Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 3)

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Prior to reading The Little Prince (or, in the original French, Le petite prince), I would have told you that I was “familiar” with it. I would have simply left out the fact that my familiarity only extended to the bits they quoted in One Tree Hill voice-overs and epigraphs of famous novels. Turns out, there’s a lot more to this children’s book than quaint aphorisms…

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless, classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. How he managed to both write and illustrate such a perennially popular moral allegory, a “spiritual biography”, under those circumstances, I’ll never know…

It was first published in New York, in April 1943, but not published in France – or French, the language in which Saint-Exupéry wrote – until after Liberation, as all of the author’s writings had been banned by the Vichy regime. “The unusual bilingualism of the story’s publication,” explains the introduction to my edition, “means that the first translation, by Katherine Woods, is properly speaking as much the original work as the French text from which it was drawn.”

From this stumble start, The Little Prince has gone on to become the most translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects (my copy was translated into English – again – by T.V.F. Cuffe). Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide.



Another note on my particular edition (the Penguin Modern Classic): it also contains another work by Saint-Exupéry, Letter To A Hostage. It’s an open letter to a friend of the author’s, a Jewish intellectual who was in hiding in occupied France. They make for strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but reading the dedication of The Little Prince (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered), it made sense:

To Léon Werth

I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a genuine excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up understands everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry. He needs a lot of consoling. If all these excuses are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child whom this grown-up used to be, once upon a time. All grown-ups started off as children (though few of them remember). So I hereby correct my dedication:

To Léon Werth when he was a little boy.

The Little Prince (Page 3)

Could somebody please pass the tissues? *sniffle*

Ahem, to the story: The Little Prince begins with the narrator describing grown-ups, specifically their natural inability to perceive or understand the things that are truly important. He explains that, as a child, he’d hoped to become an artist, but none of the grown-ups understood his drawings and they encouraged him to pursue more “reasonable” lines of work.

So, from the beginning, you can see the magic of The Little Prince: as with all great children’s books, it addresses the reader on their level, with respect and empathy. The fantasy to follow in The Little Prince works precisely because it employs the logic of children, and celebrates their imaginative capacity, without getting bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.”

The Little Prince (Page 6)

So, the narrator grew up to be a pilot, and one day his plane crashes in the Sahara desert (clearly drawing on Saint-Exupéry’s real-life experience, because believe it or not, that actually happened to him – more than once!). As he’s trying to fix his plane, and worrying about running out of water, a young boy – the titular “little prince” – appears as if by magic, demanding that the pilot draw him a sheep. They become fast friends, and over the course of the following eight days, the little prince slowly reveals the story of his life.



The little prince came from a very tiny “home planet” (which the narrator identifies as a house-sized asteroid), with a few very small volcanoes and a variety of plant life, including one very special rose that the prince treasured above all else. He left the rose, and his home planet, to explore the universe. Along the way, he encountered a series of satirical caricatures of grown-ups (including the “king” who had no subjects, forced to issue commands to the sun to rise and set in order to exert his power, and the “businessman” who claimed he owned all the stars and proved it by counting them).

When the little prince landed on Earth, at first he assumed it was uninhabited, as he landed in the middle of stark desert. Eventually, he met a snake, and then some flowers, and then a fox (who begged the little prince to “tame” him, so that they might become friends).

At this point, the character of the fox offers perhaps the most often-shared gem of wisdom from The Little Prince. It is the story’s keynote aphorism: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” (“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”) Judging by the drafts and notes, Saint-Exupéry reworded and rewrote that line at least 15 times before settling on this version.

Despite making all these new friends, by the time the little prince meets the pilot, he is dreadfully homesick, and by the time he’s told his story, the pilot is dying of thirst. The little prince finds the pilot a water well, and then tells him that it’s time return to his home planet (which might “look like” him dying of a snake bite, but actually he’s simply leaving his shell behind).

The Little Prince ends with a drawing of the landscape where the little prince and the narrator met, and where the snake took the little prince’s corporeal life. The narrator asks the children reading the book that if they ever find themselves in that place, and they meet a little boy with golden curls, that they contact him immediately so that he may be reunited with his friend.

