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Indie Booksellers Share Their Favorite Translations of the Decade

Ten years, twenty-three independent booksellers, thirteen publishers, twenty-three outstanding works of literature in translation.

The last decade has been good to us in the business of publishing literature in translation. The books, of course, have been fantastic, the writers of the highest caliber. The same goes for the translators, those who turn say, Der Zauberberg into The Magic Mountain, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore into If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Anyone reading this list on this blog could’ve predicted as much. What might’ve been harder to anticipate, I think, is how the community around this work has grown.

The field for these kinds of books—so-called “difficult” and notoriously hard to sell as they may be—has expanded considerably this past decade, thanks to both the focused work of established presses like New Directions, NYRB Classics, Open Letter Books, Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, and Dalkey Archive Press, as well as a crop of new publishers who have made publishing this important work central to their mission. Transit Books, Restless Books, New Vessel, Deep Vellum, Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the Center’s own Two Lines Press all started within the last ten years. That’s, I’ll go ahead and say it, pretty awesome.

All of this growth of community and awareness around the works and process of translation is a direct result of the hard work of independent booksellers. This is not an overstatement. It is independent booksellers who have made the time and provided the space for these books to thrive. Who then could be better to ask to curate this best translated books of the decade list? I’ll answer that: No one. There’s no one better. This deep-diving, eclectic list is strong evidence of that. And so readers, let’s do this: twenty-three indie booksellers from across the country on their favorite translations of the last ten years.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from Danish by Denise Newman

Coffee House Press, 2019

“I was entirely unable to put this book down. Carl’s book, his story, his life, will stay with me for a long time. Aidt’s writing on grief, boundless sorrow, sadness, and pain reminded me that death comes to us all and that there is no universal path to overcoming loss. No amount of courage nor strength that can lead us back to being whole. Just one foot in front of the other. Every day.”

—Matt Keliher, Subtext Books (St. Paul, MN)

“Lyrical, devastating, and intricately fragmented, Naja Marie Aidt created a book that I didn’t know was emotionally possible. Denise Newman’s translation of this book is a complete work of art.”

—Cristina Rodriguez, Deep Vellum Bookstore (Dallas, TX)

Click to order When Death Takes Something From You Give it Back from Subtext Books or Deep Vellum Bookstore

The Hare by César Aira, translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor

New Directions, 2013

“This novel is both delightful and sly. It astonished me that I did not know this author much and have since become a fan. Nick Caistor’s translation is so smooth and artful I did not notice that I was reading a translated novel at all in fact.”

—Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield’s Books (San Francisco, CA)

Click here to order The Hare from Copperfield’s

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from French by Tina Kover

Europa Editions, 2018

“Négar Djavadi’s debut novel, flawlessly translated by Tina Kover, was a finalist for the first ever National Book Award for translated literature, and winner of several prestigious French prizes. The story begins with the narrator, Kimiâ, sitting in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic, and as she starts telling us why she’s there, she realizes she has to go back to the beginning – 18th century Persia. It’s a page-turner that could somehow be 200 pages longer, but manages to be a unique coming of age story, a political thiller, a family saga, and a whirlwind through Iranian history with cheekily informative footnotes. Kimiâ has a blazingly clear voice that still rings in my head years after reading it.”

—Helen Zuckerman, Community Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)

Click here to order Disoriental from Community Bookstore

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell

New Directions, 2017

“Astonishing in its erudition, yet elegant and deeply human, Enard examines the cross-pollination of cultures historically at odds. Mandell’s gorgeous translation sweeps you effortlessly into the ramblings of an insomniac musicologist as he ponders love, mortality, and music.”

—Chris Phipps, City Lights Booksellers (San Francisco, CA) 

Click here to order Compass from City Lights

Not One Day by Anne Garréta, translated from French by Emma Ramadan

Deep Vellum, 2017

“Oulipo member Anne Garreta gives herself a rigid homework assignment and along the way upends the boundaries of autofiction. Her musings, translated by Emma Ramadan, on all the people she’s desired or those who have desired her are moving, funny, erotic, and magical. Her gem on American ‘highway music’ is worth it in itself.”

—Kyle Alderdice, Book Culture (New York, NY)

Click here to order Not One Day from Book Culture

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from French by Emma Ramadan

Deep Vellum, 2015

“Both the original French and the English translation are masterpieces of subtly manipulating the text to accomplish something politically and culturally powerful: erasing gender from the plot and language. Still shockingly resonant some thirty years after Garreta wrote the original, and given a new context with the English translation in 2015, the love affair at the center of “Sphinx” is rendered with an incredibly astute precision, especially when it comes to passing, fleeting emotions. It breaks your heart and bowls you over at the same time.”

—Tom Roberge, riffraff (Providence, RI)

Sphinx was the first book that I read that really got me fascinated with the intricacies in language. Reading Emma’s translator’s note in the book blew my mind away and gave me such a deep appreciation for the art of translation.”

