Over the past decade, dozens of articles have been written
about literature in translation in the United States, most of
which can be boiled down into a few general statements:
less than 3% of the books published in the US were
originally written in a language other than English; the
presses that are doing these books tend to be small; and the
titles that are translated into English tend to fly under the
radar–which is why almost all of these articles are titled
“Lost in Translation”.
Starting back in 2008, Three Percent began tracking how
many titles in translation were being published here in the
US. We restricted our tracking to titles being published for
the first time–no new translations of Tolstoy, for example.
And we ended up creating the most comprehensive
translation database in the world. With almost a decade of
data, we can now address all kinds of questions–including
one simple one: “Are there more translations coming out in
2015 than in 2008?”
The answer to that is a definitive “yes”. The number of
original fiction titles published in English translation over
the past seven years has risen steadily from 278 in 2008 to
498 last year. Although these numbers are still pretty small,
given the size of the publishing industry, the steady increase
is a positive development.
This is what led me and bookseller Stephen Sparks
(Green Apple Books, San Francisco, CA) to start putting
together a sort of translation guidebook– The 100 Best
International Books of the Century… So Far. The core of
the book will be 100 entries, each on a different author and
book from approximately 70 different countries.
Since our goal is to provide a snapshot of what’s being
written now all over the world–to show how certain themes
are universal and how many interesting points of view are
available to today’s readers–we decided to include only books
published in their original language after the year 2000.
Entries contain information about the author, the book’s plot
and why the selected book is considered one of the “best”.
In addition to these overviews, the book will also include
essays on broader topics: poetry in translation, for example,
or crime fiction in translation, women in translation, underrepresented countries, and so on. All of which adds up to
what we believe will be an indispensable “guidebook” for
readers, publishers, educators and librarians who want to
learn more about literature outside the US.
Those of you already well versed in international
literature will find some surprises on the list, along with
interesting reflections and commentary. With this book we
want to change the conversation from “look how little is
translated into English” into “look at all these great books
available to readers”. And to give you a taste of what we’re
up to, here’s a glimpse of 10 titles that will be included in
the book’s first edition.
Argentina: Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman
(Published in Spain, 2012; English translation by Nick
Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)
After the publication of Neuman’s
first novel, Bariloche, Roberto Bolaño
declared that: “The literature of the
21st century will belong to Neuman
and a few of his blood brothers.”
That’s pretty high praise to live up to,
but four novels and several collections
of stories and poems later, Neuman
continues to astonish and impress.
Bosnia/Germany: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone
by Saša Stanišic (Published in Germany, 2006; English
translation by Anthea Bell)
This is an exuberant black comedy
that looks war and genocide in the face
and dares to laugh. Stanišic was born in
Bosnia and is now living in exile in
Germany. This, his debut novel,
straddled a fine line between the
irreverence of youth (his narrator is a
13-year-old boy) and the absurd tragedy
of war. Besides moving and colourful
depictions of a lost idyll of childhood, the novel also
contains one of the best soccer matches in all of literature.
Bulgaria: The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
(Published in Bulgaria, 2012; English
translation by Angela Rodel)
Gospodinov’s third work translated
into English (following And Other
Stories and Natural Novel) is an
international bestseller that sold out of
its first printing in a day, and was the
bestselling book in Bulgaria in 2012.
Based on the myth of the minotaur, it is
constructed much like a labyrinth, with
false starts, dead-ends and plenty of circuitous detours.
China: The Last Lover by Can Xue
(Published in China, 2005; English
translation by Annelise Finegan
Can Xue is having quite a year.
This past May she won the Best
Translated Book Award and is now
a finalist for the Neustadt Prize for
International Literature (nominated
by Porochista Khakpour). Like her