If you can read and understand this, you’re spoiled. Not because you get to enjoy the fabulous writing of Message in a Bottle—not just that, anyway—but because it means you know English. When you do, you can wander the world trusting that you’ll run into someone else who can speak your language sooner than not. It’s a great privilege to be monolingual and still be able to communicate with a wide swath of humanity, and we anglophones are a lucky, lucky lot.
The drawback to the global dominance of English is that while we’re assuming that the rest of the world wants to hear what we have to say, we’re not able to listen to what those other people are talking about to each other. This becomes all too apparent when you look at the number of books translated from English and compare it to the paltry number translated into English. It’s very difficult to calculate the percentages exactly, given how many books are published each year in different editions and formats, but the figure thrown around most frequently is three percent. That is, of all books published in the US, just three percent were originally written in another language. If you exclude reprints and retranslations of existing texts and drop purely functional writing (financial reports and the like), the total is even lower. Things aren’t much more diverse in the UK, either. A recent study indicates that translated poetry, drama, and fiction may account for up to 4.5% of published work there. For context, you should know that a mere five percent of the planet’s population speaks English as a first language.
We’re missing out on a lot, obviously. Which is why my ears always perk up when I hear that the longlist of nominees for the Best Translated Book Award has been released. This annual prize honors the finest work available from around the globe, and it was founded by the University of Rochester’s resource for international literature, Three Percent (guess where they got their name). I’m someone who tries to keep up with this stuff, and I’m familiar with much of the list, but every year they surprise me by uncovering several titles I’ve never even heard of. This group will be winnowed to a shortlist on April 10th, and the winner will be announced on May 4th.
- The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Argentina)
- Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (France)
- The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale (Iran)
- Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung, translated from the Chinese by Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall (China)
- Kite by Dominique Eddé, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Lebanon)
- We, The Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstom and Lucy Fraser (Japan)
- The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd (France)
- Basti by Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett (Pakistan)
- Mama Leone by Miljenko Jergović, translated from the Croatian by David Williams (Croatia)
- Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook (Austria)
- My Struggle: Book One by Karl Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway)
- Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Hungary)
- Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein (France)
- A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (Brazil)
- The Lair by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Oana Sanziana Marian (Romania)
- The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Romania)
- Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina)
- Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler (Russia)
- With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the French by Donald W. Wilson (Switzerland)
- Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Russia)
- Joseph Walser’s Machine by Gonçalo M. Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Portugal)
- Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White (Germany)
- Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean (Spain)
- Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball (Djibouti)
- My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Switzerland)
As usual, it’s the small presses that are making the effort to share these excellent books—Open Letter Press, Melville House, Seagull Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Archipelago Books, New Directions, New York Review Books, and others. It’s thanks to them that the pile on my nightstand is as big as it is.
If this cornucopia is too bountiful to take in all at once, you can sample some of the finest international writing in a single volume. Best European Fiction 2013, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, offers a literary tasting menu from across a continent. It’s as enjoyable as a night out in a tapas bar. Salut!