Regardless of whether you’re looking forward to a long vacation on a beach or simply relaxing at home, having a book to read is just as crucial a summer accoutrement as a bottle of sunblock and a cold drink. And this summer, readers will have a lot of choices if they want to delve into the literature of other countries. Even if trips to Mauritius, Madagascar, or Albania are out of reach, translations have made reading literature from these places as easy to attain as a summer blockbuster.
We’ve gathered 19 translated works — novels and nonfiction — to quench your curiosity about subjects ranging from rollicking Cuban Science Fiction to nineteenth-century Malagasy adventure stories. There are also plenty of romances, historical fictions, and detective stories to suit every reader.
A Bäckström Novel
Leif G.W. Persson
Leif Persson served as an adviser to Sweden’s Ministry of Justice and is renowned for his work in criminal profiling, so who better to write Scandi-noir novels? In The Sword of Justice, DS Evert Bäckström celebrates when he receives news that mafia lawyer Thomas Eriksson has been whacked. The bad news is that Bäckström has been assigned the case. Eriksson had so many enemies, it’s tough to find someone who isn’t suspected of killing him. How does a mafia killing lead Bäckström back to artwork commissioned for Tsar Nicholas II? Persson provides readers with a fascinating mystery.
Javier Marias is renowned in his native Spain for his fifteen novels, several of them winners of prestigious book prizes. In Between Eternities, readers will have a chance to read a collection of his essays in which his wide-ranging intellect and curiosity are on full display. His discussions cover topics as diverse as European football, the nature of cemeteries, critiques of contemporary novels, and considerations of what Spain’s women demand. His essays present a variety of narrative tones, ranging from the cutting and wry to moments of great humor. A great introduction to the mind of one of Spain’s greatest living writers.
Not many writers would be brave enough to translate their own work, but Tidbeck did in order to introduce her work, originally published in Sweden, to English-speaking readers. Her collection of short stories is full of surprises that take in the everyday coincidences that change our direction to a magical realism that incorporates elements of steam punk. Whether recounting the love affair between a man and an airship or speculating about what really happens in those faceless corporate call centers, Tidbeck presents readers with a different perspective on quotidian life.
Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield
Shalamov began to write these Russian stories about life as a slave in the Soviet Gulags in 1954, the year after Stalin died. Most of them were locked away under censorship and were uncovered in the archives in 2013. The complete stories (a second volume is scheduled for 2019) have been translated into English and gathered for the first time here. Shalamov worked as a slave in the gold mines for six years, before assuming work as a paramedic in the prison. His writing style has been compared to Chekhov, and most of the stories themselves are each fewer than ten pages, a testament to Shalamov’s ability to write spare prose about great suffering.
Édouard Louis, translated from the French by Lorin Stein
Louis has topped the bestseller lists in his native France with The End of Eddy, and this, an “autobiographical novel,” that narrates his real-life experience of being raped and nearly murdered in 2012. Louis uses narrative techniques made familiar in In Cold Blood in which Louis moves between his own voice and that of an unnamed narrator. At times, Louis pulls away from the violence to recount the story as if writing a police report; at other moments, he brings readers unbearably close to the events. Louis presents a view of homophobia and racism in France that disrupts fairytale stories about Paris.
Wolfgang Herrndorf, translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Herrndorf called this his “idiot-novel,” about bumbling French detectives investigating a quadruple murder at a North African hippie commune in 1972. Carl, suffering from amnesia, is pursued by men as retaliation for actions Carl can’t remember, and a Swedish spy is involved in black market arms deals. These and other assorted European characters act against a background of high political tension. Eleven Israeli athletes have been murdered at the Munich Olympics and an anti-imperialist rebellion may be brewing. The anarchy of Herrndorf’s plot should appeal to fans of Catch-22 and Pynchon.
Noémi Lefebvre, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis
This novella takes place during an airplane flight. The woman narrator, who never reveals her name, is transitioning during the international flight between languages, and some of the story’s focus is on caring enough about something to want to express it in a different tongue. But it’s also interwoven with a romantic encounter with a German-American pianist-composer, and its dark comedy plays out in memories of Berlin and an obsession with Arnold Schoenberg’s self-portrait. Sophie Lewis’s translator’s note at the end of the book provides a fascinating coda.
Honoré de Balzac, translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Oscar Wilde once claimed that Balzac “invented” the 19th century. Two centuries later, Balzac’s evocation of daily life is exciting to read. This epistolary novel contains the letters exchanged between two young women who leave their convent school, where they have been the best of friends, and strike out on divergent paths. Renee de Maucombe is promised in marriage to a country gentlemen in Provence. Louise de Chaulieu heads instead to Paris, to her family home, and takes up a life in which she attends the opera, attends parties in lavish dresses, and pursues romance. Louise and Renee are fierce, intelligent, and unguarded with one another. Their correspondence makes for lively reading.
Carla Guelfenbein, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen
Who is Vera Sigall? As the elderly woman lies in a coma after a fall at her home, three people who knew her reflect on their relationships with her. They begin to suspect that Vera’s fall was not an accident, and that malevolent forces may have wished her dead. Vera Sigall is a respected author whose stories may have contained subversive messages, which made them dangerous to publish in a South American country where words have been restricted by the powers that be. Guelfenbein is a literary star in Chile; the character of Vera Sigall is based on writer Clarice Lispector. A mysterious plot that circles closer to an answer will keep readers turning the pages.
