8 Translated Books That Break Down Barriers

March 10 2022
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Translating takes up most of my days: At the doctor’s office when my parents’ self-taught English comes up short; at my second job, where I stretch my Portuguese into a very mangled Spanish to communicate with the kitchen staff; whenever my little sister tries her hand at texting in our native language. It takes effort, transiting between cultures, but it is a complementary process. I am made better by it. Translation in literature functions similarly—it allows ideas to travel far and wide, promotes empathy, and strengthens social awareness.

We stand only to gain from embracing language as a bridge, not a barrier. So, how about enriching your worldly perspective today? Here are a few of my favorite translated works you should check out.

Small Country
by Gaël Faye

Do you know what it’s like to have your life upended? SMALL COUNTRY follows Gabriel—the ten-year-old son of an expatriate Frenchman and a Rwandan woman—and his comfortable upbringing in Burundi, until the onset of the Rwandan civil war. As conflict spills into Gabriel’s idyllic childhood, and his parents’ marriage begins to disintegrate, he must reconcile the harsh realities of the genocide pervading his neighborhood with his sheltered upbringing. Stirring and sadly familiar, Faye’s novel speaks on innocence stolen by a vicious history.

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Small Country
Gaël Faye

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Tender Is the Flesh
by Agustina Bazterrica

Disturbing. Jarring. Necessary. Agustina Bazterrica’s TENDER IS THE FLESH holds a mirror to the grotesque qualities of human adaptability. In a world where an infectious virus devastates the entirety of the meat supply, the human solution is simply to legalize cannibalism. Through Marcos, a reluctant but diligent “special meat” butcher, we see how promptly we are willing to make allowances for our gruesome behavior during times of need. Timely and horribly believable, TENDER IS THE FLESH asks: How strong are your convictions?

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Tender Is the Flesh
Agustina Bazterrica

Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans—though no one calls them that anymore.

His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.

Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.

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The Book of Mother
by Violaine Huisman

An unputdownable debut. Seriously. Teetering between novel and memoir, Violaine Huisman’s THE BOOK OF MOTHER is a heart-wrenching and viscerally honest exploration of the relationship between an unstable, larger-than-life mother and her blindly adoring children. Divided into three parts—the narrator’s formative years, her mother’s tumultuous life, and the aftermath of the two—this novel is an emblem of feminine bravery, a darkly humorous and memorable portrayal of the love and personal shortcomings that together make up motherhood.

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The Book of Mother
Violaine Huisman

A gorgeous, critically acclaimed debut novel about a young woman coming of age with a dazzling yet damaged mother who lived and loved in extremes.

A prizewinning tour de force when it was published in France, Violaine Huisman’s remarkable debut novel is about a daughter’s inextinguishable love for her magnetic, mercurial mother. Beautiful and charismatic, Catherine, a.k.a. “Maman,” smokes too much, drives too fast, laughs too hard, and loves too extravagantly. During a joyful and chaotic childhood in Paris, her daughter Violaine wouldn’t have it any other way.

But when Maman is hospitalized after a third divorce and a breakdown, everything changes. Even as Violaine and her sister long for their mother’s return, once she’s back Maman’s violent mood swings and flagrant disregard for personal boundaries soon turn their home into an emotional landmine. As the story of Catherine’s own traumatic childhood and adolescence unfolds, the pieces come together to form an indelible portrait of a mother as irresistible as she is impossible, as triumphant as she is transgressive.

With spectacular ferocity of language, a streak of dark humor, and stunning emotional bravery, The Book of Mother is an exquisitely wrought story of a mother’s dizzying heights and devastating lows, and a daughter who must hold her memory close in order to let go.

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Vagabonds
by Hao Jingfang & Ken Liu

Speculative, political, and packed with incredible worldbuilding, VAGABONDS is a Sci-Fi masterpiece! Rife with philosophy on social structure and cultural identity, this groundbreaking novel explores the idle tensions between two competing utopias: hyper-capitalist Earth and hyper-socialist Mars. The story follows eighteen-year-old Luo Ying, a Martian delegate who spent five years on Earth, as she returns home and navigates the repercussions of her fractured adolescence and the ever-present sense of not belonging.

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Vagabonds
Hao Jingfang & Ken Liu

A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this “thoughtful debut” (Kirkus Reviews) from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang.

This “masterful narrative” (Booklist, starred review) is set on Earth in the wake of a second civil war…not between two factions in one nation, but two factions in one solar system: Mars and Earth. In an attempt to repair increasing tensions, the colonies of Mars send a group of young people to live on Earth to help reconcile humanity. But the group finds itself with no real home, no friends, and fractured allegiances as they struggle to find a sense of community and identity trapped between two worlds.

