Worth the Wait: Seven Great Debut Novels in Translation
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In 1983, the owner of a Bogotá salsa club published a novel by one of his bartenders. There's a dream boss for a young writer, right? But the club owner was more than kind—he was on to something big. The novel, Primero estaba el mar (In the Beginning Was the Sea), was a real stunner. Its author—the bartender—Tómas González, has since written seven more novels, plus short stories and poetry. González's reputation has swelled, and in some circles he’s referred to as a Nobel Prize contender. But González was widely unknown in the English-speaking world until Pushkin Press published its translation of In the Beginning Was The Sea in 2014.
Why the wait? It has to do with the general lack of literature translated for English-speaking markets.
The percentage of translations among English-language publications is often cited (and bemoaned) as just 3%. Literature Across Frontiers in Europe and the University of Rochester’s Three Percent project in the USA lead the way in research and advocacy around this issue.
There are arguments about the various economic, operational and cultural reasons that the translation rate is so low. If you want to dig in to the matter, start with Emily Williams in Publishing Perspectives, and Margo Fitzpatrick in Publishing Trendsetter.
Regardless of the factors at play, this all means that for English speakers, there’s a world of great undiscovered authors out there, from the past as well as the present. And thankfully, there are publishing houses, many independent and even not-for-profit, who are making a priority of bringing their works into English. It’s a labor of love that requires searching across decades and continents.
Below, beginning with González’s novel, are seven amazing debut books that took years to make their way into English. There’s no question about it: they were worth the wait. These represent the thrill of discovering a new author, mixed with the intrigue of opening a time capsule, along with the wonders of immersion in a foreign culture.