Each year brings a wealth of translated literature. You just need to know where to look for it. I seek it out, furiously, because I often think of translation as the most important reading I do. These recommendations are therefore not just my favorite translations of the year, but some of the most important books I read—period.
Like all lists at the Chicago Review of Books, this one’s imperfect. It doesn’t include all the most obvious choices, because I didn’t read all of them, and also, I generally prefer translations at smaller presses. And further, while I dislike comparing a translated author with an English-language counterpart, I decided to do so in two places—not as a direct comparison, but as a kind of translation in-and-of itself, to give us a foundation from which to launch ourselves into the recommended work. Here are some dazzling books in translation that you may have missed this year.
Grenade in Mouth: Some Poems of Miyó Vestrini
Translated by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig
Vestrini’s poetry is something I never knew I needed so dearly. It is so raw and powerful (and translated so rawly and powerfully by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig) that each poem, sometimes each line, feels like something that could shatter the world. Probably they do, as in the poem from which the collection takes its title: “Allow me, lord, / to see me as I am: / rifle in hand / grenade in mouth / gutting the people I love.” We should be so thankful to be able to read her in English, finally, and hopeful for more translations to come.
The Sundays of Jean Dézert
By Jean de La Ville de Mirmont
Translated by André Naffis-Sahely
I think of Jean de la Ville as a kind of French Wilfred Owen—a fierce talent whose career was cut short by WWI, who left behind a masterpiece but of course that’s not enough. The Sundays is a (proto) existential novella examining everyday and critiquing it for its consumerism and emptiness: there is a lot of flaneur-ish walking around, observing, and reflecting, and it is written as beautifully as aimless wandering Paris streets could be.
By Asja Bakic
Translated by Jennifer Zoble
Where Angela Carter took the fantastic and the fairytale as a jumping-off point for wonderfully written feminist deconstructions, Asja Bakic takes the speculative. This shift is crucial to the collection: where Carter used the fairytale to examine where we are through the cultural lens of where we were, Bakic uses science fiction to examine where we could be heading. The stories are startling, especially for their plainspoken quality that really transports you to, well, Mars, and back.
Territory of Light
By Yuko Tsushima
Translated by Geraldine Harcourt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Territory of Light is one year in the life of a single mother in a bad apartment with good light. Each chapter covers one month (originally published serially, in real time) and covers her emotional journey from being the someone left by her husband to someone self-reliant and, if not confident, capable of dealing with what comes next. It’s a beautiful book, beautifully written, where nothing much happens but life.
The Barefoot Woman
By Scholastique Mukasonga
Translated by Jordan Stump
A finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, Mukasonga’s memoir is a heart-rending attempt to give funeral rites to her mother, a casualty of the Rwandan genocide. “I’m all alone,” she writes,”with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.” It is a powerful work of mourning and memory.
By Sayak Valencia
Translated by John Pluecker
Gore Capitalism is a necessarily brutal look at the brutality of global capitalism, especially in places where the most traded commodity is the dead body. Valencia’s transgressive interventions—in the realms of gender, sexuality, “borderlands,” and war—are deeply felt and will become a crucial method for looking at globalization and violence for anyone who reads them.
By Achille Mbembe
Translated by Steven Corcoran
Duke University Press
Achille Mbembe has been lighting up the world of critical theory and decolonizing studies for years now, with genius entries like 2001’s On the Postcolony and 2017’s Critique of Black Reason. He is often described as an inheritor of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault, whose interventions are of course still of utmost necessity. This book-length collection expanding on his extremely celebrated 2003 essay, “Necropolitics,” I’m willing to bet, will be a crucial tool for theorists going forward.
Vernon Subutex 1
By Virginie Despentes
Translated by Frank Wynne
After career highlights like Baise-Moi, King Kong Theory, and last year’s Pretty Things, Despentes’s punk-rock brand of social satire is being given the epic, multi-volume treatment it’s always felt suited for. Her writing and characters have always been a sort of carnival of grotesques, and if this first volume is only the shape of what to come, I am so excited for the other two.
My Mother Laughs
By Chantal Akerman
Translated by Corina Copp
Chantal Akerman was a genius and germinal director of experimental films who died by suicide shortly after the release of her last film, 2015’s No Home Movie, which showed audiences Akerman’s relationship with her mother as her mother grew more and more sick. My Mother Laughs, her only book, is a memoir looking at the same period and the same relationship, and Akerman’s way of looking is what made her such a successful and astounding filmmaker. That look is look is critical but full of sympathy, framed but not directed. It is an artistic manoeuvre to behold when that look is turned toward inward, to the one subject Akerman never much broached in her career: herself. It is love and grief in these pages—it is almost hard to read in that way, but so is life.
Happiness, As Such
By Natalia Ginzburg
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
Natalia Ginzburg is as good, potentially even better, than your most literary friends have already told you. Her revival is a long time coming in the English-speaking world, and her work speaks for itself, loudly. I couldn’t reasonably recommend all of the Ginzburg that has been released this year on this list (though I do, generally), but Happiness, As Such is a wonderful starting-point: a complex, rich, and insightful portrait of a community of people connected in a politically hellish atmosphere by a central absence—a prodigal son, of sorts, who could only paint owls but, rather unlike an owl, flew away when things got hard.
Me & Other Writing
By Marguerite Duras
Translated by Olivia Baes & Emma Ramadan
Dorothy, a Publishing Project
Of course many of us have read L’Amant, and many of us are already fans of the kind of autofiction that Duras helped popularize, but despite that I was unprepared for how deeply affecting a reading experience Me & Other Writing would be. Duras is not for an age, as they say, but for all time, and the pieces collected lovingly and thoughtfully into this volume will stay with me forever.
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the Chicago Review of Books Communications Director, and an Interviews Editor for Full Stop, as well as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center, and a 2019 A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.