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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.

In the Beginning Was the Sea

Tómas González’s career has been a slow-burner over the course of eight novels as well as some stories and poems, but he is finally recognized as one of the greats of Colombian literature.

In the Beginning Was the Sea was González’s first novel, a fictionalized version of the events surrounding his brother’s 1977 murder: J. and Elena are young urban intellectuals who move to the coast for a simpler life, and there the complications begin.

Following the original 1983 publication of Primero estaba el mar, other editions appeared, with the 2001 Editorial Normal edition finally bringing more readers and recognition. Pushkin Press published an English translation by Frank Wynne in 2015, introducing González to the English-speaking world.

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Sphinx

French writer Anne Garréta was the first member of experimental literary group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop) to have been born after its 1960 founding. “Oulipians” add mathematical or linguistic constraints to their writing; a famous example being Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La disparition, translated into English as A Void in 1994, which he wrote without using the letter ‘e’.

In Garréta’s 1986 debut novel, Sphinx, the author uses a profound linguistic constraint in telling a love story between a French academic-turned-DJ and an American dancer who meet in a Paris nightclub. In 2015, Sphinx became the first novel by a female Oulipian to be translated into English, when Deep Vellum published Emma Ramadan’s translation.

In his introduction to the Deep Vellum edition, Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker urges readers who are about to read Sphinx, but are still unaware of the nature of Garréta’s constraint, to “do everything in your power to stay ignorant for a while longer.” To that end, I won’t reveal it here.

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Ancient tillage

Like Tomás González, Brazil’s Raduan Nassar’s reputation as one of his country’s most important writers has grown slowly, over decades. His 1975 debut novel Ancient Tillage (Lavoura arcaica) and 1978 novella A Cup of Rage (Um copo de cólera) eventually became regarded as classics, and gained new readers through film adaptations at the turn of the century. Meanwhile, in the mid-1980s Nassar left writing to become a farmer, giving up the literary life and avoiding the press.

Ancient Tillage is a coming-of age story with mythological undercurrents. André, frustrated by his sermonizing father, and tormented by his own attraction to his sister Ana, leaves the family farm for the city. Life there proves no escape from torment, but it’s André’s return to the farm that brings the family’s drama to a head.

Penguin Modern Classics published its translation of Ancient Tillage by Karen Sotelino, along with a translation of A Cup of Rage by Stefan Tobler, in 2016.

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Shame in the Blood

Tetsuo Miura’s collection of interconnected stories won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1960, and its title story has since become a classic of modern Japanese literature—as well as being adapted into a film. Miura’s first-person protagonist fears his family is cursed, after two siblings commit suicide and two run away, leaving him to care for his parents and disabled sister. These elements are all autobiographical, and Miura explained that he became a writer to purify what he feared was his own cursed blood.

In the title story, the protagonist marries a waitress whose support enables him to focus on his writing, and whose disposition inspires him to choose hope in the face of loss and poverty. The following stories continue to explore family relationships, particularly in the context of death and loss.

Shoemaker & Hoard, which has since become part of Counterpoint Press, first published an English translation by Andrew Driver in 2007.

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Zama

When Zama, Antonio Di Benedetto’s first novel, was published in 1956, critics appreciated its value, but it took years for the novel to gain wider recognition as a classic of Argentinian—and indeed all of Spanish-language— literature. While Zama has been available in other European languages for decades, the first English translation was Esther Allen’s for NYRB Classics in in 2016.

Military hero and “pacifier of Indians” Don Diego de Zama was a chief administrator for the Spanish colonial government in Mendoza. Under new regulations, his status as a native-born Creole means he’s had to take a demotion, leaving his family behind and relocating to a distant outpost. An early scene in Zama finds him looking at a dead monkey floating in the water who had escaped the jungle. Zama is caught in his own bleak backwater, dreaming of escape, whether that’s through a transfer or through sexual conquests.

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Death Going Down

Maria Angélica Bosco was known as her nation’s Agatha Christie—though she never embraced that title. Her 2006 obituary in Argentina’s La Nación quotes Bosco as explaining that, rather than Christie, “my model was Vera Caspary,” the American novelist and screenwriter.

Writing in the Influx Books blog, Ben Bollig points out that, unlike Christie’s Miss Marple, “Bosco’s protagonists are very much contemporary women, dealing with problems of work, sexism, and social conflicts.”

In Death Going Down (La muerte baja en el ascensor), a young woman is found dead in the elevator of an upscale apartment block. In post-war Buenos Aires, there’s an influx of immigrants from Europe, many with dark secrets—and sure enough, it becomes clear that all of the suspects have something to hide.

First published in Argentina in 1954, Pushkin Vertigo brought out a translation of Death Going Down by Lucy Greaves in 2017. 

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The Dirty Dust

Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille is a portrait of a village graveyard whose occupants carry on talking to each other, coffin to coffin, as though they were still alive. First appearing in serial form in 1949, and published in a bound edition in 1950, it was immediately popular across the Irish-speaking world—and is still considered a masterpiece of modern Irish writing.

In fact, it is in part because of Cré na Cille’s somewhat intimidating reputation that 66 years passed before an English version appeared. As William Brennan writes in The New Yorker, “Nobody wanted to be the person who fumbled the translation of the language’s greatest novel.” Yale University Press has recently gone some way towards making up for lost time, publishing two translations. First came Alan Titley’s 2015 translation, The Dirty Dust—Brennan calls this version “vigorous and fun.” Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson’s  Graveyard Clay followed in 2016. According to Yale, this second translation is "more restrained," and “meant to spark debate and comparison” with Titley’s version. 

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Cover photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.

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