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Great Translated Books of 2017

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Trying to keep on top of fiction in translation is becoming an impossible job—and this makes me very happy. In the UK, translated literary fiction is selling better than literary fiction written in English, according to a 2016 article in the Guardian. And in the US, readers are equally enthusiastic about translated fiction. Italian publisher Sandro Ferri of Europa Editions, which publishes Elena Ferrante, has some helpful comments about how publishers can do more with "the process of selection, acquisition, communication, and the sale" of translated books. 

In a world that feels increasingly fractured, it would seem natural that people would be drawn to translated literature. Reading books from around the globe makes me feel closer to my fellow humans. Isn't it oddly comforting to discover that a character in a book that takes place in Armenia, for example, feels the exact same thing as a narrator in Ghana?

So, more books in translation (good), but little time to read so many (bad), but still such a pleasure! Below is a selection of great translated books from 2017; far from an exhaustive list, but still, some favorites that will take you from Latin America, through Europe, to the first book from Madagascar translated into English, ending up in Japan, in the intimacy of a thrift shop. 

Things We Lost in the Fire

Argentinian journalist and author Mariana Enriquez has loved horror and gothic fiction since she was a child. This influence is evident in Things We Lost in the Fire, her short story collection about contemporary Argentina, mostly set in Buenos Aires—and masterfully translated into English by Megan McDowell. In it, Enriquez takes on adolescence, politics, corruption and the spectre of desaparecidos in the Argentinian collective memory. Her writing is so powerful, so haunting, that I found it necessary to take a breather once in a while, for fear of finding myself in an abandoned house, or a sprawling urban park at night, with violence and ghosts from a military dictatorship hovering over my shoulder. This is Enriquez' first collection of stories to be translated into English, and we can only hope that there will be more coming very soon. 

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Return To The Dark Valley

Colombian journalist and novelist Santiago Gamboa spent 30 years living outside his country in Spain, France, Italy and India and this collection of stories is his attempt to understand his country once again. The themes of emigration, vengeance and political reconciliation loom large in the lives of Gamboa's characters which include Manuela Beltrán, an intellectual escaping a harrowing childhood, Tertuliano, a preacher from Argentina, the mysterious Juana, and a diplomat called Consul, both characters who appeared in Gamboa's earlier book, Night Prayers. Gamboa intertwines amidst the chapters the re-telling of the brilliant poet Rimbaud's life, who is symbolic of the world traveler. Gamboa recently said that in his novel Rimbaud "holds mirrors in which all the characters see themselves." These characters come together in a fractured world and travel back to Colombia seeking answers. Translated by Howard Curtis.

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Out in the Open

Jesus Carrasco's debut novel, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, opens with a dramatic description of a boy hiding in a hole in the earth just outside a village in Spain. A vast and arid plain lies ahead of him that he must navigate to get away definitively from what made him flee. One night, his path crosses that of an old goatherd, and from that moment on their lives become intertwined. In a land that is drought-stricken and governed by violence this is a dystopian vision of a young boy's flight seeking sanctuary and salvation.

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The Time of Mute Swans

Published in Turkey in 2015, political journalist and author Ece Temelkuran's novel, translated by Kenneth Dakan, is about a military coup in 1980 as witnessed by children.  Temelkuran deftly steps into the personas of Ayşe and Ali, two incredibly observant children, in order to describe the mounting tensions in the city. Today, as the Turkish people’s freedom of expression is being crushed, it is all the more important to read this novel that fictionalizes the real events that took place during the hot summer that lead to a coup d’état declared in September when martial law was imposed on the country. As Temelkuran says, remembering is "a cure for our times of insanity."

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The Baghdad Eucharist

Youssef and Maha are distant relatives who find themselves living together in their native Baghdad, seeking shelter and solace from the increasing turmoil that surrounds them. While Youssef is old and has lived through many good years, Maha is young and has seen only sanctions and war. Her life has been shattered by the sectarian violence engulfing Iraq, a country she feels no longer belongs to her. As the chaos in the country inevitably seeps into their household, a rare argument between Maha and Youssef breaks out, as this fateful day takes an unexpected and calamitous turn. Set over 24 hours, The Baghdad Eucharist unravels through the lives of one Christian family; it speaks both to Iraq's peaceful past, as well as its tragic and painful present.

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The Traitor's Niche

First published in 1978, The Traitor's Niche is part two of a trilogy of sorts, that took this long to be translated, like many wonderful books. Set in 19th century Albania during the Ottoman Empire, it opens with a scene in which a human head is exposed to the public in a cavity in an ancient stone wall. The head belonged to an Albanian pasha who had decided to revolt against the Sultan (and the Empire). Displaying the head is to deter anyone else who might be dreaming of rebellion. Beautifully translated by John Hodgson, Kadaré's surreal tale is one of rebellion and tyranny. For those interested in Kadaré's other two books in the trilogy, the first novel is The Three-Arched Bridge, and the last is The Palace of Dreams.

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Ferocity

Translated by Anthony Shugaar, Ferocity is set in southern Italy in the 1980s. On a hot summer's night under a full moon, far from the outlying neighborhoods of a southern Italian metropolis, Clara stumbles naked, dazed, and bloodied down a major highway. When she dies no one is able to say exactly how or why, but her brother cannot free himself from her memory or from the questions surrounding her death. The more he learns about her life and death, the more he uncovers the moral decay at the core of his family's ascent to social prominence.

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Danish novelist Dorthe Nors has written four novels and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is her first to be translated into English—a project taken on by Misha Hoekstra. Anxious and zany, Nors' character Sonja is heading towards middle age, and searching for herself as she tries to reconnect with her sister, learn how to drive, and meditate. Sonja translates hyper-violent Swedish crime fiction for a living while she reflects back on her childhood on a farm in Jutland. She is off-balance, trying to find her equilibrium, and her gawky, droll character is infinitely sympathetic. 

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Beyond The Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields is Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa's debut novel (he writes as Naivo). First published in French in 2012, it was translated by Alison Charette and is, astonishingly, the first novel from Madagascar ever to be translated into English. Beyond the Rice Fields is set in the 19th century, and is narrated by two characters, Tsito, a slave, and Fara, his mistress. It is a work of historical fiction (as well as a love story) that looks at the brutality of slavery at a time when French industrialists and British missionaries were arriving in Madagascar, upsetting local traditions and religion. The story-telling is circular and dense—not an easy read—but a very gratifying one!

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The Nakano Thrift Shop

The last book on this list, The Nakano Thrift Shop is an odd and lyrical tale. Translated by Allison Markin Powell, it immediately transports you into the intimacy of Mr. Nakano's thrift shop, where a jumble of objects co-exist and lost souls seem to congregate. Hitomi, a young woman who works behind the till, finds herself falling in love with the surprisingly disarming Takeo, while the shop owner, Mr Nakano, a Casanova, manages his ex-wives and his lover. His endearing artist sister Masayo is a frequent presence, as are various other characters and neighbors who are regulars. Quirky and dream-like, the book is entirely relaxing for the slow pace of the lives of each character, an all-pervasive wistfulness for something one can't quite place running throughout.

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As mentioned in the introduction, there are many more wonderful translated books that were published in 2017. And there are more to come in 2018! One that I'm looking forward to in particular is Guadalupe Nettel's After the Winter.

Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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