There are particular characteristics of books translated from their native language into a more widely used one like English. The following books are a list of many literary gems that were fortunately translated to English. Reading these books is a small way to get into the different worlds of China, Japan, Thailand, and Korea. I have selected only a few of the countries because I am still reading and being introduced to newer books in this area.
This piece highlights prominent contemporary writers in world literature like Hakuri Murakami. At the same time, it does not delve into writers from the past.
We have to remember that a lot of expertise is needed for literary translation. Some books have a subtle layer of the writer's world embedded in them which get translated by different people, sometimes a non-native translator. Literary translation is a different way of communicating and takes mastery of communication with features dealing with the source material's literal and poetic senses.
Also, it will have several artistic components from the translator. It will be difficult or impossible to say which part of a book is a literary translation and which part is modified to mirror the text's original essence. But both of these require mastery. In my discussion, I will put forth excellent translations by notable translators Jay Rubin, Deborah Smith, and Mui Poopoksakul.
A very simple anecdote regarding complexities of translation is how certain people refer to a person by his son or daughter's name. In many parts of Asia, this scenario is quite common. People don't use someone's title as Mr Yang or Mr Singh to address them, instead call them using phrases such as Cheng's father or Rahul's mother. To capture subtleties in translation like this requires knowledge of the writer's society, which is more probable when the translator knows where the scenes are placed.
This list is made up of books from Japan, China and South Korea translated into English. Even though notable writers from these countries also write in English because it is a popular second language and Asia's countries have many literary cultures, I want to highlight books published in the native language which have been translated into English.
Literary Books to introduce Japan:
Haruki Murakami is a famous contemporary Japanese writer. His work has been described as being easy to understand but profoundly complex at the same time. Western music and literature heavily influence Murakami's novels. Most of his works are translated into English by Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel and others. His well-known books include Norwegian Wood, 1Q84; After Dark Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
Haruki Murakami is regarded as an icon in postmodern English literature. His work reflects on the peculiar journey of the Japanese modern and contemporary age. There are subtleties in his writings that show alienation and certain human values; even though some may argue that the values discussed in his books are universal, not just Japanese. However, it is still a great way to get a glimpse into the lives of Japanese characters as well as their struggles and journeys.
Ryu Murakami is another great contemporary Japanese writer most known for his psychological thrillers. The writer uses a description of Japan's urban life while exploring the essence of human life through the concepts of horror, drug use, surrealism, crime, and war. His most notable works are Audition, Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup.
His first book Almost Transparent Blue which went on to receive critical acclaim and Japanese National awards is the best example of his writing skills. As a student, he wrote Almost Transparent Blue, which shows young Japanese adults living their lives recklessly as outcasts. Filled with alienation from the outside Japanese world, the characters indulge in drugs, orgies and vandalism. His latter books like Audition which later was adapted into a film revolves around a filmmaker who auditions his future wife, but unknowingly does not know exactly who she is. Ryu Murakami's books are the best way to see the dark side of urban Japan, its extinguished hopes, alienation, loneliness, carnal desires and substance abuse.
Osamu Dazai is regarded as one of the greatest Japanese writers of all time. He is most notable for his works after the World War Two which includes his magnum opus-No Longer Human. Several of the best works are considered modern-day classics in Japan.
Osamu Dazai was one of the greatest fiction writers in modern-day Japan in the 20th century. The Japanese audience favourably received his works in the early modern era. His prolific talent is sometimes overshadowed by all of the unfortunate events that happened in his life. Osamu Dazai's books about life are sometimes eerily similar. He was born to an upper-class Japanese family but he didn't live up to their expectations. By the time he was an adult, he tries to commit a double suicide with a bar hostess. He survived the incident while the girl had died. Later he became a heavy drinker. His books sometimes remind the reader that the plots are semi-autobiographical.
No Longer, Human is sometimes seen as The Catcher in the Rye of the east. The book follows Oba who sees himself as a shameless human who must act like a clown in front of others to like him. He does not understand other people; however, he seems to draw people like him into his life, which causes everyone misfortunes.
Books in the introduction to China
Yu Hua is a prominent Chinese avant-garde writer; he shows the working-class Chinese's struggle through postmodernism.
His novels are mostly set in small towns during historical times in China, including under Chairman Mao, the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution and post Mao capitalist China. His works are heavily influenced by the Cultural Revolution and its impact on the middle and working class. His characters struggle with childhood and come of age. This writer depicts brutality, abuse and death in gruesome and explicit ways to create satire and tragedy.
Yu Hua is most notable for To Live. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and Brothers.
