Expand your literary horizons with these 20 books in translation

Expand your literary horizons with these 20 books in translation

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.

2018 Reading Challenge: A Book in Translation
Inkheart

Inkheart

Author:
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 →
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1Q84

1Q84

Author:
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 →
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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Author:
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 →
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Beartown

Beartown

Author:
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 →
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The Big Green Tent

The Big Green Tent

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 →
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The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind

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 →
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The Little Prince

The Little Prince

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 →
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Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman

Author:
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 →
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The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Author:
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 →
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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

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 →
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The Perfect Nanny

The Perfect Nanny

Author:
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 →
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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: 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 →
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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 thoughts on the book itself here) Originally written in Japanese and translated by Cathy Hirano. More info →
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The Time in Between

The Time in Between

Author:
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 →
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My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1)

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1)

Author:
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 →
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The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Book 1)

The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Book 1)

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 →
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The Vegetarian: A Novel

The Vegetarian: A Novel

Author:
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 →
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War and Peace

War and Peace

Author:
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 →
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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Author:
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 →
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Night

Night

Author:
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 →
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This list of 20 titles is meant to get you thinking, but there are literally thousands of titles 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.

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.

20 books in translation to expand your literary horizons

30 comments

  1. I adored 1Q84 (and I normally run away from long books)…and your friend’s quote about it is perfect!
    I also love Herman Koch for translations…The Dinner is my favorite. Another translation I loved = Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan. Psychologically tense story about a friendship that becomes something sinister.

  2. Amelia Brown says:

    I’m so glad that the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War & Peace is on this list! All their translations are very, very good. Also, I must re-read Inkheart. I, too, had no idea it was translated from German, and I wonder if I missed anything from lacking that knowledge… A very good list!

  3. LOVE this post. ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is on my all-time favorites list, and this year, I read ‘The Great Passage’ by Shion Muira (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter). This is a great book for people who love books about books and the love of language.

    This is a very sweet book that speaks lovingly of the power of words and the emotions behind them. Not much happens—a group of people work for more than a decade on a new dictionary called The Great Passage—but everything happens: people fall in love, live and die, feel things, question themselves and others, succeed and fail. Just when it seems like it might get too precious, there’s a touch of sarcastic humor that makes the characters seem more real. I also really enjoyed the food descriptions that added a richness to the story without drawing undue attention to themselves.

    The details of the process of making the dictionary in the story made me wish I knew more about the Japanese language; the intensity with which the characters examine words and meaning is fascinating, and it made me curious about how English dictionaries are made… which sent me down an internet rabbit hole. If you’re curious, too, here are a few interesting links: http://mentalfloss.com/article/93638/5-behind-scenes-secrets-how-dictionary-made and https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/books/merriam-webster-dictionary-kory-stamper.html

  4. I loved In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Even in translation, it took me three years to read all the tomes. Delicious, every word.
    Where would we be without translations? They are a window into such different worlds. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz took me straight to Cairo…
    It is wonderful to read in the original language–cultures don’t set up sentences in the same way, and those little quirks add to the experience. But who is adequately at ease in so many languages? Even French, which I’ve spoken daily for 20 years, is more work than pleasure for me to read.
    A good translation is art in and of itself.

  5. Carol S says:

    I also didn’t realize Inkheart was a translation. May have to read it again.
    For the translation challenge, I’m looking at Pharoah by Boleslaw Prus and/or Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

  6. Christyn says:

    I devoured The Elegance of the Hedgehog. My commonplace book received many new entries — entire passages, in fact. Move it to the top of your TBR list. I enjoy WW2 books, so I’m interested in The Time In Between; thanks for the suggestion!

    • Sabrina says:

      Loved, LOVED The Elegance of the Hedgehog — one of the books I am so grateful my book club read as I might not have on my own.

  7. Jen W. says:

    I recently read “Out” by Natsuo Kirino. It’s not for the faint of heart but is one of the best suspense/thriller books I’ve read in a while. I’m sick to death of all the “Gone Girl”-type books out there so this was a welcome change.

