20 Must-Read Queer Books in Translation from Around the World
At the beginning of 2020, I set out to read more books in translation. My goal was to read 20 translated books, around 10% of my total reading for the year. But once I discovered what I had been missing — once I began to delve into lists of books in translation, especially women in translation — I soon found that I had opened a floodgate. I dove farther, and the more I uncovered, the more I discovered.
I found lists and guides, and friends and followers began sending me recommendations. By the end of 2020, a full 20% of my reading was books in translation. And I wasn’t at all finished: my to-read list of books in translation had grown exponentially. Which, truly, was fantastic: it means I’d carry this goal of reading books in translation long into the years to come.
This list focuses in particular on queer books in translation: whether that mean novels that feature a queer protagonist, novels that focus on queerness, or both. My main restriction as I searched, unfortunately, was simply availability. There is already a limited amount of queer literature in some countries due to censorship, fear, homophobia, and laws against homosexuality. Add onto that the small ratio of books that are translated into English each year, and consider how many of those translations will be queer literature, and then consider how many volumes are still in print, and availability even of those translated works of queer lit can be low. I found many gems that were on backorder or unavailable.
But I persevered, because I wanted to find a global list of must-read queer books in translation. I wanted to discover queer literature from all around the world, written in languages different from my own — from Marathi to French to Icelandic. I have read every book on this list, and worked hard to make a list that will allow us as readers to hear from queer authors all around the world.
Homophobia is a common content warning for many of these books, and so I have not listed it individually for each one. Please note that while I took great care to list content warnings, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Please do additional research on the recommended titles if needed.
Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar, Translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto
Translated from its original Marathi, this book features a brother and sister in Pune, India, who both fall for the art student renting a room from their family. Tanay struggles as a gay man in India, while Anuja wants to break free of gender expectations and norms. The novel is split between them. They both feel repressed, suffering in their respective roles and relationships with the art student, and the novel is a quick read centered around longing and difference.
Content warnings for issues of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, Translated by Victoria Cribb
Sjón, a novelist, poet, and longtime collaborator with Björk, authors this trippy Icelandic novel about a gay teen and cinephile in Reykjavík in the moment when the Spanish flu begins to sweep over the city. The writing is surreal and twisting, and goes by quickly; young Máni’s narrative sweeps through the pages, as he tries to survive the global pandemic and rising paranoia while also exploring his queer identity and ensuring the well-being of the grandmother who adopted him years ago.
Content warnings for issues of homophobic language, laws, and violence.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, Translated by the Author
I recommend not reading the blurb on the back of Amatka by Karin Tidbeck: the story, with Tidbeck’s superb prose, will unravel better that way, as will the subtleties of their world. We open with Vanja, a woman on her way to do market research in the colony of Amatka. She lives in a grim dystopia of sorts, where every item must be “marked” often, or named, to keep it what it is: you must call your desk a desk, your suitcase a suitcase, to ensure it remains that way. Glimmers of how this world came to be peek through the cracks as Vanja falls for housemate Nina and makes tentative friends with retired doctor Ulla and the local librarian. It’s a spectacular work of speculative fiction reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s work, and I devoured it in a day.
Content warnings for reproductive restriction, suppression, depression, suicide.
Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong, Translated by Scott E. Myers
Pseudonymous Bei Tong first published the erotic love story Beijing Comrades online. Since then, there have been various published versions — some edited, some with the erotic details suppressed. Scott E. Myers has taken these versions and combined them, then translated them into English. It’s a remarkable story in which an arrogant playboy businessman falls for a working-class student named Lan Yu, and slowly confronts his internalized homophobia, sexism, and fear. Beijing Comrades not only portrays a same-sex relationship in China in the late 1980s, as well as explicit sex scenes, but is also rare for writing directly about the Tian’anmen Square protests and government repression. It is emotional, sexy, and engrossing.
Content warnings for violence, homophobic repression and language, internalized homophobia, sudden death, and grief.
We All Loved Cowboys by Carol Bensimon, Translated by Beth Fowler
In Bensimon’s lyrical story, Cora and Julia, two old friends, finally go off on the road trip they dreamt up as young twentysomethings — back before their falling out. When they were still hooking up, that is. As they drive from town to town in Brazil, they have to figure what they’re seeking in each other and from their adventures, before reserved, quiet Julia heads back to Canada and bisexual fashion student Cora heads back to Paris. This vivid road trip novel translated from Portuguese is a fantastic coming-of-age story soaked through with nostalgia, longing, rebellion, and the uncertainty of being young and being uncertain of what you want.
