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Historical Fiction In Translation

By Jane Bentham, Lucy Clark and Megha Alam

 

Explore diverse histories and cultures with this selection of must-read historical fiction novels in translation. 

 

The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, translated from French by Sam Taylor

 

From the bestselling author of Lullaby, The Country Of Others is the first novel of a trilogy set in France and Morocco during the forties and fifties. Taking inspiration from Slimani’s own family history, the story follows Mathilde, a Frenchwoman who marries Amine, a Moroccan soldier, and moves to his home country. In her new life, Mathilde is shunned by the French community and is forced to deal with an increasingly volatile husband. The tensions between French and Moroccan cultures are further explored through Mathilde’s and Amine’s daughter, Aisha, whose mixed race identity leads her to become isolated from her peers. 

 

This is a powerful read that tackles race, class and belonging set against the backdrop of the Moroccan resistance towards French colonialism. 

 

The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from Korean by Anton Hur

 

The Court Dancer is set in the political turmoil of late 19th century Korea, where the empires of China and Japan are vying for control of the peninsula. This true story follows Yi Jin, an orphan who is looked after by Queen Min and becomes a dancer in the Korean court. When a visiting French legate falls in love with Jin and asks for her hand in marriage, she is swept away by promises of an exciting life in Paris. Although she embraces the rich literary landscape of France, Jin is a constant witness to the racism and orientalism of the Western world. Cultures and political powers clash in this poignant novel that centres around the protagonist’s undying love for her homeland. 


Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky


In a grand house by a lake in Brandenburg, outside of Berlin, people come and go.

Isolated in the woods, the house itself is the central character and stands as a constant through periods of change, upheaval and conflict. The reader is taken on a journey through the Weimar Republic, the Second World War, the Socialist German Democratic Republic and the eventual reunification of Germany as twelve people seek shelter in this house. Each person that stays at this house for a time tells a story of German life throughout this period in history, from the Jewish family who are forced to sell the property in the thirties while they wait for visas out of the Third Reich, to the Russian troops that requisition the house following the Second World War. From the architect who, under the GDR, has to flee for having done illegal business with the West, to the returning exiles from Siberia who reclaim the house. This novel tells the story of the things that haunt a home that was built to be beautiful.


This historical novel was published by UK independent publisher Portobello, which has also published several others of Erpenbeck’s novels.


The Tale of the Missing Man by Manzoor Ahtesham, translated from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark


This novel follows Zamir Ahmed Kahn as he suffers an identity crisis on both a personal and political scale in the wake of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Zamir has felt adrift since his wife abandoned him and now struggles with a mix of alienation, guilt and anxiety. Moreover, he feels stuck in his hometown of Bhopal and in his memories, and yet this turns out to be a playful novel.


Journeying through Bhopal in the sixties through to the early nineties, this novel explores a time that is rarely depicted in Indian literature. This makes it an even more fascinating read because it is a unique telling of events that divided people, events that are still relevant and relatable in the world today.


The Holy Sail by Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi


In the midst of the tumultuous 15th century, amid wars, invasions and religious fervour, Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, a Qatari journalist, unveils a poignant narrative in The Holy Sail. This tale follows the journey of a fifteen-year-old girl who falls in love with an Arabian tribal leader against a backdrop of political upheaval. While portraying a classic love story, Al-Mahmoud delves deeper, chronicling the Portuguese colonisation of the Gulf states, driven by the quest for spice trade dominance, and the resulting conflict and devastation. From the streets of Lisbon to the bustling cities of Cairo, Jeddah and Istanbul, Al-Mahmoud masterfully intertwines history and emotion, inviting readers on a captivating journey through love and war.


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