—Cristina Rodriguez, Deep Vellum Bookstore (Dallas, TX)

Click to order Sphinx from riffraff or Deep Vellum Books

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak

Transit Books, 2017

“A coming-of-age novel that demonstrates how the mystic and the mundane coexisted in the last years of the Polish People’s Republic, Swallowing Mercury is a revelation. Told through a series of remembered episodes and encounters in a rural village in southern Poland, Wioletta Greg’s first book to appear in English seems, at times, like a hybrid of folkloric and realistic imagination. Filled with fresh, impressionistic imagery, and descriptions of “May bug hunts,” and “feathering evenings,” Swallowing Mercury frames a window into a world we’re lucky to learn about through Wiola’s eyes, Wioletta Greg’s words, and Eliza Marciniak’s smooth translation.”

—John Francisconi, Bank Square Books (Mystic, CT)

Click here to order Swallowing Mercury from Bank Square Books

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman

And Other Stories, 2015

“If you start highlighting what stuns you about Signs Preceding the End of the World, every page will be mottled with fluorescent lines. Herrera writes in prose that feels like you are standing on both sides of the uncanny valley while something beautiful happens below and above you, creating a delectable unease, cut through with the simple joy of precise and surprising images. There are at least 5 other books I could have picked, but since I have to go with one, Dillman’s ability to translate Herrera’s tightrope-without-a-net prose pushed Signs to the top.”

—Josh Cook, Porter Square Books (Cambridge, MA)

Click here to order Signs Preceding the End of the World from Porter Square Books

Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson, translated from German by Damion Searls

NYRB Classics, 2018

“A monumental undertaking, Damion Searls’s translation of Uwe Johnson’s quotidian epic stands as the great literary resurrection of our time.”

—Hal Hlavinka, Community Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY) 

Anniversaries is a masterpiece. Translator Damion Searls has given the English reader a great gift.”

—Stephanie Valdez, Community Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)

Click here to order Anniversaries from Community Bookstore

River by Esther Kinsky, translated from German by Iain Galbraith

Transit Books, 2018

“A novel which relies, not on character or story, but language itself. A quiet, but sweeping, reflection on nature and being alive. Rendered beautifully into English by Iain Glabraith.”

—Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore (Houston, TX)

Click here to order River from Brazos Bookstore

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated from Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring

Verso Books, 2015

“A boy named Margio kills his neighbor, but why? This taut, circular fable leads to the answer, which involves family, jealousy, and a white tiger spirit. Kurniawan’s (and Sembiring’s) spare language still manages to evoke the grotesque and the beautiful, the magical and the mundane, in this astonishingly good short novel.”

—Annie Metcalf, Magers & Quinn (Minneapolis, MN)

Click here to order Man Tiger from Magers & Quinn

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from French by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Archipelago Books, 2017

“Hear the clash of languages / in my mouth / the thirst for new births” – There is unfathomable beauty and unspeakable sorrow laced throughout this 800-page bilingual opus of poems by Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laâbi, which speaks to his feeling of exile from his own language and his displacement within his own country, mired in the mess of colonialism. Donald Nicholson-Smith skillfully carves out a space for English to accommodate Laâbi’s vigorous and vital voice.”

—Emma Ramadan, riffraff (Providence, RI)

Click here to order In Praise of Defeat from riffraff

Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi, translated from Italian (multiple translators)

FSG, 2013

“A monumental undertaking featuring seven translators, including Ann Goldstein and Richard Dixon, Zibaldone offers for the first time in English Giacomo Leopardi’s revelatory notebooks. Leopardi is one of the great figures of Italian literature (“towering” often thrown around), occupying a position just below Dante, and his erudition, deep pessimism, and almost anachronistically modern response to the world were finally made available to readers in English nearly 2 centuries after his death. The notebooks are revelatory. 

“Along with John E. Woods’ translation of Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream (which I’d venture to say is more admired than read), I can think of no more remarkable translation published in the past decade.”

—Stephen Sparks, Point Reyes Books (Point Reyes, CA)

Click here to order Zibaldone from Point Reyes

Áqua Viva by Clarice Lispector, translated from Portuguese by Stefan Tobler

New Directions, 2012

“There is simply no other book like Água Viva. More than anyone else I’ve encountered, Clarice Lispector gets at what it’s like to be, painfully, alive, and Stefan Tobler expertly crafts a new language to capture her force in this English re-translation.”

—Emma Ramadan, riffraff (Providence, RI)

Click here to order Áqua Viva from riffraff

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House Press, 2014

“My first introduction to Luiselli’s roving intellect. I share her preoccupations—place, cityscapes, memories, wayward pilgrimages—so I was naturally drawn to this work but I think these essays have both a freedom and a rigor to them. I’ve followed her work closely since, and I’m willing to go wherever her curiosity takes her.”  

