A hip-looking new book hits the shelves today, with Jonathan Franzen's name strewn across its cover. It's not a prototypal chronicling of well-meaning but hard-to-love housewives and activists, but is just as ambitious an undertaking as penning a novel called "Freedom." Franzen has translated a collection of works by the notoriously hard to translate Karl Kraus, a 19th century cultural critic hailing from Austria.
Said Franzen in a characteristically grumpy and hipsterish essay for The Guardian, titled (of course) "What's wrong with the modern world":
The thing about Kraus is that he's very hard to follow on a first reading – deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism, and to his cult-like followers his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out.
For those of us less interested in belonging to a secret luddite society and more interested in reading good books, Publisher's Weekly shared 20 translated titles that "you've probably never heard of," citing some troubling statistics along the way (the most saddening being that only three percent of books published in the U.S. each year were originally written in a language other than English). The impressive list includes Kōbō Abe, a Japanese Samuel Beckett, and Gamal al-Ghitani, one of the few contemporary Egyptian writers that English speakers have access to.
Before you take the plunge, we recommend covering the basics. Here are 14 absolutely indispensable in-translation books to get you started:
Gabriel Garcia Márquez's "100 Years of Solitude"
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
Rabassa is a Spanish-language translation heavyweight. Before Márquez, he translated the works of Julio Cortázar, who passed on the word of his excellence. Márquez waited three years for Rabassa to become available, and it's a good thing he did -- his book has become the definitive work of magical realism.
Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim
Heim specialized in Eastern European languages, and translated the several of the works of Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass, as well as a collection of Chekov's letters. It's difficult to select his best translation, but the eminence and poetic nature of Kundera's novel qualifies it as our pick.
Translated from the Old English by Seamus Heaney
This one, we believe, is a no-brainer. Heaney not only makes the poem remarkably readable, he preserves the colloquial nature of ancient storytelling as well. Writes Alexander Acimen for Time:
"The poem begins as ambiguously as some great modernist works end: 'So.'... the epic tradition of beginning a tale in the middle of an action. Heaney’s so is a callous invocation to a reader; it begins the poem almost as though it were a campfire story."
Orhan Pamuk's "Istanbul: Memories and the City"
Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
Selecting just one of Pamuk's works is a doozy of a task, but we're pretty keen on this genre-bending memoir, which introduces Westerners to the melancholy of a city so often perceived as merely magical.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov"
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
This husband and wife duo serves up a one-two punch -- Volokhonsky creates a first draft that is as true to the original as possible, and Pevear combs through it for intricacies. Their translation of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is award-winning as well.
Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way"
Translated from the French by Lydia Davis
MacArthur Fellowship winner Lydia Davis (who won for her fiction, not her translations) keeps this classic true to the language it was written in. Although she's often classified as a minimalist writer, she doesn't agree with the title of the translation decided upon by the publisher -- instead, she'd have named it "By Way of Swann's."
Homer's "The Iliad"
Translated from the Ancient Greek by Robert Fagles
You likely read "The Odyssey" in high school English class, but those who didn't study English in college may have missed out on "The Iliad." Essentially the oldest surviving work of Western literature, it's kind of a must-read. War, worship, accomplishment: This epic poem covers all of the thematic bases you could wish for.
Jorge Luis Borges' "Selected Poems 1923-1967"
Translated from the Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
We recommend this translation if only because Borges is indispensable. Add to this the fact that Borges himself claimed that di Giovanni improved upon his original writings, and you've got a recipe for a fantastic read.
Albert Camus's "The Stranger"
Translated from the French by Matthew Ward
Much debate has surrounded Camus's famous opening line. While simple, it's difficult to translate into English because there's no direct equivalent to the French title "maman" -- "mother," the go-to choice for decades, seems cold, but "mommy" is oddly warm and childlike. Ward's solution? Stick with the French term. Some words just aren't translatable.
Franz Kafka's "The Trial"
Translated from the German by Breon Mitchell
The story of Josef K. is a nuanced one, both a farce and a tragedy. Mitchell writes of the difficulties in conveying the complexities:
"The power of Kafka's text lies in the language, in a nuanced use of the discourses of law, religion and the theater; and in particular in a closely woven web of linguistic motifs which must be rendered consistently to achieve their full impact."
Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin
This was Murakami's first novel than Rubin translated, and he called the author several times a day to hammer out the wording. The difficulty arose from the fact that specificity is central to English language, while vagueness is an essential element of Japanese literature (an object may be described, in separate instances, as both black and brown). Rubin is able to capture the multiplicity of Murakami's writing well. Writes Roland Kelts, for The New Yorker:
"The Japanese language acquires much of its beauty and strength from indirectness—or what English-speakers call vagueness, obscurity, or implied meaning. Subjects are often left unmentioned in Japanese sentences, and onomatopoeia, with vernacular sounds suggesting meaning, is a virtue often difficult if not impossible to replicate in English."
Roberto Bolaño's "The Secret of Evil"
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Andrews has noted in an interview that the particular difficulty of translating Bolaño is the author's use of dissperate Spanish dialects -- he'll employ a distinctively Chilean word and a distinctively Mexican word on a single page. Still, the writer relies more on syntax than wordplay, making Andrew's translations tonally accurate.
Georges Perec's "Life A User's Manual"
Translated from the French by David Bellos
A puzzle story à la Bulgakov, Perec's book is a postmodern work that you shouldn't miss out on. Structured around a single moment in time, it's as much a story as it is an equation for the reader to solve.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell
Mitchell has translated "The Odyssey" and "The Book of Job," but we're partial to his interpretations of Rilke's poetry, which sensitively capture the mood of the originals.