Do you need a tissue? I don’t blame you. It’s an incredibly moving ending, holy heck – unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary children’s book.

But here’s the clincher (take a deep breath, this is going to hurt): The Little Prince is a very strange case of life coming to imitate art. Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace on his eighth high-level reconnaissance flight on 31 July 1944, just over a year after The Little Prince was published. He was never found, nor does anyone have any clue what happened to him and his plane. Léon Werth, the dear friend to whom the book is dedicated, did not learn of Saint-Exupéry’s presumed death until a month later, via radio broadcast (remember that he was in hiding). Even then, it wasn’t until November that year that he learned of The Little Prince, the book his friend had written for him. Ugh, I can’t – it’s just TOO SAD!



Sad as it may be, I suppose it’s fitting: almost everything, every symbol and every character, in The Little Prince was drawn from some aspect of Saint-Exupéry’s life. As I mentioned earlier, there’s the pilot and his crash landing in the Sahara, but there’s also the little prince’s rose (reportedly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife), the small home planet with volcanoes (inspired by Guatemala, where Saint-Exupéry recuperated from another crash), and so on.

The Little Prince might be a short and simple story, but don’t be deceived: Saint-Exupéry poured his whole heart and soul into it. He wrote and illustrated the manuscript over the summer of ’42, working “long hours with great concentration”, usually at night (when he felt most creatively “free”), spurred on by truly scary quantities of black coffee. His biographer, Paul Webster, said: “Behind Saint-Exupéry’s quest for perfection was a laborious process of editing and rewriting which reduced original drafts by as much as two-thirds.” He would often wake up in the morning still at his desk, with his head on his arms over the pages. Unsurprisingly, he also suffered from a number of stress-related health problems, and marital strife.

Initial reviewers were a bit flummoxed by the multi-layered story of The Little Prince. The book found only modest success at first, spending just two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. I think (or hope) we’re now more accepting of books with complex messages, ones that can appeal to multiple age groups – given that The Little Prince now sells almost two million copies each year and has become a cultural icon, it would seem to be the case. Still, don’t go into it if you’re looking for something twee and lighthearted. Every copy, in all the languages across the world, should probably be sold with a big box of tissues.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Little Prince:

  • “there’s something about reading this book that makes you feel at peace with yourself and the whole world. The Little Prince knows whats up” – Malanie Beverly
  • “What can be said about this little story. It is timeless. It is as fresh as spring water. Thank you” – Bea


One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

Much like a piano player in a bar, on occasion I’ll take requests – and I can’t think of a book review that has been requested more often by more Keeper Upperers than One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. This landmark novel was first published in García Márquez’s native Spanish (as Cien años de soledad) in 1967, and this edition was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. Here we go…!

One Hundred Years Of Solitude covers seven generations in the life of the Buendía family (don’t worry, there’s a helpful family tree in the front of most editions if you lose track of who’s who along the way). It has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad – that echoes throughout the story, like a drawn-out version of a life flashing before your eyes.

The story really begins, however, with the patriarch of the family, José Arcadio, deciding to move his family out of their hometown after an… unfortunate incident (he stabbed a mate at a cockfight, over some nasty accusations of limp dick). The family settles by a river and establishes the town of Macondo, which José Arcadio envisages as a “city of mirrors”, a paradise for his growing brood.

The town remains isolated, almost entirely disconnected from the world, save for a band of gypsies (I don’t know if that’s cool to say or not, but that’s the word García Márquez used so that’s what I’m going with) who visit them each year. They come to hawk their incredible technologies – magnets! Telescopes! Ice! And José Arcadio is more than willing to hand over every dollar he has for their gizmos and gadgets.





In fact, José Arcadio goes full mad scientist, trying to figure out how to save the world with magnets, while his wife – Ursula – simply has to put up with his bullshit, for lack of any other option. She keeps the kids fed and the clothes clean and the house in order, while José spirals deeper into his delusions.

Joke’s on him, though: in the end, he invents squat, while his long-suffering wife lives to be well over 100 years old, reigning over six of the seven generations of Buendías. This brings me to what I consider to be the central moral or message of One Hundred Years Of Solitude: men are stupid, and it’s always up to the women to clean up the mess.

