Looking for books with translators as protagonists

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Looking for books with translators as protagonists

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Dec 15, 2011, 7:15pm

I'm interested with titles out there of fiction (novels, or maybe stories) where the main character is a translator.

I could think of Javier Marías's A Heart So White and Your Face Tomorrow and César Aira's The Literary Conference.

Thanks for any suggestion.

Dec 15, 2011, 7:28pm

Translation is a Love Affair, itself a translation of La traduction est une histoire d'amour, by Jacques Poulin. Haven't read it myself but it's on the TBR.

Edited: Dec 15, 2011, 7:45pm

I haven't read it, but I think the main character in The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa becomes a translator.

Dec 16, 2011, 11:52am

If I remember well, the main character in La vita agra by Luciano Bianciardi is a translator.

Dec 16, 2011, 12:12pm

Do interpreters count? If so, Bel Canto.

Also, the main character in Barbara Wilson's Cassandra Reilly mysteries is a translator.

Dec 16, 2011, 1:04pm

Thanks for the suggestions so far! It's not a project by the way, but only a personal interest.

I posted the same question in Goodreads and was given the following links:



>5 lilithcat:

That will count. Thanks.

Dec 16, 2011, 1:20pm

Well there's Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones. I believe it was turned into a well-received film, that didn't bear a strong resemblance to the book.

Dec 16, 2011, 1:48pm

The Athenian Murders is a novel written by José Carlos Somoza in which the translator gets a little too close to his text.

Dec 16, 2011, 2:47pm


Good one!

Dec 16, 2011, 4:22pm

> 8

Oh, yes, I'd forgotten that one! It is such an intriguing book.

Jan 6, 2012, 3:24am

I compiled all the suggestions and posted the list in my blog. I reproduce it below.

The list collects works of fiction featuring translators or interpreters as major or minor characters. They are limited to books written in English or available in English translation.


Leila Aboulela – The Translator
César Aira – The Literary Conference; La Princesa Primavera (untranslated)
Brian Aldiss – The Interpreter, aka Bow Down to Nul (science fiction)
Paul Auster – The Book of Illusions
Amadou Hampâté Bâ – The Fortunes of Wangrin
Ingeborg Bachmann – Three Paths to the Lake (see the story “Word for Word”)
L. Frank Baum – The Marvelous Land of Oz (see the 7th chapter, “His Majesty the Scarecrow”)
Luciano Bianciardi – La Vita Agra (It’s a Hard Life)
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly
William F. Buckely Jr. – Nuremberg: The Reckoning
Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
Cervantes – Don Quixote
Susan Choi – The Foreign Student
John Crowley – The Translator
Dicey Deere – The Irish Manor House Murder
Samuel R. Delany – Babel-17 (science fiction)
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
Sarah Dunant – Transgressions
Francesca Duranti – House on Moon Lake
Suzette Haden Elgin – Native Tongue; The Judas Rose (science fiction)
Sheila Finch – Guild of Xenolinguists (science fiction)
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything Is Illuminated
Brian Friel – Translations (play)
Anna Gavalda – Someone I Loved
Suzanne Glass – The Interpreter
Peter Handke – The Left-Handed Woman
Todd Hasak-Lowy – The Task of This Translator
Donald A. Herron – The Misadventures of Interpreter Sam
Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker
Sheri Holman – A Stolen Tongue (historical fiction)
Nancy Horan – Loving Frank
Uwe Johnson – Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
Susanna Jones – The Earthquake Bird (thriller)
Ward Just – The Translator
Suki Kim – The Interpreter
India Knight – Don’t You Want Me
Dezső Kosztolányi – Kornél Esti
Ahmadou Kourouma – Monnew
Julia Kristeva – Possessions
Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies (see titular story)
Wally Lamb – I Know This Much Is True
John le Carré – The Mission Song
Gwyneth Lewis – Keeping Mum (poetry)
David Lodge – Small World
Peter Manseau – Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
Javier Marías – All Souls; Dark Back of Time; Bad Nature; A Heart So White; Your Face Tomorrow (3 vols.)
Harry Mathews – The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium; The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (see “The Dialect of the Tribe” and “Remarks of the Scholar Graduate”)
Pascal Mercier – Night Train to Lisbon
Anne Michaels – Fugitive Pieces
Andrew Miller – Oxygen
Nicole Mones – Lost in Translation
Robert Moss – The Interpreter (historical fiction)
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net
Joyce Carol Oates – The Tattooed Girl
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
Matthew Pearl – The Dante Club
Jacques Poulin – Translation Is a Love Affair
Piers Paul Read – A Season in the West
Arno Schmidt – Bottom’s Dream (upcoming)
Carol Shields – Unless
José Carlos Somoza – The Athenian Murders
James Thurber – The Thurber Carnival (see “The Black Magic of Barney Haller” and “What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?”)
Rose Tremain – The Way I Found Her
Ludmila Ulitskaya – Daniel Stein, Interpreter
Mario Vargas Llosa – The Bad Girl
Paolo Volponi – Last Act in Urbino
Peter Waterhouse – Language Death Night Outside: Poem. Novel
Barbara Wilson – Cassandra Reilly Mystery series
Jeannete Winterson – Written on the Body
A. B. Yehoshua – The Liberated Bride
Banana Yoshimoto – NP

ProZ.com WikiProZ.com; Brave New Words; Biblit; Conference on Fictional Translators in Literature and Film - Vienna, 2011

Jan 6, 2012, 1:57pm

Cool! Thanks so much.

