BOOKS

Travel The World With 7 Great Books In Translation

02/23/2015 09:21 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2015
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We know books improve our capacity for empathy. Why, then, is it so tempting to pick up titles with plots that mirror our own experiences? It's fun and comforting to relate to characters on a superficial level (hey, I live in Brooklyn, too!), but forming an emotional connection with a protagonist who lives a very different life in a very different place has a unique value. If you can't afford to jet-set right now, pick up a book that was originally written in a different language instead! Here are seven books in translation that we highly recommend:

Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda It’s not hard to see why Peter Buwalda’s ambitious debut novel, first published in his native Holland in 2010, has attracted numerous comparisons to the work of Jonathan Franzen. With its realistic style, multiple perspectives, and bleak narrative following the unraveling of a seemingly stable family due to a number of almost unbelievably lurid secrets, The Corrections and Freedom seem like obvious reference points. The runaway success of Bonita Avenue in Holland, then internationally, is another reminder of readers’ thirst for these weighty tales of dramatically unhappy families. Read our full review.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante The first of four books chronicling the friendship between two girls, Lila and Elena, is a unique take on the bildungsroman in that it follows a pair of individuals through their hardships and private thoughts. Set in crime-ridden, post-World War II Naples, it's a story about the different ways we try to escape our fates, be it through education, rebellion, or romance. Lila and Elena's strong bond is rarely weakened by the envy they feel for each other's lives, as one embarks on a marriage and the other pursues an academic life. Like a moden-day Jane Austen, Ferrante writes as deftly about social injustice as she does about intimate relationships.

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra Zambra's first short story collection, like his novels before it, is all about alienation. The author's stories about Chile after the fall of Augusto Pinochet are peopled with strange, lonely characters who find solace in inanimate objects such as cigarettes or personal computers. He uses human relationships as an avenue for exploring power structures, between fathers and sons or significant others. The underlying theme that our entire selves can be understood through objects that exist outside of us -- text messages, computer files -- is both fascinating and unsettling.

The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou Sophia Nikolaidou's first work to be translated into English is set in Greece in the '40s, but its themes are timeless. She chronicles the mystery surrounding a murdered American journalist, and in doing so explores the ways in which we cobble together the stories that make up our history. A modern-day Greek student is assigned a school project to dig deeper into the unsolved crime, and in doing so speaks with those personally or politically involved. The question of who's lying and who's telling the truth makes for a philosophical page-turner. Read translator Karen Emmerich's essay on Greek literature and journalism in days of crisis.

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida Another great read for those who've hopped on the smart thriller bandwagon, Yoshida's novel tells the story of a crew of urban millennials whose Japanese street is being terrorized by a mysterious attacker. Being young and careless, the characters are less interested in their safety and more caught up in their personal mishaps, making for a humorous take on youthful self-centeredness. It's Yoshida's second book to be translated into English, and is the winner of Japan's Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, which considers both literary and genre titles.

I'll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin A story written to please too many people is easy to spot: Its voice is scattered or obtuse. On the other hand, when we write only for ourselves, our stories take on a journal-like quality, too personal and inartistic, a droll logging of our daily activities. But writing for or with a small, intimate group can be synergistic.

The characters in Kyung-sook Shin's I'll Be Right There are all young artists attempting to soothe the pain of loss and loneliness they've suffered while growing up in politically tumultuous South Korea. Before they meet each other, their writing skills are immature or lackluster, but when they begin to tell stories together, they're able to find peace.
Read our full review.

The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim Although there's been a recent wealth of stories and novels told from the perspective of American soldiers stationed in Iraq, the Iraqi civilian perspective has yet to be explored in English-language fiction. Blasim's stories give shape to an absurdist world in which brutal violence is commonplace, speaking volumes about the author's, and perhaps the society's, nihilistic wartime attitude. Read our full review.

