Haruki Murakami’s fifth book, Norwegian Wood, was a sensation in Japan when it was first released in 1987. Despite its success, it wasn’t widely available in English until 2000. The gap between its publication and its popular translation is surprising in hindsight, but few people outside the author’s home country had heard of him until the later English releases of some of his other works. Reportedly, American publishers initially assumed that Norwegian Wood wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience. Once it finally appeared in the Anglophone world, it was a hit all over again, and it ended up selling millions of copies globally.
This is just one example of a well-known phenomenon: Some books and authors are widely read abroad, but find popularity in American markets only decades later. Benjamin Moser’s 2009 biography of the Ukrainian-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, Why This World, helped prompt a sensitive, popular English retranslation project of her works. Even though Abdulrazak Gurnah writes primarily in English, the author was largely unknown to the American public before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, though he was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1994 and has published 10 novels. Now the American publisher Riverhead Books has rushed to acquire some of Gurnah’s new and older titles, such as Desertion (2005) and By the Sea (2001); his recent novel Afterlives will be published in the United States just two years after its initial release. Better late than never.
Saying that a foreign author has been “discovered” when their work is finally translated into English or released in the U.S. is a marketing trope—one that usually ignores how prominent, prolific, or acclaimed a writer is in their own right. It also highlights the publishing industry’s marginalization of authors who write in other languages, beyond established stars such as Elena Ferrante or Karl Ove Knausgård. Overall, new releases of books in translation remain rarer than they should be.
The nine titles presented below are merely some of the many books that have gone on to live a second life of sorts in English translation after their initial prominence or accomplishment in another language. These late-blooming editions owe much to the attentive passion of translators and publishers—but, as I was reminded in researching this article, just as much to luck.
We probably have Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature—the first won by an Egyptian or an Arab—to thank for bringing the writer’s Cairo Trilogy to English-speaking audiences. First released in full in Arabic in 1957, then translated to English from 1990 to 1992, the three-part novel follows three generations of the al-Jawad family during the turbulent rise of Egypt’s national identity, beginning with the years before the fall of the Ottoman empire. Their house’s architecture is an allegory for their social relations; its different floors either welcome or are out of bounds for some members of the family (especially the women). This hierarchy unfolds under the rhythms of sharing meals and discussing politics, including the bubbling ideologies that sometimes spark revolutions. Mahfouz focuses on Amina, the matriarch, as a microcosm for decades of change. In Sugar Street, the third book, the women stick together around the warmth of a brazier on a cold January day, and though the ritual of the family coffee hour continues, it’s not quite the same after the tumult of past years: Some chairs remain stubbornly empty.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)
How much does a body govern a woman’s existence? In Breasts and Eggs, Kawakami examines womanhood, along with the self-scrutiny and outside judgment it inspires. Three working-class women reunite in Tokyo: Makiko, mother to an almost-teenage daughter, Midoriko, visits her younger sister and Midoriko’s aunt, Natsuko, an asexual, unmarried 30-year-old who will later struggle with childlessness and determining her status in society. They face inner torments. Natsuko navigates the pain of her family’s past and current hardships. An aging and insecure Makiko wants a breast augmentation. Midoriko, who has taken refuge in her diary, no longer speaks, overwhelmed by the emotional burden of adolescence. Kawakami conveys the pain of affliction, sisterhood, sacrifice, and intergenerational tensions with poignant intimacy in the first part of the book, captured in seemingly anodyne remarks. “What can you make with just eggs?” one character asks, inspecting the fridge. A lot, it turns out. Expanded from a 2008 novella to a full-length, two-part novel published in English in 2020, Breasts and Eggs slows in pace when Natsuko’s focus shifts from mediating conflict between her sister and niece to inspecting her own repressed dreams. This, understandably, takes more effort and determination.
