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.”

Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard (1985)

All those rambling interior novels – half rant, half confession – that are popular now were influenced by Thomas Bernhard, but there’s nothing like the original. This bitterly funny book about a man who “slipped into art to get away from life” creates its own genre, boiling with comic rage about Bernhard’s homeland of Austria, from its “scandalous lavatories” to beloved writer Adalbert Stifter (whose suicide “changes nothing about his absolute mediocrity”). “The terrible, after all,” Bernhard writes, “is always ridiculous.”

Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino (1983)

The final book – somewhere between fiction and philosophy – by the most playful and puckish of Italian writers is beautiful, perfect and unique. Dozens of short sketches find Mr Palomar extracting meaning from the “inexhaustible surface” of everyday life: watching two tortoises mating; trying not to look at a naked woman on the beach. Wary of rushing to judgement, he offers an opinion only if he is certain of it; as a result “he spends whole weeks, months in silence.” We should all be so wise.

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.

Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang (1944 – 1979)

Chang’s upbringing – traditional father, cosmopolitan mother – informed her fiction about tensions within the “political glitterati” of mid-century Shanghai: tensions between East and West, between temptation and loyalty, between women and men. Her compact stories unfold like flowers, showing us that beneath our cultural differences lie eternal human weaknesses. After all, she wrote, “this thing called reality is unsystematic,” and her flawed characters “sum up this age of ours better than any hero.”

Chéri by Colette (1920)

Adored by Proust and Gide, Chéri is a witty melodrama and camp delight about a young man of “exceptional good looks” and “virtually nonexistent” character, and the chaos he causes to ripple through the lives of the women surrounding him. Colette’s vivid world – with its “twin deities [of] love and money” – was matched by her fascinating life: she had an affair with Napoleon’s niece, and was the first woman in France to be given a state funeral. The two are not thought to be connected.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)

Steamy in more ways than one, Duras’s most famous novel has an elliptical, tense narrative that embodies “the light of haze and heat” in 1930s Saigon. Duras teases us with autobiographical hints in the story of a French schoolgirl in Indochina and her rich Chinese lover (“He moans, weeps. In dreadful love”), as her family battles tragedy in the background. It’s a high-wire act for reader and author, nostalgic in tone but fully modernist in style.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

Occasionally, a writer takes literature to a new place. If we don’t see the originality in Madame Bovary now, that’s because in writing it, Flaubert largely invented the modern realist novel. But the “brutal” honesty of its portrayal of provincial adultery saw him put on trial for immorality, a blow to the man who wrote “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (He was, happily, acquitted.)

The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer (c. 800BCE)

A bloody war and the journey home make up the foundation stones of Western storytelling. Reading them unlocks all the influences they have had on our literature, but they’re thrilling reads in their own right, with translations for every taste. After these, try the first female Odyssey by Emily Wilson (“the sun leapt up / into the sky of bronze”), or War Music, Christopher Logue’s shattering version of the Iliad (“The stars look down. Troy is a glow behind the dunes”).

Metamorphosis and other stories by Franz Kafka (1912 – 1924)

“I could never finish a novel by Kafka,” wrote Martin Amis. “But then, neither could Kafka.” Anyway his brilliance lies in his stories, plangent comedies of life’s absurdity. He made a man into a bug, and created a “hunger artist” who starves himself for others’ entertainment. ‘“I always wanted you to admire my fasting.” “We do admire it.” “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist.’ There has never been a genius quite like Kafka.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (1933)

Keun’s work has been overshadowed by her associates Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, but she’s every bit their equal. This is the brightest of her novels portraying ambitious young women in inter-war Germany, trying to ignore the politics that block their way. Its heroine Doris wants “to be at the top. With a white car and a bubble bath that smells of perfume, and everything just like in Paris.” The reader cheers her hopelessly on through the pages.

Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (1977)

A chaotic narrator tries “to write a story with a beginning, middle and ‘grand finale’ followed by silence and falling rain.” His failure is our pleasure. The blend of interiority, social awareness and self-referentiality in this report of a young woman who is “incompetent for life” – and the man who invented her – make Lispector’s final novel as innovative and startling as Woolf and Joyce were 50 years earlier.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (1913)

From a cork-lined room on the Boulevard Haussmann came, piece by piece, an inescapable epic of memory brought into being when “the reality I had known no longer existed.” In this first volume of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel’s childhood is recreated in sentences as melodic and sinuous as the piano lines at one of Mme Verdurin’s “grand soirées.” It’s a style that demands its own reading pace, but rewards with an absorbing experience that feels like life and literature entwined.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1833)

A 190-year-old novel in verse shouldn’t be as sparky and fresh as this. Pushkin doesn’t just give us a drama of thwarted love, but a satire of Russian society. When he says directly to the reader, “Earn me the fame that will induce / Skewed comments shrilling with abuse,” we realise it didn’t begin with social media. Pushkin lived as boldly as he wrote: by age 37, he had been involved in 29 duels – the last of which was fatal.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966)

The conflicts of modern Africa are pitilessly dissected in the character of “heartless machine” Mustafa Sa’eed, one of two Sudanese men who go to the “ordered world” of England to be educated. What they bring back with them results in vivid, even lurid, calamity and death, described in a deceptively calm style. The Arab Literary Academy called this the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century – and it’s the book on this list that Mauriac had never read anything like before.

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments by Sappho (c. 600BCE)

Sappho, who wrote songs to accompany the lyre, was one of the earliest poets to write from the personal, often about other young women (hence the word sapphic). Only one of her poems remains intact; the rest are fragments. The surviving lines show the importance of the reader’s imagination in finding personal meaning in poetry. She wrote: “I declare / that later on / even in an age unlike our own / someone will remember who we are.”

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

After Tolstoy’s mammoth novels he wrote this blackly funny story of the life and death of a high-ranking lawyer. Ivan’s ascent is effortless, but by the time of his decline he’s surrounded by colleagues who wonder how his death will affect their own prospects, and a bored family (“Why do we have to suffer?”). When the end comes (“from that moment on the screaming began”), there is only one lesson: in the final reckoning, we are all the same.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

Tomasi was the last Prince of Lampedusa, and his only novel, published posthumously, is one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. It’s a stately, immersive account of social upheaval in 19th-century Sicily, from the viewpoint of the fading aristocracy, where everything ends in “a heap of livid dust.” The tone is elegiac but not without comedy, care of secondary characters like a priest who walks in on the Prince during a bath, or a bunch of “sinister youths in wide-legged trousers.”

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979)

“Happiness can spoil people,” wrote Yuko Tsushima, not that she gave her characters a chance to find out. But this exceptional novel about a divorced mother in Tokyo finding a new place to live shimmers with strange life – nature collides with the city, people who help her seek to control her – and it quickens both the heart and brain. Tsushima had the “horrible idea of becoming a novelist” after winning an essay competition in college. Lucky for us.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

Through meticulous ventriloquism, this fictional memoir of the Roman emperor – “a man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being” – is not just enthralling, but returns to us a sense of wonder at being human. Hadrian has the equanimity of a dying man as he seeks meaning in “the random twitter of birds [and] the distant mechanisms of the stars.” Yourcenar – the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française – worked on the novel intermittently for 27 years: longer than Hadrian’s reign. Like everything on this list, it was worth the wait.

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