—Shuchi Saraswat, Brookline Booksmith (Brookline, MA)

Click here to order Sidewalks from Brookline Booksmith

Nothing But Waves and Wind by Christine Montalbetti, translated from French by Jane Kuntz

Dalkey Archive, 2017

“Described as a “thrilling study of the senseless cruelty disappointed men are capable of,” Nothing But Waves and Wind is an atmospheric tour de force. Using a musty bar on the Oregon coast as its setting, Montalbetti shows how landscape shapes our choices.”

—Emily Ballaine, Green Apple Books on the Park (San Francisco, CA)

Click here to order Nothing But Waves and Wind from Green Apple Books on the Park

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from French by Jordan Stump

Two Lines Press, 2014

“I loved the NDiaye! It was one of the first books I read as a bookseller…browsed the shelves, picked it up, and I just loved it. In so many ways it felt like a discovery—an author whose work I had never read before, this mysterious premise, ordering and revealing a life based on women in green, and her sensibility, slipping from real to surreal so effortlessly.”

—Shuchi Saraswat, Brookline Booksmith (Brookline, MA)

Click here to order Self-Portrait in Green from Brookline Booksmith

Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia

FSG, 2012

“A novel of ideas gorgeously rendered from its original Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century is one of the concluding decade’s finest works in translation. Described by Neuman himself as a ‘futuristic novel that happens in the past,’ Traveler explores timeless themes and enduring issues, however set in the early 19th century. With rich subplots woven effortlessly into an already well-textured narrative, Neuman’s novel is wholly engaging, exquisite, and beautifully composed. With captivating prose (a la Caistor and Garcia’s expert translation), memorable characters, and an unforgettable take on subjects both personal and profound, Traveler of the Century is a resplendent, masterful work of art. “

—Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Booksellers (Portland, OR)

Click here to order Traveler of the Century from Powell’s

Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia, translated from Spanish by Sergio Waisman

Deep Vellum, 2015

“Everything I want detective novels to be but rarely are — paranoid, surreal, cynical, philosophical, metaphysical, but, above all, entertaining. Piglia’s world is a fully formed creation within a work that constantly peels back layers of complexity and intrigue, with a playfulness that’s perfectly rendered by translator Sergio Waisman.”

—Justin Souther, Malaprop’s Bookstore (Asheville, NC)

Click here to order Target in the Night from Malaprop’s

With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from French by W. Donald Wilson

Dalkey Archive Press, 2012

“The gnarled, ragged syntax hobbling throughout Noëlle Revaz’s With the Animals, in a feat of translation by W. Donald Wilson, is downright ugly. Disjointed and evasive, this maddening manner of speech, spewing forth from a benighted tyrant with a vicious streak, coats the novel in a fine dusting of unruly blather and brusque animosity. It’s unshakable stuff, made all the more memorable for its dark and dexterous English rendering.”

—Justin Walls, Powell’s Books (Portland, OR)

Click here to order With the Animals from Powell’s

Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House Press, 2016

“Fresh off the success of Valeria Luiselli’s marvelous The Story of My Teeth, rock star translator Christina MacSweeney has brought another delightful, mind-bending gem from Mexico’s contemporary literary scene to English-speaking audiences. At 27, Rodrigo is satisfied by simple (if eccentric) pleasures: He passes his weeks meditating on the vacant lot next to his apartment, pampering the chicken that has taken up residence there, and amassing a collection of used teabags-cum-objets d’art that he staples to his bedroom wall. When Rodrigo’s passivity lands him in a joyless marriage, he moves to a small college town outside Mexico City where he can pursue life’s quotidian pleasures unharassed. After embarking on a psychedelic art project with a pair of aging academics, a hypnotist, and an intense young woman who may have shamanic powers, he discovers a capacity for passion in himself that moves him, finally, to action.”

—Katharine Solheim, Pilsen Community Books (Chicago, IL)

Click here to order Among Strange Victims from Pilsen Community Books 

Öraefi: The Wasteland by Ófeigur Sigurdsson, translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith

Deep Vellum, 2018

Öraefi: The Wasteland is an insane, swaggering beast of a novel that incorporates everything from volcanoes to feral sheep to death metal in a tale that literally defies the imagination. It’s a rollicking, sui generis quest story brought to English in all its idiosyncratic complexity by Lytton Smith’s stellar translation.”

—Keaton Patterson, Brazos Bookstore (Houston, TX)

Click here to order Öraefi: The Wasteland from Brazos Bookstores

Before the Feast by Sasa Stanisic, translated from German by Anthea Bell

Tin House, 2016

“The late, great Anthea Bell knocks it out of the park with this one. I’ve had the pleasure of stumbling my way through the original, and I can confirm that Stanasic’s unique voice shines through Bell’s translation. Funny, compelling, rhythmic.”

—Devon Dunn, Book Culture (New York, NY)

Click here to order Before the Feast from Book Culture