Expand your literary horizons with these 10 books in translation

Expand your literary horizons with these 10 books in translation

It’s called “the 3% problem.” 3% of books published in the United States were originally written in another language. (In France, that number is 27%, in Spain it’s 28%, Turkey 40%.) If you’re a U.S. reader, that is a teeny tiny piece of the pie!

That’s why the second category for the 2017 Reading Challenge—for those of you who want to stretch yourself this year—is “a book in translation.” This means any book that wasn’t originally written in your native language.

Why read books in translation? My friend put it well when she quipped, “I’m stuck in my head, I read to escape my own head, and my head happens to be an American head.”

Fiction—and to a lesser extent, nonfiction—helps us empathize with and understand other people and cultures. When we read only books written in our own language, we miss out.

When we only read our native language, we also miss out on so many great books! Contemporary stuff, of course, but also many of the classics: so many of the greats are only available to English speakers in translation. (Unless you happen to know French and Russian and Chinese. If that’s the case, I salute you.)

Series: A Book in Translation
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author:
Kondo is a Japanese personal tidying expert (she doesn’t like to call herself an “organizer”). She originally wrote her decluttering manifesto to help the Japanese clients languishing on her waiting list. The publishers weren't sure if the book would translate across cultures, but it's become a global publishing phenomenon—so much so that now it's been parodied many times. Not all translations are good translations, but this one has been praised for preserving the quirkiness of her voice. More of thoughts on the book itself here) Translated by Cathy Hirano. More info →
The Time in Between

The Time in Between

Author:
Fashion, romance, and … espionage. If you loved Casablanca, try this novel set during the Spanish civil war. Sira Quiroga works her way from dressmaker’s assistant to a premier couturier, putting her in contact with the wealthy and powerful. When the British government asks her to spy for them as World War II gears up, she agrees, stitching secret messages into the hems of dresses. Translated from the Spanish, and the dialogue is a little bumpy in places, but the story is worth it. Is it perfect? No way. But engrossing? Definitely. Translated by Daniel Hahn. More info →
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Author:
This international bestseller was originally published in Sweden in 2009. It's drawn comparisons to Forrest Gump, because the 100-year-old man of the title finds himself involved in key political moments throughout the course of his long life. It's not to everyone's taste, but those who do often call it "clever," "quirky," and "un-put-down-able." (For what it's worth, I enjoyed it.) Translated by Rod Bradbury. More info →
The Little Prince

The Little Prince

This beloved tale (originally published in 1940) is the most translated book in the French language. This story works on several levels—children's tale, coming-of-age story, spiritual journey, allegory—which may be why it appeals to both children and adults. (The charming illustrations don't hurt, either.) Whimsical and wise, with just the right amount of absurdity. Translated by Richard Howard. More info →
Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Author:
“Happy families are all alike;” begins this classic novel, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Fun fact: William Faulkner called this novel “the best ever written.” I know many readers agree with my assessment: this wasn't an easy read, but I'm so glad I read it. Numerous translations exist; if I had to choose one I'd go with Constance Garnett's, if only because Maggie Gyllenhaal does the corresponding Audible narration. (All 35 hours of it!) More info →
A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove

Author:
I couldn't get into this as a hardcover but then a friend with great taste suggested I give the audio a try. I started again from the beginning, and this time this grumpy old man story hooked me. The narrators' accents—especially for Ove—are fantastic. I laughed and cried and couldn't stop listening. But do yourself a favor: don't even think about finishing this novel in a public place, and think about removing your mascara first. Translated by Henning Koch, who translates all of Backman's full-length novels. More info →
My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1)

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1)

Author:
I picked this up from my local bookstore's "blind date with a book" shelf: the bookseller had described it as "a masterpiece you probably haven’t read yet. Rich, intense, beautiful." This is the first installment (published in 2011) of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. The quartet revolves around the friendship between Elena and Lila; My Brilliant Friend begins when the girls are in first grade and carries them through adolescence. Thought-provoking, beautifully written, realistic enough to be quite difficult in places. Heads up: it's not an easy read, and has gotten enough hype that unrealistic expectations are a real danger. But readers who love this LOVE IT. Beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein. More info →
Crime & Punishment

Crime & Punishment

I don't like to throw the word "should" when it comes to reading, but everyone should at least consider reading this classic-for-a-reason. You could read it every year for the rest of your life and discover something new every time. Translations abound; mine is by David McDuff. More info →
The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind

