We can’t speak all the languages, but we can do the next best thing: align our brains in the thought patterns, progressions, and images the languages produce. Reading books in translation helps us understand people, places, and ideas from around the world, from vantage points that aren’t filtered through our culture’s variety of gatekeepers.
Join us for a lively discussion of contemporary books-in-translation. Our discussions will be hybrid Zoom and in-studio events.
Club Information: You can join at any moment during the reading series, don’t worry if you miss the first or second book. We suggest up to a $50 donation for the class, but price is up to you on the payment portal. We want you here, talking about books from around the world! It will collect your information and help us plan. Even if you can’t come to every meeting, sign up for the class below.
Frontier by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Frontier opens with the story of Liujin, a young woman heading out on her own to create her own life in Pebble Town, a somewhat surreal place at the base of Snow Mountain where wolves roam the streets and certain enlightened individuals can see and enter a paradisiacal garden.
Exploring life in this city (or in the frontier) through the viewpoint of a dozen different characters, some simple, some profound, Can Xue’s latest novel attempts to unify the grand opposites of life–barbarism and civilization, the spiritual and the material, the mundane and the sublime, beauty and death, Eastern and Western cultures.
A layered, multifaceted masterpiece from the 2015 winner of the Best Translated Book Award, Frontier exemplifies John Darnielle’s statement that Can Xue’s books read “as if dreams had invaded the physical world.”
The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Kalyan Raman
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature
From one of India’s best-known writers and the author of the National Book Award-longlisted One Part Woman comes a charming and surprising tale of an orphaned goat and the family that decides to take care of her, despite the potential cost to them.
From Kirkus: Poonachi, the goat of the title, arrives the way characters often do in fairy tales: strangely, under circumstances fraught with portent. She’s presented to an old man in a drought-stricken Indian village by a “giant” who needs “someone who will look after her properly.” The goat is feeble and the old man’s family is poor, but he and his wife nurse her with care. Still, life is always at least somewhat unstable: The government is nosy about Poonachi’s provenance, other goats treat her like an outcast, and a wildcat abducts and nearly kills her. Fighting her way to survival only frees her to more sophisticated disappointments, including lost children and thwarted romance; Murugan deftly sketches out a nanny-meets-billy, nanny-loses-billy scenario that’s as affecting as many human tales of unrequited love. Which is the point: In anthropomorphizing Poonachi, Murugan finds a path to describe the essence of humans’ struggle to survive while grasping for fleeting moments of joy and grace. Murugan can be openly comic about this, as when he satirizes the endless bureaucratic lines goats and their keepers endure. But he’s mostly straight-faced, in the tradition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a similar allegorical tale; translator Raman notes the connection to the classic, and, as with Orwell, the story is straightforward as a fable while open to interpretation. In its closing pages, the novel returns to its more mystical roots, and while it gives nothing away to say that the story is ultimately tragic—from the start, Poonachi’s life is a study in precariousness—Murugan subtly pays tribute to our capacity to stubbornly endure under the most difficult circumstances.
An affecting modern fable reflecting Murugan’s enchanting capacity to make a simple story resonate on many levels.
Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet, translated from the French by Helge Dascher
Ivory Coast, 1978. It’s a golden time, and the nation, too-an oasis of affluence and stability in West Africa-seems fueled by something wondrous. Aya is loosely based upon Marguerite Abouet’s youth in Yop City. It is the story of the studious and clear-sighted nineteen-year-old Aya, her easygoing friends Adjoua and Bintou, and their meddling relatives and neighbors. It’s a wryly funny, breezy account of the simple pleasures and private troubles of everyday life in Yop City.
Clément Oubrerie’s warm colors and energetic, playful line connect expressively with Marguerite Abouet’s vibrant writing. This reworked edition offers readers the chance to immerse themselves in Abouet’s Yop City, bringing together the first three volumes of the series in Book One. Drawn & Quarterly will release volumes four through six of the original French series (as yet unpublished in English) in Book Two. Aya is the winner of the Best First Album award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and the Glyph Award; was nominated for the Quill Award, the YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels list, and the Eisner Award; and was included on best of lists from The Washington Post, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal.
Swallowing Mercury by Wiolette Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community. Wiola has a black cat called Blackie. Wiola’s father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola must never enter the seamstress’s ‘secret’ room. Wiola collects matchbox labels. Wiola is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland that is both very recent and lost in time.
Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.
