One of my goals this year was to read more translated books, so in April I decided to start a reading challenge. Each month had a different theme which acts as a reading prompt to help select books.
I only thought of doing this at the end of March, so only made nine prompts from April to December, but this was still a great way to get me to read more translated literature! There are the nine translated books I read in 2022 thanks to this challenge.
Winter in Sokcho
by Elisa Shua Dusapin
translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
April – Won/Nominated for an Award
April’s theme was “a book that was nominated for or won an award” and after looking over a number of websites I decided to go for “Winter in Sokcho” which won the 2021 National Book Awards for Translated Literature.
But I have to say, I was disappointed.
I picked this book up because I thought I’d get a romance tied around identity and place but what I got was 160 pages of awkward writing and awkward characters that finished somewhat sinisterly.
Conversations aren’t had, they’re described, which made every interaction feel cold. It was hard to get a sense of character from any of the cast. What few conversations were had often involved condescending comments on the way someone looked. I felt incredibly uncomfortable more than a few times.
There was also no chemistry between the protagonist and her supposed love interest and she ends up becoming creepily obsessed with him. The way the protagonist interacted with the world and other people made her incredibly unlikable, and her behavior became increasingly unnerving. I thought this was supposed to be a romance, not a thriller?!
The translation, however, was good! I don’t know French but had the impression my issue was mostly with the original story rather than the English writing. I often get this with award winning novels though and have to wonder what others are seeing that I’m not.
A disappointing and weird novel—2/5.
The Beast Player
by Nahoko Uehashi
translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano
May – Translated Fantasy
There is not enough translated fantasy, especially high fantasy, so picking one I thought I would like was difficult. I had originally picked Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (translated by Alexander O. Smith), but at 900 pages I didn’t think I’d finish it within the month. The Beast Player was another book I had been meaning to read for a while.
I love Nahoko Uehashi’s work. I read 鹿の王 (Shika no Ou) by her last year in Japanese and was amazed by the complex socio-historic systems she interweaved into her narrative. The Beast Player was not as complex but still had a very rich world that she clearly put a lot of thought into creating.
The novel tells the story of a the life of a girl, Elin, from when she’s 10 to around 18 as she’s separated from her mother and comes to learn about the world around her. I don’t want to spoil too much because the story really was fantastic. Elin is a great character who’s interest in the natural world and how it works reminded me of me when I was young.
But this novel took a long time for me to read simply because the English prose was so wooden, which made it difficult to want to read. Fantasy novels in English have their own style of writing that Cathy Hirano seemed to completely miss. I don’t know if she’s read fantasy novels before, but the style of writing didn’t feel like a fantasy, even though Uehashi’s Japanese writing does feel like fantasy.
There was often no indication when narrators changed (although there was sometimes, making the formatting weirdly inconsistent), the sentences often followed Japanese structure (which meant a lot of long, passive sentences and commas), and the characters didn’t have distinct voices. One character I thought was done great was the best friend from the countryside, but she wasn’t present for very long.
I’m not saying the translation was bad, I thought it was overall good, a lot better than many other novels I’ve read, but it still had issues that bugged me.
I love fantasy and Uehashi’s work so really wish the prose had been more fluid and felt as fantastical as the story it was telling.
A great fantasy that was let down by the English—3.5/5
Love in the Big City
by Sang Young Park
translated from Korean by Anton Hur
June – From a Country You’ve Been To
I love Korea. I’ve started studying Korean a few times over the last god know how many years, but am sad to say I’ve only been to Korea once (Jeju Island—it was amazing.) So for June’s prompt “a country you’ve been to/want to visit” I picked a Korean novel.
I chose Love in the Big City in particular because I saw a translator friend posted on Goodreads that the prose for this novel was amazing. Just coming off The Beast Player I had to see this for myself—and I was not disappointed!
Holy moley the English in this novel was incredible. The characters felt like real people, and the scenes were painted beautifully. Had the English been a direct translation I could have easily seen myself struggling with this book and hating the main character. Let me explain.