“They’re all alike,” Ursula lamented. “At first they behave very well, they’re obedient and prompt and they don’t seem capable of killing a fly, but as soon as their beards appear they go to ruin.”

One Hundred Years Of Solutide (156)

Oh, but that’s not all! García Márquez has more than one row to hoe. Bureaucracy is from the devil. War and jealousy are pretty bad, too. A propensity towards sex with your sisters and cousins will probably end in tears (it turns out Game Of Thrones didn’t invent incest, who knew?).

It’s all this in-family rooting that seems to be the cause of most of the Buendías’ troubles. Ursula and José were cousins before they were married, and their kids inherited both their curiosity in other branches of the family tree and their fear that their family will be supernaturally punished for these abominations. The recurring example is the Buendía cousin who was born with a tail; he bled to death and died after asking his butcher mate to chop it off, because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to lose his virginity if girls kept laughing every time he pulled his pants down.





That’s an example of the “magical realism” we’ve all heard so much about. Mostly, One Hundred Years Of Solitude is grounded in recognisable reality – there are people and they have problems that have a tangible worldly basis. But, now and then, weird stuff happens. García Márquez blurs the line between the literal and the metaphorical. People are born with tails. Ghosts hang out in your backyard. A beautiful woman levitates off her bed and straight up into the sky, never to be seen again. All of this is accepted as normal (or, if not normal, at least not all that mystifying) by the characters involved. The banality of these magical events is reinforced by the narrator’s lack of interest in them, too – they are related in the same tone as one might describe what they had for breakfast.

And circling back around to the incest for a minute (c’mon, you didn’t think I could leave it alone for long, did you?), it seems to me to be a way of manifesting two of the major themes of the book: solitude (duh), and the cyclical nature of time. Because the town the Buendías founded and inhabit is so isolated, they really don’t have much choice but to start boning down with others in the same gene pool. And that’s why they see the same problems, the same dramas, the same events playing out time and time again, too.

In the end, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Macondo (and, by extension, the Buendía family) falls apart. The last surviving son discovers a manuscript left behind by one of his forebears, which depicts all of the family’s struggles and triumphs. Meanwhile, a wild wind whips up and away all remaining traces of the town that they founded.





Reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a lot like listening to a drunk person tell you a story when you’re five pints deep yourself. It’s sprawling, and tangential, and you can be sure they’re taking a bit of creative license, but you can still follow what they’re saying and you’re curious enough not to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom mid-sentence and never return. There’s not much tagged dialogue (as in “blah blah blah”, he said), and the timeline feels fluid and circular, so it really does read as though the story is being told to you second-hand. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s not a straightforward story, either.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude, in the fifty-odd years since its release, has been translated into over forty languages and sold over 50 million copies. It’s widely considered to be García Márquez’s magnum opus, the shining jewel in the crown of the Latin American literary boom of the ’60s and ’70s. When García Márquez won the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, One Hundred Years Of Solitude was widely touted to be one of the main reasons why. It is now recognised as one of the most significant books of the Hispanic literary canon, and a survey of international writers deemed it the book that has most shaped world literature.

(If it’s so good, why hasn’t it been made into a movie? Find the answer here.)

So, what’s the verdict? I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. I wouldn’t breathlessly thrust it into the hands of a fellow booklover, but I wouldn’t crinkle my nose if they picked it up of their own accord. I’m going to reserve my judgement on García Márquez until I’ve read more of his work – I’ve got my eye on Love In The Time Of Cholera next…

My favourite Amazon reviews of One Hundred Years Of Solitude:

  • “Was forced to read this lengthly exercise in tedium by my freshman English teacher at Yale. Oh, I know, it’s “great literature,” but trust me, the pages do not turn. On top of that, Marquez’s Marxist leanings are all too apparent. Bleh.” – vonhayek
  • “I have no idea what all the fuss regarding this book is about. I found this book irritating in its repetition of the name Jose Arcadia Buendia in virtually every paragraph, or every other paragraph in the first 60 pages. Call the guy Jose and move on… sure, it’s normal and it’s approach of the tribes and villages represented here, but the writing seems so basic. But I guess somebody thought it deserved a Nobel prize. I would prefer that they hand out an ice pick to everyone that reads it, as I wanted to use one on my brain to end the torture of this novel.” – SmilingGoodTimes
  • “I’m so pissed this has Oprah’s logo on it, I wouldn’t have bought if it was on the cover in the picture. Way to cheapen the experience OPRAH” – Ryan Stapleford
  • “A hundred years is a little too much solitude” – The Dwighter

