ENGLISH SPEAKERS can be bad at reading books that were originally written in other languages. Only 2 or 3% of the books that are published in English are translations. Compare this to France (27%) or Spain (28%), and it starts to get embarrassing. There’s so much beautiful literature that was written in languages other than English that Matador editors Morgane Croissant, Ana Bulnes, and Matt Hershberger selected some of the best favorite foreign-language books they’ve read.
8 Foreign Language Books That Every English Speaker Needs To Read
We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen
In the United States, we have this debate over which book we’d choose as “The Great American Novel.” The idea is that we think we should be able to pick a single book that tells the story of our country with the clearest eyes. Some say it’s Huck Finn, some say it’s Moby-Dick, and some of us (correctly) say it’s The Great Gatsby.
But what about other countries? Could you pick a single book to introduce a reader to the other nations of the world? Les Miserables for France? One Hundred Years of Solitude for Colombia?
I won’t claim to be able to speak for all of Danish literature, but Carsten Jensen’s century-spanning epic, We, The Drowned is an amazing introduction to Denmark. It covers three generations in the small seafaring town of Marstal, where the men go out to wander the world on the high seas, and the women stay at home and keep the town afloat. It is beautiful and entertaining and absolutely worth the read. It’s also my favorite book on the shelf, thanks to that spectacular cover. –Matt Hershberger
All the Paul graphic novels by Michel Rabagliati
I picked up Paul à Québec randomly at my local library a few years ago and got hooked right away, so I read all of his work in the span of a week — I also bought several of his novels as Christmas gifts because no one should spend the rest of their lives not knowing how talented this man is.
Michel Rabagliati’s semi-autobiographical novels tell the story of Paul from his teens to his forties and everything in between. It will make you laugh and rip your heart open – I cried when Paul lost his first love and when his father-in-law died, but I laughed out-loud at his teenage silliness. Each of Rabagliati’s graphic novels showcases Montreal and the province of Quebec with the details only someone who was born and raised there knows. I spend a lot of my time in Canada, but I have never visited Quebec; with Michel Rabagliati, I feel like I know the place like the back of my hand. –Morgane Croissant
I’m not scared, by Niccolò Ammaniti
Do you remember when you were a child and suspected there was something going on, but couldn’t understand exactly what? This is what happens to nine-year-old Michele when, in the middle of the summer of 1978, he enters an abandoned farmhouse on a dare and makes a disturbing discovery. As a reader, you can almost touch his uneasiness, and feel his innocence begin to crack, as he sees strange things happen, hears his parents yelling at home, and tries to connect the dots. You will know pretty soon what’s going on and hope he never fully understands. A hint? This is the South of Italy in the 70s. The mafia was pretty big by then.
Ammaniti’s novels always manage to capture perfectly that moment between childhood and adolescence, that feeling of being really close to the curtain but still too far to pull it open and finally see what’s on the other side. Oh, and this is a thriller. So don’t start reading before going to bed unless you want to have a late night. –Ana Bulnes
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
I’d never had a bookseller discourage me from buying a book before buying Labyrinths, a collection of translated short stories by the Argentine legend Jorge Luis Borges. “That book is impossible to get through,” he said. “I wouldn’t bother.”
It was the perfect thing for him to say because then it felt like I’d been dared to buy it and finish it. I did, and it could not possibly have been more rewarding. Borges’ surreal short stories are dense and difficult, but are also intensely thought-provoking. I had to sit for a while after each story and absorb it. I had to go back and thumb through the pages. The writing is intricate and academic and beautiful. It’s a challenge, but it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. –Matt Hershberger
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a writer who loves books, so he writes creepy, gothic novels about books and writers – and does it incredibly well.
The Shadow of the Wind is set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War and tells the story of Daniel Sempere, the son of a bookstore owner, who investigates why someone has been destroying every novel written by Julián Carax. There are supernatural elements to this book that will make you shiver and because it is built as a slow thriller, you won’t be able to put it down until you have read the very last word. Note that all of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novels are just as good, so when you’re done with The Shadow of the Wind, move on to The Angel’s Game. –Morgane Croissant
Blow-up and Other Stories, by Julio Cortázar
I fell in love with Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar thanks to my high school literature teacher, when she told us the plot of Letter to a Young Lady in Paris and I could see the excitement in her eyes. I got back home, looked for the C in the bookshelf (I knew we had many of his books), took out the volume where this short story was, read it, and was in complete awe. From that moment on, Julio Cortázar replaced Roald Dahl as my favorite writer. What makes him so special? It’s difficult to say — his stories are what happens when you let imagination run free when your mind is crowded with little worlds, with little monsters, with little people who fall in love, get angry and laugh out loud — when you admit fantasy is real.
This collection of stories is a perfect starting point if you haven’t read anything by him. And wait till you read The Pursuer. That story made my summer in 2001. (In case you’re wondering: yes, Antonioni’s movie is inspired by Cortázar’s story, but don’t try to find any similarities between the two, they only share a name). –Ana Bulnes
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Here’s what you need to realize about 19th-century writing: There was no TV or movies back then, so books could afford to be impossibly long and digressive. There’s a long chapter in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables where he discusses the inner workings of the Parisian sewer system. There are several notorious chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick where he details whale biology and the technical aspects of whaling as a profession.
So, reading one of the great 19th-century novels requires a readjustment of your attention span, and a willingness to follow digressions wherever they may lead. This is an age before telegraphic, staccato writing. It’s before Hemingway was king, before Chekhov’s gun was law. Like Les Mis and Moby-Dick, Leo Tolstoy’s twelve hundred-page magnum opus, War and Peace, is worth the digressions. Wait until it’s cold outside, and curl up under the covers and take a stab at it. It’s a complicated, exciting, frustrating, and brilliant slice of life. If you find the size intimidating, maybe start with Anna Karenina instead — it’s only eight hundred pages. And if you have trouble keeping track of all of the Russian names, listen to the prologue to the 2016 musical adaptation Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 — it’s literally just five minutes of mnemonic devices to help you remember which character is which. –Matt Hershberger
The Scale of Maps, by Belén Gopegui
Forget everything you know about books, except maybe how much you love them. Belén Gopegui’s The Scale of Maps is a rare, delicate creature: the story of a cartographer who is in love but scared of time and what it can do to the memory of that love that he’s so terrified of feeling. The text flows from first to third to second person (the cartographer addresses the readers as “my fellow introverts”) and it’s filled with passages you just want to underline and read again and again. He listens to Debussy, quotes Nabokov and Cortázar, thinks about maps, space, and voids while his hands tremble “like a bashful magician’s.” Published in 1993, this was Belén Gopegui’s first novel, instantly hailed as a masterpiece. You’ll sigh a lot while you read it; at least, I remember I did. –Ana Bulnes