4x4th Estate: Lost In A Good Translation


Reading a book in translation will never be the same as reading it in its original language, but in lieu of universal fluency they are the best way of sharing ideas and stories across different cultures. Here are 4 translated works to let in the wider world.

mbfIsland Beneath The Sea by Isabel Allende (2009), translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Isabel Allende is South America’s greatest living writer. Her novels and biographic works have now been translated from the original Spanish into more than 30 different languages and have sold nearly 60 million copies worldwide.

Her novels are charming and honest, often with a touch of magical realism to awaken the imagination. Island Beneath The Sea is the seemingly unlikely story of a slave girl living on Saint-Dominique, the island which is now known as Haiti. She is determined to forge her own destiny and to live life on her own terms, rather than spend the rest of it waiting for orders.

Allende’s writing is so powerful that none of the essence of Saint-Dominque is lost even in translation. It is a seductive and magnetically captivating story of a woman’s fight for her independence, well before this was considered possible.


2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004), translated by Natasha Wimmer        

Don’t be put off by the size of this novel. It may be 900 pages long in its translated form, but it was over 1100 pages in Spanish, so you should be glad to be reading it in translation! The author, Roberto Bolaño, wanted it to be released in five volumes but he sadly died before it was published and his estate decided to leave it undivided. Its title remains one of the biggest mysteries in Hispanic literature as not even Bolaño’s family and friends know what the number means. There is no mention of 2666 in the book at all, and none of his working notes featured an explanation.

The central plot of the book concerns the ongoing murders of young women in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Teresa. It is an elegant account of Mexican life for different cross-sections of society and accurately explains the difficulties in the Border States of Mexico but without veering into sentimentality or self-righteousness.

gbgThe Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (1943), Richard and Clara Winston

Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, just three years after The Glass Bead Game was first published.

It is a futurist novel, set in the 23rd Century and centers around Joseph Knecht, who has been raised in a special section of society, restricted to the raising of the intellectual elite. Knecht’s whole life has been consumed with his obsession to master the Glass Bead Game. It takes the form of a mock-biography detailing Knecht’s life and the society in which he lives.

The book was published in Switzerland at the height of the Second World War and is a utopian vision which goes beyond imagining a world free from fascism. It is his last novel and widely regarded as the clearest depiction of his fascination with eastern ideology and principles.

The world it describes may not be one that you can physically go and visit, but I think that this makes the book even more special, as it is the only port of entry through which you can travel there.

mbf2My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011), translated by Ann Goldstein

Ferrante’s Neapolitan series are a joyous and accomplished example of the way in which the story of an entire city or even country can be told through the stories of just a few characters. It is a personal and intimate account of a friendship between two women, through which the poverty, corruption and prejudices that run deep into the core of Neapolitan society are revealed and lived out.

This novel proves that translated works can offer nuanced and revelatory access to a culture that you could never experience any other way.


Words by Felicity Box.

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