This novel is four short stories combined into one large narrative about different kinds of love told from the perspective of a 30-something Korean gay man. He’s not the nicest person in the world, he sleeps around a lot, pushes people away, sabotages himself, but the English prose made him so endearing I couldn’t not like him. The incredibly well-written English made it easy to empathize with him as a character.
Despite the incredibly English the feeling of Korea as a place was well maintained. Korean words like “umma” and “hyung” were maintained because those are the titles Korean people would use with each other. I didn’t know what they meant, the book doesn’t explain them, but you can guess from context what they mean and how they’re used to express relationships. Which is incredibly important in stories about love.
Anton Hur is one of my new favorite translators and now I need to read everything he’s done.
Absolutely loved it—5/5
The Strange Journey of Alice Pendelbury
by Marc Levy
translated from French by Chris Murray
July – By a Translator You Don’t Know
This is a story set in the UK just after the end of World War Two when a woman, Alice Pendelbury, is foretold she’ll meet the most important man of her life after meeting seven people. Her neighbor, Mr Daldry, and her end up going on a “strange journey” that turns out isn’t as magical as the title might imply.
In fact, the most interesting thing about this novel is in the title. The original French title is L’etrange voyage de Mr Daldry (The Strange Journey of Mr. Daldry). This struck me as interesting because the story is told from the perspective of Alice Pendelbury. It’s (supposed) to be all about her. Yet the original title focuses on Mr. Daldry as if to imply he’s the protagonist.
Yet from reading the English translation I found Daldry to be a controlling, gas lighting, asshole who bullies, lies to, and manipulates Alice to do his bidding. Alice doesn’t have much agency until Daldry leaves her alone for a section of time. This was supposed to be a romance novel (I think??) but there was more chemistry between Alice (who was a wonderful character) and their Turkish guide.
The translation was overall really good. It read as if it were written by a British author, and I really liked how they handled the Turkish guide’s “broken” English. It was just the original story that was somewhat of a let down.
It’s a so-so novel that I wouldn’t recommend—2/5
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job
by Kikuko Tsumura
translated from Japanese by Polly Barton
August – By a Female Author #WomenInTranslation
Once again I’m back to a Japanese translated novel. This time one that I had very much been looking forward to reading for a while. So believe you me that it came a surprise when I DNFed (did not finish) this book because I found the translation so incredibly annoying.
This novel is a series of short stories told by one protagonist as she moves from temp job to temp job. Each story is weird and wonderful, and the main character is likeable and believable. At least, in the story she is.
The protagonist is a 36-year-old woman who’s experienced severe burnout. As someone in their 30s who has also experienced burnout I should have been able to easily identify with her, but I couldn’t. The translation was written in high-register British English, which would have probably been better suited to a lofty literary translation or an essay. It didn’t feel like it matched with how a woman in her 30s would actually talk, which created this big disconnect between me and the story. There were also times where every character talked in a similar fashion, removing anything distinct about the individuals of the story.
I was getting so frustrated that this book was making me not want to read anything at all, which is why I decided to drop it.
Really disappointed, but might pick up the original Japanese—1.5/5
Until I Meet My Husband
by Ryousuke Nanasaki
translated from Japanese by Molly Lee
September – Translated Non-Fiction
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read for non-fiction month, but Until I Meet My Husband caught my eye. It’s described as a “memoir by activist Ryousuke Nanasaki recounts his first experiences as a gay man while searching for his soulmate and eventual marriage”. I almost passed it up for another novel until I saw that this was translated by Molly Lee, who’s an acquaintance and a fantastic translator, so I was sure I wouldn’t have any of the issues I had with last month’s translated novel.
And I loved this memoir. Being about the life of a gay man it had similar elements to Love in the Big City, but is still a very different book. The focus is much more on growing up as a gay man in Japan and how attitudes towards LGBTQ issues are very slowly shifting. Knowing it’s a true story is even more heart breaking but also hopeful.
