7 favorite books in translation to read this year.

7 favorite books in translation to read this year.

For the 2015 Reading Challenge, I’m blogging through one category per month, in order. (Don’t worry—you don’t have to read them in order.)

So far we’ve covered:

  1. a book you’ve been meaning to read
  2. a book published this year
  3. a book in a genre you don’t typically read
  4. a book from your childhood
  5. a book your mom loves

This month we’re tackling category #6: “a book that was originally written in a different language.”

The 2015 Reading Challenge. I'm starting now!

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.

When it comes to books in translation, this is just the tip of the ieberg. For more ideas check out the Reading Challenge group pinterest board and this great list from Flavorwire.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Author:
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 →
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. 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 →
The Time in Between

The Time in Between

Author:
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 →
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Author:
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 →
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. 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 →
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. More info →
Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Author:
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 →

What are you reading for this category?

7 books to read in translation

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68 comments

  1. Kate says:

    We read Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World for my book club in April and everyone loved it! We spent more time discussing this book than any of the others we’ve read. It’s a mind-bending, East meets West delve into the meaning of consciousness. Highly recommend!

    • Andrea says:

      I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog! It took me longer to read than most books because I wanted to savor so many passages, and thoughts of my own inspired by those passages. I will read it again someday!

  2. Robin says:

    I was really surprised that I have already read several of these books, most recently The Time Between. I’ve been meaning to read The Life Changing Magic.

  3. Rachel Amari says:

    Oh, to see The Elegance of the Hedgehog as the first one made me giddy. That is the book I recommend to people more than any other. It is the type of writing that makes you want to cherish each bit.

  4. Jeanne says:

    I just read My Brilliant Friend and the two sequels by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian). Fabulous!

  5. Jennifer H says:

    I think you must have already mentioned The Time in Between to me because that is what I read for this category. I must say that if it hadn’t been for your challenge I never would have even picked it up and if I did, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it. That said, I’m glad I read and finished it. So thanks for that 🙂

  6. Breanna says:

    My favorite translated book is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I think he has since published several other books revolving around the same set of characters. If you haven’t read it, definitely check it out!

  7. Addie says:

    My Tidying Up book is coming today… yay for great timing!

    Am I getting this right? You’ve never read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Oh my goodness, its such a great read, but anyone who hasn’t read this needs to be prepared – there is a very, very graphic rape scene in this book – its necessary to the story but its very hard to read…. its one of my favorite books (and I do read a lot) – and as an added bonus, the movies (I really like the Swedish ones as well as the American one) are really good too (which is rarely the case)

  8. Vanessa says:

    I’ve already completed this category (hurray!) by reading The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas a couple of months ago. It was originally written and published in French x

  9. Sara K. says:

    At first I was going to read Anna Karenina. While I still plan to read that, it’s just a bit too ambitious for me this year. Then I decided to read The Little Prince, but before I got around to it I picked up The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up at the library! So that’s what I’m going with 🙂

  10. Allison says:

    Do you have a translator recommendation for Anna Karenina? I’ve tried to read it twice, and I can’t get through it. I’m wondering if it’s the book itself, or just the translation.

    • Angie S says:

      I read Anna Karenina earlier this year with my book club. Those of us with the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation found it more manageable than those with the (older) Garnett translation. This also held true for the other Russian book we read, Crime & Punishment. Hope that helps!
      That makes two of the books on this list that I’ve read this year, the other being The Life-Changing Magic. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      I have the Penguin classics edition and I made it through and thought the translation was fine, but plenty of people don’t get to the end of books that long no matter the original language. 🙂

  11. Ciera S says:

    I’ve heard so many good things about The Little Prince–I really ought to read it. Also, I appreciate that your list includes mostly recent works. I think when people hear “translation” they often think of translations of Greek Classics (Homer, Odyssey), connecting translation to historical.

  12. Dawn Reiss says:

    I recommend staying away from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo altogether. I recommend it to absolutely no one. In addition to the very intense violence, I found the plot and writing meandering (probably something lost in translation there). The book just leaves one cold. (But hey, this could be just me.)