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen, Translated by Anna Halager
This novel by young female author Korneliussen was originally published in 2014 in Danish and in Greenlandic, an Eskimo-Aleut language with about 57,000 speakers, mostly Greenlandic Inuit people in Greenland. Emotionally blunt and utilizing text messages and letters to make its points, Last Night in Nuuk provides a glimpse into the complicated emotions and interconnected quandaries of five young queer Greenlandic protagonists. The story of Ivik, who struggles with touch aversion she can’t seem to explain, is particularly compelling.
Content warnings for alcoholism, homophobia, someone publicly outed, mention of parental sexual abuse, difficult coming out stories, depression, and gender dysphoria.
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, Translated by Michael Lucey
A young boy struggles amidst a whirl of homophobia, poverty, and toxic masculinity in a small French town: coming of age constantly bullied for being gay, Eddy is determined to prove, somehow, that he too is a “tough guy,” a boy growing into a man worthy of respect according to the gender roles prescribed. Eddy’s story speaks powerfully to the cycles of poverty, to the way it has eroded at his family and at the people who live elsewhere in town.
Content warnings for homophobic violence and language, internalized homophobia, racist language, parental and domestic abuse, animal cruelty, and ableism.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, Translated from French by Tina Kover
This epic family saga, intermixed with Iranian history, is told from the point of view of Kimiâ, a sapphic woman in the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic. It is an autobiographical novel, and features a version of Djavadi’s own story of growing up as the child of intellectuals who opposed the Shah and Khomeini’s regimes, and of her family’s escape from Iran. It is an artful, sweeping tale, narrated by a queer, punk rock–loving protagonist who is hoping to become a parent.
Content warnings for violence, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.
Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener, Translated by Jessica Powell
This blunt, darkly humorous book about pregnancy and its peculiarities, physicality, and anxieties, is by Gabriela Wiener, a Peruvian writer who in her afterword discusses being in a polyamorous relationship, and the experience she had with her child coming out as trans nonbinary (she also reflects there on the absurd focus she had as a pregnant mother on gender). This book was a vividly honest and snarky take on pregnancy that seems too rare, unafraid to mess with the awful parts, the way every decision becomes exaggerated in importance. It engages with the physical symptoms from hormonal spikes to feeling sick, as well as the misinformation and the lack of real information to prepare women for what they’re about to go through.
Content warnings for excessive focus on gender binary, later corrected in afterword.
Fair Play by Tove Jansson, Translated by Thomas Teal
Early in her career, the bio of Tove Jansson said she lived alone. But this wasn’t the case. Jansson, best known as creator and illustrator of the Moomins, had a lifelong sapphic partnership with Tuulikki Pietilä, a graphic artist. The two of them lived for many years in neighboring buildings connected by an attic, just like the protagonists of Fair Play, and would spend summers at an island home. In a series of vignettes, this book describes the close relationship of Mia and Jonna, revealing a quiet but tremendous love story in which each gives the other the space and independence they need, about how they understand each other’s idiosyncrasies, about the quiet ways they argue and make peace. Meanwhile, all in these short tales, the book plays with the ideas of art, creation, and process in fascinating ways.
Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard, Translated by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
Mauve Desert is itself about translation: it first presents the story to be translated, then gives us Maude Laures and her attempt to capture the book and its characters, its themes and landscapes, and their true meanings, as she looks to complete our final chapter: the translated work. The novel-within-this-novel is about a young queer girl bursting to be free, in love with the desert and its horizon. It is a postmodernist twisting strange novel by Brossard, a feminist author based in Montreal, Quebec. Mauve Desert was first published in 1987.
Lie with Me by Philippe Besson, Translated by Molly Ringwald
When the protagonist stumbles on a young man who looks just like his first love, he is pushed back into his own memories, recalling his secretive, hidden affair with a boy named Thomas. While they fall for each other, Thomas continues to be withdrawn, certain that someday Philippe will leave him and their French town behind. There is a devastating lyricism to Besson’s writing. This is a book of longing, grief, and the pain of staying hidden.
Content warnings for homophobic language and suicide.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Bonnie Huie
Qiu Miaojin has become a countercultural queer icon in Taiwan following her loss to suicide at the age of 26. Her strange, twisting novel Notes of a Crocodile was published after her death. It depicts a lesbian named Lazi struggling with her sapphic relationships — she tends to both fall hard and also maintain fierce distance — and forming a circle of strange, floundering queer friends. There is a deep sadness in this book, but it stands alongside satiric vignettes of “the crocodile,” a figure who wears human skin and who the media is obsessed with finding and exposing.
Content warnings for violence, abuse, suicidal thoughts and actions, self-harm.
Infidels by Abdellah Taïa, Translated by Alison Strayer
Abellah Taïa made history when he came out in Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal, and he has tried, in his literature and interviews, to show how Islamic faith and homosexuality can coexist. In this novel, Taïa writes of young Jallal, the son of a prostitute in Salé, Morocco, and his coming-of-age and eventual radicalization leading to his entry into global terror. Jallal’s mother is a strong woman of faith who idolizes Marilyn Monroe. The book is epic yet short, Taïa’s writing lyrical and vivid. Taïa roots his book in love and shares a small glimpse of the way that anger and the concepts of brotherhood can be warped into radicalization, revealing the complex humanity behind terrorism and extremism.
