives on the outskirts of Aurora near the sea, to help him find again inspiration…Rebecca Servadio, literary scoutThe book I would most like to recommend – The Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker May 2014) – is I fear only out in the New Year. It is such a wise, beautiful book with an almost savage visceral power. It is a coming of age story about a family and why we are who are. My coup de coeur is a book called Chaplin’s Last Dance by Fabio Stassi, translated from Italian by Stephen Twilley and published by Portobello Books in April 2014. It is a love letter to silent cinema and Chaplin himself.