“We live more of our lives in translation than you might imagine,” said the writer from Chile. His life was an extreme illustration of this. Born in Chile, Ruben had moved to Denmark as a political refugee, and begun to write in Danish as an adult. His books were available in many European languages, though not in English. He hoped some day to be translated into Spanish, so that he would have readers in his home country.
Perhaps the group of writers I met that day were unusual in the linguistic extremes that they represented, but in all probability, you would find the same diversity among a covey of businessmen. One spoke Gujarati but wrote in Tamil; several of the Danes spoke other European languages fluently but used English “in conversation”; one of the Indians spoke and wrote only in English, and I spoke English as a first, Bengali as a second language. As we learned each other’s stories, we also confirmed an old truth: restlessness gives us more tongues. If you had moved two or more countries, you would have two or more languages at hand, and in the words of a Dutch-Danish speaker, you would commute between them.
The UK, like the US, isn’t very comfortable with translations: literature in translation makes up barely 3 % of the US market and about 5 % of the UK market. There are no accurate figures available for India, but I suspect we’re closer to Europe in our reading tastes; 30 % of the books Europeans read are works in translation. In a country where so many are bilingual, we remain perhaps slightly more open to reading in other tongues than the US does.
Purists should start with UR Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura (OUP), translated by Susheela Punita. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara is one of the great Kannada classics, where a small, conservative community of Brahmins is plunged into chaos when an iconoclast dies, and no one can agree on what to do with his corpse. On the subject of translation, Ananthamurthy had pointed out in a key essay that this is an everyday Indian activity: “Many of us use at least three languages, one at home, another on the streets, still another at our office. When you narrate to your old mother what happened in your office, you are translating.” Bharatipura is set in the years just after Independence, and might be called an early NRI novel, as it follows the fortunes of the foreign-returned Jagannatha as he attempts to dismantle caste taboos in his village.
NS Madhavan’s Litanies of Dutch Battery (Penguin), translated by Rajesh Rajamohan, won this year’s Crossword award for Fiction in Translation. This is, in some ways, a perfect companion if you’re reading Bharatipura—Litanies is also set in the years just after Independence, and its colourful narrative explores the rise of Communism in Kerala, the lives of the islanders who live off Kochi and the choices before its main protagonist, Edwina Theresa Irene Maria Anne Margarita Jessica.
The third of this loose “Independence” trilogy is a lovely translation of the Hindi writer Yashpal’s Jhoota Sach, one of the most influential modern Indian novels. The thousand-odd pages of This Is Not That Dawn (Penguin, translated by Anand) are an epic elegy for pre-1947 Lahore, probably one of the most startling and moving works of fiction to come out of Partition. This is more than just a chronicle of refugee life; Yashpal captures a world now dead in all its vibrant, complex richness. Readers with little access to Hindi have waited for over four decades for this translation—it was first published in 1958 and in 1960. The title, drawn with some awkwardness from Faiz’s famous poem about Partition, is misleading; the rest of the translation is almost as rich and detailed as the original.
The cult Bengali writer Subimal Misra began penning his uncompromising, bitter stories a decade after Yashpal’s epic, and if the writers of a previous generation had chronicled the betrayal that was Partition, Misra’s function, as he saw it, was to set down the failure of everything else that made up “modern” India. The fifteen stories that are included in The Golden Gandhi Statue From America and Other Stories (HarperCollins, translated by V Ramaswamy) touch upon murder, dismemberment, cholera in Kolkata and unspeakable poverty, all seen through a glass darkly.
But perhaps the best translations of this year, and indeed this decade, come from poetry. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir (NYRB books) and Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla (Penguin) breathe new life into the sturdy old clay of these two great mystic poets. These books return poetry to where it belongs, and promise to make it part of our everyday lives once again.
“I would like to leave everything wide open to all the possibilities in the world,” Haruki Murakami said in a Paris Review interview. That philosophy has helped the Japanese runner, writer and former nightclub owner to build a literary life, one blockbuster novel at a time. The queues for 1Q84 (Knopf, translated by Jay Rubin) in the UK and the US rivaled Pottermania, and the critics seem to think this novel about writing, Japanese communes and the unreliability of memory is as good as Murakami’s best.
Unlike Murakami, translation has eluded the novelist Kyung-Sook Shin, who has a faithful readership in South Korea. Before her moving, complex novel Please Look After Mom (Knopf, translated by Chi-Young Kim) became a bestseller in its English translation, the author had published several books, but only one or two had been translated and read outside Korea. Please Look After Mom is told in a shifting series of voices, all belonging to members of one family, as they look back at the coming-of-age of four friends in 1980s Korea.
At 93 years, Stephane Hessel is an unlikely bestseller author, but the former French Resistance member’s brief call to arms is sweeping the world. Time For Outrage! (Twelve, translated by Damien Searls) is the English translation from the French Indignez-vous, and demands that we abandon our indifference and look for causes, political and personal, that will fire our indignation.
For some reason, murder and intrigue have always translated well, and this year is no exception. Keigo Higashimo’s The Devotion of Suspect X (Alexander O. Smith, Minotaur) is Japanese noir at its engaging best, where Higashimo offers you the identity of the murderer, the victim and the motive in the first few chapters. But the suspense revolves around the deepening relationship between Yasuko, survivor of a violent marriage, murderer of her loutish ex-husband, and her neighbour Ishigami, who helps her cover up the murder, even as investigator Kusanagi attempts to make sense of what looks like the perfect crime.
Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April (Atlantic Books, translated by Edith Grossman) is the kind of thriller and political novel that makes one realize how much we miss out on by not reading in translation. Felix Saldivar is an oddly vulnerable prosecutor left in charge of a gruesome investigation into mass graves that force him to confront, in bumbling ways, Peru’s bloody history. “Sometimes,” says a key character, “I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy.” After a year of rebellions and civil wars across the world, this is the book to read, a novel that insists on digging up the bones of history, no matter what the cost.