Read the World: 8 New Environmental Books in Translation

Diversify your reading list with critically acclaimed new releases

By Allison Braden

May 11, 2022


Photo by egal/iStock

“I am sick of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean,” wrote David Gessner in 2005’s aptly titled Sick of Nature. The nature writer (and Sierra contributor) was bemoaning the pious, preaching-to-the-choir tendency of his genre. “If nature writing is to prove worthy of a new, more noble name, it must become less genteel and it must expand considerably,” he argued. “It’s time to take down the ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Time for a radical cross-pollination of genres.”

International environmental writing boldly trespasses and cross-pollinates various cultures’ experiences and ideas of the natural world. Translation scholars have debated for centuries whether it’s possible to perfectly transfer language and meaning from one cultural context to another; the jury’s forever out, but translators, in any case, persist. Their art requires creativity and empathy and turns an “impossible” task into an opportunity for community and understanding. Our global crises demand the same. But translation—and its verbal counterpart, interpreting—isn’t just symbolic. It’s increasingly vital for organizing across borders and solving species-level problems. 

Diversify your reading list with these recent works from around the world. Books in translation challenge readers with alternate perspectives and unfamiliar settings, but they ultimately underscore that, from our crises to our joys, we’re not much different at all.

Winter Pasture, by Li Juan, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan

Essayist Li Juan and her mother run a small store in northwestern China’s Xinjiang province, where they cater to Kazakh herders. She opts to accompany a group of them one winter as they drive their livestock across a sparse, punishing landscape. Named one of The Washington Post’s best travel books of 2021, her insightful narrative—an intellectual adventure story—not only invites readers into one of the world’s most remote areas but also explores Chinese identities and fundamental questions of how best to live. 

The Ardent Swarm, by Yamen Manai, translated by Lara Vergnaud

Like George Orwell does in Animal Farm, Tunisian author Yamen Manai leans on the lives of animals in this powerful political parable. Beekeeper Sidi is devastated when hornets invade his hives and massacre his bees. He sets out from his village—a setting strongly informed by Manai’s native Tunisia—to seek answers throughout North Africa, and discovers a region changed by revolution but still in the powerful grip of tradition. Politics and nature intertwine in this eloquent and intelligent fable, released in February 2021, of globalization and the potential harms and redemptive power of human connection.

Animal Biographies: Toward a History of Individuals, by Éric Baratay, translated by Lindsay Turner 

Modestine the donkey. Warrior the horse. Islero the bull. Éric Baratay, a French professor of contemporary history, uses pioneering methods to narrate the lives of real-life animals from the 19th and 20th centuries. The author of several scholarly works of animal history, Baratay takes an approach that shakes off the traditional anthropocentrism and relies on primary sources to put animals at the center of their own stories. Set for release this August, Animal Biographies challenges conceptions of the scope and value of nonhuman lives. 

On Time and Water, by Andri Snær Magnason, translated by Lytton Smith 

Climate narratives have caught flak for failing to grip the imagination and incite action. Icelandic intellectual Andri Snær Magnason initially resisted the subject because he lacked technical expertise, but On Time and Water demonstrates the power of nonscientists to communicate the crisis. He draws on interviews, science, literature, and “mythological language” in a series of reflections centered on water. In an excerpt Sierra published last summer, Magnason explores the “fire and ice” of Icelandic glaciers with his trademark blend of personal histories, approachable science, and lyrical language. Amid a heap of books about the climate emergency, Magnason’s literary approach manages to break new ground and make an emotional impact.

False Calm: A Journey Through the Ghost Towns of Patagonia, by María Sonia Cristoff, translated by Katherine Silver  

From sea captain Robert FitzRoy to travel writer Bruce Chatwin, Patagonia’s vast expanse has long held a tight grip on the explorer’s imagination. Born in Trelew, in Argentine Patagonia, María Sonia Cristoff pivots from the windswept landscape to its people, particularly in towns hollowed out by the oil industry’s boom and bust. In works that blend elements of fiction and nonfiction, she has developed a reputation for exploring the act of exploration itself and investigating the interface between animals and people, isolation and metropolis. In this 2018 book, her first to be translated into English, she reinvents Chatwin’s travelogue-reportage hybrid with the empathy and perspective that come from calling the place home. 

The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon, by Fábio Zuker, translated by Ezra Fitz 

Often in the news but rarely understood, the Amazon rainforest is a complex mosaic at the epicenter of the climate catastrophe. Brazilian journalist and anthropologist Fábio Zuker’s essays explore the beating heart behind “Earth’s lung,” from Indigenous communities and migrants in Manaus to the titular whale, who perished in 2007 after a heroic effort to guide her out of the Amazon’s labyrinth. Zuker’s interviews in this book, set for release in June, evince the tension between tradition and capitalism, and echo his ongoing doctoral research, which focuses on the environmental devastation of the Tapajós River and Indigenous politics and worldviews.

When I Sing, Mountains Dance, by Irene Solà, translated by Mara Faye Lethem 

Catalan writer Irene Solà’s second novel is an unconventional family portrait. These interlaced stories, released in March, incorporate perspectives from plants and animals to make a compelling case that the history of a people is indistinguishable from the history of their place. Her close observation pivots to the future too, and questions of our complicity in environmental destruction linger throughout. Topics that range from the planetary crisis to suppressed trauma and the Spanish Civil War suggest a heavy read, but the novel’s diverse characters—from dogs to witches—make for a humorous, lighthearted, and ultimately moving experience.  

American Delirium, by Betina González, translated by Heather Cleary

Award-winning Argentine writer Betina González spent time in Texas for her MFA, then went on to the University of Pittsburgh for her Ph.D. Though she now lives and teaches in Buenos Aires, she set American Delirium, her first book to be translated into English, in the Midwest. There, in a small town in the near future, the deer have gone rabid, and society and nature begin to run off the rails. Centered on three curious and offbeat characters, the novel, released in February 2021, makes an incisive critique of a collapsing culture. Translator Heather Cleary skillfully renders the trio of distinct and overlapping voices, and through the plot’s mayhem, offers US readers a sobering glance at ourselves.