Book Box: Why read translations - Hindustan Times

Book Box: Why read translations

Sep 30, 2022 06:26 PM IST

From detective novels set in France, Italy, Russia and Japan, to a book club buffet, here are some gems to celebrate International Translation Day

When Jhumpa Lahiri was in kindergarten, she had to make a Mother’s Day card.

Translating Myself and Others.  PREMIUM
Translating Myself and Others. 

“Inside the card, we all had to hand write the same message: Dear Mom, Happy Mother’s Day”

This was a problem for the young Jhumpa Lahiri, one that was about, both writing and translation.

“My mother was not Mom, but Ma.

I was embarrassed to insert the Bengali term I used and knew her by - I was also reluctant to use the English term which sounded foreign to me, and would have certainly alienated, even offended her”, says Lahiri in Translating Myself and Others.

It’s a gem of a book, and makes me want to underline every second line – each essay is so beautifully articulated and profound.

Translating Myself and Others. 
Translating Myself and Others. 

Today is International Translation Day, celebrated to mark the birthday of St Jerome, the Bible translator, and the patron saint of all translators.

Thanks to translation, the act of one language transforming into another, our engagement with the world becomes at once, so much richer. We may

> Step away from our world and enter different realities.

> Explore cultures, history and geography from around the globe.

> See different methods of storytelling.

>Converse with the greatest minds in the world, even though we don’t speak their language.

For today, here are 5 detective stories from across the world – and also a book club buffet, a sampling of 8 books across genres and countries.

Detective Story 1 of 5: France

The Three Evangelists. 
The Three Evangelists. 

Three young historians buy a ramshackle house in Paris. When their opera singer neighbour disappears, the three, aided by an ex-policeman uncle, start to investigate. The Three Evangelists is quirky and strikingly different from any detective book I’ve read.

Detective Story 2 of 5: Italy

The Shape of Water. 
The Shape of Water. 

If you crave a change of mood from Scandinavian crime fiction, head south to the sun and sea of Sicily in The Shape of Water. Here, Inspector Salvo Montalbano investigates the death of a local politician, in the first of a detective series. Montalbano is droll and deprecatory, he makes fun of the government but he also takes on the mafia. Through this all, there is something very relaxed about the whole enterprise, with breaks for banter, sumptuous meals and siestas. Even the shootings and incidental murders have a laid-back feel to them!

Detective Story 3 of 5: Russia

The Winter Queen. 
The Winter Queen. 

Erast Fandorin is an energetic but naive young man, who is starting his career in the Moscow police. This minor functionary may be talented, but he succeeds mainly because fate seems to be on his side! The Winter Queen is set in the Russian Empire at the turn of the 19th century, it’s vivid and humorous too.

Detective Story 4 of 5: Japan

The Honjin Murders. 
The Honjin Murders. 

This famous Japanese detective series, first appeared in 1946, but took over 70 years to be translated into English. In The Honjin Murders, the first in the series, detective Kosuke Kindaichi must solve the gruesome death of a couple in a Japanese village, on the night of their wedding, in what is the famous ‘locked room mystery’. I was immediately drawn in, by the precision and spareness of the story. It was fascinating to hear the story from a narrator, who is a detective fiction fan and references famous stories in the genre.

Detective Story 4 of 5: India

The Adventures of Feluda. 
The Adventures of Feluda. 

I grew up reading about murders in vicarages and on misty moors- and so it was a special thrill to discover Feluda late in life, and follow him across Indian landscapes, in translations of books like The Golden Fortress and The Royal Bengal Mystery. Totally recommended.

At our book club we debate translations.

“You don’t know how much you lose“, says Ravi. He learnt Russian, when he was 18 years old, because he wanted to read Crime and Punishment in the original.

“The original version of A Man Called Ove feels completely different, more nuanced“, says Lina, who reads in both Swedish and English.

“Even the meaning of the title of the book — Pyre by Perumal Murugan, changes when you substitute the English word for the Tamil original”, observes Kay.

Yet every six months or so, we go back to another translation – a family story in Kannada, a horror story from Mexico, a romance from Japan, an emotional rollercoaster from South America.

Earlier this year, on World Book Day, Amazon announced a selection of stories from all over the world, available for free, on Kindle books.

Soon after, we divvy up this smorgasbord of stories, coming back in a month, with our reviews. Where the Desert meets the Sea set around the creation of Israel, is declared gripping. The Easy Life in Kamusari set in a forest in Japan, is voted the best.

World Book Day Offer from Amazon. 
World Book Day Offer from Amazon. 

With that, it’s a wrap for this week. Next week, I take you to Ashoka University, on the outskirts of Delhi, to examine how fiction can help economists, along with with fiction book recommendations from famous economists.

Until then, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

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