Travelling to new worlds: the best translated literature

From a classic French novel about unrequited love to stories from Denmark that skewer contemporary life … tales to transport us in testing times

Our individual love affairs with translated literature generally begin without us being really aware of them, starting with fairytales – Perrault, the Brothers Grimm – and then on to the Moomins, Asterix, Tintin … They speak to readers beyond the language in which they were written. In this surreal time when our global connections and similarities have rarely been so obvious, we should take the unexpected opportunity to engage with new, and shared, reading experiences that will last long beyond the lockdown.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Madrid-based thriller The Club Dumas, translated by Sonia Soto (Vintage), features a grumpy, mercenary book dealer-turned-detective, Lucas Corso, and is a bibliophile’s dream. A wealthy publisher is found hanged in his study, shortly after selling a rare manuscript of The Three Musketeers; the mystery quickly turns into a complex game of cat and mouse across Europe. Pérez-Reverte has been compared to John le Carré and Gabriel García Márquez: this 1996 novel is one of his exhilarating best.

Danish writer Dorthe Nors’s short, sharp novellas Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, translated by Martin Aitken and Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin), are published together in a double paperback so that after finishing one, you can flip the book over to continue with the other. The 15 brief tales of Karate Chop mercilessly skewer contemporary life and relationships. Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is composed entirely of gnomic one-line status updates by and about Minna: the perfect character for this age of social and emotional distancing.

One of the joys of the last couple of years has been the resurgence of the great Italian writer and political activist Natalia Ginzburg. Her unforgettable portraits of life, The Little Virtues, translated by Dick Davis (Daunt), were written between 1944 and 1960 and cover her family’s exile to the countryside under Italy’s fascist rule, and later in London, as she and Europe embark on an uncertain postwar future.

Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Marion Crawford (Penguin Classics), is the perfect book if family relationships are under strain in isolation. The 1833 novel about a tyrannical and obsessive miser, his lonely daughter and her wretched attachment to her handsome cousin, all shut up in a gloomy house overlooking the Loire, is an exquisitely finessed study of materialism and the agonies of unrequited love.

Magda Szabó’s novels of Hungary in the 20th century are synonymous with the crossing of borders both real and metaphysical. Fifty years after its first Hungarian publication, Len Rix’s English translation of Abigail (MacLehose) reveals an intense story of war and resistance, betrayal and trust set in a strict girls’ boarding school during the anxious months before the German occupation. Both a rebellious coming-of-age novel and a brilliantly plotted thriller.

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was a polymath with a versatile touch. In Shooting Stars, translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin), 10 key moments from history are examined in vivid, incendiary essays, from Balboa’s 1513 discovery of the Pacific to Rouget de Lisle’s speedy 1792 composition of the “Marseillaise”. As Zweig puts it, these hours “outshine the past as brilliantly and steadfastly as stars outshine the night”.


Catherine Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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