Sales of translated fiction continue to rise and even A-listers can’t stop talking about their favourite titles. We’ve rounded up the International Booker-nominated books with the most famous of fans
‘Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature,’ said Nobel Laureate José Saramago, when awarded the prize in 1998. If anyone knew, the Portuguese author certainly did - after all, he cut his teeth translating before shifting his pen to create his own prize-winning works.
Translated fiction holds a unique - though historically overlooked place - in the publishing world, especially in the UK. But the power of translation to transcend borders is now piquing the interest of more and more readers. From Instagram stories to bookshop hauls, translated fiction is becoming increasingly popular among book lovers everywhere. And as sales continue to rise, it’s no surprise that novels translated into English are now making their way into the hands of celebrity readers, as well as ordinary book buyers. And who can blame them? For those looking for a window into other cultures, there’s no comparison.
So, to coincide with the announcement of the International Booker Prize 2023 longlist, which aims to encourage more reading of quality fiction from all over the world, we’ve rounded up seven novels - as recommended by their celebrity fans - to broaden your literary horizons.
When Norman Erikson Pasaribu wrote Happy Stories, Mostly, he did so inspired by ‘the time spent with queer friends laughing over our miseries and crying over our achievements’, he told The Booker Prizes when he was longlisted for the International Prize in March 2022. A collection of 12 genre-bending short stories, Happy Stories Mostly sets out to disrupt the heteronormative worldview by proudly putting queer and marginalised characters front and centre, in narratives we often see exclusively led by the binary. Translated by Tiffany Tsao, the bittersweet and melancholic collection of love and loss has been a hit with Instagrammers and the TikTok community and has since made its way into the TBR piles of some well-known actors. Anya Taylor-Joy of The Queen’s Gambit and Jenna Ortega of the recent Addams Family reboot, Wednesday, both shared their love of the book in recent Instagram posts.
Actor Chris Pine became one of Hollywood’s most unexpected book influencers when he was papped rummaging around in indie bookshops a decade ago. Since then, the internet has gone wild for his recommendations, with Tumblr pages dedicated to his book hauls. More recently, Pine picked up a copy of Flights - the winner of the International Prize in 2018 by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Jennifer Croft - in a London bookstore. Set across an astonishing 116 vignettes, Tokarczuk’s existentially rooted novel connects anatomy and travel, journeying through time while meditating on both life and death. ‘It’s super mosaic-y, and every time you start getting invested in one of these mosaic pieces, she kind of flips the subject’, Pine told Esquire when interviewed about his favourite books recently.
Chris Pine isn’t the only A-list actor who is a fan of Tokarczuk. Natalie Portman, of Leon and Black Swan fame, loves reading so much she has her own online bookclub on Instagram. One of her recent picks was Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2019. A sardonic look at Polish life, the novel is an unconventional murder mystery set against a bleak midwinter on the Czech Republic border which intersects with a searing manifesto for the natural world. Portman called the novel ‘fablelike’ and told fans she loves the way it ‘blends mystery, dark comedy, politics, and philosophy’. She went on to interview Tokarczuk where they spoke in detail about the novel, with Portman concluding she loved discussing the ways ‘humans are bonded’ to the environment Tokarczuk writes so passionately about.
‘I wanted to allow the reader to inhabit the mind of a young African man, to give them unfiltered access to his experience of war,’ David Diop told The Booker Prizes when he was longlisted for the 2021 International Prize. His harrowing depiction of two Sengalese soldiers fighting in the First World War, torn apart by the brutality they witness, is a hypnotic read that intersects the blood of the war with the legacy of colonialism. ‘Like nothing else in terms of tone and power, it is a blinding revelation, an incantatory work of kinship and terror,’ the judging panel said, shortly after they declared Diop’s novel that year’s winner. And they weren’t the only ones that loved it - the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was such a fan that he included it on his annual reading list that summer. You don’t get a much bigger stamp of approval than that.
When The Vegetarian won the International Booker Prize in 2016, it was the first time the award had been presented to a single work of fiction, rather than a body of work. Han’s South Korean set story takes readers to a suffocating community where the most ordinary of women subverts societal expectations by refusing to eat meat, after being plagued with blood-soaked visions of animal slaughter. This shocking rebellion against conformity sends her into a destructive spiral, with tragic consequences. Han’s book is spare yet unfaltering in its approach and leaves the reader with a distinct feeling of unease. Brie Larson - aka Captain Marvel, and a known book lover - recently recommended the novel to Stylist Magazine, where she called The Vegetarian ‘scary and sad, but also deeply tender. It made me question my autonomy, which is exactly what I look for in a book.’
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2016, The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet that traces the lives of two young girls across the decades. It’s a powerful portrait of female friendship set against Ferrante’s ever-present Italian backdrop, in the charming but at-times cruel Naples. Ferrante’s domestic dramas have brought her international acclaim, selling millions of copies worldwide, while garnering legions of devoted readers. Actor John Turturro, star of recent TV hit Severance and movies such as The Big Lebowski, is such a fan that he’s appeared on bookstore panels celebrating the author’s work. Even Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has spoken about her love for the novels on her podcast, calling the Quartet ‘just hypnotic’ and describing her reading experience as ‘totally engulfed in the people, the sounds, the sights, the feelings of being in the setting that the author so beautifully described’.
When Jon Fosse was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022 for A New Name: Septology VI-V, it was his second appearance on the list, having previously been longlisted two years earlier for the first book in his Septology trilogy. Written in Fosse’s trademark ‘slow prose’ and led by a stream-of-conscious narrative, A New Name: Septology VI-V is a deeply moving portrait of memory set in Fosse’s homeland of Norway that reflects on the meaning of life. Fosse is a prolific writer, with a body of work that spans novels, poetry, essays, plays and even children’s books, to international acclaim that saw Le Monde describe him as ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’. New Zealand’s singer-songwriter Lorde has been spotted referencing the author - after reading his most recent interview with The New Yorker article where Fosse spoke about his far-reaching body of work, she posted highlights on her Instagram stories to her 10 million followers.