  8. Brandyn says:

    I fail pretty frequently at reading translations, by that I mean I DNF a lot. At least I try:)
    I feel like there’s a much higher percent of translated books written in present tense vs most originally English books being in past tense. I find myself mentally trying to rephrase everything in past tense – it’s hard to enjoy a book that way.
    I’m currently (slowly) working on Kristin Lavransdatter and I just requested Inkheart and The Ice Princess from the library.
    Thanks for the recs!

  9. Candace Harrison says:

    I have “The Time In Between” in my TBR pile. One of my favorite books in translation is “The Reason I Jump (the inner voice of a thirteenth year old boy with autism)” by Naomi Higashida. Very quick and enlightening read.

  10. Linda B says:

    This is so exciting! Thank you for this list. Had only read one book: The Japanese Art of Tidying up…which was great. It “sparked joy”. Now I need to find a way to keep track of the books suggested in a TBR list of sorts. Have requested the first couple from the Library here, and looking forward to working my way through the list! All the best, Linda B

  11. Erin says:

    I feel like I want to read all the books on this list. Do you think anyone will mind if I call in absent to life for a few months? LOL

    I’m actually partway through War and Peace right now. I’m listening to an audio version from the ’90s and it’s not the best, but it’s what my library had. And I’m enjoying the story, when I can keep the characters straight. The good news is there’s about 1000 more pages to help me remember all of them. LOL

  12. Allison says:

    1Q84 was one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, but it was so oddly compelling–I couldn’t put it down. I also want to read Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.
    I gave up on The Elegance of the Hedgehog not very far into it, but I’m thinking I might need to give it another try. I didn’t make it to Mr. Ozu 🙂
    Beartown was excellent; I’m really looking forward to the sequel!

  13. Carol says:

    I’m Brazilian and my native language is Portuguese but I read a lot in English. Because of this category in the Reading Challenge I realized I haven’t read any books by Brazilian authors… I read lots of books in translation tho. I read almost all of Elena Ferrante’s books last year and even when I read in English I read books in translation (for example, ‘A man called Ove’). And just so you know, I have never read ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho – probably the most famous and successful Brazilian author ever.

  14. Sabrina says:

    All of the books sound interesting but one which I read was a miserable ugly experience: The Vegetarian. Our entire book club found it miserable and we only slogged through because it was our first book and we all felt obligated. Now I do have to say that given the short blurb our hostess found about the book I was expecting an English comedy of manners (yeah: I was SO wrong). But we were all unhappy about it when we finished. I know some folks like this type of book but I really don’t understand why.

  15. Mary says:

    You are going to think I am bonkers but I want to tell you something that made a difference for me when I recently read War and Peace. I originally ordered the translation you pictured because I had also read it was a good translation. But….The paper did not feel good. Rough in texture, very lightweight, Really weird, I know, to care about this but it seemed literally hard to read. The typeface perhaps? I then ordered the Oxford World’s Classic edition (paperback with a beautiful red and green print cover) translated by Maude and thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience. Now, of course, this is IMHO but if something like the feel of paper makes a difference to you, you may want to compare. It is an excellent novel, by the way, and I am so glad I read it!

  16. Cheryl says:

    Two Tolstoys and no Dostoevsky?! I just finished Brothers Karamazov and really, all I could say at the end was “Hurrah for Karamazov!” As soon as I get over my book hangover I am going to try Anna Karenina. I did learn the importance of a good translation, though. In spite of mine being ponderous the story was amazing. I think I will also try 1Q84 soon. I’d forgotten about it. Thanks as always for the lists!

    • Anne says:

      Did I really include two Tolstoys?? Goodness, I see it now. That was completely accidental. Or my subconscious talking. Good catch! (And I LOVE your Karamazov story. 🙂 )

  17. Allyson Wieland says:

    I just finished a modern classic in translation titled “Silence” by Shusaku Endo. Martin Scorsese did a movie adaptation of it 2016. This book will haunt me for years to come. Initially, I thought it was about martyrs and betrayal, but as I continue to mull over it, the theme of grace predominates.
    By the way, an early guest on WSIRN, listed “Silence” as one of his three favorites. Now I know why.

