Five books in translation and another guilty pleasure

In my previous post I listed my choice of five books after the manner of the “My Life in Books” programme on the BBC. Afterwards it struck me that all the books I listed there were written first in English. However, I greatly enjoy books written by non-English authors which have been translated from their original languages. So (just too late for World Book Day) here are five books I have enjoyed in translation, with a sixth “guilty pleasure.”

1. Emil and the Detectives by Eric Kaestner. It’s probably around 47 years since I read this, but I still remember the effect it had on me then. Emil is a young boy sent to Berlin alone by train. While asleep on the train some money he has been given is stolen, and on arrival in Berlin, Emil is determined to find the thief and get the money back. He falls in with a small band of other children who are the “detectives” of the title. It was old when I read it – first published in 1931 – but the illustrations and the text gave the impression of a foreign culture, but with characters with whom I could identify.

2. Les Chouans by Honore de Balzac. Although I studied French to A level, afterwards I didn’t have the patience to read and translate this tour de force myself. The novel tells the story of an group of Bretons who organise to defeat the French revolutionary forces in Brittany. It is a large 19th century novel, and although written several decades after the era it portrays, conveys a real sense of time and place. One day I may try to read the original.

3. Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. I was recommended this book by a Russian Orthodox priest who was studying on the same MA course as me several years ago. It has a somewhat hagiographic style, but tells the true story of a Russian Orthodox priest who lived through most of the Soviet era and was sent several times to the Gulag camps. Throughout, his faith in God remained intact and even in extreme adversity he found opportunities to minister, often in very unexected places and with unexpected people. Inspiring.

4. The Dream Life of Sukharov by Olga Grushin. A recent discovery and another Russian nove, set this time in the mid 1980s, the period of glasnost and perestroika. Anatoly Sukharov, the title character, is an art critic who has built his career writing criticism that is favourable to the Party line. However, secretly he wonders whether it would have been better to remain true to his youthful ideals as an underground artist. Issues of identity in a changing world are skilfully explored.

5. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Another fairly recent discovery. Pamuk, a Turkish author, creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere in this novel set in a town near the eastern Turkish border. The town is snowed in for a few days, trapping a Turk who has returned from Germany where he works. The town has a high suicide rate among its young women and the local head of the security police is ruthlessly efficient at his job. Through the story Pamuk expresses something about modern Turkish society, torn between a desire to embrace Western values and a desire to reject those values and pursue its own Islamic path.

My “Guilty Pleasure” in translation are the highly popular but controversial Millenium novels of Steig Larsson, beginning with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The original Swedish title of this book was Men Who Hate Women, which reflects one of the main themes of Larsson’s writing. The controversy arises from the feeling of voyeurism that pervades some of the scenes in the books and whether this itself is not exploitative. Like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and other writers, Larsson exposes the dark underside of the Scandinavian Social Democratic dream. And the fact that this is a fast-paced  thriller does not detract from the fact that it explores sociological, psychological and political themes among the action.

What books have you enjoyed in translation?

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