    For this category, I finally read Night by Elie Weisel.

    • Jennifer Haddow says:

      I liked the plot but did find myself skipping whole passages of this book. Skimmed the violence and sex, and skipped a lot of the financial explanations which were very boring to me (even though I am in the financial industry) and did not feel the story needed that much explanation. I only read a couple chapters of the second one and could not stick with either of the movie versions I tried to watch.

  13. I feel embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read The Little Prince. Definitely adding it to my list! I also love Latin American literature, so I would recommend 100 Years of Solitude or most novels by Isabel Allende to the list.

    • Katie says:

      Rilke is great. With poetry, I especially recommend getting a side-by-side translation, if you can find one, so that you can see how the poem looks (and sounds, if you know any pronunciation) in the original. Poetry is especially challenging to translate because it’s so much more than just the literal meaning of the words.

  14. Cheryl says:

    I didn’t realize that Marie Kondo’s book was originally written in Japanese! I figured she had this delightfully quirky way of saying things in English that just sounded Japanese. (And yes I realized she lives in Japan.) That makes me wonder about the translator.

    I’m reading Mark Musa’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve never read a book other than the Bible that was as much effort, and worth as much effort, as this one. I am looking forward to reading it again.

    As an aside, I’ve never finished a book translated from Spanish. I’m not sure why, but I’ve tried many and there is something that just puts me off. I wonder if that is common, to dislike an entire language’s novels!

  15. Tim says:

    The Little Prince immediately came to my mind when you mentioned the category, Anne. I’ve also read good The Stranger and Crime and Punishment in good translation and thoroughly enjoyed them both. When it comes to reading plans, I confess I’ve never had one and probably never will. But perhaps I should find another book in translation. Is Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask any good?

  16. Lee Ann says:

    I don’t think I have words to express how much I hated The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I couldn’t stand the two main characters at all. A friend told me to stick with it because it would get better, and I’m sorry I did.

    I have a couple of Dostoevskys on my Kindle that I can start, but I probably should finish Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon first. It’s a *long* book, and I’m hoping the connections between characters will become clear eventually.

  17. Dana says:

    I read The 100 year Old Man last year…it was ..interesting and chaotic and funny ( in places) and when I finished I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. There is a movie coming out based on it.

  18. Stephanie says:

    The Hangman’s Daughter is another good book that’s been translated to English. It was originally published in German.

  19. Heather says:

    I read Marie Kondo’s book this year, so this challenge has been completed! I went to a talk by Isabel Allende and she talked about her translator Margaret (from Spanish to English only), and how Margaret did such a great job. It was interesting because Allende knows how to write and speak English, but she said that she wouldn’t be able to do as good of a job as Margaret at translating because Margaret always knew the right words to convey what Allende was writing in Spanish. Allende joked that she sometimes thought that Margaret made the book better than how she wrote it.

  20. I can recommend Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon and Silence by Shusako Endo. Silence is not a light read, but is probably the most powerful book I’ve ever read (about a Jesuit missionary in 17th century Japan).

    Thanks for the Hedgehog reminder. Must get to this book!

  21. Ashley says:

    I loved Elegance of the Hedgehog. But it’s deep. A re-reader! I tried Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. I see how I could have loved it. But when people say it’s graphic, they do not lie!! I’m not squeamish or sensitive; but I had to put it down. I’m just not willing to put that kind of thing into my consciousness. I’m really surprised based on past posts that it’s on your to-read list.

  22. carey says:

    I just started Marie Condo’s book thinking I would use it for a different category (genre don’t typically read) but now that I know it’s a translation I think I will use it there! I was having a hard time committing to a translation and so far I’m really enjoying “The Life Changing Magic…”. I have The Nesting Place on my kindle so I think I’ll swap that in for “genre don’t typically read”.

    I have to say, so far, I have basically tripled the amount of reading I normally do thanks to this challenge. I didn’t mean to, but I’ve read 1-3 books for each category so far!