The translation itself was also fantastic. I knew Molly Lee would do a great job with the translation but I found after that the editing was done by Meru Clewis, who’s also a wonderfully talented editor.
Loved the writing, loved the message—5/5
The Flanders Panel
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
October – Translated Horror, Triller, Mystery
This novel was recommended by someone on a podcast I listen to (Writing Excuses) and it sounded so interesting I thought I’d give it a try.
The story follows a woman who restores art who gets swept up in a murder mystery from the 15th Century which takes a dark turn when the people around her start dying too. At least that was how this novel was sold to me. The modern day murder mystery doesn’t kick off until late in the novel and even then you’re not sure it’s a murder until the end.
I initially loved the setup of the mysteries and the protagonist, Julia, but as the story progressed Julia became more of an observer than an actor. The author’s voice began to leak through in a number of places with increasingly sexist and homophobic remarks and weird obsession with Fraud. The final conclusion was a culmination of these to the point where the ending ruined the rest of the novel.
The translation, however, was really good apart from a few places where Spanish was left in the text without any explanation. As I don’t speak a lick of Spanish I had to just gloss over these parts, missing the point the author was trying to make.
Was not a fan of the sexist tone, but the translation was at least good—3/5
The Last Wish
by Andrzej Sapkowski
translated from Polish by Danusia Stok
November – Translated from a Language I’ve Never Studied
I had picked up an Arabic novel before this one, but I hated it so much I dropped it and decided to try The Last Wish, the first book in a collection of short stories about the famous witcher, Geralt of Rivia.
You might know The Witcher from the famous series of video games or the Netflix TV series, both of which are based on these stories. The series came from a series of short stories released from 1986 in the Polish magazine, Fantastyka magazine. They were so popular Sapkowski wrote 14 more stories followed by a series of novels in 1994. There are 15 short stories and 6 novels, and The Last Wish tells 7 of these stories.
I was honestly not expecting to enjoy these stories as much as I did. Not only were the stories entertaining but the world was enriching, and the characters wonderfully human. It really felt like you were being placed in a single moment in the life of Geralt among this massive complex world without being bogged down by exposition. The nods to well know fairy tales as possible historic events was also fantastic.
The translation was also brilliant. It felt like the novel was originally written in English with great imagery and characterization, which also letting the original author’s voice through. There was one section where the locals speak with a particular dialect and Stok is a great job re-creating this in English. (I will have to make a note of how she wrote their accent for future reference.)
Fantastic fantasy stories and terrific translation—5/5
by Rin Usami
translated from Japanese by Asa Yoneda
December – Published in 2022
The original Japanese novella exploded when it came out in Japan. 推し、燃ゆ (Oshi, Moyu), which literally means “Idol, Burning” sold over 500,000 copies and won the Akutagawa Award, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, and a few other awards. This is the only book from this list where I’ve read the original as well as the translation.
The story follows Akari as she struggles with depression and puberty, and escapes through her obsession with her oshi, Masaki Ueno, a boy in an idol group.
This is a very typical Japanese literary fiction novel where it critiques Japanese society without exploring the issues or even pointing to them too heavy handedly. Like describing a feeling which the reader is supposed to surmise through context. One reason direct translations of literary works never work well. Thank goodness the translation was so well handled!
I have my own preferences when it comes to translations, and felt the constant use of “my oshi” resulted in some slightly awkward wording. But I could tell the translator chose to keep “oshi” instead of “idol” or use the characters name or pronoun in order to educate readers about Japanese idol culture and appeal to those already familiar with Japanese. (But I hope to explore this more in an in-depth translation review.)
Besides that nit-pic I thought the translation was absolutely brilliant! The narrator felt like a teenage girl narrating. The depictions of online speak felt like real online speak. And the conversations felt like real conversations. This was honestly one of the first literary novels translated from Japanese that wasn’t full of awkward direct translations or an out-of-character high register tone.
Great short novella with a stella translation—4/5
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