This month we’re tackling category #6: “a book that was originally written in a different language.”
What this means: choose a book that wasn’t written in your native language.
The reading challenge categories are meant to be simple and doable; they’re also meant to encourage you to explore new territory. For American and British readers, that means reading 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%.)
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—is a crucial and accessible tool for promoting empathy and understanding of other people and other cultures. When we read only books written in our own language, we miss a crucial opportunity.
We also miss out on many of the classics: so many of the greats are only available to English speakers in translation.
Today, I’m sharing 7 books—some old, some new—that were originally written in a language other than English. Some are your favorites, some are my favorites, some are on my reading list.
This Spanish debut novel spent years at the top of Spain's bestseller lists, and it was featured in the 2014 MMD Summer Reading Guide as a gripping novel. If you loved Casablanca, try this novel set during the Civil War. The translated dialogue is a little bumpy in places, but the story is worth it. More info →
Use this category as your excuse to read a Russian great you never read in high school. (Other possible contenders: anything by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, or Gogol.) Justifiably famous: William Faulkner called this novel "the best ever written." More info →
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. More info →
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. Not all translations are good translations, but this one has been praised for preserving the quirkiness of her voice. I love this book (more thoughts on that here) More info →
This French novel has been languishing on my TBR list for a few years. It was first published in its home country in 2005 and in the United States in 2008 (as a gorgeous Europa edition). The critics love it: notably, it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award for Fiction in 2009. My readerly friends are split: some love it, some hate it, some say it's over their heads. I intend to read it for myself. (I've been warned to not give up until Mr. Ozu shows up.) More info →
This international bestseller (and first book of the Millennium trilogy) was originally published in 2005 in Sweden under the title Men Who Hate Women, and is widely hailed as a terrific novel in translation. (Fun fact: the other major change in the English translation is the size of the protagonist's shoulder tattoo: it's large in the Swedish, but much smaller in the English.) This crime novel has been on my reading list for a few years: I've been warned that it's a little gruesome in places. More info →
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. Many of you have already read this as your book in translation. Not everyone loves it, but those who do have labeled it "clever," "quirky," and "un-put-down-able." More info →