Translated literature has traditionally formed a very small percentage of the overall book market, particularly here in the UK, where we have been inexplicably reluctant to engage with ‘foreign’ books.
To be fair, in the past, translations were not always as nuanced, elegant and readable as they are today. These days, however, there are thousands of masterful translations available from countries around the world – books that are a showcase for an author’s work rather than a weak interpretation.
But where do you start? We asked Karen Sullivan of independent publisher Orenda Books to give us an introduction to translations with six recommended reads – each of which would make a perfect Christmas present for any book addict!
Karen: Perhaps the best way to try an international author is to go for some genre fiction – crime fiction, thrillers, horror, fantasy or even a love romance – to see how enjoyable, how accessible it can be.
Half of the Orenda Books list is in translation. We take great care to work with the best, most talented translators (several authors have remarked that their books are even better in translation) and to focus on gorgeous writing, books that say something, with universal themes.
Reading a translation means being transported to another culture, another world, and through that hearts and minds can be opened. We become more tolerant and more understanding, more aware. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz, translated by Rachel Ward
A mysterious cross between Raymond Chandler and Tana French or Liza Cody
A perfect introduction to one of the most exciting names in European crime fiction; Simone Buchholz is a serial award winner in her native Germany and always on the bestseller list.
Beton Rouge is fresh, feisty, feminist, gritty and funny all in one, with an unforgettable female protagonist in Chastity Riley, whose investigations into the murder of newspaper executives take her into the hothouse world of boarding schools.
Chastity is a brilliant character, and her first-person, quirky narrative and observations, will have you laughing out loud one minute, and biting your nails the next.
Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson, translated by Maxim Jakubowski
Kate Atkinson meets Silence of the Lambs!
The darling of the French literary crime scene went straight to the top of the charts with her debut thriller, featuring true crime writer Alexis Castells and profiler Emily Roy, on loan to Scotland Yard from the RCMP.
This is a stunning, sophisticated and undeniably graphic read that swings from France to London and the west coast of Sweden, and then back into the past, to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, as Roy & Castells hunt a serial killer.
Gustawsson’s grandfather was one of the prisoners who liberated Buchenwald from the inside, and she writes with passion and moving historical insights. First in a series that is currently being filmed for TV.
We Were the Salt of the Sea, by Roxanne Bouchard, translated by David Warriner
For fans of Annie Proulx
This is both a sensuously slow crime thriller – a proper ‘mystery’ – and a lyrical ode to the sea, set in Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. The first in the Detective Morales series, we see a young Montrealer on the hunt for her long-lost mother, only to find her washed up on the shores in a fisherman’s net.
The book features an unforgettable cast of characters from small-town French Canada, where the truth can be more than slippery, bringing the culture and the landscape alive. Bouchard is an award-winning writer, and this is her sumptuous English debut.
A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, translated by Rosie Hedger
For fans of Anne Tyler and Joanna Cannon
This is an exquisitely written, perceptive novel and Norwegian Flatland’s English debut. When the elderly parents of three older children decide to divorce, the quiet earthquake that results forces them to re-examine the shared narrative of their own childhoods – and their lives – as they come to terms with the news.
Told through the eyes of the three siblings, this is a beautiful book that will leave you bereft when you’ve finished. Joanna Cannon described it as the ‘most beautiful, elegant writing I’ve read in a long time’. A number one bestseller in Helga’s native Norway, this book also won the coveted Booksellers Award.
The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen, translated by David Hackston
For fans of Fargo and Carl Hiassen
The Times described Finnish Antti Tuomainen as the ‘funniest writer in Europe’, and for good reason. This dark, hilarious and somehow very poignant thriller features a middle-aged mushroom entrepreneur, whose doctor explains that the symptoms he’s experiencing are fatal.
He’s been poisoned. The deliciously funny romp that follows, full of zany characters, wise observations and, at points, slapstick humour, sees him trying to investigate his own murder. Simply unforgettable.
Snare, by Lilja Sigurdardottir, translated by Quentin Bates
Almost impossible to define – the breathless, visceral tension of Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, or Peter Swanson, meets Michael Ridpath or even Don Winslow
Iceland post-financial crash is brought alive in this nail-biting thriller, as a single mother is forced to import cocaine into her home country, avoiding the increasingly probing eye of a customs officer who is on her tail.
Set in a Reykjavík still covered in the dust of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, this is a cat-and-mouse thriller and also a moving portrait of a mother, desperate to get custody of her son.
First in the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, which has twice won Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year, this is smart, sexy and fast-paced. I can guarantee you will never walk through border control the same way again…
Karen Sullivan is publisher of Orenda Books, a small independent publisher focussing on literary fiction, with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half the list in translation. She’s been a Bookseller Rising Star and Orenda Books has been shortlisted for Best Newcomer in the Independent Publishing Awards. Authors include Ragnar Jonasson, Helen FitzGerald, Thomas Enger, Kati Hiekkapelto, Vanda Symon and Will Carver.
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