Found in Translation

Of the many things I regret not having mastered in life, the ability to read and speak another language well is a major one. Sure I took German in high school and, don’t laugh, Latin in college. But other than asking for directions in Vienna (wo ist die Bibliothek?) or declining a few pronouns with the Pope (Hic, Haec, Hoc) most of my severely limited foreign language ability has little use.

Despite this gap in my education, I do like to read fiction originally written in other languages. It is always interesting to see how authors that are products of different cultures handle characters, society and ideas in ways that I’m not always used to. Here are three that I’ve read recently that may be of interest—in translation, of course.

The tantalizingly titled Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky is technically a coming of age story. Seventeen year old Sascha Neumann was born in Moscow, but her fractured family moved to Berlin and took up residence in “the Emerald” a depressing series of apartment blocks populated mostly by recent immigrants to Germany. After the murder of her mother by her step-father, Sascha vows to tell the world about her mother’s life and seek revenge. With its direct style and gripping storyline, the strength of this novel is how it introduces the reader to a gritty world that feels very real but may not be familiar.

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti also has an adolescent main character, Lorenzo, but is set in a much more affluent neighborhood in Rome. In an effort to placate his parents who desperately want him to fit in at school, Lorenzo makes up a skiing holiday with fictitious popular friends. Instead of hitting the slopes, he hides out in the forgotten cellar of his family’s apartment building which he has stocked with books, food and video games. 

Reality interrupts his best laid plans for solitude in the form of his half sister who discovers his hideout and forces him to face some unpleasant truths. This slim book is written in a lyrical style that captures not only the character’s inner life but also the setting in a convincing way. If you enjoy this work, definitely check out his earlier novel I’m Not Scared for a similar, but darker, experience.

Speaking of darkness, there is a lot to be had in The Land at the End of the World by Antonio Lobo Antunes. Almost more of a fever dream than a novel, this is the story of a drafted Portuguese medic who is pouring out his life story to an unnamed stranger over the course of one day. The narrative skips in time but is primarily concerned with the narrator’s tour of duty in Angola during Portugal’s futile attempt to maintain political control of that land in the 1970s. The beautiful but devastating language is a perfect accompaniment to a tale that has little concern for power and everything to do with survival.

So don’t let your lack of language skills scare you away from fiction from other cultures. Thankfully there are many great works in translation available at the library.


35 thoughts on “Found in Translation

  1. Ever since discovering The Millenium Trilogy byStieg Larsson, I’ve been hooked on Scandinavian authors. Two of the last four books I read and reviewed were written in Norway and Sweden. I definitely agree with you that translated books are well worth reading and looking out for. Great post!


  2. Hey there , I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, excellent blog!


  3. Like yourself, I want to learn as many languages as possible! But I’ve realized, to learn a language is a life-long lesson. You have to use and practice it daily in order to maintain what you’re learned, and improve. And on reading translated books – what a brilliant way to learn about other cultures!


  4. Wonderful blog! And great suggestions. I’m only sorry that you think you have to apologize for taking Latin. Seriously, what is the world coming to when people apologize for having intellectual interests? Keep up the good work.


  5. Very good point! On a side note – I found that one of the best ways for me to practice a new language was to read foreign children’s books out loud to myself. You may get some odd looks if you do it in public, though!


  6. This is great!

    I love reading books originally written in other language, but I have an intense passion for foreign language films. It’s actually one of the best ways–in my opinion–to learn a language fast.

    I, for example, learned Hindi by only watching Bollywood movies (with and without subtitles). It really works! Being able to speak more than just one language opens up worlds of opportunities and excitement! Thanks for the recommendation.


  7. Because you had German at school, you could attempt to read “Scherbenpark” in the original now. I read it and it’s written in relatively simple German. (You mention the “direct style”.)


    • Thanks for the suggestion, Andreas. I am relatively fluent in German, but I must admit I have found it hard to find a readable book. I am able to read a one-page letter without much problems, and can usually get the jist of newspaper articles, and can also understand about 90% of the conversation I have with anyone, even technical ones, but I just seem incapable of reading a German book.

