Translated fiction is a great way to expand your mind by seeing how other people and cultures view the world, and what better way in than the classics?
Italo Calvino said: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” These are books that float free of time and speak to us as clearly now as they did decades or centuries ago. With so many to choose from, we’ve selected some funny, accessible, strange and short books to get you started – including stories from the greatest Japanese, Italian and Spanish writers.
Great Italian Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri
A philosophical everyman meets a tortoise (“Admit it, Man. You think that I don’t think”), a family tries to recover from the war (“We were young and we could start over”) and a woman prefers her wardrobe to her husband (“Good morning, Bago”). The range of Jhumpa Lahiri’s exceptional Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories is here distilled into ten perfect tales, presented with the Italian and English language versions on facing pages.
Some of the greatest established Italian 20th-century writers are here, including Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg and Elsa Morante, as well as several that deserve a wider audience. (Various translators)
Great Spanish Stories by Margaret Jull Costa
This is your starting point for the riches of Spanish fiction from the 19th century to the present day. The stories, selected from The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories, appear in both Spanish and English, making it ideal for those wishing to expand their knowledge of the Spanish language.
The Spanish Civil War features – as in Manuel Rivas’s The Butterfly’s Tongue, where a boy is asked to denounce his teacher – as does growing up painfully, in Esther Tusquet’s Summer Orchestra. (Various translators)
“One day, just like that, a small factory appeared on the outskirts of the town.” Minoru Betsuyaku’s story Factory Town is one of the short and sweet stories in this dual-language collection.
But the book, representing the range of Japanese literature, also includes the short and strange (as in Kōno Taeko’s In the Box, about life in a lift) and the short and sinister (from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the modern master of Japanese short fiction). The presence of female voices in modern Japanese literature is here too, with Mieko Kawakami’s Dreams of Love, etc. (Various translators)
It’s impossible to read this satirical masterpiece without constantly checking the date: can something so bang up to date really have been written almost 90 years ago, in 1936? Set at “a time when nothing, absolutely nothing happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis”, Czech author Karel Čapek's novel features a breed of intelligent newts who end up at war with the human race.
The story makes fun of everything from Hollywood celebrities to the modern media, and in doing so gives us comedy, social commentary, science fiction, pastiche and a cautionary tale – making us think about everything from antisemitism in Europe to capitalism and cheap immigrant labour. (Translated by M and R Weatherall)
This was the final novel by the greatest Brazilian literary export of the last century, published weeks before her death. Hour of the Star is a slim volume that fully represents what Colm Tóibín called Lispector’s “fleeting, oddly unreliable, complicated” qualities.
It’s about Macabea, a typist living in Rio, and her love life and work life, but the story is made unstable by its quixotic narrator, who is as much the central figure as Macabea herself. When a fortune teller says her life is about to change completely, