12 of the best translated books to broaden your literary horizons

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Scarlett Cayford
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Don Quixote. Candide. War and Peace. Madame Bovary. Some of the best-known and most highly-regarded classics that adorn the shelves of secondhand book shops and Literature 101 reading lists were originally penned in foreign tongues - but, all too often, modern readers seem ignorant of the fact that overseas authors have continued to write, prolifically and beautifully, since the 18th century.

I mean no offence to Atwood, Gaiman and all the other English-speaking authors who regularly decorate our top 100 lists - I love you all, call me - but if you’re determined to stray a little further afield with your reading in 2017, here are 12 wonderful books that will have to clutching your Kindle long after dark. And while you’re reading, spare a thought for this - the Man Booker International Prize is given annually to a single book in English translation, with a prize of £50,000 - split equally between author and translator. So it’s not just one writer’s words you’re parsing… 

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

    Melancholic and mesmerising, Sebald’s most famous work commences in 1939, where five-year-old Jacques is sent to England, where his foster parents erase all knowledge of his life before the threat of war. Fifty years later, he finds himself unable to ignore the secrets of his past. If you feel like you’ve read your fill of novels penned in this period, set that aside for 400 pages - you’ll never have read such a poignant account of the devastation of the lives of Jews living in Prague, nor one that paints so vividly a place, and a time, and a lost boy.There are no heroes to be found here, but plenty of rich history - and if you like it, be sure to read his other three works of fiction (Vertigo, The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn). There’s no author quite like him.

    Penguin, RRP £9.99, buy Austerlitz here

  • The Box Man by Kobo Abe

    You’ve likely crossed paths with a couple of Japanese authors - Murakami, Ishiguro - but the most fitting literary comparison to Abe isn’t his fellow countrymen, but Kafka. This playwright, photographer and inventor writes modern, nightmarish prose, in this case about a man who puts a box on this head, cuts eye holes into and wears it everywhere. Don’t read it for the plot, or for the characters - read it for lyricism, insight and oddity. Then balance it out with some Picoult, or something, because you’re going to be a bit thrown. 

    Vintage, RRP £12,99 buy The Box Man here

  • A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

    A novelisation of the reason you never go along to those £5 comedy evenings in Leicester Square, this book tells the story of Dovaleh G, an experienced stand-up comedian who takes to the stage, only to fall apart. The audience, waiting to be amused, bears witness instead to his disintegration - and you, reader, will only be very marginally less discomforted for having the written word between you and the performer. This book is neither funny, nor easy - but, as you might expect from an outspoken Israeli peace activist, it will make you think. 

    Jonathan Cape, RRP £14.99, buy A Horse Walks Into A Bar here

  • Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom

    Obviously, you shouldn’t pick a book on the strength of the name of its author, but you were going to, this is probably the one. Castel-Bloom is an Israeli author who has won an embarrassing collection of awards, and was the first Israeli author to address the subject of suicide bombings in literature.

    Her 1992 book, Dolly City, documents the life of Doctor Dolly, who lives in an apartment building and conducts gruesome experiments on animals. This is a book which includes murder (on page 12, no less), found babies, castration, torture, madness and morphine - a gruesome, cartoonish merging of parody and panic. If you were sickened by Highrise, then this probably isn’t the book for you - but if you’re the kind of person queueing up to see Raw, then try it on for size. And when she’s engraving a map on her son’s back with a scalpel, remember that it’s allegorical, not literal. Maybe. 

    Dalkey Archive Press, RRP £9.95, buy Dolly City here

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

    Now a play, probably a movie, hopefully an interpretive dance, this glorious first book in a spiky series originally written in Italian is a scary and savage depiction of a friendship between two women. Much has been made of the fact that Ferrante is a pseudonym, with rather too many readers-turned-sleuths focusing their energies on unmasking the author, rather than wallowing in the prose. Ignore that temptation, pick up a copy, and feel unmasked yourself by this unflinching depiction of friendship, jealousy, poverty, caprice and power in the sweltering streets of Naples. 