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  • Anne Sexton (Sylvia Plath)
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    Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath -- both "confessional" poets -- met in Boston in 1958 as members of Robert Lowell’s poetry class and instantly became friends. Sexton encouraged Plath to write from her experiences and from a more feminine perspective. Their first collections, both published in 1960, were critically acclaimed. Plath’s, however, was to be the only book of poems published in her lifetime. In September 1962, she separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and wrote at least 26 poems in a fierce burst of creativity. Five months later she put her head in a gas oven. Hughes’s publication of her final poems in Ariel (1965) precipitated the rise to fame that would eventually overshadow Sexton. Both women were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Plath posthumously. But though Sexton’s poems are still read and appreciated, Plath’s contentious relationship with Hughes and her dramatic death made her a phenomenon. Sexton said of Plath “We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb, sucking on it.” After several more collections, which critics met with increasing indifference, Sexton, too, committed suicide.
  • Ezra Pound (T.S. Eliot)
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    By 1914, expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was a prominent fixture in the burgeoning Modernist movement. Pound advanced the careers of many contemporaries, including James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway, but perhaps none more than T.S. Eliot. He ensured the publication of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and was so influential in shaping Eliot's masterpiece, The Wasteland, that Eliot dedicated it to him, calling Pound "the better craftsman." Pound's downfall was anti-Semitism--disillusioned by Britain's role in World War One, he moved to Italy, embracing Mussolini, supporting Hitler, and criticizing the United States. In 1945, he was arrested for treason but escaped a life sentence when he was declared insane, subsequently spending 12 years in a psychiatric hospital. Three years after Pound's arrest, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. These days Eliot, not Pound, is regarded as the figurehead of Modernist poetry. At the end of his life, Pound admitted, "My worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything."
  • Louis MacNeice (W. H. Auden)
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    Both born in 1907, Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden met at Oxford University in 1926. In 1937, they published a joint book, Letters From Iceland, based on their travels there the previous year. Both men, though chiefly remembered as poets, wrote in several different genres and styles: MacNeice wrote a large number of plays for BBC radio, Auden was a prolific reviewer and essayist. By the 1950s, though, MacNeice’s heavy drinking began to affect his work; his later collections were poorly received. He died of pneumonia in 1963, followed by Auden 10 years later. Auden garnered far higher recognition thanks to a handful of works, most significantly “Funeral Blues.” Written originally as a satirical eulogy for a politician in the anti-capitalist play The Ascent of F6, the poem catapulted him into the realm of the Literary Greats when it was read in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. A pamphlet of 10 Auden poems subsequently sold more than 275,000 copies. Auden and MacNeice’s centenary year, 2007, was marked by broadcast tributes and public readings for Auden -- but not MacNeice.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (William Wordsworth)
    In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth launched the English Romantic Movement when they published their joint poetry volume, Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth contributed more poems, but Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" drew the most praise and attention. Unfortunately, Coleridge was emotionally unstable and unhappily married. He took to self-medicating with laudanum. Within 10 years of Lyrical Ballads’ publication, his opium addiction was out of hand. He separated from his wife in 1808, fell out with Wordsworth in 1810, lost part of his annuity in 1811. Finally, Coleridge put himself under the care of a doctor and remained creatively unproductive for the rest of his life. Coleridge is still remembered for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and a handful of other poems, but Wordsworth built the lasting reputation. Appointed Poet Laureate nine years after Coleridge’s death, Wordsworth’s long poem to his dead friend, "The Prelude," is now hailed as a masterpiece.
  • Gore Vidal (Truman Capote)
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    Gore Vidal and Truman Capote were born a year apart. Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), coincided with Capote’s debut Other Voices, Other Rooms. The City and the Pillar sparked a public scandal as the first novel to depict an openly gay protagonist as masculine and homosexuality as natural. Vidal claimed that as a result, The New York Times refused to review his next five books. Capote’s 1948 debut, also featuring a gay (albeit more effeminate) protagonist, became an instant hit, spending nine weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. So began a lifelong rivalry between the two, leading Tennessee Williams to observe: “You would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize.” Vidal’s essays, novels, plays and screenplays never matched the level of recognition Capote achieved with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Addiction to drink and drugs eventually silenced Capote’s writing talent. Though he maintained his celebrity through talk show appearances, he never finished another book, and died of liver cancer in 1984. Vidal lived for another 28 productive years without achieving the literary recognition of his rival.
  • Ford Madox Ford (Joseph Conrad)
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    Ford Madox Ford published his first novel in 1892 when he was just 20. Three years later, 38-year-old Joseph Conrad published his debut. Conrad went on to publish four more novels by 1900, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, while Ford would publish more than two dozen books before achieving critical success with The Good Soldier (1915). He was constantly outgunned by his friend despite the fact English was Conrad’s third language. "I helped Joseph Conrad, I helped Hemingway,” Ford told George Seldes. “I helped a dozen, a score of writers, and many of them have beaten me. I'm now an old man and I'll die without making a name like Hemingway." Seldes observed, "At this climax Ford began to sob. Then he began to cry."
  • Dorothy Richardson (Virginia Woolf)
    In 1915, Gerald Duckworth, Woolf’s step-brother, published the first novels of both Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. Richardson’s debut, Pointed Roofs, was the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English, ahead of both Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Richardson bent the rules of punctuation and sentence length to create what has been called a “feminine prose.” Paying tribute to Richardson’s influence, Woolf said, “She has invented a sentence we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender." But whereas Woolf’s novels entered both the popular and critical canon and are still read today, those of Dorothy Richardson languish in obscurity. The reason? One critic claims that Richardson might have been “the Gertrude Stein of the English novel if she had been more self-promoting and more affluent." Born into wealth, Woolf was at the center of the influential Bloomsbury group and ran her own publishing house. By contrast, Richardson left London to live in Cornwall early in her career. Without literary friends to champion her long unstructured style and difficult prose, she now has few fans outside academia.
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