The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante

You should know that, as I write this, I am suffering a severe case of Ferrante Fever. Ever since I read My Brilliant Friend, I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the world’s most notable living pseudonymous author. That book was the first in the Neapolitan Quartet, a series of four novels (a “wildly original contemporary epic”) that follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grow up in mid-20th century Naples with all of the impoverishment, violence, and oppression that such a life entails. I can’t emphasise enough the delight of discovering an author who has such a glorious back-list to read through. I find myself spacing out my reading of Ferrante, trying to make the magic last as long as possible. Today, I share with you my thoughts on the second book in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story Of A New Name.

The Story Of A New Name was first published in the original Italian in 2013, and shortly thereafter translated into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator). The story picks up after My Brilliant Friend leaves off, in the spring of 1966. Lila is a newlywed, and Lena is continuing her studies, exploring the world beyond the neighbourhood of their childhoods. Despite their diverging paths, their complex and evolving bond continues.

Lila gives Lena her Garner-esque diaries for safe-keeping, on the condition that her friend would never read them. Lena, of course, betrays that promise almost immediately (who among us wouldn’t? Come on, now!). Upon reading them, Lena is forced to re-evaluate her life, and Lila’s. Confronted by what she discovers (their childhoods being depicted with “ruthless accuracy”), she promptly throws the offending notebooks into a river.

I can’t even pretend that anything I say about The Story Of A New Name from here on won’t constitute “spoilers”, so proceed at your own peril…





Lila emerges from her honeymoon only to find herself living under a weight of expectation to become pregnant, though she doesn’t want to have children deeply resents her husband (he’s a dickhead, btw). Her first pregnancy is short-lived, and she miscarries at ten weeks. The town gossip suggests that her animosity kills any embryos that would embed in her womb (yep, that’s fucked). Given that her husband regularly beats and rapes her, who could blame her for being a bit ticked off? Their marriage is inherently political, intertwined with and influenced by their family business and their relationship with the Solaras brothers (basically the rich kids who have financed all their hopes and dreams… at a price).

Lila’s doctor prescribes “sun and swimming” (y’know, “for strength”) to facilitate her fertility, so she’s packed off to a summer beach holiday. Determined not to be trapped alone with her mother and her sister-in-law, she begs Lena to come with her. Lena has her own ulterior motive to accompany them: Nino, the unattainable intellectual object of her secret crush, will be “studying” at the beach, so Lena convinces Lila that’s the place to be for all this fertile “sun and swimming” business.

Most of The Story Of A New Name takes place on this beach holiday because, folks, it is full of drama – think your favourite reality show to the power of N. Remember how Lena harboured secret desires for Nino? Yeah, Lila – her best friend – hooks up with him instead. The affair is brief, but it still leaves Lila with a bun in the oven (gasp! pearl-clutching!), and she is forced to return to her husband who does not believe her (whether he’s deluding himself, or genuinely confused, who knows), when Lila says the child isn’t his.





Stefano – Lila’s husband – undertakes an affair of his own and his lover, Ada, becomes pregnant, too. Lila, quite understandably, is fed up with the bullshit and she leaves, despite the fact that she’s forced to move into a smaller, dodgier neighbourhood with her childhood fried, Enzo. Ada happily takes her place at Stefano’s side, with their kind-of-more-legitimate kid in their big house.

While all of this is going on, Lena – the actual narrator, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the story is “about” her because it’s really all “about” her brilliant friend – graduates from high school, and wins a scholarship to study at a university in Pisa. That’s all well and good, but she suffers from one of the most debilitating cases of imposter syndrome I’ve ever seen depicted in fiction. Lena doubts herself constantly: her intellect, her background, her aptitude…

And then there’s the fact that she’s sexually active. A young woman! Unmarried! Having sex! Can you believe it? Set aside the fact that it’s largely rooted in an earlier molestation: it’s scandalous! Eventually, she meets Pietro, a nice young bloke from an important family who. doesn’t give a shit about her “reputation” (what a guy). He’s just happy to finally meet a girl he can talk to about old poetry and philosophy and politics.