Radiance and Sunrise, by Lope K. Santos (translated by Danton Remoto)
The initially serialized Radiance and Sunrise first appeared in book form in 1906, translated into English for a modern readership in 2021. Santos, an eminent author, linguist, governor, and senator of the Philippines, wrote the novel influenced by living through the Philippine-American War while espousing the bustling leftist ideologies of the time; he was involved in the country’s first modern trade-union federation, Unión Obrera Democrática Filipina. In this love story that also reads like a political tract, two friends, Delfin and Felipe, share the ebbs and flows of everyday life. The former is a socialist, the latter an anarchist. Their ideas don’t always align, and they struggle to excise capitalism from their lives, especially when it complicates their relationships; Delfin loves Meni, the daughter of a wealthy man, and Felipe loves his father, a landlord. Both have hard choices to make. The book, which is considered a classic in Tagalog literature, exquisitely captures the zeitgeist of the time: the dream that societies would better provide for their people—one still not quite achieved, both in the Philippines and elsewhere.
“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own,” Tove Ditlevsen writes in the first volume of her Copenhagen Trilogy, Childhood. The first volumes of her memoirs were released in 1967, nine years before her death by suicide, yet they were released in English in full only in 2019. The Copenhagen Trilogy slices Ditlevsen’s life into three marking periods. Childhood establishes the author’s search for meaning while confronting the stigma of poverty, then Youth and Dependency voice a cry against entrapment. Ditlevsen longs for freedom, even as she oscillates between conforming to established norms and stepping away from them. Through marriage, motherhood, and addiction, she succumbs to “lamentation,” a word she admired as a child yearning to be normal—a time in life she describes as “dark” and “moaning.” Her lucid writing depicts the troubled nature of human relationships and an unapologetic life with commanding grace.
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (translated by Robert Chandler)
Grossman’s sweeping book Life and Fate illustrates the alienating nature of war in urgent, gripping, and elegant prose, providing an unmatched realist account of the 1942–43 Battle of Stalingrad. Completed in 1959 in the aftermath of de-Stalinization, Life and Fate’s cast of characters includes the Shaposhnikov and Shtrum families, as well as German and Soviet soldiers, intellectuals, and ordinary people. Their individual destinies are enmeshed in the survival of the city, and the Soviet protagonists are caught between defending their country and supporting its murderous regime. Despite hints of political openness at the close of the ’50s, Life and Fate’s denunciation of state-sanctioned atrocities crossed a line; the KGB seized Grossman’s material as he pitched the book to publishers. Friends smuggled a hidden microfilm copy of the manuscript to Switzerland, where the book was eventually published in 1980, then translated into English in 1985. The novel’s truth is derived from its author’s exceptional moral clarity. As a journalist, Grossman bore witness to unfathomable massacres and wrote early reports of Nazi crimes. Yet Grossman couldn’t save his mother from Berdychiv, Ukraine, where the Nazis killed her along with approximately 30,000 other Jews. When he briefly resurrects her memory in the book through a mother writing a chilling letter to her son, Viktor, a character largely based on Grossman, he reminds us that history and tragedy are never far away.
Nimrod: Selected Writings, by Nimrod (translated by Dawn Cornelio, Catherine du Toit, Patrick Williamson, Emily Goedde, and Sylvie Kandé)
The Chad-born writer Nimrod has published more than 20 books in French since 1989 and has won the Édouard Glissant prize and the Apollinaire poetry prize, among other Francophone literary distinctions. The University of Michigan literature professor Frieda Ekotto curated Nimrod’s most evocative texts in 2018, making them available for the first time to an English-speaking audience. Through these essays, short stories, and poems, Nimrod explores whether the French language can ever embody emotion, cravings, or love beyond historical oppression in a post-colonial world. In his 2008 essay “The New French Matter,” Nimrod reclaims the language’s Africanness: “French does not rape my mother tongue,” he writes, dismissing the idea that it only erases identity. Nimrod thrives in exploring tricky and culturally charged paradoxes. To him, coexistence and cultural mélange are not just possible but desirable. He sees the galactic expanse of language as something “inaudible and mysterious,” transcending the fields of linguistics and politics—a quasi-spiritual experience. “Samuel Beckett reinvents himself when he writes in French,” he explains, arguing that language is a form of self. Nimrod further confronts the ethnic prejudices associated with the label Francophone, one mostly reserved in France for referring to writers of color from formerly colonized countries. In this omnibus volume, Nimrod stands up to defend multiculturalism, pluralities, and tolerance—a crucial voice at this time.