  18. Cara says:

    This is one of my FAVORITE topics. What a fantastic list! This year I read several juvenile fiction books in translation (that I intentionally sought out) during the Winter Librarians Reading Challenge that my library system does every January-february to get library workers reading books written for the 8-18 users. One of those books will be one of my top favorites for the year: I Lived On Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin, translated from the Spanish by E.M. O’Connor. In my reading journal I wrote this:
    ‘Celeste Marconi narrates several years of her life from age 11-13 as she leaves her home in Valparaiso Chile to live in Maine during the overthrow of the government by a military dictatorship, and finally returns to reunite with her family who remained behind’
    I adored this book.

    Some other translations I read for the challenge and recommend include:
    Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (Chinese), and The Librarian of Auschwitz (Spanish)

    I recently read and enjoyed Orhan Pamuk’s (Turkey’s prolific and Nobel prize winning author) most recent translated novel, The Red-Haired Woman. (Turkish) … don’t read unless you find a new look at the story of Oedipus interesting!

  19. Kate says:

    I watched The Time in Between on Netflix and loved it so now I need to read the book.
    I enjoyed The Moonlit Garden by Corinna Bowmann which was translated from German.

  20. Megan says:

    For the mystery lover who’s read everything, I recommend The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (trans. Alexander O. Smith). It’s hard for a mystery to pull one over on me at this point, and I was floored.

  21. Victoria says:

    Fun to see this list. I really want to read The Shadow of the Wind. I’ve already enjoyed The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Little Prince, and The Alchemist; and just started My Brilliant Friend last night!

  22. Karen Wehman says:

    I picked up Elegance of the Hedgehog, because when my son was young, he campaigning for a pet hedgehog. It felt appropriate. It is one of my favorites. I think the cat was named Leo for Leo Tolstoy. I can still “see” this book in my mind even though I honestly cannot remember the names of all the characters.

    Fredrik Backman is my new favorite author. Bear Town is on my list. I have devoured A Man Called Ove, Britt Marie Was Here, and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Story all in the past year. It’s the characters in all of the above. The feel so relatable.

    I go on author jags and I am thinking about heading back to childhood and Alexadre Dumas. I read through The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo all in one summer I think.

    Author jags, Alexandre Dumas, Leon Uris, John Irving, and most recently Fredrik Backman.

    Thanks!

  23. Birgitta Qvarnström Frykner says:

    I know im late for this comment but i have wanted to answer it but due to a severe cold, i have not succeded yet. But here i come, living in a country Sweden with 9 milj inhabitants and on own language, we are almost always forced to read translations. Yes, the last years has been what may be seen as a explosion in swedish female(and some men) chrime writers. You even have some mentioned above. Camilla Läckberg who i am not so fond of. There are a lot better ones out there from other writer as Denise Rudberg, among others. As above the 60th year mark i have read books in english for at least 40 years. I realised when reading James Clavells Shogun that i had started to read in English but then thought it to hard to read for me, and then started to read the swedish version i realized that the swedish was 3 chapters shorter. Yes the translater had thought the swedish readers is not fond of the catholic way of thinking and got rid of it. I found out that this is a possibility for tranlater as a way of making people more at home in a story. This is not the first time, i dont know if most of you are old enough to remember the book First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer. He had to write two different ends, one for the readers in USA and one for the UK readers.
    But to read an orginal book is for me a treat, my fluency in your language is now better and as i have a Kindle now 95 % of all i read is en english. I even read the Tolstoy books in enlish even if i have it in swedish. What i get well, new more modern words, i alse realized that in modern USA is full of acronyms, i got an icon for that on my tablet.
    So yes read translations for it makes you widen your perspectives and see that people live around the world and almost all are satiesfied in their own way.

    Saying that please show us more books that is on the market from all countries

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