Nov 5, 2012, 11:13pm

The Missing Shade of Blue - Jennie Erdal

Nov 6, 2012, 7:02am

#8 Seconding (thirding? fourthing?) The Athenian Murders - such an amazing book!

Nov 6, 2012, 10:37am

- 13

Thanks for that suggestion, michel.


I read that this year and I agree.

The updated reading list can be found in my blog.

Nov 8, 2012, 6:56pm

You're welcome. Are you a translator too?

Nov 8, 2012, 9:51pm

I am, but I'm just starting.

Dec 21, 2012, 3:38pm

I would add: Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, which is one of my favorite books, and De beste blant oss (The best among us) by Helene Uri. It features a linguist as a main character, but I guess it could count as well.

Dec 21, 2012, 5:02pm

The Harry MacDonald whose name I use as my nom de LT is a translator. Read about his adventures in my HARMONY JUNCTION (copyright 2009). Peace to all, -- Goddard

Feb 5, 2013, 2:50pm

Wonderful to find all these fantastic suggestions

Feb 17, 2013, 9:39am

The Mission Song by John LeCarre. Granted, the hero is an interpreter in this case.

Feb 17, 2013, 11:01am

It's already in the list (message #11). Bruno Salvador (Salvo), the hero, makes the distinction too.

Never mistake, please, your mere translator for your top interpreter. An interpreter is a translator, true, but not the other way round. A translator can be anyone with half a language skill and a dictionary and a desk to sit at while he burns the midnight oil: pensioned-off Polish cavalry officers, underpaid overseas students, minicab drivers, part-time waiters and supply teachers, and anyone else who is prepared to sell his soul for seventy quid a thousand. He has nothing in common with the simultaneous interpreter sweating it out through six hours of complex negotiations. Your top interpreter has to think as fast as a numbers boy in a coloured jacket buying financial futures. Better sometimes if he doesn't think at all, but orders the spinning cogs on both sides of his head to mesh together, then sits back and waits to see what pours out of his mouth.

Feb 17, 2013, 11:49am

22: Ah, I see. Apologies for the double-post, it's been a while since I've visited this discussion thread.

Where would one place Joseph Smith, since he allegedly translated the Book of Mormon from "Reformed Egyptian"? I add this to widen the circle from the basic garden variety novel.

Feb 17, 2013, 2:34pm

> 23. Joseph Smith isn't a character in the Book of Mormon, so he wouldn't be considered its protagonist. '

Smith does appear as a character in some historical fiction, like Pillar of Light by Gerald N. Lund, but I don't think he's the protagonist.

Feb 17, 2013, 2:54pm

I can't believe that I forgot this. In Anatole France's incomparable LA ROTISSERIE DE LA REINE PEDAUQUE -- translated into English variously as THE QUEEN PEDAUQUE, or AT THE SIGN OF THE QUEEN PEDAUQUE -- the central figures, Monsieur l'Abbe Jerome Coignard and his student Jacques Tournebroche, are employed by the mad Gascon Monsieur d'Astarac to translate the aesotric texts of Zosimus the Panapolitan.

Feb 17, 2013, 9:26pm

- 23, 24

Thanks for the suggestions.

It looks like there are debates surrounding the "reformed Egyptian" language.


Thanks for the suggestion, Harry,

Feb 19, 2013, 9:14am

26: But is "reformed Egyptian" even a real language? Or is it closer to Klingon, a constructed language?

Feb 21, 2013, 9:08pm

- 27

Depends on the reader, I guess.

Feb 21, 2013, 9:51pm

#27: Not even. The general consensus is that the 7 lines of Anthon Transcript that are what we have of so-called "reformed Egyptians" aren't even a real script, just doodlings, much less being a real language, or even a non-constructed real language.

Feb 25, 2013, 2:40pm

While I agree in theory with your premise, I also have to disagree.

I am both an interpreter AND a translator. True, an interpreter has to think on one's feet and quickly and pray that the translation is as close to the intent as possible in a short time.

However, a translator has more time to think and savor how a book or document should be written.

Edited: Feb 25, 2013, 6:06pm

Great point, Caralj. I assume you are referring to message 22. I quoted the long passage from Le Carré's novel. Not my premise.