Content warnings for rape, torture, radicalization.
The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong, Translated by Kristen Gehrman
In Amsterdam in the years leading up to the Nazi occupation, Bea and Erica become roommates after a chance encounter at the house of a mutual friend named Wies. As they delicately split the space and Bea grows used to Erica’s habits, she begins to grow ever closer to her impulsive, often careless roommate. But when she realizes that Erica is interested in women, she has an internal crisis about her feelings for Bea that she struggles to grapple with. This short book about two complex sapphic women and their often strained relationship was first published in 1954, and recently underwent a new translation into English from its original Dutch.
Content warnings for antisemitism and Nazism.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana, Translated by Achy Abejas
In this strange, twisting novel, former sex worker Acilde is working as a maid in order to save up for Rainbow Brite, a drug that will change his sex and allow him to transition into a man. But he doesn’t realize that he is at the core of a strange Santería prophecy that puts him in a position to save the climate disaster–ridden world. This book switches between the Dominican Republic in several different eras, and can be confusing at times, but overall is a trippy tale of one person’s determination to save the oceans and its reefs and life.
Strong content warnings for sexual violence, rape, and abuse, as well as homophobic and racist language.
Amora: Stories by Natalia Borges Polesso, Translated by Julia Sanches
Natalia Borges Polesso is a rising Brazilian writer who deserves to be on all your lists. This newly translated collection features 33 short stories capturing a wide variety of stories all about women who love women — women longing after women, loving women, missing women, grieving women, dealing with their identity of loving women, discovering family members who are gay. I was enchanted with these tales at every turn, from “Como Te Extraño, Clara,” about a woman sleeping with a woman behind her husband’s back; to “Flor,” about a young girl who is told by her mother that the neighbor has a strange disease; to “Catch the Heart Red-Handed,” which mixes the protagonist’s heart trouble with the surges of passion.
Content warnings for suicide, overdose, homophobic language, self-harm, BDSM, a person being outed.
Sphinx by Anne Garréta, Translated by Emma Ramadan
Anne Garréta is part of the Oulipo, a French workshop that experiments with language to stretch what it can do (such as the novel that never once used the letter “E”). In this short book, Garréta — and her translator — take on the challenge of writing a book that never uses pronouns for its protagonist or the lover. It’s a powerful experiment that argues that gender neutrality is certainly possible, even in gendered languages. And the novel itself is compelling, telling the story of a DJ in love with a dancer, and centering this tale in a world of clubbing, music, and parties that is both freeing and isolating, addictive and pulsing.
Content warnings for death, and racism from side characters.
The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, Translated by Sophie Hughes
Felipe and Iquela live in the aftermath of Chile’s dictatorship, burdened with their parents’ trauma, heavy with the weight of what came before them, damaged by their parents’ insistence that they hold it within them — and desperate to shake it off. Paloma, a childhood friend and crush of Iquela, comes back to Santiago to bury her mother, but when her mother’s body is lost in transit, the three of them set out to Mendoza to try and find it. The Remainder is a compelling book about pain, history, and generational trauma. Felipe is obsessed with numbers, possessed with a fanatical desperation to make them balance, between the missing and unaccounted for bodies of the dictatorship and the ones dying, being disinterred, being discovered or named. Iquela and Paloma are trapped in the grip of their mothers and their mothers’ stories of militant resistance. This novel was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.
Content warnings for animal cruelty, self-harm, reckless drug use.
The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, Translated by David Bowles
This cult vampire novel became available for the first time in English translation thanks to an IndieGoGo campaign led by Innsmouth Free Press, a micro-press owned and operated by World Fantasy Award–winning author Silvia Moreno-García. Originally published in 1998, The Route of Ice & Salt is the story of the ship that carried Dracula to England, told from the point of view of the ship’s captain. Zárate writes a gothic novel that features classic gothic horror, queer desire and its repression, musing on the ways that the labeling and destroying of monsters can be applied to the real-world horrors of homophobia and persecution.
Content warning: homophobic violence, body horror, gothic horror, self-harm, suicide, internalized homophobia, sexual assault.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, Translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
This short read is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English. It features Okomo, a teen girl living in the controlling rule of her grandmother and the expectations of Fang cultural norms. Drawn into a gang of “indecent” girls, Okomo begins to discover a different world that includes her “man-woman” uncle Marcelo — a world of queerness, nonconformity, and open-mindedness.
Content warnings for sexual assault and corrective rape.
For more books in translation, check out the In Translation archives! To find more LGBTQ books, try the LGBTQ category.