First translated from Italian a few years after their 1940s publications and recently republished in 2021, The Road to the City and The Dry Heart are tales of complex desire and female coming-of-age in two arcs, marriage and motherhood. In these connected novellas that have previously been published as a single volume, Ginzburg’s young protagonists yearn for meaning and reciprocal love. One gets pregnant out of wedlock; the other struggles to maintain a happy marriage with her emotionally avoidant husband. The city lures the former, while the latter lives a reclusive existence on its outskirts. Ginzburg, a literary voice who emerged in 1940s and ’50s Italy, explores the consequences of betrayals and asks whether women should demand more instead of settling. “Life runs away with us before we know what it’s all about,” one character in The Dry Heart says, and the protagonists’ challenges strengthen their resolve; they go from pleading for autonomy to demanding it. The protagonists languish in the shadow of the patriarchy before they start voicing their aspirations and dissatisfactions. Being a wife and being a parent are presented as life-grueling personal journeys that can cause symbolic—and physical—death. Social elevation is costly; while the women rely on maids and helpers to serve their daily needs, Ginzburg shows that her heroines’ status doesn’t exempt them from other forms of feminized labor, or other hardships.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson)
The late-19th-century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis was decisively ahead of his time when he reinterpreted the antihero in his novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Written in 1881 and translated into English in 1952, 1955, and 1997, with two new translations released in 2020, the book exudes modernity. Brás Cubas, a deceased character born in 1805 who never achieved grace or glory, reflects on his picaresque life, multiple failures, and equally numerous delusions. Across incisive, deliciously delirious short chapters, Machado de Assis deploys caustic humor to atone for Brás Cubas’s meanderings—including a failed political career and parting crushes and aborted loves (he divides a relationship into “consular” and “imperial” eras, like Napoleon’s biphasic reign). The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas introduced realism to Brazilian literature, in contrast with the prevailing Romantic nostalgia and lyricism of the time. Machado de Assis uses absurdity, self-deprecation, and satire to portray a rash, near-farcical narrator who, in many ways, doesn’t take himself seriously—which is unnerving for the people he encounters. Melancholia and optimism are two extremes he rejects; he accepts life’s joys and sorrows for what they are. “I have added a little petulant pessimism of my own. Why not? This is, after all, the work of a dead man,” he warns in his distinctive, mischievous voice from beyond the grave.
The Artisans: A Vanishing Chinese Village, by Shen Fuyu (translated by Jeremy Tiang)
Shen Fuyu’s love for his 600-year-old home village, in southeast China, is as expansive as his drive to preserve family memories. It’s an urgent task for the Paris-based author of more than a dozen other books, because his village’s way of life is painfully dissolving. Each time he returns, he notices that more houses have fallen into disrepair, and that the village is being overhauled at an unsettling pace. And in this swift transition, artisans represent a vanishing class. Sketching a sociological and emotional portrait of a place over an entire century, Shen Fuyu reminiscences about his grandfather, the town carpenter, as well as the bamboo weaver’s infatuation with a bull, the bricklayer’s Christian proselytizing to the village, and the tofu maker’s lessons on meal etiquette. His personal anecdotes meet history as lives in the town are affected by the Japanese occupation and the policies of the Great Leap Forward. “Where I come from, people speak in loud voices with thick country accents, and their behavior is coarse,” he says; it’s a starting point that challenges one-dimensional narratives and centers rich, human stories. In The Artisans, originally released in 2015 and first translated from Chinese into English in 2022, the writer grieves a real-yet-idealized locale. His prose is steeped in contagious nostalgia, and he employs the universal language of emigration and exile, writing, “I am now an orphan, lost in the big city.”
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