When they graduate university, Pietro’s gift to Lena is an engagement ring, which she happily(?) accepts. In return, she gives him a hand-written novel. Unbeknownst to her, he passes it on to his mother, who uses her connections to have it placed at a publishing house. The book is released to popular success and critical acclaim, but Lena is disappointed and confused when she realises that no one from her old neighbourhood really gives a shit (her old teacher and former librarian, who fostered her young literary mind, are no longer around). The story ends with Lena attending her first public reading as a published author… where she realises that Nino is in attendance. Yes, that Nino, of the object-of-her-secret-desire-but-then-he-knocked-up-her-brilliant-friend fame.

Returning to the Neapolitan Quartet with The Story Of A New Name felt like picking up where I’d left off with old friends. I got to see how Lila and Lena “turned out”, what “happened next” for them. That might sound bleeding obvious to anyone who’s used to reading books in series, but mostly I read stand-alone novels, so for me it was wonderful. Lila was as manipulative and shrewd as ever, but still a sympathetic character – my feelings towards her were as ambivalent, contradictory, and ebbing as Lena’s own.

Thematically, The Story Of A New Name addresses many of the same issues as My Brilliant Friend: female friendship, class marginalisation, sexual expression, competitive relationships, the importance of literacy… The decisions of the girls’ parents in the first novel (Lena’s to allow her to continue her education, Lila’s to withdraw her from school at a young age) have ripple effects throughout their lives. The Neapolitan Quartet is effectively a Sliding Doors-epic. Both feel overshadowed and envious of the other, furious jealousy mingles with the unshakeable affection of shared experience… ugh. Ferrante is just too good for words. Too good.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of A New Name:

  • “It was kind of confusing. I didn’t like the beating the women received but I finished the book and the ending was worth it.” – Sue Campbell
  • “I loved it, but it’s a book for women. Therefore I can’t give it 5 stars. I don’t see many men with patience to read it through…” – Amazon Customer
  • “Interesting, but redundant . Perhaps touch like life .” – j toby

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: books in translation are a unique kind of magic. Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be.

The blurb begins: “Keiko isn’t normal,”. A strong start, wouldn’t you say? Keiko has known since childhood that she was “different” from everybody else, but she learned early on that expressing herself in ways that feel natural to her does not go down well in her conservative and conformist culture – it freaks people out and causes problems. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, peers recoil from her and her family worries that she’ll never “fit in”. Everyone’s relieved when, aged 18, she takes a “normal” job in a convenience store (a konbini) – including Keiko. The store provides an employee manual that provides her with strict protocols for interaction that she finds deeply comforting. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” she says, on page 21. Thus, she becomes the titular Convenience Store Woman.

Eighteen years later, however, the gig is starting to wear thin. Not for Keiko, but for the people around her. Keiko has happily adopted “convenience store worker” as her whole identity, and struggles to understand why that’s not enough. Her friends and family worry about her, and they’re not backwards in coming forwards: as far as they’re concerned, stacking shelves and greeting customers in a 24/7 convenience store is no way for a woman of advancing (reproductive) years to live, and the pressure to find a new job (or a husband) intensifies…

Enter Shiraha: a ragamuffin, layabout, ne’er do well who takes a job at the convenience store for the express purpose of “marriage shopping”. Basically, he’s an in-cel, looking for someone to give him social credibility and (ideally) finance his ridiculous idea for a start-up. He’s fired almost immediately, of course, because he’s the absolute worst – but not before Keiko identifies him as a potential solution. In her world, any explanation for her supposed aberration is better than no explanation at all. So, she takes Shiraha in, and presents him to the world as her live-in partner. There! They both “fit in” now! Happily ever after, right?





