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10 Books in Translation You Should Read This Year

By Shahnaz Habib

Jan 10, 2020

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Heart-warming novels and twisting detective thrillers are among the top books in translation to read this year. 

Book covers courtesy of the publishers

Heart-warming novels and twisting detective thrillers are among the top books in translation to read this year. 

Italy or India, Bangladesh or Burundi: Where will your reading take you this year? If your booklist needs some international flair, consider these recent stories by writers around the world.

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Translation is not just a kind of writing, it is also a kind of reading. Translated books often represent literatures and places that are at least twice removed from us, by distance and by language. And so, reading in translation is a way of broadening our travels and visiting places that books originally written in English might not have access to. Here are 10 recent novels in translation that offer stories that lead us on deeper journeys and into counter-histories.

Uruguay

A Dream Come True (Archipelago, 2019)
Written by Juan Carlos Onetti, translated by Katherine Silver 

Set in the mythical town of Santa Maria, this collection of stories, originally written in Spanish, is a sideways glimpse of Uruguay in the 1980s. Santa María is loosely based on the capital of the country, Montevideo, and the stories capture the listlessness and strangeness of a city where lives hang in suspension—as indeed Onetti’s did, during the military dictatorship in Uruguay, before he fled to Madrid. The deaths and disappearances and exiles of that period permeate the lives of Onetti’s characters, but their quest to find meaning amidst such helplessness gives them a tender dignity.

Buy Now:amazon.com

Singapore

Costume (Balestier Press, 2019)
Written by Pway Ngon Yeng, translated by Jeremy Tiang

Set against a backdrop of Cantonese opera in Singapore, this novel delves into the relationship between an aging Chinese immigrant and his granddaughter. Separated by generations as well as languages, Leong Ping Hung and Yu Sau feel their way toward each other even as the city-state around them transforms rapidly. An old opera costume that belongs to the grandfather helps Yu Sau understand herself.

Buy Now:amazon.com

United Kingdom

Bird Cottage (Pushkin Press, 2018)
Written by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett 

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The natural world of the Sussex countryside comes to life in this novel, originally written in Dutch. Based on the true story of violinist Glendowen Howard who gave up her music career for the study of birds, this novel follows Howard as she turns her house into a bird refuge and becomes a recluse who prefers avian company over human. Meijer captures her not as a curious eccentric but as a woman who pushes against the frames of what a woman’s existence could be in the early 20th century. 

Buy Now:amazon.com

Serbia

Dogs and Others (Istros Books; None edition, 2019)
Written by Biljana Jovanovic, translated by John K. Cox 

A digressive coming-of-age tale, this novel established Jovanovic as one of the foremost avant-garde writers of her generation. Dogs and Others, translated from Serbian, is the story of a young lesbian in 1960s Belgrade, when it was the capital of former Yugoslavia. The author’s fragmentary style dips between the city’s socialist history and the protagonist’s sexual awakening.

Buy Now: amazon.com

India

The Story of a Goat (Grove Press, Black Cat, 2019)
Written by Perumal Murugan, translated by Kalyan Raman 

A farmer and his family in rural south India adopt a little black goat. This is the deceptively simple premise of this critically acclaimed novel, translated from Tamil. Author Perumal Murugan captures the lush beauty and sweetness of southeast India’s villages, but he also mischievously uses the fable-like adventures of Poonachi the goat to explore the perils of a life thwarted by caste and class. 

Buy Now: amazon.com

Burundi 

Small Country (Hogarth, 2019)
Written by Gaël Faye, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Drawing on his life as a child in Burundi before the 1992 genocide compelled his family to migrate to France, Faye creates in this novel a moving portrait of how quickly a childhood and a country can turn dangerous. As the civil war in neighboring Rwanda spills into Burundi, 11-year-old Gabriel becomes aware of his Tutsi mother’s vulnerability and the faultlines submerged in his beautiful and rich neighborhood, filled with mango trees and playing children.

Buy Now: amazon.com

Cuba 

Grab a Snake by the Tail (Bitter Lemon Press, 2019)
Written by Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush 

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This atmospheric novel, translated from Spanish, is the fruit of Padura’s years of journalism in Havana’s Barrio Chine. The city’s long-standing Chinese community and their neighborhood is captured evocatively as police detective Mario Conde sets out to solve the mystery of an “exotic murder”—Pedro Cuang, a lonely Chinese drycleaner is found hanging from his ceiling, with two arrows cut into his chest. While the novel is funny and populated with colorful characters, from drug traffickers to hapless honeymooners, it is also a glimpse of the racial and immigrant politics of Cuba.

Buy Now: amazon.com

Bangladesh 

I Remember Abbu (Amazon Crossing, 2019)
Written by Humayun Azad, translated by Arunava Sinha

What happens when a war takes away a father? In this luminous novel, translated from Bengali, a child remembers and forgets her father, a professor and activist who gives up his life for his country. This novel also sheds light into the history of three countries, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and the complicated and drawn-out partitions that broke them into three separate nations. 

 Buy Now: amazon.com

Mozambique 

Rain: And Other Stories (Biblioasis, 2019)
Written by Mia Couto, translated by Eric M.B. Becker

Couto, an environmental biologist, is the most well-known writer from Lusophone Africa. His parents immigrated to Mozambique from Portugal and he came of age as a young man just as their adopted country became independent and descended into civil war. The stories in Rain grapple with postcolonial history and environmental degradation, using multiple genres within the same collection to evoke the shape-shifting uncertainties of “this land we are remaking.”

Buy Now: amazon.com

Italy 

The Bishop’s Bedroom (New Vessel Press, 2019)
Written by Piero Chiara, translated by Jill Foulston

Chiara was a best-selling detective novelist in postwar Italy, and this book was made into a movie before it was translated into English. Two men meet each other on the shore of Lago Maggiore, an Alpine lake shared by Italy and Switzerland. One of them is sailing a boat around the lake while the other lies in a waterside villa—both members of the idle rich figuring out their place in the world. They trade life stories as the dust of the Second World War settles around them, but a shocking death interrupts their adventures and conversations. Sensual and melancholy in equal measure, The Bishop’s Bedroom is also a beautifully observed book about life on a lake.

Buy Now: amazon.com

The publishers and publishing year reflect the translated English versions of the above books. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.

Want to read more with us? Join fellow literature lovers online at AFAReads, our digital book club.

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