      I did not have that problem with Spanish books when I was learning Spanish. So I sometimes wonder if the language used in German literature is siginificantly more difficult to understand that everyday German? I know it is the same with my mother tongue, Urdu.

      Thanks, Richard for your suggestions too. They sound like great books and I will look out for them at the bookstore.


  8. What a great set of reviews! I also find it very interesting to read translated works – even more so if I’m able to compare them with original versions. I think changing language changes the way one thinks, and influences the language a lot. Even when I myself am writing the same story in two languages, the details change, some things are phrased in a completely different tone, some never make it in only one version. Very amusing… that’s why I admire translators so much, it’s an awfully intriguing skill.


  9. I am a translator so I feel I have to thank you. It’s good to hear your work is appreciated 🙂
    And regarding foreign languages, yes, they open up a new world, not only because you can speak to people, but because of the idioms, of the way things are expressed… I just love that!
    Congratulations for being freshly pressed!


  10. I’ve been living in China for the past two years and am learning Mandarin which is a challenge – especially as I am over 60; however I am determined to succeed. I very much doubt that I will ever be fluent enough to read books in Chinese, but I do read everything that I can find that has been translated into English. If you are interested in reading about China there is quite a comprehensive page of books on my blog, Jasmine Tea & Jiaozi http://www.wordpress.herschelian


  11. Great blog! I too am useless when it comes to learning foreign languages but I adore reading translations. I am especially keen on Japanese literature, it was a culture and literature that I knew nothing about. I especially recommend Yasunari Kawabata, he was a true master of world literature and like no other writer I have ever read.


  12. Ah, and we can’t forget Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

    I just got A Land at the End of the World. A great book to have for the title alone. Thanks for the mini-reviews.


  13. Great Blog! Latin and German are a fantastic base for picking up other languages – at least you will have learned a lot of the grammatical terms etc. I don’t think it’s ever too late to learn a language as long as you keep using it. Reading books in other languages really helps to keep your mind flexible!


  14. I realize that what you see as a drawback gives you an advantage as well. The fact that you have to read translated works does not deprive you of the realization of the other culture, the difference in story telling and all the other insights. As I understand it you even experience it more closely so.


  15. I can read — though perhaps not fully absorb — novels in French, I’ve studied Russian, and have a tourist’s knowledge of German, Spanish and Italian. I have an “ear” for language, that is, I grasp its rhythms and accents if not its grammar. And for that reason, I find reading translated books painful sometimes, particularly when the original language is German or Russian. It takes a very good translator to be able to render those languages musical in English. Not to say it can’t happen, but there’s nothing I hate more than reading English and feeling the original German breaking through. The translator has to be able to retain the music without hitting wrong notes. Far easier to do in non-fiction. One of the most surprising translations I ever read was Tina Nunnally’s rendering of Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I was stunned to learn it had been translated (I’d missed that on the cover page) even while the language was able to evoke Denmark. Masterful work.


  16. Absolutely! That´s such a good advise. I love other languages. I´ve been doing English for the best part of my life plus French. At Uni, I did English linguistics and literature with French. I also did some Dutch, Italian and Portuguese. Feels good, even if I can only speak my mother tongue, English and quite a bit of French fluently. It feels good even if I can only understand a bit of the menu without asking the waiter or get by in a foreign city.


  17. Love this blog. It must be hard for those translating these works of literature! Lots of pressure to succeed in changing someones art form. Carlos Ruiz Zafón was already mentioned, but The Shadow of the Wind is my favorite book of all time, I didn’t realize it had been translated until after finishing. I will be adding these books to my wishlist!


  18. I can speak Italian, and I have found that, just like English, you can never learn enough. There is so much to improve on! It’s never too late to learn a new language, the benefits are great!


  19. Ýour reviewing style is nice. I am also very interested in exploring foreign authors works. Just think how many great (unknown) authors there must be out there….Even if you were to take the best three from each country in the world, how much would you see and learn…..even the better known ones I couldn´t imagine living without…. Hesse, Marquez, Coehlo…et al…I speak Italian but have never studied it nor can I write, but after this post I think my next task has to be to read a novel in Italian…..Thanks


  20. Pingback: In Defense of LIKE « Deliberate Donkey

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