Of course not! Stick two misfits like Keiko and Shiraha in a tiny apartment together, on Keiko’s meagre convenience store worker salary no less, and everything will inevitably go to shit. Keiko has mild psychopathic tendencies, resorts to mimicking her co-workers’ speech and dress to “fit in”, and remains blithely indifferent to sex, romance, or anything like it. Shiraha feels entitled to anything and everything he wants, and views their whole arrangement as a huge favour that he is doing for Keiko out of the goodness of his heart. Really, the only thing they have in common is that they both long to flip the bird to the homogenising pressures of Japanese culture.

Let’s be clear here, though: Convenience Store Woman isn’t some kind of odd-couple rom-com, it’s no contemporary take on Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it’s very satirical, almost dystopian, in tone – wry, matter of fact, and mournful, all at once. It’s a class commentary, in the sense that it looks at social problems caused by class and gender inequity in Japan. Keiko lives in a “grim post-capitalist reverie”, where she finds purpose, acceptance, and contentment in the fluorescent, synthetic environment of the convenience store. Into the bargain, she’s a woman, which gives Murata ample fodder to question whether women can truly be happy in their “traditional” roles, that age-old question of feminism.





And yet, Convenience Store Woman is SHORT. Like, seriously SHORT. 163 pages! SHORT! The story moves very fast, which is part of its appeal, but it was almost (only almost) too fast for me. I would’ve loved to spend more time in Keiko’s mind and her world, but I’ve got to respect the mastery. How Murata managed to cram so much into so few pages is beyond me! On par with the economical prose of Arthur Conan Doyle, in my opinion…

I can’t resist a spoiler (but I left it ’til the very last paragraph, so don’t complain): in the end, Keiko rejects the more “convenient” life that Shiraha offers her, and returns to the convenience store. Obviously, that’s a broader statement about rejecting conformism in the pursuit of happiness (real or synthetic), and it’s very cleverly done – in fact, it didn’t strike me until later that that’s what Murata was getting at. Convenience Store Woman is such an intriguingly strange book, one that feels uniquely singular but simultaneously universal. I absolutely recommend it!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Convenience Store Woman:

  • “Cute story, not to norm” – Tanya settle
  • “anybody who didn’t understand this book hasen’t subsumed themselves into the rhythms of a low-level retail job. I loved this book.” – pencillers
  • “What seems would be a dull story about an ordinary woman with a mundane job is a fascinating novel.” – eva b.
  • “A very enjoyable story told from the perspective of a non-violent sociopath. It’s unlike any story I’ve read and quite fun at that.” – JF
  • “This book felt like something Dostoyevsky would have written if he were a woman and had a sense of humor….” – Travis Ann Sherman

9 Brilliant Books In Translation

As a monolingual reader, I am SO grateful for access to books in translation. Earlier this week, I read and reviewed A Man Called Ove by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman. That would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the translator Henning Koch, who took the original Swedish (En man som heter Ove) and transformed it into a story I could understand. I’ve talked before about the world-changing magic of books in translation, and today I thought I’d expand on that by giving you a round-up of some of my favourite translated book recommendations. Here’s a list of brilliant books in translation…

9 Brilliant Books In Translation - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Sign in Multiple Languages - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Rod Bradbury

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is one of the most delightful books I have ever read, my ultimate cheer-up read. It was first published in the original Swedish in 2009, translated into English a short time later – and it’s since gone on to sell over three million copies worldwide. In some ways, it does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of a centenarian who, hoping to avoid the dreary birthday party his nursing home has planned for him, escapes out the window and goes on a wild adventure. It’s like a European Forrest Gump, but less cheesy and infinitely more hilarious! Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Ann Goldstein

I’m always worried when reviewing and recommending My Brilliant Friend that I cannot possibly do this beautiful, breathtaking book justice. Seriously, I cannot understate just how brilliant (ha!) it is. It was first published in 2012, the first in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels, and it follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two young girls growing up in the cruel and sometimes violent community of mid-20th century Naples. Ferrante’s true identity is, of course, a mystery (she writes under a pseudonym), and one that gets a lot of attention – but I think we should expend that energy praising her translator, Ann Goldstein, instead. The way that she has managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian in this English edition is just… brilliant! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

This slim little book contains the bizarre but endearing story of a Japanese woman who struggles with social convention, and finds comfort in the rhythm and routine of her “career” working in a local convenience store, where every relationship is transactional. Convenience Store Woman is actually the tenth book by Sayaka Murata (she’s a big-big-big literary star in Japan, named Woman Of The Year by Japanese Vogue in 2016!) but this is the first to be translated into English. Her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, has also previously translated two short stories of Murata’s, and is working on the forthcoming Earthlings, slated for release later this year. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.


