21 Best Translated Books Coming Out in Fall 2021 – Oprah Mag

Blame it on Elena Ferrante. Or Stieg Larsson. Or Haruki Murakami.

But first, a history tutorial. In the not-too-distant past, trade publishers invested in translations only occasionally, and mostly to burnish their literary cred, not their bottom lines. There were always exceptions. Back in the heady postwar epoch in New York, when writers burst through formal grids to experiment freely, and the Abstract Expressionists reigned supreme, Grove Press was founded in 1947 on Grove Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. But its true golden age began four years later, in 1951, when risk-taker Barney Rosset, Jr., (whose first wife was the brilliant Abstract Expressionist painter, Joan Mitchell) purchased the business and transformed it into one of the most influential publishers of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

Under Rosset’s guidance, Grove forged a specialization in publishing literature in translation, shepherding the careers of such literary titans as Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Grove’s drama list boasts playwrights—Bertolt Brecht, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett—many of whom remain on the publisher’s list to this day. Across town, Kurt and Helen Wolff, German Jewish émigrés, founded Pantheon Books, a transatlantic bridge from the Old World to the New. (Years after, the Wolffs headed up their own eponymous shingle at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.)

André Schiffrin, who later helmed Pantheon for nearly 30 years, felt a cultural duty to showcase literature in translation, his tweedy cosmopolitanism held up as a bulwark against the rising tide of commercial authors. His 2000 publishing memoir, The Business of Books recounts his battles with the suits at Random House. As corporate publishing mergers escalated in the 1970s and ‘80s a casino mentality won the day. (Schiffrin, for instance, was forced out of Pantheon in 1990, sparking protests.) The bottom-line-driven ‘90s and early Aughts seemed to have sidelined the literature so valued by Rosset, the Wolffs, and Schiffrin. The hunt for blockbusters was on.

But that was then, now is now. Enter a fresh crop of readers, well-versed in the internet and disdainful of American parochialism, eager to champion voices from across the globe. With bestsellers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Murakami’s recent First Person Singular, the calculus has shifted: translations can bolster the bottom line while immeasurably enriching our literary landscape. In just a generation a staggering diversity of talent has blown the market wide open. Publishers view this evolution as a natural one, enhancing their programs with a more inclusive range of authors.

Michael Reynolds, the Australian editor-in-chief of Europa Editions who brought the dazzling Ferrante to our shores, is adamant that we’re not the rubes we think we are. As he told Oprah Daily: “My stump speech on translations include this disclaimer: the notion that American readers are resistant to foreign literature is not true.” Although a small press, Europa Editions cracked the commercial code in 2005 with the runaway success of Mariel Burbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which depicted lives entwined inside a Parisian apartment building. Reynolds ignored conventional publishing wisdom, and sales took off: “Even though it was a paperback original with French flaps, we never assumed we couldn’t get review coverage. We assumed we could. We sought out booksellers, their opinions, their goodwill.”

By cultivating relationships, particularly with independents who hand-sell to their customers, Europa Editions teed up Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend beautifully.

Andiamo! Riverhead Books—an imprint in the vast Penguin Random House empire, has seized the moment as well. Laura Perciasepe, senior editor, has built a stellar list–Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Samanta Schweblin, and Yu Miri, among them. “Any project that I publish is collaborative by nature,” Perciasepe notes, “with the author, translator, agent, foreign publishers, and with my Riverhead team of publicists, marketers, fellow editorial, and production folks.”

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux has been in the game for decades, connecting readers with works from Nobel laureates Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Elie Wiesel; but as Mitzi Angel, FSG’s publisher, observes, the venerable house is adapting to fresh promotional tools.

“I think social media has strengthened connections between translators, creating more solidarity and opportunity to share resources,” she says. “It’s also helped bring attention to a wider range of languages and to more writers outside the mainstream. And, of course, a writer with some English and social media savvy can be an excellent advocate for the work.”

Welcome to the roaring 2020’s. Despite the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, book sales are booming. Translations are in the ascendent, from iconic imprints like FSG and Grove to vigorous new start-ups, including Harper Via. “Too few editors are reading other languages,” Reynolds laments; but with the ongoing push to diversify ranks, publishing houses are incentivizing international literature. The world comes to us in myriad ways, and perhaps most essentially between covers, doors that open onto cultures we might never find in real time. These conversations have gone mainstream, with translation categories now offered by the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics’ Circle.

Without further ado, here are 21 sublime translations from the second half of 2021.