Books that have translators as characters

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Note: This article was inspired by the forum post entitled "Translators as characters in fiction books", posted by Rafaela Lemos in March of 2008. Please feel free to add books that you know, with a description. All translators are invited to contribute freely.

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This article is intended as a place to list books that include translators as characters.

Books that include translators as characters

  • Jellia Jamb is a character in L. Frank Baum's Oz books. She is the head of all the maids in the palace in the Emerald City, but in book 2, The Marvelous Land of Oz, she is summoned to act as translator between Jack Pumpkinhead and the Scarecrow, who became the ruler of Oz after Dorothy and the Wizard left. Her translations turn Jack's word into insults. Jellia Jamb's stint as translator is a brief, but funny look at the role of the translator. Not bad considering it was published in 1904! The book is in public domain and available online at Project Gutenberg for a free download. The translation scene occurs in Chapter 7, 'His Majesty the Scarecrow,' which begins on page 17. This link [1] will take you directly to the Project Gutenberg page where you can download the eBook.
  • The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
  • A Heart So White by Javier Marías. - Maria-Venetia Kyritsi
  • La vita agra (It's a hard life) by Luciano Bianciardi. "Contains some funny descriptions of the protagonist's job as an English-Italian translator." Mattia Doneda
  • Je l'aimais by Anna Gavalda - Mariela Gonzalez Nagel
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. "The main character Raskolnikov sometimes worked as a translator when he wasn't mugging old ladies." - Joan Berglund
  • Digital Fortress: A Thriller by Dan Brown. "... an adventure story in which the two heroes are a cryptographer and a foreign language professor. The plot's a bit silly, but it's a page-turner." - Steven Capsuto
  • The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones. "Eerie thriller set in Japan featuring a JP>EN translator... def. worth reading if you like thrillers" - Giuliana d'Orazi Flavoni
  • Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch (science fiction)
  • House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti "This novel came out in the early 90s in Italy and has been translated into English - and published twice - in the US. It is a wonderful novel and I recommend it for its atmosphere and sensitivity to the profession - the main character is translating a mysterious old masterpiece, if I remember correctly." - Alison Anderson
  • The Interpreter by Brian Aldiss (US title: Bow Down to Nul)
  • The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Jellia Jamb, head of all the maids in the Emerald city. In The Marvelous Land of Oz, the Scarecrow, then ruler of Oz, asks her to act as an interpreter between him and the Gillikin Jack Pumpkinhead, who does not realize that all Ozites speak the same language, so Jellia "translates" Jack's words as insults.
  • The Mission Song by John Le Carre
  • The Translator by John Crowley
  • The Translator by Leila Aboulela
  • The Translator by Ward Just
  • The Translator: A Memoir by Daoud Hari. "... a native Darfuri translator who, after escaping the massacre of his village by the genocidal Janjaweed, returned to work with reporters and UN investigators in the riskiest of situations."
  • Transgressions by Sarah Dunant. "Thriller in which the main character is translating a Czech novel into English." - Robert Tucker
  • Les nègres du traducteur by Claude Bleton. "Interesting debut novel by a renowned Spanish-French literary translator." - Tommaso Benzi
  • Gaudi Afternoon; German title: Ein Nachmittag mit Gaudí by Barbara Wilson. Die reiselustige Übersetzerin Cassandra Reilly wird zwischen und bei ihren Aufträgen immer wieder in Kriminalfälle verwickelt, bei denen sie den Part des Detektivs übernimmt. Nicht nur kriminelle, sondern auch Genderrätsel gilt es aufzuklären... Mehrere Titel, davon der erste: Ein Nachmittag mit Gaudí, aus dem Engl. übersetzt und Anfang der 1990er in Deutschland bei Ariadne erschienen...
  • Travesuras de la niña mala by Mario Vargas Llosa. Ricardo, one of the main characters, kind of stumbles into the profession, but ends up having an interesting and rich career...
  • Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany. A science fiction classic. Rydra Wong, poetess, spaceship captain, cryptographer and polyglot, must decipher the alien language, Babel-17, before its speakers can annihilate civilisation. An intelligent examination of how language affects the way we think and view the world.
  • The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain. A teenage boy spends a hot summer in Paris while his mother translates a novel by the glamorous Russian Valentina. - Beth Fowler
  • Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore ([2]), Italo Calvino, 1979. A post-modern masterpiece of self-reflexivity featuring the mischievous translator Ermes Marana. - Caroline Williamson
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This novel builds a bridge between fiction and a real situation that took place in an embassy in a country in South America, and one of the main characters is an interpreter, Gen, always referred to in the reviews and in parts of the book as the translator. He is the real heroe for me, working under the stress of being a hostage in the embassy, falling in love, working with more than a language pair and he never complains or mentions the extra hours that he should be charging the client- Aida Gonzalez Del Alamo
