Recommendations for Translated Literature: A window into another world

Zdrasti to my fellow bloggers and blog-lovers. Today I’m writing to you from Sofia, Bulgaria, where I’ve been taking this week to do my own DIY writer’s workshop. The beautiful mountains have been a peaceful backdrop to inspire my days of creative writing.

You might’ve read my most post last week titled, Translated Literature: A plea to bolster your reading palate, where I advocate for translated literature. The world is a big place, and books give us a window into another world. I’ve made it a goal of mine to read more translated literature this year and want to passalong some of my favorites I’ve read since January.

Without further ado, here are some recommendations from one of my favorite genres, translated literature:

1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Originally published in Japanese in 2000

Norwegian Wood is a journey of self discovery through some of life’s toughest tragedies. It portrays a young college student’s coming of age, and the love story/stories of his youth as he is reflecting as an older man. Although I found the ending to be subtlety, beautifully optimistic, it was indeed a painful journey to get there. Norwegian Wood is a story where many can relate to the shared uncertainty of youth.

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

Haruki Murakami

2. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Originally written in French in 1938

Nausea might just be my favorite book, ever. It definitely was my favorite book this year.

I wanted to read this book because Sartre said it was his lifetime’s masterpiece. Nausea is a compilation of Antoine Roquentin’s journal entries. He is a solo traveler and decides it’s time to return home after 7 years on the road. He has the madness of a Dostoevsky character (think Dmitri from Brothers Karamasov) and journals about his devoid life through his unhinged perspective in a manner that reminds me of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Madness interspersed with moments of greatness.

Contrary to Plato and Aristotle, who believed every object (even humans) has a meaning, Sartre was the first to say that existence precedes essence. He was an existentialist beside Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism.

Don’t we all just yearn to sit on a park bench, stare at a chestnut tree, and contemplate existence?

“If anyone would have asked me what existence was, I would’ve answered, in good faith, that it was nothing. Simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was clear as day. Existence had suddenly unveiled itself it had lost the harmless look of an abstract category; it was the very paste of things. This root was kneaded into existence.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

3. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Originally published in German in 1912

Kafka meditates on the human condition, solitude, and social isolation. The Metamorphosis is one of Kafka’s most renown works which explores estrangement from society, lack of purpose, and loneliness through the lens of a human turned into a cockroach.

Although Gregor is a gigantic cockroach, Kafka humanizes his experience. Ironically, if you ignore the fact he is an insect, the feelings he experiences are all the same as human would experience. Using the physical manifestation of a cockroach to exemplify how estranged one feels from society when lacking purpose and motivation is a deliberate and smart choice from Kafka.

Even if we’re surrounded by people, the human psyche can and will wither if we don’t feel connected. Loneliness really can lead one into oblivion.

4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Originally written in Russian in 1879

Cover to cover took me just over two weeks. I’m glad I finished it in a short time frame so I could really absorb the meaning.

And if we’re talking about meaning, The Brothers Karamasov has endless takeaways. It follows the reunion of a Russian family through a murder in their small town. Each brother epitomizes a very different way of living life.

As a religious man, Dostoevsky exemplifies the following in this novel, “I’m not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition.”

Although I’m sure Dostoevsky wouldn’t label his religious belief as “philosophical suicide” (especially since the term was coined well after he passed), it is intriguing to decipher who Dostoevsky proposes as the prevailing paradigm of the novel.

It’s a lengthy book and not for the faint of heart. There’s lots of dialogue and extended scenes that seemed fruitless at first but it was actually in these parts I found some of my all-time favorite excerpts.

“If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

5. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Originally published in Swedish in 2014

A heartwarming tale of aging and friendship, this cantankerous old man was dealt a tough hand in life, but found his way through perseverance and a strong character. In fact, he has such a strong character he seems to be the only one in the whole neighborhood who follows the home owner’s rules. Ove is nothing if not obsessive and proud.

This is a unique story because the main event happens in the first third of the book. I loved the plot line and always love a poetic bookend.

“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves.”

Fredrik Backman

6. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Originally published in French in 1942

If you’re no stranger to classic literature, this won’t be a surprise for you. We are urged to question that which is deemed “normal” in our society through the atypical views of our protagonist.

The Stranger invites us to re-examine our relationship with death. Why do we fear it so much? My takeaways from the book include: reject the hope for a better life, reject the denial and delaying of death; accept a gentle indifference to the world around you and the absurdity of life and you’ll be [free?]

7. A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe by Fernando Pessoa

Originally written in Portuguese, this translation was published in 2006, but the poems were written in the early 1900s.

My all-time favorite poet has to make the list. I fell in love with Pessoa’s poetry while I was living in Spain. Pessoa writes about finding peace in nature, rejecting the ideal of freedom, one-sided love, regretful love, and more. If you like the romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Keating, Coolridge, etc., I think you’ll enjoy the more modern take on the same themes.

“I don’t know how anyone can think a sunset is sad. Unless it’s because a sunset isn’t a sunrise. But if it’s a sunset, how could it ever be a sunrise?”

Fernando Pessoa

8. Pablo Neruda Poems

Originally written in Spanish

(book featured is Italian)

I can’t talk about translated literature without mentioning some Latin American literature. Pablo Neruda is one of the most well-known poets from Chile and once you read his poetry you’ll know why. He is known for writing about love, and if there’s one thing Latin American literature is known for, it’s love (or rejecting colonialism and anti-establishment criticism, but that’s besides the point).

“Then you realize, it’s not the one who moves you the ground beneath you, but the one who centers you. It’s not the one who steals your heart, but the one who makes you feel as if you have it back.”

Pablo Neruda

If you have any other recommendations for translated literature, I would entirely love to hear them.

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10 thoughts on “Recommendations for Translated Literature: A window into another world

  1. Very good reading list Elle, I read all the classics mentioned, excellent choice. I would like to recommend a couple of Italian contemporary authors who l find absolutely great and have been translated widely in English. First, Umberto Eco, In the name of the rose. Be patient with the first 100 pages because afterwards you won’t stop reading. They made also a movie with a fantastic interpretation of Sean Connery. The second one is by Oriana Fallaci, A man. She tells about her true love for a man who fight for freedom. Don’t expect romanticism, or idealized love. The man has been sentenced to death, is in prison, and tortured because he attempted to the life of the Greek dictator during the so called Regime of the Colonels. I read it at high school and I still remember it. It’s breathtaking!

    1. Thanks for the recommendations of contemp italian authors, e ciao da sicilia! Sono qui per due settimane 🙂 I will add those to my list of books to read before I recommend a handful based on my travelings.

  2. I would recommend Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo, it challenging to read as it is written in older french, but is a very rewarding. Victor always had a way with words and this book is no exception. It is set during the French revolution.

    1. combining my two favorite genres of translated fiction with historical fiction? say no more! I’ve added it to be TBR list, it will be interesting to read some of his lesser known works. Thank you very much 🙂

  3. Camus’s “The Stranger” is one of my favorites. I read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” several years ago. It wasn’t too bad. Perhaps a bit dry for my tastes. I recently trudged through his “The Trial” and it was quite a trial.

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