  23. Katie says:

    An interesting twist on this I’ve done in the past is to read English novels translated into German. I have Pride abs Prejudice, the Narnia books, HP3, and The Hobbit all auf Deutsch. It gives you a feel for the sort of changes that take place in translation, and is a good way to practice the language, since you already know what’s going on. 🙂

    I have lots of German novels to recommend but I’ve never read most of them in English so I’m not sure how they hold up. But remember, Grimm’s fairy tales would count for this challenge!

    • Anne says:

      I’ve done that too! Although not for years. I still have my GErman copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary from years ago; it was the first novel I read that way.

  24. Katie says:

    Also, speculative fiction fans: one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees is in translation from the Chinese. The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. 🙂

  25. SarahL says:

    I finished Anna K in January. I have not heard great things about the Garnett translation, but I really enjoyed it. This year I have read Kondo’s book (well, listened to it on audio). The decluttering lessons were valuable, of course, but her religious, cultural, and philosophical views were fascinating. Right now I am reding/listening to The Count of Monte Cristo. I haven’t read Dumas since high school. There is so much to love, but I find myself frustrated by his LOOOOOONG digressions and landscape descriptions. Don Quixote is the next Book in Translation in my queue.

    • Beth says:

      I’m about to take on Count of Monte Cristo for our summer book club choice! Wish me luck (I’m pretty nervous about the length!)

  26. Anne says:

    I am scheduled to finish Anna Karenina this month. Woot! What nice timing you have with this month’s challenge. 🙂 Reading Kondo would knock a couple of categories off the list, at least.

  27. Leslie says:

    I’m going to read Kristin Lavransdatter. It’s also a book I’ve been meaning to read. I’ve heard so many good things about it!

    • Mimi says:

      I read Kristin Lavransdatter this spring for my book in translation. Kristin and all of the other characters were so real. It was fascinating to read a book about medieval times written in the early 20th century by a Norwegian woman and to identify so fully with the situations and people. Thank you to MMD for the recommendation.

  28. Kitty Balay says:

    Perfect timing! I just started Machievelli’s The Prince. I read it in college, but had no interest. Now, I’m reading it 30 years later in preparation for working on Richard III and it’s fascinating.

  29. Jacki says:

    I love your book choices and your willingness to explore books that might push your boundaries. I have to say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo might push too far, though, and frankly was surprised to see it on your list since I think I remember in the past you’ve mentioned how hard some books were too hard for you to work through. I’ve chosen not to read it after a friend shared with me her experience with the book: graphic, violent, manipulation & abuse. I’ve chosen not to put that into my very visual brain as those images will likely stay there forever.

  30. Lisa says:

    I just finished A Man Called Ove, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. I loved this book so much! Charming, sad, funny, and difficult to put down.

  31. Katleen says:

    I would recommend 100 years of solitude, original ou written in Spanish by the Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez.

  32. Donna says:

    Great recommendations, Anne! For this category, I read A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson. A beautifully-written story about a father and son, translated from the Danish. Check it out!

  33. Michelle says:

    One of my very favorite books is The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese. It tells a beautiful story of friendship that develops between a single mother hired as a housekeeper for a brilliant mathematician whose short-term memory reaches no farther than 80 minutes. In spite of this challenge, she (and the reader) comes to glimpse the beauty of math and numbers as seen through his eyes. Every day she arrives as a stranger at his house, and yet they both come to benefit from this unusual friendship.

  34. GK says:

    I love your blog, but I have to say this was the first category that I found kind of disappointing. Some of my favorite books ever: Murakami (anything! everything!), Pamuk (my favorite was Snow), Kafka (The Trial), Crime and Punishment…but for my to-read list I can’t believe I still haven’t read Don Quixote or The Tin Drum. And pleased to learn about Hedgehog!

  35. Marcy says:

    So curious about what you thought of the elegance of the hedgehog, if you’ve tackled it yet. It is at the very top of my list, but my reading group hated it. Most of them felt like it was too philosophical and gave up too early. I thought every chapter was so full of beauty and insight. It surprises me that people hate it so much.

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