One of his most notable books To Live is about the loss of wealth through gambling and the impact of Cultural Revolution. He describes a landlord's fall to a peasant; while bringing up humour and other sentiments during the civil war, Cultural Revolution, as well as things such as family meaning.
Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, is best known for his realistic novels such as Change and Red Sorghum. Mo was given the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. Mo Yan's works are intertwined with social criticism. He is deeply inspired by traditional Chinese literature. This writer also advocates for the reading of world literature or literature in translation.
One of his acclaimed works Red Sorghum Clan is a non-chronological novel about the 1923-1976 generation of a Shandong family. The author deals with Chinese history from the Japanese invaders' point of view, delving deep into periods such as the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Communist Revolution of 1949 and the Cultural Revolution.
Mo Yan's ability to portray traditionalist values in almost a surreal style parallels China's rapid modernisation. The works of Mo Yan are historical epic novels with elements of black humour and hallucinatory realism. Despite the influence of various ideologies, the constancy of human avarice and corruption is the central topic in Mo Yan's works. He satirises the socialist realism by putting workers and bureaucrats in absurd situations with brilliant, complex and often graphically violent pictures.
Wang was born into an intellectual family in Beijing. He was sent to a farm in Yunnan province as an "intellectual youth" at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. During the Cultural Revolution, many young youths from the city were sent to the rural and remote areas to "relearn" life.
Wang Xiaobo became famous for his writings after his death. He wrote about people's lives and love for sex and intimacy. Many would argue his writing style contains uncommon insights. His prose doesn't sacrifice its literary or stylistic flavour even though they feature ordinary people.
He is also known for his insightful essays, which are a must if one wants to understand modern-day Chinese society. His translated works include Wang in Love and Bondage while is well-known essays include The Silent Majority. His essays are a great way to glimpse into the world of politics in China. Even though only a few of his works are translated, he remains a great literary figure in China.
A lot of people were first drawn to his books for their outrageous representations of sex. The title of the critical essay "The Silent Majority" bears references to Wang's experience with China's Communist Party. The writer uses a bottom-up approach to philosophy. The adventures of Maoist politics profoundly impacted his thought.
Literary Books to introduce South Korea:
Kim Young-Ha is seen as the voice of young Koreans. Kim Young-ha kicked off his writing career with the first novel that won him the much-coveted Munhak-dongne prize in 1995. Also, he gained a reputation for his unique style that would determine him as a prolific writer.
Kim's work focuses on a new insight into the experiences regarding life's thrill and terror. He is most notable for I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Diary of a Murderer.
I Have the Right to Kill Myself is a snapshot of Seoul during the mid-90s. The novel revolves around the everyday and ordinary life of a group of young people in the city. We are introduced to an odd narrator, two brothers C and K and a woman named Judith. Judith rebounds between two brothers, C and K. She is seen as the epitome of independence. Yet, Judith is not completely happy, who along with the narrator seeks ways to solve all her problems
Cho Nam-Joo is best known for her book Kim Ji Young 1982. The author used to be a screenwriter and wrote this semi-autobiographical book that would cause shockwaves in Korea and be an icon for the #MeToo movement. Kim Ji Young 1982 became shortlisted for the US National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2020. The author is most notable for showcasing Korean society's extreme pressures and expectations for women in her book.
The novel Kim Ji Young 1982 is about an average woman of 30-years old who tries to balance working and family life. In the book, the mother apologises to her mother-in-law for giving birth to a female. As Ji-young goes to school, gets a career, gets married and has a daughter, she is marginalised at each point of her life due to her gender. Some people regarded the novel as one of the best feminist books in Korean literature, but others slammed it for "aggravating sentiments".
Han Kang is another prolific writer from Korea. Her most Notable works are Vegetarian, Human Acts, and The White Book. Her stories are real-life and tend to delve into the human psyche. Korean society can be seen as conservative and traditional with predetermined roles for male and female. Hang Kang uses her words to give voice to women who are prominent in her novels and poems. She breaks the idea that we all have to live up by using society's predetermined scale.
The Vegetarian, which has been critically acclaimed and translated by Deborah Smith, looks at a woman who stops eating meat. The Vegetarian does not hide the characters' emotions; instead, the book's tone is straightforward yet sombre.
When the husband and wife are apart, their relationship turns negative. The readers are just getting a glimpse of the thoughts she is constantly amassing. The plot expands from her refusing to eat any kind of meat, refusing to wear a bra, then refusing to let her husband have sexual intercourse with her, and later refusing to eat her husband's home-cooked meal.
These events happen in chapter one. The plot includes Yeong Hye's (the protagonist) sister-in-law and her brother-in-law and their exciting relationship as well. The last and third part of the book describes the sister's view as she takes care of Yeong Hye in an institution when she falls ill.