Reading in translation, a literary revolution

As we edge closer to Women in Translation month, we thought we'd prepare by inviting one of our favourite bloggers, Claire McAlpine of Word by Word for her thoughts and experiences on reading translated fiction.

'I have always been an avid and curious reader. We didn’t have a lot of books when I was a child, they were something of a little-indulged luxury expense for remote, rural families in New Zealand. However, every few months a Scholastic Books leaflet was distributed in the classroom, offering new books for children and I would pore over it looking for the one I really wanted and then trying to convince my parents how essential it was that they buy it. Sometimes I succeeded and would fill in the order form, give it back to the teacher and await the day the package was delivered to school and the books distributed to the fortunate few.

There wasn’t a library, but my grandparents lived near the city and always had a huge pile of books they regularly read and exchanged. My grandmother’s reading got me thinking about what it was I was drawn to in literature, as her reading preferences were so easy to find. Some years later, after my grandfather passed away, I’d accompany her to the library, to the aisle where all the books had a red dot on the spine. If there was a circle around page 21, put it back she said, if not, I’ll take it. Red dots were mysteries. I checked other colours to see if I could find my kind of book. Not so easy. I didn’t read an obvious genre and I didn’t really know how to describe what I read, I only knew when I found it, and I also knew they weren’t the kind of books my mother liked, despite trying to press them on her; too slow (carefully drawn out characters), too descriptive (lyrical, almost poetic prose), she preferred a good fast-paced thriller.

The books I wanted to read took me to places unknown, introduced me to people having transformational experiences, described inner landscapes that made me feel something cathartic and external environments that could both repel and entice. Some I could relate to, others provoked me to imagine things that challenged my way of seeing the world. Most of all they entertained while making me pause and think and want to discuss, they enriched my love of words, turn of phrase, metaphors, allowing me to enter the author’s parallel universe inspiring my imagination to construct vivid worlds as I saw them. Not Mystery, Magic.

I moved to London in the 1990’s and discovered my Aunt and Uncle were very widely read and had fabulous bookshelves I could lose hours perusing. I travelled throughout Europe and Asia swapping books with backpackers and sought out books written from within the country I visited, preferably not written from a Western perspective. I had no desire to read of Graham Greene’s Vietnam, not when I could learn so much more devouring Dương Thu Hương’s superb Paradise of the Blind (tr. Nina McPherson, Phan Huy Đường) and Bao Ninh’s heartbreaking The Sorrow of War (tr. Phan Thanh Hảo), books whose voices were unique, insightful, rarely heard and little known outside their own country at the time.

I began to become aware of how narrow the choices were in mainstream bookshops, how newspaper reviews often supported the same authors, tied to the English language, culture, education and way of life. Prize lists lost their appeal, their lack of diversity shamefully clear, their offerings too predictable. Even stories by authors with foreign sounding names, which always made me pick up a book (the promise of a story from elsewhere), often disguised an anglo-saxon education and point of view, the voices of second generation immigrants that had crossed over to become one of the accepted literary establishment. Nevertheless, I liked to read these novels, though soon they too became like a genre.

When I moved to France, I began to write about the books I read at Word by Word, my step by step journey of discovery to that holy grail of stories that light me up inside. I connected with others like me, reading ‘off piste’, no longer did we solely turn to bookstores or the newspaper review sections for guidance, we were part of a rich and wide ranging, global community of like-minded readers who liked to write about books and in my conversations with others, I became aware of publishers who specialised in bringing literature from outside the mainstream to the literary world, I discovered translated fiction.

I was already aware of Granta, who publish a journal of new writing from up and coming as well as established voices, extracts from novels, short stories, but when I heard about Peirene Press who publish 3 books a year, all translated novellas from around Europe, I decided to subscribe. Their byline read ‘two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’. A lucky dip of reading, placing your trust in the publisher to offer literature you would otherwise never find. Suddenly I was reading books from Finland, Germany (The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. by Jamie Bulloch), Kazakhstan (The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, tr. by Andrew Bromfield), Spain, Poland, Denmark, Libya.

I discovered Gallic Books were translating contemporary French literature into English and I became part of a community of readers who loved to write about translated works, a group who read women writers in translation during August #WITMonth and I developed a love of Caribbean literature, whether it was written in English or translated. I’d discovered something of my literary holy grail.

I’ve heard people are put off translations for various reasons, however I can’t say my reading experience has ever resonated with any of the problems. If anything I am intrigued by how phrases can be translated in different ways and accept that no translation can ever be 100% true to the experience of reading it in the original language, a luxury few of us can indulge, to read in another language. But what a gift, to be given an insight into another culture’s storytelling, another view of the world, whether it resonates or is completely different to that which we know. One of the most incredible collections I have read was the oral translation The Honey Thief by the Hazara author Najaf Mazari, as told to Robert Hillman, an astonishing insight into a culture and storytelling tradition.

