I’m always curious about what lands a book on readers’ “favorites” lists. What compels my fellow readers to name a book the best thing they read in a whole year?
Before we kicked off this year’s Reading Challenge, we asked thousands of readers to tell us what they loved, and why they loved it. Our goal for the challenge is to help YOU get more out of your reading life, and we relied on this information to shape the challenge and its categories.
As we sifted through the data, I noticed something unexpected: a huge percentage of our English-speaking readers chose a book in translation—that is, any book that wasn’t originally written in their native language—as their best of the year.
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 a crucial opportunity.
Today, I’m sharing 20 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 has been a Summer Reading Guide pick and a Book I Can't Stop Recommending, but it's perfect for your Reading Challenge book in translation. The dialogue is a little bumpy in places, but the story is worth it. 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. Originally written in Spanish and 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: I'm so glad I read it. Originally written in Russian and translated copious times; 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 (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. Originally written in French and 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) Originally written in Japanese and translated by Cathy Hirano. More info →
This novel has been languishing on my TBR list for years. It was first published in the United States in 2008 as a gorgeous Europa edition. 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.) Originally written in French and translated by Alison Anderson. More info →
This is the first installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which revolves around the friendship between Elena and Lila; My Brilliant Friend begins when the girls are in first grade and carries them through adolescence. 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." Thought-provoking, beautifully written, realistic enough to be quite difficult in places. But readers who love this LOVE IT. Originally written in Italian and beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein. (Hot tip: I LOVED this series on audio.) More info →
Whimsical, bookish, and suspenseful, this now-classic children's novel features characters who literally jump off the page because a book-binder has the power to "read" them to life. The first in a perennially popular trilogy, originally written in German and translated by Anthea Bell. More info →
This modern classic tells the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of treasure and sets off on a journey to find it, meeting all kinds of interesting characters along the way. This little book has been on the bestseller lists for years and has over a million ratings on Goodreads. Originally written in Portuguese and translated by Clifford E. Landers. More info →
Following a catastrophic stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby spent several weeks in a coma, then wakened to a new reality. The 44-year-old sharp, high-living editor of French Elle was victim to "locked-in syndrome": he was mentally alert but unable to move or speak. Through sheer determination and a dose of the miraculous, Bauby learns to "speak" again; this is his story. The diving bell of the title is the sheer weight of his useless body; the butterfly is the human spirit that flies free. Heads up: if you need to regain your reading momentum, this memoir is only 132 pages. Originally written in French and translated by Jeremy Leggatt. More info →
I read this as my book in translation for the 2017 Reading Challenge. This is a lifetime favorite of several readers I know with great taste. This atmospheric novel is built around a literary mystery: who is Julián Carax, and why is someone systematically burning his books? I'll confess I had a hard time getting into it, but after I got oriented I couldn't turn the pages fast enough: I loved the post-war Barcelona setting, the rich cast of characters, and the surprising twists and turns the story took. Originally written in Spanish and translated by Lucia Graves. More info →
In 1984 Tokyo, a young woman begins to notice troubling discrepancies in the world around her, which makes her think she's living in a parallel reality. She names it 1Q84, the "Q" standing for "question." A friend who loves it calls it "the longest book you'll never, not once, lose interest in." If you'd like to tackle a shorter Murakami work in translation, you're in luck. He is prolific. Originally written in Japanese and translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. More info →
Backman's first novel in this trilogy-in-progress is set in a backwater town whose glory days are over—except when it comes to hockey. In Beartown, hockey is everything, and the players on the boys' A-team have god-like status. But this isn't just a hockey story. Part coming-of-age story, part community-in-crisis, completely fabulous. (And I don't care a bit about hockey, so that's saying something.) Heads up, readers: triggers abound. The sequel comes out June 5 and I'm counting down the days. Originally written in Swedish and translated by Neil Smith. More info →
I've been meaning to read this Man Booker Prize winner since Jennifer Weiner said, "I find myself thinking about it weeks after I finished." Critics describe it as "Kafka-esque", and reader friends with great taste have said this strange (and sometimes disturbing) story delivers a unique and absorbing reading experience. Originally written in Korean and translated by Deborah Smith. More info →
This slim book is just what the title says it is—seven brief lessons on physics—about Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, black holes, probability, time, and humans. Rovelli's writing is elegant and poetic, and attainable for the non-scientist. If you're a hardcover lover (or gifter), the book itself is beautiful. On my TBR because a wide variety of readers with great taste have raved about it. Originally written in Italian and translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. More info →
In this contemporary novel, three passionate and artistic boys—a poet, a pianist, and a photographer—meet in 1950s Moscow as schoolmates. As they grow, they come to embody the experiences that have filled Russian novels for centuries: love, exile, censorship, secrets, spies, and identity. Impressively, Kirkus calls this "Worthy of shelving alongside Doctor Zhivago." Originally written in Russian and translated by Polly Gannon. More info →
This quirky little book is unlike anything I've ever read. Keiko was an uncommon child with worried parents until she takes on a job in a convenience store. They relax that she's found a pleasant and predictable routine while at university. But eighteen years later, she is still working her low-level job, and doesn't understand why society expects more from her than that. In fact, she doesn't seem to understand society's expectations—or how to conform to them—at all. Hot tip: critics are comparing Keiko to French heroine Amélie, although the two live different lives in different worlds. Publication date June 12 2018. Originally written in Japanese and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. More info →
This book has gotten tons of buzz this year; I've heard it called a "guilty pleasure" more than once. Myriam and her husband find Louise, the perfect, mannerly, devoted nanny who cleans, sings to the kids, and is the envy of all. But as the couple become more and more dependent on her, jealousy and suspicion fester. Originally written in French and translated by Sam Taylor. More info →
Readers with great taste have been telling me to read Lackberg for years, because of my love of Tana French. (She's also frequently compared to Stieg Larsson.) The story in this novel, Lackberg's U.S. debut, centers around Erica, a writer who returns to her hometown to bury her parents and begin work on her next book. But when Erica's best friend dies in an apparent suicide, she slowly realizes that this no longer the same town she grew up in, and its secrets are now dark, and deep. Originally written in Swedish and translated by Steven T. Murray. More info →
Enthusiastic readers have finally convinced me to add this tome to my TBR. Called the greatest novel ever written, a philosophical study, a historic epic of the Napoleonic Wars, chock full of characters, and often compared to Homer. Originally written in Russian, and translated numerous times—from Dunnigan to Garnett to Maude to Edmonds. Scholar and author Andrew D. Kaufman recommends the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. More info →
In this moving memoir, Wiesel recalls his experience as a young boy with his father in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944-45, during the Holocaust at the height of World War II. It's amazing how much Wiesel packs into 100 pages. "What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it. Never shall I forget ... " Originally written in French and translated by Marion Wiesel, the wife of Elie Wiesel. More info →
This list of 20 titles is meant to get you thinking, but there are literally thousands of books in translation to choose from. Get your TBR list ready, and share your favorites you’ve already read or the books in translation you’re planning on reading this year in comments.