Less than one-percent of international literature is translated into English every year, an abysmally low number by any account. Occasionally, a translated author breaks through with a bestselling hit, such as Elena Ferrante’s trilogy of Neapolitan novels. But those successes largely depend on media coverage: glowing reviews in the New York Times and Boston Globe, features in commercial magazines, Vogue and O. What about the many authors who might be fortunate to have their works translated into English, but who remain relatively unnoticed by the reading public—even by devotees of literary fiction? Even authors who write in English but reside out the United States struggle to obtain mainstream readership and name-recognition stateside as compared to within their home country.
I’m not sure when I decided to devote more of my reading time to discovering international authors. A few years ago I started to review books for literary magazines, and sometimes editors suggested titles or ARCs that had arrived in the office of say, the Kenyon Review, and offered them for assignment. Not only did I delight in discovering stunning masters of fiction—Kevin Barry is one, author of City of Bohane, set in a dystopian future Ireland—but I relished the distance reviewing books by authors abroad gave me. Like it or not, in the U.S., many fiction writers and reviewers belong to the same circle. Knowing that I had less of a chance of running into Barry at a reading or conference made writing an honest critique of his work a more liberating and enlivening endeavor.
Other international titles came to me by way of friends, such as the satirical novel Lovestar by Icelandic writer Andre Magnason; my ex-boyfriend met the author briefly and passed along a copy to me. The more I reviewed and met others who did, the more I received recommendations of international fiction writers to actively seek out. Critic John Domini’s reviews led me to read Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, but more importantly, two novels by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days and Visitation. Much acclaimed on the international literary scene, Erpenbeck is lesser known to the mainstream American reading public, certainly less so than the oft-spotlit Ferrante.
Delving into international literature inevitably leads you as a reader to become familiar with the presses bringing such stellar work to an English-speaking audience. Europa, New Directions, New American Press, Dalky Archive, and Restless Press all publish fiction in translation—presses I’ve come to keep my eye on, whose catalogues I eagerly devour as soon as they drop through my mail slot.
Such presses and their translators do a great service by taking risks and bringing much-deserved talent to a North American audience. Some authors, such as Kevin Barry, whose City of Bohane was first published in the U.S. by Graywolf, eventually make the leap to a major publisher and distribution (Barry’s recent Beatlebone was released by Doubleday), and hopefully, a wider audience. But most importantly, these presses, authors, and translators deserve your attention and support whether or not their authors ever get picked up by a Big 5 publisher. By exploring foreign authors you probably haven’t heard of, your literary landscape will grow more colorful and rewarding, treading imaginative terrain you’d never expect.