No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Omid Tofighian

No Friend But The Mountains is different from the other books in translation listed here, in a few key ways. The work of translation was done as the book was being drafted (rather than from a completed manuscript). This is because, at the time of writing, Behrouz Boochani was detained on Manus Island by the Australian Government. He and Omid Tofighian wrote the entire thing in concert (translating from Farsi to English), by exchange of WhatsApp messages, to tell the truth of what was happening to Behrouz in Manus Prison. The book went on to win the Victorian Premier’s Prize in 2019, and has already been deemed an essential work of Australian literature (like it or not, this is a horrifying-but-true Australian story). Thankfully, Behrouz has since been released from Manus, and is currently in New Zealand.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

The Eighth Life - Nino Haratschvili - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are definitely not over! The proof is in The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili. The fine folks at Scribe Publishing were kind enough to send me a copy for review last year, published for the first time in English (written originally in German, though Haratischvili has been writing in both German and Georgian since she was twelve years old). Don’t be intimidated by its size, and the scope of its story (several generations over a crucial period in world history). The Eighth Life will sweep you away. It falls smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram between Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Marcia Marquez, and Elena Ferrante.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

A Horse Walks Into A Bar - David Grossman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Jessica Cohen

A Horse Walks Into A Bar takes a lot of risks… but, I suppose, one must go big or go home. Of all the work that goes into translation, surely the hardest has to be to translate comedy: even the title, a trope of stand up comedy, surely wouldn’t translate easily into every language and culture. Still, Jessica Cohen pulls it off! And it’s just just the lols, it’s also the deep and despairing moments, the unraveling of the protagonist in its short timeline (just two hours), that are done spectacularly well. Grossman wrote this book in Hebrew, and the English-language translation went on to win the Booker International Prize in 2017.


The Odyssey by Homer

Translated by Emily Wilson

Another magical thing about books in translation: if they hang around long enough, and remain popular enough, other people start to have a go and you end up with multiple translations that bring all kinds of new wonders to light. Believe it or not, even though Homer’s The Odyssey has been translated into English many dozens of times since it was first written in Ancient Greece, Emily Wilson’s translation is the first to be completed and published by a woman. Wilson is a Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and looks at this bedrock work of poetry through a contemporary feminist lens. The canon has too long belonged to men, and works like Wilson’s are crucial in diversifying and expanding our perspectives.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by ???

It only seems fair that, in this list of brilliant books in translation, I include an example that is both a shining star and a massive #NameTheTranslator fail. I love this edition of Madame Bovary, which was the highly influential debut of French novelist Gustave Flaubert and caused a huge stir upon release. I read it and loved it, the searing insight into the patriarchal constructions of femininity and madness… and yet, when I looked for the name of the person who had worked so hard to bring this brilliant book into my native tongue, I couldn’t see it anywhere. Not on the cover, not in the prefatory materials, not even on the publisher’s website. There is just one, unattributed, note in the beginning that says: “The translator would like to record his gratitude to his wife, Teresa Russell, who read the translation in manuscript and made many valuable suggestions”. I mean, hats off for giving your wife credit, mate, but surely you deserve some too! So, this one goes out to the anonymous translator of Madame Bovary, and to all other uncredited and unacknowledged translators everywhere, who toil in silence on our behalf.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by David McDuff

So, as we’ve established, every version of a book in translation is different: in some ways, the translator re-writes a new book each time. That’s why, when I highly recommend people read Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (which I do, by the way), I hasten to add that they should secure this edition, translated into English by David McDuff, for their first time. See, I just can’t be sure that other translations – wonderful as they might be – will capture the same humour, pathos, and beguiling nature of this story about a literal axe murderer. I came to Crime And Punishment, knowing it to be a Russian classic, assuming it would be dull, dense, and depressing – and I can assure you that David McDuff’s version is none of those things. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.



What are your favourite books in translation? Add to the list in the comments below – I’m always on the hunt for more!

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