This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Admittedly, I only started keeping track of speculative fiction (sf) in English translation last year, but this year is already better. In 2015, as far as I can tell, 20 works of sf (this includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, the weird), written in languages other than English, were translated into English. And yes, 20 is a very small number in the context of U.S. and UK publishing. However, this year is on track to bring us nearly 30 works of sf in translation (this includes short-story collections), and, being the optimist that I occasionally am, I can only see this number growing in the coming years. With works of sf in translation winning Hugo awards both last year and this year (The Three-Body Problem, The Day the World Turned Upside Down, Folding Beijing), I think it’s safe to assume that American readers are increasingly interested in speculative stories from around the world, stories from a variety of cultures and traditions that make us interrogate our own assumptions about the planet, the universe, reality, and more.
And while I’d love to talk here about all of the sf in translation coming out in 2016, I’ll limit myself to my favorite five (so far):
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
This chilling book about a faceless, crushing bureaucratic/totalitarian entity might not be marketed as “speculative fiction,” but Basma Abdel Aziz transforms Egypt’s oppressive security apparatus into the stuff of horror stories. In a world that Kafka and Murakami would easily recognize, a Gate guards the entranceway to an unmarked building, outside of which people must wait to obtain papers for anything they want to do: apply for a job, get an operation, file a complaint. The problem is, this Gate never opens, and the line of people waiting outside grows and morphs until it becomes a new organism—it’s no longer just a line of people but a new social order, with it’s own hierarchy and etiquette. And as this line expands, the Gate makes announcements akin to those in Orwell’s 1984, which attempt to rewrite history in the service of an ever-oppressive future.
Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye
This is Yoss’s second novel to be translated into English (his first was A Planet for Rent in 2015) and if you have even a shred of a sense of humor, you’ll find Super Extra Grande pretty hilarious. After all, if a story about a love-lorn veterinarian who specializes in treating the largest organisms in the universe doesn’t make you cackle, well . . . But it’s not just Yoss’s descriptions of Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo’s work digging around, for instance, in the innards of massive amoebae for lost bracelets that gives the book its vivacity; it’s also Yoss’s singular sardonic style in which nothing is sacred and we’re reminded that humanity can be pretty ridiculous in it’s own special way.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu
I’m going to assume that you’ve already read The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, because how could you not read this brilliant hard-sf trilogy?? So now you’re ready for Death’s End, and I hope you’re prepared to set aside an entire day or two (depending on your reading speed) to ingest this novel in one sitting. Trust me, you won’t want to be handling dishes or children or animals while your brain churns through the complex philosophical, mathematical, and cosmological issues and conundrums posed in this book. Your mind will be reeling from a trip into four-dimensional space and across centuries, and from the mind of an alien to the thoughts of a woman whose choices will determine the fate of humankind. All the while, you’ll be drawn in by Ken Liu’s beautiful translation of Cixin Liu’s lyrical imagination.
One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon
Bleak and hushed it certainly is, but a strain of hope and optimism manage to permeate this story of two friends eeking out lives working in a dilapidated electronics market in a Seoul slum. What gives this novel its speculative angle is the fact that people’s shadows seem to be detaching themselves from their owners, sometimes piece by piece, sometimes all at once. Hwang Jungeun uses these detaching shadows, the electronics repair shops, and a broken matryoshka doll to explore the fragility of human life and the shifting sands upon which we build our cities.
Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
What gives humans that “spark” that we call life/consciousness/self-awareness? Cabiya explores this question through the figure of the “zombie”—not the lurching, muttering zombies we know from recent films but a gentlemanly, quiet zombie who works at an Eli Lilly research lab in the Dominican Republic. There, he tries to formulate a compound that will bring him back to “life,” even though he looks and acts like a “normal” person. The brilliance of this book, though, lies in its heady mixture of genres and juxtaposition of science, magic, folklore, neurology, botany, and Caribbean history.
This list is just the beginning of what you’ll find this year in international speculative fiction. Go check it out; your brain will thank you.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .