The 20 must-read classics in translation

From Arabic masterpieces to Japanese novellas, these books will transport you to places – and eras – you've never been to before. How many have you read?

A flatlay of covers of classic books in translation
Are any of these on your bookshelf? Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

If a classic book is news that stays news, then a classic in translation brings us news from elsewhere. With so many languages telling so many stories, the only question is where to begin, so here are 20 of the best classics in translation. Every book here is worthy of the instruction in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books (1765 – 1799), which narrowly failed to make this list: “Anyone who has two pairs of trousers, sell one and buy this book.” Read on for things both old and new, and to find out which novel François Mauriac was talking about when he said, “We have never read anything like this before, we who have read everything.”

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis (1881)

Brazilian writer Machado must have had access to a time machine to create this head-spinning novel that feels as modern as tomorrow. Ostensibly the pessimistic memoirs of a dead man in 160 tiny sections (“Long chapters are better suited for ponderous readers”), it’s a freewheeling fairground akin to Tristram Shandy or The Third Policeman. And the author is forever poking his nose in: “Behold the skill,” he writes, “with which I shall carry out the most important transition in the book.”

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940)

Jorge Luis Borges said this Argentine novel had, like The Trial and The Turn of the Screw, a “perfect” plot. It’s a classic of puzzle-literature, combining the fantastical with burgeoning technology, where a man on an island is driven mad by mysterious people appearing, one of whom he falls in love with. It’s one of those rare books that has spread beyond literature, to influence the film Last Year at Marienbad and the TV series Lost.

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