The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer

Synopsis:

26633749For more than a decade, the “Complete Review” has been an essential site for readers interested in learning about new books in translation and developments in global literature. Expanding upon the site’s content, this wide-ranging yet user-friendly resource is the perfect guide for English-language readers eager to explore fiction from around the world. Profiling hundreds of titles and authors from 1945 to today, with an emphasis on fiction published in the past two decades, this reference provides a fascinating portal into the styles, trends, and genres of the world’s literatures, from Scandinavian crime thrillers and cutting-edge works in China to Latin American narco-fiction and award-winning French novels.

Review:

Orthorfer has read the world so you don’t have to.

No, wait, that’s not true.  He’s read the world so he can guide you through each region and country, pointing out the most important and interesting literary landmarks.  He’s a master at it, making The Complete Review Guide readable both in chunks as mood dictates or straight through, as I devoured it.

However you decide to read be sure to start with the introduction.  It lays out why there is so little translated literature in the US, the state of world literature today, and what to look out for when picking up a translation.  I knew to be wary of a book that doesn’t have the translator’s name featured on the cover but Orthofer adds,

A red flag to look out for is the translation copyright in the name of the publisher, rather than that of the translator, which indicates that the translation was a work for hire, thus giving the translator no rights regarding the presentation of the text.

That’s scary, especially as he goes on to talk about how translations are edited and sections, or even half the text, may be cut.  Good to know.

Once you’ve read the intro dip in to whatever region or country captures your fancy.  Each starts with an overview of the literary scene, both domestic and translated, and how events have shaped it over time.  I found it fascinating that  globalization can lead to originally English language books entering a country, stifling the native language writers already there.

The most important authors get several paragraphs outlining their life and their titles available in English.  Other authors get a few sentences each about their most influential or representative works.  Orthofer comes across as a wise guide, pointing you towards the best while not being afraid to warn about a clunker.  And he has a way of making a book irresistible in a single sentence:

Jang Eun-Lin’s (b.1976) No One Writes Back (2009, English 2013) is a well-crafted and moving road novel that slowly reveals itself to be more than it initially seems.

Sold!

I especially appreciate the effort he makes to include writers outside of the mainstream.  If a country has a lot of expat authors writing in English he makes sure to include some that have been translated from native languages.  Women are woefully underrepresented in translations in general but he points out many, both those concentrating on the female experience and not.  Most of the books are literary fiction but crime, mystery, science fiction, and other genres get some well-deserved love.

Orthofer hints at novels that aren’t translated yet but may be in the future, combining hope and a plea to the universe to make the translation of such worthy fiction happen. And the reference section is a gold mine of websites and books about literature in translation.  My feed reader became more interesting overnight.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is an easy recommendation to anyone that’s trying to diversify their reading.  But I’d also recommend to people that are in a reading rut, have an interest in a particular part of the world, or simply want to try something different.  Going on a trip to Spain?  Want to read something from Brazil in time for the Olympics?  Orthofer has you covered.  This book instantly earned a spot on my reference shelf and I look forward to revisiting it in the years ahead.

Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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