I was further motivated and quietly ashamed, by the knowledge that so many of my French friends were so much more widely read than I was. Whenever I spotted one of my adult students with a book, I’d ask what they were reading and nearly always it was an author I had never heard of, from a country I had never seen a book published before.  I mean here in France, the common reader is just as likely to be reading a novel by an author from Chile, Columbia or Russia, as they are French authors, in fact 45% of their fiction is translated. In the English speaking world, that figure is about 5%. A richness that we are sadly ignorant of.

In 2016, many of my favourite reads were translations, my absolute favourite read was The Bridge of Beyond by the Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart, a stunning novel translated from French into English, one that sits alongside other writers from the Caribbean whose works I’ve loved, Maryse Condé, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Cristina García. And the contrast of the work of Jean Rhys, born into that same world, but not of it, living in exile in England, a troubled soul, something that comes through in her work.

The lovely Claire McAlpine

The lovely Claire McAlpine

It was also the year I discovered the Korean author Han Kang, after Naomi at The Writes of Women wrote a post about attending a book reading at Foyles in London, where the author, in the company of her translator, Deborah Smith, spoke about what motivated her to write a book called Human Acts. Han Kang was an indirect witness to terrifying acts that implanted themselves in her mind at a young age and left her with unanswered questions and a paralysing fear of humanity. When I read her questions she asked herself, that motivated her to write Human Acts, I knew I had to read it. This was not a book that could have been written by anyone living in the society we know, it was a book that could only have been written by someone who had lived through the 1980 Gwangju massacre in South Korea, news that rarely makes it to our screens. It reminded me of the prose and humanity of Primo Levi, an author she was inspired by.

I love to read around the world and literature in translation adds authenticity and an alternative perspective to the range of literature that already exists in the English language written. It appears, that despite there having been such a small percentage of work translated, there is a steadily increasing demand for literature originating from elsewhere, from authors coming from cultures and ethnic groups that have been little represented up until now.'


Here is a selection of titles I highly recommend and bloggers writing about translated literature:

The Bridge of Beyond, Simone Schwartz Bart , tr. Barbra Bray (Guadeloupe)

Human Acts, Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (Sth Korea)

Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood, Maryse Condé, tr. Richard Philcox (Guadeloupe)

If This is  a Man: A Truce, Primo Levi, tr. Stuart J. Woolf (Italy)

The Yellow Rain, Julio Llamazares, tr. Margaret Jull Costa (Spain)

Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi tr.Sherif Hetata (Egypt)

The Wall, Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside (Austria)

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, tr. Irene Ash (France)

The Whispering Muse, Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb (Iceland)

The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante, tr. Ann Goldstein

Agaat, Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns (South Africa)

Kamchatka, Marcelo Figueras tr. Frank Wynne (Argentina)

Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal, tr. Laura McGloughlin, Paul Mitchell (Spain)

The Dead Lake, Hamid Ismailov, tr. Andrew Bromfield (Kazakhstan)

The Vatican Cellars, André Gide, tr. Julian Evans (France)

Eugene Onegin,  Alexander Pushkin, James E. Falen (Russia)

Brodeck’s Report, Philippe Claudel, tr. John Cullen (France)

Nada, Carmen Lafloret, tr. Edith Grossman (Spain)

The True Deceiver, Tove Jannson, tr. (Finland)

The Door, Magda Sazbo, tr. Len Rix (Hungary)


Favourite Bloggers Who Write About Translations

Jacqui Wine’s Journal - Classic British + Literary Translations especially Europe, Latin American & Japan, wine on the side

Dolce Belleza - reads literary & translated fiction, penchant for Japanese Literature

The Bookbinder’s Daughter - Latin & Ancient Greek teacher with a passion for classics, literary & historical fiction, translations, also contributes to literary journals

Vishy’s Blog - widely read, eclectic collection, beautiful soul, passionate about books and culture, leaves the best comments, the most supportive blogger!

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat - Passionate about reading, Bach Flower Remedies, cultural anthropology! Literary, fantasy, translations, German Literature Month, Literature & War ReadAlong

Tony’s Reading List - a prolific reader of translated fiction with a particular interest in Japanese and Korean Literature

Winston’s Dad - pure translated fiction, shadow panel of IFFP, now Man Booker International Prize

1stReading - Very widely read, a model reviewer of translated and literary fiction

Rough Ghosts - deep thinker, reader and contributor to literary journals on translated fiction

Messenger’s Booker - Tony Messy’s take on literary awards and translated fiction

To read more from Claire, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter here