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Books in translation: 7 magnificent reads for the summer holidays

With the summer holidays in full swing, we've asked some of our Theme Fellows, New Generation Thinkers and those involved in our Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) to put forwards their recommendations of some of their favourite translated literature. Past statistics have shown that only a small percentage of books published in the UK have been translated from a foreign language, so take a note and start stamping your literary passport with these magnificent seven reads from around the world. 


Dr Hetta Howes, New Generation Thinker, Queen Mary University of London recommends:


Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan; translated by Heather Lloyd (Penguin, 2011)

The summary:

Francoise Sagan wrote this elegant novella when she was just 18, and it is arguably her greatest work. The plot is simple. It follows the summer of 17-year old schoolgirl, Cecile, and her rich and charming father, Raymond, who are holidaying in a villa on the French Riviera. Their hedonistic existence, characterised by days lying in the sun and nights spent at glamorous parties, is interrupted by the arrival of Anne. Cool, sophisticated, and an old friend of Cecile’s dead mother, Anne captures Raymond’s heart but brings with her a solemnity that shakes Cecile’s foundations.

You should read this because...

This book grapples with big themes like morality and love but its beauty is in the smallest moments. Cecile’s breakfast ritual: biting into an orange, letting its sweetness burst over her tongue, then taking a sip of hot and bitter coffee. The grains of sand she feels under her shoulder blades. The sound of cicadas, drunk on heat. You should read this book for these glimpses into a French summer and for its bittersweet title, so much more beautiful in the original language, and the phrase with which Cecile begins her story. Hello sadness.

Professor Charles Forsdick, AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow, 'Translating Cultures', University of Liverpool recommends:


Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada; translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2017)

My own research tends to focus on translingual or ‘exophonic’ authors who have migrated to French from other languages, but I have also long been interested in the work of Yoko Tawada: born in Tokyo in 1960 but resident in Germany for the past 35 years, she has produced a remarkable body of writing in German. The original version of Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee was published in 2014, and I’m delighted that an English translation – by the brilliant Susan Bernofsky – has now appeared as Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

The summary:

Divided into three stories by three different ursine narrators, it shifts from the account of a Soviet memoirist forced to seek refuge in East German, via her daughter, a performer in an East Berlin circus, to the early twenty-first-century voice of a bear cub born in Berlin Zoo. The book is trans-species, transcultural and translingual.

Tawada imagines modern and contemporary history from a polar-bear's-eye view. She tracks historical and geographical shifts across the ideological struggles and regime changes of the last century.

You should read this because...

We get to read in English translation, a text written in German by a Japanese author based on an original - for the first story at least - supposedly produced in Russian. Rivka Galchen described in the New Yorker a 'magnificent strangeness' evident in Yoko Tawada's work, and this book exemplifies that quality.


Professor Stephen Hutchings, University Of Manchester and programme lead on the Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community Project recommends:


Soul and Other Stories, Andrey Platonov; translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (Vintage, 2013)

The summary:

Unpublished throughout the Soviet period, Andrey Platonov’s late Modernist novella, Soul, is the enigmatic tale of a Central Asian tribesman’s journey from Moscow to rescue his starving people from the desert and bring them to socialism. The hero must simultaneously re-establish his connections with his long-forgotten mother and his own roots. He finally succeeds in guiding his death-addicted tribe to safety, having also formed a semi-incestuous relationship with a young girl he takes under his wing.

Perhaps the most innovative representative of Russia’s literary avant-garde, Platonov became disillusioned with the revolution and soon found it impossible to publish his work. He died in obscurity in 1951. Soul embodies Platonov’s life-long artistic struggle with his recognition that abstract thought is incapable of instantiation in corporeal form. It is enacted on multiple levels: the mission to impose communism on a remote nomadic people; the hero’s efforts to remember, and, literally, re-root himself in his tribal origins; Platonov’s de-familiarising descriptions of the Turkmen desert, whose obsessive, haunting tone is rendered in luminous English prose.

You should read this because...

This collection offers an introduction to a writer now acknowledged as one of Russia’s greatest, and because of his unique approach to a universal aesthetic dilemma.

Dr Rhiannon McGlade, Research Associate (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies project), University of Cambridge, recommends:


The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss (Penguin Classics, 2012)

The summary:

A gripping tale of intrigue, treasure and revenge, Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo is a lengthy, yet thrilling read. When Edmond Dantès is arrested for treason on his wedding day and incarcerated in the infamous Château d’If fortress, he soon uncovers the plot of jealousy, double-dealings and betrayal that led to his false imprisonment. With the help of an ailing fellow prisoner, he makes his daring escape and is guided to a treasure that will – in every sense – change his fortunes forever. Adopting the mysterious persona of the Count of Monte Cristo, he adroitly navigates the world of 1830s high-society Paris, determined to avenge himself of those who sought to destroy him.

