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. Plus, these books are just plain good.
When we only read our native language, we also miss out on so many great books! You can learn a lot about a country by what it publishes. 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.)
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 →
“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 →
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 →
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 thoughts on the book itself here) Translated by Cathy Hirano. 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. 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 the comments. The more the merrier!