Russia isn’t all gulags and gangsters, as many of the works translated into English sometimes convey. In Tolstaya’s short stories, readers meet ordinary Russians engaged in the familiar daily activities that comprise modern life. Shopping, driving, working, eating, loving, raising children. They are a few of the aspects that Tolstaya brings her comic eye to and produces stories that are both droll and sad, a depiction of lives that haven’t turned out the way they were planned. Her quirky writing, which also borders on the poetic, will keep readers guessing as they begin each new tale.
Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra
During her days, Sonja translates Swedish crime fiction into Danish, and she frequently sees her work being read by strangers. But Sonja’s secret is that she doesn’t know how to drive, and she longs for the mobility that a car would bring to her life, especially in her quest to leave Copenhagen and return to the farmland where she grew up. But as anyone who has ever tried to learn to drive as an adult will tell you, being a beginner when one is over 40 and sitting in a training car with a strict instructor, makes driver’s education a trial. Nors has written a novel full of laughs and melancholy as readers observe Sonja trying to gain her freedom.
Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette
If your only knowledge of the island of Madagascar is the eponymous Disney film, Beyond the Rice Fields should be at the top of your list. Set in the nineteenth-century, this is the first Malagasy novel ever translated into English. It recounts the story of Fara and his father’s soon-to-be-emancipated slave, Tsito. As Madagascar undergoes the upheaval brought by the twin invasion of British Christian missionaries and French industrialists, who each have their own designs on the wealth of the island, Fara and Tsito must learn to thrive amidst the chaos.
Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Bernardo Atxaga lives in the Basque Country. For nine months, he and his wife and child were residents in Nevada while Atxaga was a writer-in-residence. Nevada was an alien planet in comparison with his home, and in this blend of autobiography and fiction, Atxaga describes a desert landscape where his observations of the minutia of desert life leads to a narrative of true-crime. As an outsider, Atxaga offers a perspective on the West that will allow readers to see it through a kaleidoscope; they may never look at Reno the same way again.
Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Kadare is Albania’s preeminent author, and in this mystery thriller, readers are hurtled back to the days of Albania’s 1945-1991 dictatorship. Linda B. is found dead, clutching a copy of playwright Rudian Stefa’s latest book in her hands. Stefa is called before the Party Committee for questioning in the woman’s death despite his not knowing who she is. But Stefa can’t get images of Linda B. out of his head, and as he sets out to solve the mystery of how and why she died, he finds himself growing increasingly paranoid as he wonders whether he is being set up, and whether, in fact, he is culpable in the girl’s death.
Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Kadare‘ s work has finally found its way into English translation. As a consequence, two of his works are being released at the same time. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, its borders stretched over three continents, taking in much of North Africa, the Balkans, parts of the Arabian peninsula, Southeastern Europe, and, of course, Turkey. In one of the ancient walls inside Constantinople, the empire’s capital, a niche had been carved. Into this niche, the sultan has placed the decapitated heads of his enemies. When Albania stages a revolt, and a courier is sent to bring back its rebellious governor’s head.
Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Anita and Adam are an artistic couple who have found a happy life living in a village on the Atlantic Coast in southwestern France. Anita is an immigrant from the island of Mauritius, pursuing a life as as writer by freelancing for a local newspaper. Adam is a painter who has become an architect. In a decision that will have an unforeseen impact on their lives, they hire Adele, an undocumented immigrant from Mauritius, to work as a nanny for their daughter, Laura. A tragedy will disrupt their contentment, and one of them will end up in prison.
Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye
Cuban science fiction may be just the summer read you’re looking for. In Condomnauts, Yoss takes readers to the 24th century-Rubble City, Cuba, where Josue Valdes makes a living racing cockroaches. But he finds his true calling as a sexual adventurer in space, where he serves as an ambassador for the Nu Barsa colony. Yoss is Cuba’s preeminent writer of science fiction, and this raucous novel is a fun introduction to the universe he’s populated with humans who use sex to seal intergalactic treaties.
Originally published in Swedish, In Every Moment We Are Still Alive has topped the bestseller lists in every European country where it has been translated. Tom faces an unimaginable tragedy when his partner, Karin, is diagnosed with a terminal disease while she is heavily pregnant. As Tom wrestles with becoming a first-time father and a widower in the same stretch of days, he is hit with more bad news. His father is also diagnosed with a terminal disease. Loosely based on Malmquist’s own experiences, this novel offers prose that will provoke a range of feelings, including laughter and hope, as Tom finds a way to go forward.
Shahriar Mandanipour, translated by Khalili Sara
Most of the war novels that have been written about the Iraq War have been done so by American authors. And in English, novels about the long war between Iran and Iraq, which preceded the American war, has not been covered at all. In Moon Brow, Iranian writer Shahriar Mandanipour has produced a novel about the universal problem of shell-shock and how men damaged by war come back to civilization. Amir Yamini was a carefree playboy who chased women before going off to war. When his family find him, five years later, he has lost an arm and much of his memory. But Amir has a vision of a woman with a “moon brow” who he is convinced can return him to wholeness. His adventures in pursuit of her will keep readers entranced.