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A Second Wind
by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo

A SECOND WIND captures moments of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s youth, his marriage, and the aftermath of a major accident that left him a quadriplegic. Wealthy and unaccustomed to the sudden lack of autonomy he was experiencing, all Philippe could do was hire a caregiver. Abdel Sellou, an Algerian immigrant and previously a small-time thief, just happened to be the man for the job. This duo’s unlikely companionship proved as moving as it was admirable and solidified A SECOND WIND as a must-read for me.

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A Second Wind
Philippe Pozzo di Borgo

Now a major motion picture—The Upside—starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman.

Discover the moving and heartfelt #1 international bestseller and inspiration for the film The Upside about an aristocratic Frenchman who is paralyzed in an accident and has to adjust to his new normal with the help of his unlikely caregiver.

As the descendant of two prominent French families and director of a legendary vineyard, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was not in the habit of asking for help. Then, in 1993, right on the heels of his beloved wife’s diagnosis of a terminal illness, a paragliding accident left him a quadriplegic. He was forty-two years old and unable to do anything—even feed himself—without the help of another person.

Passing his days hidden behind the high walls of his Paris townhouse, Philippe was totally isolated. His paralysis rendered him unable to reach out to others and seemed to make people unwilling to touch him or acknowledge the reality of his existence. For the first time, he learned what it felt like to be excluded.

The only person who seemed not to be bothered by Philippe’s condition was someone who had been marginalized his entire life: Abdel, an unemployed, uninhibited Algerian immigrant from the outskirts of society who would become Philippe's unlikely caretaker. With his tenacious spirit and irreverent sense of humor, Abdel is able to reawaken Philippe’s connection to people and the larger world around him.

A Second Wind is the inspiring true story of two men who refused to ask for help, and then wound up helping each other in more ways than they could imagine.

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The Invisible Guardian
by Dolores Redondo

Is there anything worse than begrudgingly returning to your tiny hometown? Well, there’s always murder. Feminist and deeply rooted in Spanish folklore, THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN is the first mystery in Dolores Redondo’s Baztán Trilogy, which follows Inspector Amaia Salazar on her latest, most evasive case yet: a string of murders along the edge of the small village she grew up in. Redondo strikes the perfect balance of tension and superstition in this novel, weaving a taut line of suspense throughout, without ever shortchanging the colorful scenery and mysticism of the Basque region. This book will keep you guessing from beginning to end!

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The Invisible Guardian
Dolores Redondo

Already a #1 international bestseller, this taut, gripping psychological thriller follows a police inspector who reluctantly returns to her hometown in Spain’s Basque Country—a place shrouded in mythology and superstition—to solve a series of eerie murders.

When the body of a teenaged girl is found on a riverbank in a remote area, the crime appears all too similar to a murder committed only months prior, igniting the worst fears of the small community of Elizondo. Homicide inspector Amaia Salazar, a strong, borderline-obsessive investigator, is assigned to the case. After all, this beautiful, peculiar backwater steeped in the blood of the Spanish Inquisition, where pagan beliefs still flourish under a thin veneer of modernity, is a space she knows better than anyone. Forced to return to Elizondo, a town she has always sought to escape, Amaia is tasked with finding a serial killer on the loose.

As the murders in the area grow increasingly violent, the locals come to believe only one creature could possibly be responsible: a creature of Basque mythology known as the basajaun, or Invisible Guardian. But Amaia is logical—a professional—and she refuses to let local superstitions distract her from her careful detective work. As the investigation deepens, a troubling secret from Amaia’s past plagues her with nightmares and soon her findings seem to transform myth into reality. Everything she believes to be rational and verifiable is called into question. Now Amaia must fight her demons and determine if these murders are the work of a ritualistic killer or something even darker.

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Near to the Wild Heart
by Clarice Lispector & Alison Entrekin

What comes after happiness? NEAR TO THE WILD HEART is the modernist and heady study of life that launched Brazilian giant Clarice Lispector into great acclaim at the age of twenty-three. Less concerned with convention than introspection, Lispector focuses on the fleeting moments and sentiments that make up a significant existence. From loss and devotion to jealousy and love, young Joana’s life is measured by her relentless hunger for meaning, and her willingness to retreat into herself in search of it.

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Near to the Wild Heart
Clarice Lispector & Alison Entrekin

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Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami

Despite straying from Murakami’s usual style, with Sci-Fi and magical realism elements notably absent, NORWEGIAN WOODS is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The story unfolds as Toru Watanabe overhears a song by The Beatles upon arriving in Germany. Suddenly overwhelmed by grief and nostalgia, Watanabe begins recounting moments of his youth and the tragic fate encountered by some of his friends. Sensual, melancholic, and an exercise in endurance—you do not leave this book unscathed.

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Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami

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Photo credit: iStock / Jun

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