Translators in Literature

By Julia Medrado 

Several books and short stories have plots and characters that depict a little bit of what translators and interpreters do. Many authors have a chance to intimately dwell on the bitterness and joy of our profession. In addition to having close contact with translators during the editorial process, many authors are translators themselves. That is why we often see professionals like us being faithfully represented in their stories. It is so interesting for those who are trying to become translators, and a great source of entertainment for those who already work in the field. And that is why we have selected some books to help you understand a little bit better the universe of translations and translators.

 A Heart So White by Javier Marías
Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

 Juan is an interpreter and translator, like Luisa, with whom he has just got married. His job is to listen and tell, which almost becomes his obsession, a way of materializing what happens. However, should we always report on what we hear? Isn't it better to stay mum sometimes, keep it a secret so that the past doesn't come surfacing in the present?


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...


Bel Canto, originally written in English by Ann Patchett

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, this best-seller also made it to the Amazon's 2001 Best Books of the Year. Based on the Lima Crisis, the story explores how terrorists and hostages cope with living in a house together for several months. One of the protagonists is Gen Watanabe, an interpreter who is usually at the center of the action, since most of the multinational characters communicate through him.


Bestiario, by Julio Cortázar
Yet to be 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.


 Kornel Esti by Dezső 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.


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.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original story posted by Julia in Portuguese can be found here. If you have any other recommendations on books that depict the work of translators and interpreters, feel free to write to her at

JULIA MEDRADO graduated in Languages and Literature at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), majoring in English-Portuguese Translations. She also completed a Web Management course at SENAC and has been working with international communications since 2011. She is a translator, interpreter, and project manager at TRADSTAR, the company she founded in 2010.