9 Unmissable Translated Novels First Published in English This Year

There's still time to get these international gems onto your 2019 reading list

Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

Outside the Anglophone publishing sphere, the world of literature widens and widens. In 2019, English readers were lucky enough to access a part of this cannon through the work of translators, who are surely the heroes of global literature. The task of attempting to whittle down the best of the crop is nearly impossible but we’ve tried here to curate reads that are truly diverse with different gazes and existences. 

Many of these titles have been honored by literary establishments in their authors’ countries and regions, and beyond. The National Book Foundation’s Translated Literature Award, in its second year of existence, boasted a stellar longlist (read all of it!) in 2019 while the Man Booker International Booker Prize, continues to introduce the world’s most incredible and experimental writing original published in languages other than English. 

The below novels include period pieces, contemporary meditations, and flights into dystopias as imagined by writers from all corners of the earth.

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Space Invaders by Nona Fernández, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Nona Fernández’s novella, which landed on the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature longlist, explores collective memory and the political violence of childhood (her own) in Pinochet-era Chile with maximal details in sparse but pointed, unforgettable vignettes within a structure that uses the classic 1980s video game of the title as its muse. It debuted in the U.S. just as Chile’s youth were once again protesting unfair government policies in November 2019. 

The Older Brother by Mahir Guven, translated from French by Tina Kover

In The Older Brother, which won France’s Prix Goncourt for Best Debut Novel in 2018, one brother takes passengers around Paris in an Uber-like service, the other decides to bounce to Syria. With crisp pace and ample humor, Mahir Guven frames intergenerational immigrant family conflict in the context of ride-sharing service politics, radicalization of European-born Muslims, poverty, and identity, and leads us to a surprise conclusion.  

Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh

Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh, translated from German by John Cullen

In the Germany of the near future, Britta is a wife, mother, and provider of care for the suicidal. She also runs a sort of HR agency for terrorist organizations looking for suicide bombers. No attack happens without her knowing—until one does. Zeh’s imagined dystopia is as dark as the premise suggests—but grimmer and more complicated still is the society’s moral numbness in the face of authoritarianism. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Janina, an elderly woman in a remote Polish village, studies astrology, translates William Blake, and argues against hunting. When a neighbor she dislikes dies and soon other hunters are found dead, Janina suspects that the animals are responsible. Tokarczuk, the 2018 Nobel laureate in literature, weighs up questions of animal rights (and killing/murder), human rights (and killing/murder) and who the hell we are, in this provocative noir mystery, which comes with a twisty end. 

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder

The Memory Police has shades of both 1984 and The Diary of Anne Frank. On an unnamed island, disappearance is the norm—maps, birds, and roses are gone. The Memory Police is tasked to keep them forgotten—and to remove those who remember. A novelist hides her editor, who’s in danger of being removed, in a secret room in her house. The two attempt preservation through her novel, which forms part of the text. Ogawa’s diaphanous novel was first published in 1994, a time before widespread Internet, fake news, and Facebook.

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Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated from Arabic by Leri Price

To fulfill his deathbed promise to his father, Bolbol along with his two siblings take the old man’s corpse from Damascus to his hometown of Anabiya in Aleppo. The road trip would normally take a couple of hours but in war-ravaged Syria, it takes days. Along the way, readers get a tour of the family’s histories and traumas. Critics and readers have called it a Syrian As I Lay Dying. An intense trip into one of the most wretched conflicts of our time. 

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Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Winner of the 2019 Booker International Prize, Celestial Bodies follows an upper class family through three sisters and their choices. This complex novel journeys back and forth in time and into Oman’s history. The Gulf state was one of the last countries to outlaw slavery—the histories and legacies of which are woven into Alharthi’s novel. Celestial Bodies is the first Arabic novel to win the Booker. 

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When the Plums are Ripe by Patrice Nganang, translated from French by Amy B. Reid

In the second novel in his trilogy on Cameroonian history after Mount Pleasant, Patrice Nganang narrates the story of the country’s entry into World War II when its colonizer France is occupied by Nazi Germany. Pouka, a poet, has returned to his hometown and wants to start a poetry circle. Meanwhile, the men around him are sucked into the war. His father, who has psychic dreams, predicts that Hitler will commit suicide. A lyrical, alternative look at the reverberating effects of WWII on the African continent

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Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet

Fleeing gambling debts in Argentina, Baron Bela Wenckheim returns to his provincial hometown in Hungary. With epic sentences and unending paragraphs, Krasznahorkai narrates a jammed, absurdist tale—which includes the Baron’s attempts to reconcile with his high school sweetheart—with a vast and dazzling cast of townspeople. Meanwhile, the character of the reclusive Professor offers philosophical perspectives from his hut. The novel was the ultimate victor of a very strong shortlist for the NBA prize for translated literature. The judges called the novel, “singular and uncompromising.” 

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