You should read this because...

Perhaps one of Dumas' best known works - The Three Musketeers notwithstanding - the novel is composed in such a way that not only does it deftly lead the reader through the twists and turns of the plot, but also through carefully crafted character development; it offers a fascinating portrayal of life and society in nineteenth-century France.

Dr Rachel Scott, Research Associate (Travelling Concepts, Language Acts and Worldmaking project), King’s College London recommends:


Umami, Laia Jufresa; translated by Sophie Hughes (Oneworld, 2016)

The summary:

Umami follows the lives of a group of neighbours in an apartment block in Mexico City as they deal with the ups and downs of life. It focuses particularly on one family as they attempt to deal with the grief of losing their young daughter in mysterious circumstances, but jumps between the years to show events through different voices and from different perspectives. The book’s emotional stories are cleverly represented by the layout of the building, which takes the shape of a tongue, each apartment named after the different tastes — bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami, that near indefinable richness that is clearly meant to serve as an analogy for the complexity of the human experience.

You should read this because...

Umami is a richly descriptive book that addresses a range of human emotions — grief, love, loneliness, regret, frustration — in a warm and illuminating way, and that also considers what it is like to grow up in a multilingual family and live in and between two languages. Read it if you want a not overly whimsical exploration of community, family, and friendship in contemporary Mexico.

Professor Andrew Prescott, AHRC Digital Transformations Theme Fellow recommends:


Petrograd, William Owen Roberts; translated by Elisabeth Roberts (Parthian Books, 2015)

The summary:

Inspired by a recent AHRC-organised visit to the British Library’s exhibition marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, I am currently reading Petrograd by William Owen Roberts. This is an engrossing and fast-paced novel which describes the traumatic experiences of Aloysha, a teenage boy from a middle class family, during the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the rise of the communist state. Roberts’s novel brings out many aspects of the Russian Revolution often forgotten in conventional accounts: the way in which the slaughter of the First World War undermined family life; the role of rumour; the difficulty of travel and the risk of being cut off in a distant place; and the way personal and local jealousies might fuel revolution. Petrograd makes us think about the Russian Revolution from the perspective of ordinary families.

Petrograd was written in Welsh, and won the Welsh Book of the Year award in 2009. It would be easy to assume that literature in the indigenous languages of Britain is inward-looking and preoccupied with local cultural concerns, but the novels of Roberts and other contemporary writers in Welsh show that this is not the case. Roberts’s epic vision is also apparent in his 2001 novel Paradwys which deals with the slave trade and is set in London, Paris, North Wales and Haiti.

Roberts points out that Wales was the first country to be annexed by England. He considers himself a colonial writer, sharing experiences with many other writers in colonies and former colonies around the world. For Roberts, writing in Welsh is an act of resistance to this colonial situation. Decrying talk of a ‘Welsh language problem’, Roberts suggests that we should talk instead of the English language problem which prevents the achievement of full bilingualism in Wales. In a 1997 article, Roberts asked:

Can any English author imagine writing in a language which could quite easily die and disappear as a daily, living tongue in the first few decades of the next century?

You should read this because...

Roberts described writing in Welsh as being a classic twentieth-century experience because you are writing on the edge of catastrophe. Petrograd is likewise suffused with a sense of how it feels to be on the edge of, then engulfed by, catastrophe.

Dr Christopher Bannister, New Generation Thinker, University of London recommends:


Wolf Moon, Julio Llamazares; translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (Peter Owen Publishers, 2017)

The summary:

Julio Llamazares' Wolf Moon (Luna de Lobos) is a lyrical reflection on resistance, resilience and sacrifice in impossible circumstances. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the novel follows four former Republicans as they take to the hills of their native Cantabria in an attempt to resist the Francoist authorities. It considers the effect of violence and material hardship on these individuals, Ángel, Ramiro, Juan and Gido, as they continue the struggle after the end of the Civil War.

It also offers contemplation on how the familiar can become hostile, as the four struggle to eke out an existence in the hills they know from childhood. Moreover, it explored the personal dilemmas of the four, as their relations with family in the local villages become strained as the government closes in.

You should read this because...

Widely viewed as one of the first novels to break the so-called 'Pact of Forgetting' (pacto del olvido) that accompanied the Spanish transition to democracy, Wolf Moon is a moving account of the horrors of Francoism and the pressures the dictatorship exerted upon those that lived under it. The Spanish version of the novel has a lyrical, poetic quality to its prose. The masterful translation of Kathryn Philips-Miles and Simon Deefholts manages to preserve Llamazares' distinct style, presenting a text that is both arresting and pensive.

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