    Europa Editions, RRP £11.99, buy My Brilliant Friend here

  • The Zafarani Files by Gamal al-Ghitani

    Written in Arabic in 1976 and now available in English, this strange rendering of magical realism sees the male inhabitants of a small Egyptian town cursed with impotence. A social critique, of sorts, written as a series of reports and laced with some genuinely funny moments, it could do with a bit more exploration of the effect of the crisis on women - but the stories are compelling, and the concept original. 

    The American University in Cairo Press, RRP £14.99, buy The Zafarani Files here

  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang

    Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian, written in three parts, explores one woman’s role in Korean society - and how she changes it by announcing that, as a result of a bloody dream, she has decided to become a vegetarian. Her husband is upset; her brother-in-law angered, and what follows is a violent and bloody unravelling of a household. Her father tries to put a piece of pork in mouth. She stabs herself. And whether or not you agree that this was a reasonable response to forced carnivorism, you’ll certainly be hungering for a bit more of Kang’s remarkable prose. 

    Granta Books, RRP £8.99, buy The Vegetarian here

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    You’ve probably been living alone for 100 years or so, if you’ve managed to go this long without hearing of Márquez - but if you’ve yet to sample this multi-generational Columbian masterpiece, dig in. Following the Buendia family of Macondo, the town they have built, and blending politics with magic, this is one of the most beautiful books of the last century. Any description of the plot only serves to make it sound lengthy and laboured, which it is not - rife with lovers and liars, you’ll find pleasure in every twist. Keep a notebook by you, you’re going to need a family tree. 

    Penguin Classics, RRP £8.99, buy One Hundred Years of Solitude here

  • Touch by Adania Shibli

    Set in Palestine, Touch revolves around the life of a girl, the youngest of 9 sisters. The language is unusual and the narrative non-linear, but at the heart of the tale is a single story: growing up, learning, living. There’s history in the background, but don’t focus on the plot, but on the experience of reading. This is a novel where you become intensely aware of words; aware, even, of what you might be missing by reading in translation (read it anyway). 

    Clockroot Books, RRP £5.99, buy Touch here

  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

    This list is a bit of a sea of fantasy and magic - anchor yourself, then, in this Danish little number, about a 40-something cake-eating, meditating translator who has just been dumped and is learning to drive. Nors’ first novel to be translated into English, Mirror is loaded with brilliant bit-part characters, which is lucky since nothing much really happens. But don’t worry - it’s sharp and strange enough to keep you hooked to the very last driving lesson.

    Pushkin Press, RRP £10.99, buy Mirror, Shoulder, Signal here

  • The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

    When Rosa (matriarchal, malevolent, manipulative) discovers that her daughter, Sulfina (weak and incompetent, at least according to Rosa), is pregnant, she does all she can to terminate the pregnancy - but when the child is born, she has a change of heart, and does all she can to steal her away. For the next 18 years. Sly, and set against one family’s desperate attempts to escape the Soviet Union, this book is a tangle of cruelty, dysfunction and tragedy. And also pigeons. The family might be fantastical but the political history is accurate - and, at the very least, you’ll come away with a new appreciation for your own mother.

    Europe Editions, RRP £11.99, buy The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine here

  • Bedtime Eyes by Amy Yamada

    Technically a set of three novellas, Bedtime Eyes is perhaps the most controversial of all 12 volatile novels on this list (the cover image says it all), exploring three different relationships in the context of drugs, racial stereotypes, love and violence.

    Bedtime Eyes tells the story of Kim, a singer turned prostitute who falls in love with Spoon, a drug-dealer gone AWOL from the Navy; “The Piano Player’s Fingers” introduces us to Ruiko, a Tokyo barfly and Leroy, a jazz pianist, and depicts their obsessive relationship based around violent sex; “Jesse” centers on Coco, who moves in with her boyfriend Rick but has to deal with his son.There’s no magical realism to be found in these tightly-written explorations of racism and sexuality, but instead a bold unveiling of a sector of Japanese society rarely bared to foreign eyes. 

    St Martin's Press, RRP £15.99, buy Bedtime Eyes by Amy Yamada here