Books We Want to See Translated into English
By Oisin Harris, Kate Williams and Toby Smollett
In our previous issue, we looked at three recently translated novels that had caught our eye. However, for every book that receives an English translation, there are many more which sadly do not. We have therefore entered the worlds of Welsh and French literature to highlight three novels that we feel merit being translated into English, in the hope that one day they will receive the translation they deserve.
La Porte Du Voyage Sans Retour (or The Door of the Journey of No Return). Written in French by David Diop and published by Seuil in August 2021.
This past March, Diop’s first novel to be translated into English, At Night All Blood Is Black, was published by Pushkin Press. This visceral novel dissected the savagery of WWI and how it ravaged the hearts and minds of the Senegalese soldiers that colonial France used as cannon fodder. Its honesty and brutal lyricism saw the novel win the 2021 International Booker Prize.
« La porte du voyage sans retour » is the sinister nickname of the Gorée isle, from which millions of Africans were taken during the slave trade. It’s in this place in 1750 that a young French man arrives, having come to Senegal to study its botany. This young, idealistic botanist dreams of establishing a sort of Humboldtian universal encyclopaedia of life in the Age of Enlightenment. However, he gets wind of the story of a young African woman destined for the slave market, who apparently has managed to evade her captors, having sought refuge deep within the Senegalese interior. Their voyages and fates kilter toward one another as he obstinately tries to track down this lost woman, who has left behind her whispers of legend.
Inspired by the real historical figure of French naturalist Michel Adanson, (1727-1806), Diop has written a great novel that powerfully evokes a kingdom where speech is king and where these two souls fall in love and lose each other, where a rich heritage travels from father to daughter and where secret notebooks illuminate this transgressively beautiful journey.
Safana. Written in Welsh by Jerry Hunter and published by Y Lolfa in June 2021.
Safana is a historical novel written by the Welsh-American author, Jerry Hunter. Born in Ohio, Hunter is now a professor of Welsh and Celtic Studies at Bangor University and his novels often reflect these two aspects of his identity. One of his previous novels, Y Fro Dywyll, has already been translated into English as Dark Territory. Safana is another novel that draws connections between both sides of the Atlantic and I believe it also deserves to be translated into English.
The book is set in late 18th century Georgia and is based on real historical events and people from that period, such as George Whitefield, an evangelical preacher from Gloucester and defender of slavery. He justified his involvement in the slave trade by arguing that it was necessary for the economic development of America and that being a slaveholder himself provided him with enough money to maintain the orphanage that he set up in Savannah. This is where we meet the novel’s main character, Grasi, an orphan favoured by Whitefield for her extraordinary magical abilities: she can speak multiple languages and can change her physical appearance to morph into any age or gender. We follow Grasi’s story as she begins using her skills to work as a spy for the Savannah Council when she realises the true source of Whitefield’s income, as she aims to fight back against slave owners and to ultimately confront Whitefield himself. Safana tackles dark and often ignored aspects of American history head-on by drawing on real historical events to reimagine the past.
La vie est un roman. Written in French by Guillaume Musso and published by Calmann-Lévy in May 2020.
Guillaume Musso was arguably the definitive French lockdown writer and his most recent novel, La vie est un roman, follows on from an earlier work, La vie secrète des écrivains, in writing about writers. Musso has long been recognised as one of the most prominent living French authors and many of his works have already been translated into English, including Afterwards, which was also adapted into a film starring John Malkovich and Evangeline Lilly. Since publishing his first novel twenty years ago, Musso has become the master of the psychological thriller and his most recent work is the apex of his career thus far.
La vie est un roman focuses on two characters on either side of the Atlantic: Flora Conway, a 39-year-old novelist living in New York who has recently won the Franz Kafka award, and Romain Ozorski, a best-selling French author based in Paris. The setting of New York is a familiar one for any Musso reader and his intimate knowledge of the city sets it up perfectly for a translation into the English language.
The novel begins with the disappearance of Conway’s young daughter, Carrie, and this traumatic event eventually causes the worlds of Conway and Ozorski to collide. The story that develops from this is gripping enough to make this a worthwhile read; however, the questions that Musso asks about the nature of authorship and fiction merit a deeper reading too. This is an author’s self-portrait, filled to the brim with references to and quotes from his favourite authors – Musso’s ideas have never been more fully realised.