In an article she wrote for Words without Borders Magazine, professional translator Edith Grossman, who has translated writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, wrote about the importance of reading literature in translation.
“Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time,” she writes. “It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions.”
Reading books that were originally written in another language opens up your mind in ways that you might not expect. In the hands of a talented translator, a book originally written in another language can give you a glimpse of another culture in new and different ways.
According to Publishers Weekly, only about 3 percent of the books published in the United States were originally written in another language. Quantity does not mean low quality, however. It’s important to realize that these books represent the finest in literature from non-English speaking authors.
Nine Best Translated Fiction
If you’d like to explore the rich world of translated books, here are some of our favorites, both old and new.
Best translated fiction – A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë translated by John Nathan (first published in 1964)
Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oë earned the Nobel Prize in 1994. This deeply personal book tells us the story of Bird, a Japanese intellectual who is in a troubled marriage who must come to terms with his life as the father of a brain-damaged son. Oë, who is known for his accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, takes his readers on an intimate journey of life and personal discovery that transcends culture.
Best translated fiction – The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin (first published 1982)
This book is a saga in the best sense of the word. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, writer Isabel Allende crafts the story of the Trueba family members, revealing three generations of their triumphs and tragedies. She combines bits of her own life story along with Latin American magical realism and political events of the 20th century.
Best translated fiction – Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith (first published 2006)
Although Irène Némirovsky was a successful writer living in Paris when she began this book, it remained unknown for 64 years. That is because she was arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where she eventually died. Through her characters, Némirovsky relates details of both the day to day details and the horrific events she herself experienced. She offers a perspective that will broaden your understanding of what happened in Europe between the two world wars.
Best translated fiction – That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell (first published 1966)
Cairo native Ibrahim wrote this semi-autobiographical book, which is the diary of a former political prisoner who must find his way back into the real world, after a five-year prison term. The book was banned in Egypt after its publication, and its original version did not appear in that country for another two decades. That Smell continues to be important reading today.
Best translated fiction – Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes (first published 1984)
The winner of the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, this book is set in a Hungarian town where the villagers are deceived by a strange newcomer who just might be the devil. This disturbing novel lets us into the thoughts of the townspeople as they grapple with their own hopes and fears.
Best translated fiction – Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Marian Schwartz (first published 2006)
If you love books that weave together completely different storylines, you owe it to yourself to read Maidenhair. You will follow an interpreter working with refugees, his son, and the diaries of an early 20th century opera singer. Part Chekhov, part James Joyce in style, Shishkin’s novel will keep you on your toes as you get an interesting and detailed glimpse into life into post-Soviet Russia.
Best translated fiction – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss (first published 1844)
Innocent of the crime of which he is accused, Edmond Dantes is determined not only to escape from prison but also to get his revenge on the men responsible for his sentence. Inspired by a true case of wrongful imprisonment, this translation of the Dumas classic is lively and engrossing.
Best translated fiction – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland (first published 2008)
This is the debut thriller by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson and it is a real page-turner. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist attempts to resurrect his career by researching an unsolved disappearance. Part thriller, art romance, part murder mystery, this book is set in and around Stockholm and opens the American reader up to new people and places.
Best translated fiction – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, translated by A.W. Wheen (originally published 1928)
All Quiet on the Western Front is an incredibly moving and powerful story of war and its effects on the human spirit. The semi-biographical story follows the World War I experience of young German soldier Paul Baumer from his idealistic school days to his gut-wrenching experiences fighting in the trenches. This book reveals there are no borders when it comes to the impact of war.