This is the only book on this list I haven't read yet, and I'm including it here because it's my personal pick for this category. As numerous gushing readers have told me: it's a book about books, a mystery, a love letter to literature, a beautifully written masterpiece, a work worthy of a lifetime favorite list. The plot description reminds me of personal favorites The Thirteenth Tale and The Distant Hours. Translated by Lucia Graves. More info →
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author:
Would you believe this is the only Murakami I've read? (SO FAR: feel free to tell me what to read next in comments.) If you want your nonfiction to make a linear argument, this is not for you: these are the collected musings Murakami jotted down over an 18-month period many moons ago, when he sold his jazz bar to write full-time. If you like the sound of your philosophical friend waxing poetic about running, writing, and life for 200 pages, read this now. (I'm in the latter camp.) Fun fact: the title is a riff on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; Rob Bell continued the theme with his What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Translated by Philip Gabriel. More info →

This list of just 10 titles will get you thinking, but there are literally thousands of titles to choose from. Share your favorites you’ve already read or the books in translation you’re planning on reading this year in comments. The more the merrier!

P.S. Get more details on the Reading Challenge, or sign up to get your free downloadable Reading Challenge Kit. Want more reading ideas? View the MMD Book List archives right here.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someonePrint this page

118 comments

  1. Molly says:

    I LOVE Shadow of the Wind! This was a book I picked up from the bargain table at the book store that turned out to be amazing. I’ve only read it once because my copy got lost in a move, but I find myself thinking about it quite a bit. I really need to buy another copy and reread it. Enjoy the mystery of it!

    • Jennifer Dade says:

      The Shadow of the Wind is one of my favorite books ever! Have you read the prequel? Not quite as good, but still still a remarkable read if you loved Shadow.

  2. Pingback: Ghiwa Luet
  3. Jennie says:

    I’m reading Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. I found it at a used bookstore and bought it because the title and cover spoke to me. When you announced the “in translation” category, I went looking for it on my “to read” shelf. I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Tory says:

    I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple of years ago, because I like running, and it was interesting but made me think I probably wouldn’t care for Murakami’s fiction. Fast Forward – my husband bought me The Wind Up Bird Chronicle for Christmas and I’ve been trudging through it ever since. It’s really strange – the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie. I’ll have to see how it all ends before I decide if it was worth it, but I’m doubtful I’ll be reaching for any of his other books any time soon.

  5. Chenay says:

    The Shadow of the Wind is wonderful! I honestly picked it up at my used book store just because I liked the cover. It was a wonderful surprise.

  6. Katie says:

    How funny; I was going to suggest a Murakami novel for this category, then saw the last book was WITAWITAR. I’m reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World right now and it is weird but wonderful. The dual-setting structure is interesting and the whole thing is just very…Japanese. Which is exactly the point of reading books in translation!

  7. Katia says:

    I love the photo of the idyllic street in Rothenburg o.d. Tauber. My husband and I visited the town 8.5 years ago and fell in love with it immediately. 🙂 As for the books, I love Anna Karenina, the Little Price (currently reading it with my eldest at bedtime), and A Man Called Ove. Thank you for this list. I have added new-to-me titles to my ‘to read’ list.

  8. Mark Wonderful says:

    February 23, 2017 AND I just ordered ‘A Man Called Ove’ from Better World Books. For an unknown reason books translated from ‘Scandinavian’ put me in a dream state while reading. Maybe it’s the 50% Finn blood in my veins. And besides ‘Ove’s’ description pretty much is the description of me…

  9. Bill says:

    I read ‘A Man Called Ove’ and the “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy plus 1 last year. And since I haven’t read a “classic” in a while. I’ve decided to try ‘Don Quixote’. I’ve made in through the 64 pages of Introduction, translator’s notes, note on text, chronology and Prologue and now I’m ready to begin Chapter 1. Woo Hoo! Wish me luck! See ya in a few months,… or more.

  10. julie b says:

    I just finished “A Man Called Ove” and absolutely loved this book although a bit concerned the main character was a curmudgeon (loved the hero’s journey back to life). “Shadow of the Wind” is one of my top 10 books. I had the good fortune to meet the author at a local bookstore which led to the charm and loved it so much I bought the audio version which was outstanding (it’s one of those books to can listen to time and time again….like West with the Night). “The 100 year old Man” was a delight! I’m currently reading Marie Kondo and love that it is challenging me to think about “things” differently.

  11. Ginny says:

    I just finished reading The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain. It’s French, set in Paris, and a really good, fairly short read.

  12. HilaryT says:

    Just finished “The Shadow of the Wind” – it is wonderful! I loved every bit of it. What a great story teller.

    And “A Man Called Ove” was one of my favorite reads from last year!

  13. Barbara Wilkes says:

    You must include The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery–one of my favorite books of all times. The writing is so beautiful and the story is wonderful. I have read most of the ones you have listed and will make sure to get the others. Thanks for your recommendations.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.