The Miracles of the Namiya General Store (YA) by Keigo Higashino, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett
When three delinquents hole up in an abandoned general store after their most recent robbery, to their great surprise, a letter drops through the mail slot in the store’s shutter. This seemingly simple request for advice sets the trio on a journey of discovery as, over the course of a single night, they step into the role of the kindhearted former shopkeeper who devoted his waning years to offering thoughtful counsel to his correspondents. Through the lens of time, they share insight with those seeking guidance, and by morning, none of their lives will ever be the same.
written in English and Spanish by Daniel Tunnard
In an alternate 90s where Scrabble (not poker) is a global sensation broadcast live on ESPN, former world champs Florence Satine and Buenaventura Escobar meet deep in Argentina’s Tigre Delta for one final game. The words they play spell out how they ended up here, and why they are probably going to die.
By 1996, Scrabble is big business. The once innocent game has gone pro, becoming the third-most televised “sport” in the world, and earning its major players fame, fortune and corporate sponsorships. The league, however, is tightly controlled by a Scrabble mafia (e.g., The Scrafia) and is suffering from a scourge of corruption, match-fixing, and most disturbingly, the mysterious disappearances of problematic players. When Florence and Buenaventura defy the sinister Scrafia, they recall the unlikely obsession that dominated their lives: a tumultuous romance…with a game.
This is the story of a Scrabble reality that never was, but should have been. A bilingual, lexicographical romp across the world, Escapes raises the stakes with each new letter placed upon the rack. (less)
The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
Finalist for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
A timely and haunting novel from an exciting new voice in international literature, set in present-day Syria
In her therapist’s waiting room in Damascus, Suleima meets a strange and reticent man named Naseem, and they soon begin a tense affair. But when Naseem, a writer, flees Syria for Germany, he sends Suleima the unfinished manuscript of his novel. To Suleima’s surprise, she and the novel’s protagonist are uncannily similar. As she reads, Suleima’s past overwhelms her and she has no idea what to trust–Naseem’s pages, her own memory, or nothing at all?
Narrated in alternating chapters by Suleima and the mysterious woman portrayed in Naseem’s novel, The Frightened Ones is a boundary-blurring, radical examination of the effects of oppression on one’s sense of identity, the effects of collective trauma, and a moving window into life inside Assad’s Syria.
Bright by Duanwad Pimwana, translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul
Honorable mention in the Global Humanities Translation Prize
The first novel by a Thai woman to be translated into English, Bright tells the story of a young boy who is collectively raised by his community after being abandoned by his father. For more from Pimwana, check out her short story collection Arid Dreams and her recent story “All Trash on the Eastern Side,” both translated by Mui Poopoksakul.
When five-year-old Kampol is told by his father to wait for him in front of some run-down apartment buildings, the confused boy does as told―he waits, and waits, and waits, until he realizes his father isn’t coming back anytime soon. Adopted by the community, Kampol is soon being raised by figures like Chong the shopkeeper, who rents out calls on his telephone and goes into debt while extending his customers endless credit. Kampol also plays with local kids like Noi, whose shirt is so worn that it rips right in half, and the sweet, deceptively cute toddler Penporn.
Dueling flea markets, a search for a ten-baht coin lost in the sands of a beach, pet crickets that get eaten for dinner, bouncy ball fads in school, and loneliness so merciless that it kills a boy’s appetite all combine into Bright, the first-ever novel by a Thai woman to appear in English translation. Duanwad Pimwana’s urban, and at times gritty, vignettes are balanced with a folk-tale-like feel and a charmingly wry sense of humor. Together, these intensely concentrated, minimalist gems combine into an off-beat, highly satisfying coming-of-age story of a very memorable young boy and the age-old legends, practices, and personalities that raise him.
Little Bird by Claudia Ulloa Donoso, translated from the Spanish by Lily Meyer
What the publisher says: “After moving from Peru north of the Arctic circle to begin graduate school, Claudia Ulloa Donoso began blogging about insomnia. Not hers, necessarily – the blog was never defined as fact or fiction. Her blog posts became the bones of Little Bird, short stories with a nod to fervent self-declaration of diary entries and the hallucinatory haze of sleeplessness. Blending narration and personal experience, the stories in Little Bird stretch reality, a sharp-shooting combination of George Saunders and Samanta Schweblin. Characters real and unreal, seductive, shape-changing, and baffling come together in smooth prose that, ultimately, defies fact and fiction.”
What the translator says: “The stories in Little Bird transform the stuff of daily life—the mundane details and events that another writer might use to make an invented person seem more real—into surreal magic. She turns lawn mowing into performance art, bus rides into high drama, fly swatting into a life-or-death rescue mission.”
What Words Without Borders says: The stories in Little Bird accomplish a seemingly daunting task: namely, offering readers a sense of distance while also embracing the most visceral elements of the surreal. Add a few observations of life in Norway into the mix and the outcome is even more distinctive—a singular work that comes at the reader from unexpected angles.