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Much of publishing revolves around the United States, or specifically, New York City, thanks to cultural hegemony. Because of that, books by international publishers in different languages, or even books in English but published elsewhere, rarely get to land in Americans’ laps. They instead sit languishing on some dusty foreign shelves, archived in InDesign files, never to be seen by many.
Fortunately, book translation helps ensure that books are made available in North America, with U.S. publishers acquiring books from foreign publishers on a regular basis. In my faraway country in Southeast Asia, some locally established authors made their recent U.S. debuts. Other international authors from other countries also made their English-language debuts, as evidenced by my scouring of Publishers Weekly’s fiction reviews.
The process of book translation typically goes like this: local publishers sell U.S. or English-language rights to their U.S. counterparts. U.S. publishers dress the new book with a new cover and often hire new translators and writers of the front matter such as preface and introduction. As a result, these “old” books feel like new again in the U.S.
Here are some of the best English-language and U.S. debuts published recently. These books are a gateway to discovering new authors, especially those from other countries that don’t get enough spotlight in the U.S. publishing scene.
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa, translated by Eric Ozawa
First published in Japan in 2009, the book follows Takako and her uncle on a summer-long sojourn in a bookshop.
After her boyfriend dumps her, Takako’s unsure of what she wants to do with her life until she receives an invitation from her uncle, Satoru, who owns a used bookstore in Tokyo. For the meantime, she works there until she figures out what she wants to do next. Takako’s not a big reader, but after taking the job, she discovers her profound love of reading.
Along the way, she finds out that her uncle is in a similar romantic situation. His relationship with his wife is on the rocks, and Takako helps her uncle and aunt to save their failing marriage.
Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao
This is a collection of 12 short stories focusing on LGBT characters. Because it’s by an Indonesian author, it offers unique perspectives from people from Indonesia, where English is not widely spoken.
The majority of the stories revolve around family or religion. They are also in a variety of genres, including metafiction, post-apocalyptic, and poetry, but the LGBT characters and the Indonesian perspectives tie them all together.
Happy Stories, Mostly was first published in Indonesia in 2020, and its UK edition was nominated for the International Booker Prize in 2022.
Stay This Day and Night with Me by Belén Gopegui, translated by Mark Schafer
The premise is somewhat timely in the age of generative artificial intelligence in publishing. The book follows Olga, a mathematician, and Mateo, a college student, as they make an effort to infiltrate Google and change its AI policies. Along the way, though, they fall in love.
Stay This Day and Night with Me, first published as Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo in Spain in 2017, delves into some profound questions about the value of human creativity in the age of AI-generated content.
Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol
Set in an authoritarian Philippines under dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, this follows Sol, an upper-class young woman who joins a guerrilla movement. She falls for Jed, one of the resistance’s leaders.
First published in the Philippines in 2010, the book is full of historical context about the U.S. and its relationship with the Asian country.
Chinatown by Thuận, translated by Nguyen An Lý
Set in Paris, the novel, first published in Vietnam in 2005, follows a Vietnamese woman and the memories she struggles to forget. When an unknown bag is discovered in the Paris Métro, prompting authorities to think it contains a bomb, the Vietnamese woman suddenly reflects on her past, particularly the time when she married a man who didn’t have her parents’ support.
This all happened after the Sino-Vietnamese War, and she hasn’t seen him in over 11 years since he abandoned her. She had left all of these memories behind in Vietnam.
The Blunder by Mutt-Lon, translated by Amy B. Reid
Originally published as Les 700 aveugles de Bafia in France in 2020, the story is inspired by the Sleeping Sickness phenomenon in Cameroon in the 20th century. Eugène, a doctor, goes there to curb the pandemic, but his vaccine blinds everyone instead. Then, he’s accused by the natives of purposely doing that to them, and as a result of his negligence, some warfare ensues.
Another doctor, Damienne, arrives to treat both the malady and the uproar caused by it.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot
First published in Japan in 2017, the book features a café in Tokyo that allows customers to travel back in time. It’s divided into four stories about four people who all have the same dilemma: they want to go back in time for one last time to see their loved ones.
Everything is possible in this café. The catch is that customers must return to the present time before their cup of coffee gets cold.
Dawn by Sevgi Soysal, translated by Maureen Freely
Dawn, first published in Turkey in 1975, is an autobiographical novel by Turkish feminist Sevgi Soysal. In her country of Türkiye, women’s rights are unstable.
A journalist who has previously been imprisoned for being obscene, among other things, is temporarily free and goes to a friend’s house for a party. However, police suddenly conduct a raid and arrest all of them, sending her back to prison. In this novel, she describes her experiences inside her prison cell and her interactions with her fellow inmates.
To show that the U.S. is sometimes missing out on many gems, here are some books that aren’t popular or even unknown in the U.S. but are well-received in other countries.