  • Unless [3] by Carol Shields. "The novel is narrated in first person by 44-year old writer and translator, Reta Winters". - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Les Amandes amères by Laurence Cossé. Book in French. An interpreter and translator, Edith, wants to teach her Moroccan home-help how to read and write. "Découvrant que Fadila ne sait li lire ni écrire, Édith entrevoit à quel point la vie est compliquée pour un analphabète et combien c'est humiliant. Elle lui propose de lui apprendre à lire le français. Fadila n'est pas jeune. Édith n'est pas entraînée. L'apprentissage s'avère difficile. Ce qui semblait acquis un jour est oublié la semaine suivante". - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Mensonges by Valérie Zenatti. Book in French. The translator of Aharon Appelfeld pretends to be him. "Un livre où le destin de l'écrivain et celui de sa traductrice ne cessent de se croiser et de se répondre". - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Assommons les pauvres! by Shumona Sinha. Book in French. Written by an interpreter who worked for the OFPRA (French office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons). "Une femme gagne sa vie comme interprète auprès des demandeurs d’asile, dans les bureaux semi opaques des zones périphériques de la ville. ... Ce récit se lit comme une succession de tableaux et de scènes, qui fouillent aussi bien les consciences qu’ils peignent la violence du monde.". - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • La traduction est une histoire d'amour by Jacques Poulin. Book in French, set in Quebec. Originally from Ireland, Marine is a translator working on a novel written by Jack Waterman. She ends up meeting him, they beome friends, and he finds her somewhere to live: a chalet on l'Île d'Orléans. One day they discover a black cat, and together they start looking for the cat's owner, who might need help. - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. Book originally in Dutch, translated by David Colmer. Winner of the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel follows Emilie, a translation professor and Emily Dickinson scholar, who retreats from her life in the Netherlands to an isolated farm house in Wales following an affair with a student.- Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • The Missing Shade Of Blue by Jennie Erdal. Lonely Parisian-raised translator Edgar Logan arrives in Edinburgh to study the Enlightenment sage David Hume; once there his life becomes entangled with those of Harry and Carrie, a self-destructive philosopher and his artist wife. - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • The Past by Alan Pauls, translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor. This book is about a translator who works on movie subtitles and as a conference interpreter. His 12-year relationship with his girlfriend comes to an end and, after some time and a few important events in his life, he starts to suffer from amnesia and language issues: he ends up forgetting the languages he used to work with, which is the nightmare of all translators. It also became a movie in the late 2000s, starred by Gael García Bernal and directed by Hector Babenco. - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Bad Girl: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman. This novel is inspired by autobiographical events. Young Ricardo has only two ambitions in life: loving bad girls and living in Paris. He moves to the capital of France, where he works as a translator and interpreter at UNESCO. His muse will come in the shape of different women: an amateur revolutionary in 1960s Paris and Havana, the wife of a British millionaire in 1970s London, the lover of a Japanese mob boss... - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Bestiario by Julio Cortazar, (not yet translated into English). This is a relevant book with eight short stories by the surrealist author from Argentina. One of this stories, Carta a una señorita en Paris , is about a man who is house-sitting in Buenos Aires for a friend who is in Paris. He writes to his friend to tell her that he has been puking little bunnies, which is one of the reasons why he is late in completing a translation of French author André Gide's book.. - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Kornél Esti by Dezso Kosztolányi, translated from Hungarian by Bernard Adams. Kosztolányi is one of the most prominent authors from Hungary. In 1933, he released a series of short stories whose protagonist is his most famous character, Kornél Esti―sort of the author's alter ego. Some of this stories gave shape to the "The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti," a celebrated Hungarian movie from the mid-1990s. Different editions of the book received different names, depending on the short story editors decided to highlight. There is a Spanish edition called Kornel Esti: un heroe de su tiempo ("A Hero of His Time"), the Italian version is titled Le mirabolanti avventure di Kornél ("Kornél's Marvelous Adventures"), and in Brazil it became O tradutor cleptomaníaco ("The Kleptomaniac Translator"), based on the fact that the translator is stealing elements from the original text, such as jewelry, money, chandelier.... It's a metaphor for the fact that there always seems to be something lost or "stolen" in translation―even though the vast majority of translators do not suffer from kleptomania. - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • The Translator: A Novel by Nina Schuyler. "When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work. Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family". - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy. A romantic mistake at the American college where he used to teach has cost Harry Ricks his job and marriage and so he flees to Paris where he ends up having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. He meets beautiful and mysterious Margit, a Hungarian translator, but soon their passionate relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events. Margit is not all she seems to be, and Harry finds himself in a nightmare from which there is no easy escape. - Catharine Cellier-Smart
  • Pinball,1973 by Haruki Murakami, translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum. This novel published in 1980 is the second book of the author's 'Trilogy of the Rat' series. The plot centers on the nameless first-person narrator's brief but intense obsession with pinball, his life as a freelance translator, and his later efforts to reunite with the old pinball machine that he used to play. - Catharine Cellier-Smart

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