3 books in translation that have received acclaim in their original languages

One of the joys of reading translated literature — especially newly translated literature — is discovering writers who are legends in their language but brand-new in yours.

Call it the Elena Ferrante Experience. Reading an author who is evidently working at the height of their powers is a treat under any circumstance, but doing so without the prior knowledge (and sometimes baggage) that you may bring to a master working in your own literary culture has an added layer of excitement. Granted, this principle only holds true if readers can count on a steady stream of good new translations of both already-major authors and emerging ones. It’s no fun to know you’re missing out.

All three of the novels below are major works by writers barely — or never — translated into English, until now. Surinamese novelist Astrid Roemer’s On a Woman’s Madness, translated by Lucy Scott, has been a queer and feminist classic in the original Dutch since it came out in 1982. Italian-Cuban writer Alba de Céspedes’s astounding Forbidden Notebook, released in 1952, appeared in a 1958 translation called The Secret, but then vanished from sight in both Italy and the United States. In the preface to Ann Goldstein’s new translation, Jhumpa Lahiri calls de Céspedes — whose life included not only writing novels, but editorial work, a beloved advice column, and anti-Fascist agitation that got her thrown in jail — “one of Italy’s most cosmopolitan, incendiary, insightful, and overlooked writers.” Eritrean journalist and writer Haji Jabir’s Black Foam, translated by Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey, is more contemporary: Released in Arabic in 2018, it is the first of his four novels to appear in English, though each one has been met with significant acclaim. In 2019, Jabir told the online journal Arablit Quarterly that his goal across his fiction is “shedding light on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, on its people, history, and culture.” Translation brings this project to fuller fruition, and lets more readers in on a writer — and a project — everyone has the right to know.

On a Woman’s Madness

At 19, Astrid Roemer emigrated from Suriname to the Netherlands and began considering herself a “cosmopolitan” writer. Yet On a Woman’s Madness is deeply rooted in Suriname. In prose full of sensory description — lots of smells! — and evocative recurrent images of snakes and orchids, she follows her young protagonist, Noenka, from a brief marriage into a voyage of sexual and existential self-discovery. Noenka, a teacher, leaves her husband so quickly her “students were still bringing me flowers for my new vases and my new house.” Told by her boss she has to return to her husband or leave the school, she departs not only the job but also the town. She moves to Paramaribo, where she swiftly gets herself into a Jules et Jim-type love triangle, attracted both to the men involved and to the utopian possibilities she envisions alongside them. But as those relationships grow shaky, she takes a live-in position helping a woman named Gabrielle with her children — only to fall in love with Gabrielle.

Roemer tells On a Woman’s Madness in fragments, keeping readers disoriented in the novel’s timeline. Occasionally this strategy renders emotional investment difficult, but it also generates suspense. Noenka — young, queer, Black, Jewish, and neither married nor fully single — is in a precarious position, and real danger seems always to be around the bend, alongside the “incurable illness of True Love.” By the end, On a Woman’s Madness is plainly a love story, but one that reminds readers that, more often than not, our social conditions matter just as much as the company we keep.

Forbidden Notebook

Valeria Cossati, the narrator — or, rather, diary-writer — of Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook is, outwardly, a woman without an identity. Raised in a genteel, downwardly mobile family, she is isolated from her childhood friends by the post-World War II petit-bourgeois circumstances of her adulthood. Her husband calls her mamma, not Valeria, and rebuffs her desires for sex, attention, or care. Her university-student children have so little idea of their mother’s inner life that when she mentions hypothetically keeping the diary we’re reading, they burst out laughing, then tease her for having a secret admirer until she bursts into tears. In a parallel moment later on, her husband — noticing the dissatisfaction diary-keeping has promoted in her — asks if she has a lover, which, she writes, he can imagine more readily than he can “recognize that I’m capable of thinking.”

Valeria herself often regrets having started to think about her life. Repeatedly she vows to burn her diary, telling herself a woman “should never be idle, because otherwise she immediately starts thinking about love.” Valeria yearns for real, reciprocal love and, yet, she is profoundly attached to her husband and children — and, she knows, to “the halo of my martyrdom.” It is maddening to watch Valeria at once discover and defend her plight, yet de Céspedes never renders her pitiable. Nor does she let readers get too optimistic, though possibilities of change and escape glimmer constantly on the horizon. Valeria is ensnared not only in her family, but her times — though Forbidden Notebook does not feel 71 years old. Its prose is fresh and lively, and the issues it raises more contemporary than many would hope.

Black Foam

At the start of Haji Jabir’s Black Foam, the protagonist’s identity is so unstable as to be unidentifiable. His name is Dawit, or maybe David — or is it Dawoud? He is in Addis Ababa, among a group of Ethiopian Jews who are days from emigration to Israel, yet his evident isolation and discomfort suggest that he does not belong to their community. Slowly, building suspense by weaving the present and past together in each chapter, Jabir reveals that his protagonist is a parentless Eritrean soldier, born in an army camp during the nation’s long war of independence. Now on the run, he has bribed, stolen and committed arson to get himself on a plane “crowded with people and their dreams.” But his one dream — a “safe and secure life” — eludes him in Israel, just as it did in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Dawit’s plight is heartbreaking, made more so by the hostility and rejection he encounters in refugee camps, from the group in which he emigrates and, most of all, from white Israelis. Yet Jabir takes pains to humanize rather than idealize him. Dawit steals for recreation as well as survival; he’s spiteful and often vengeful; he goes so deep into his sexual fantasies he loses the ability to distinguish them from reality. Some of these traits are evidently results of his harrowing life, but not all. Jabir pays his protagonist the respect of not allowing readers to understand him entirely, trusting that, by the book’s end, we will grieve for him all the same.

This article was first published at npr, on February 10, 2023.


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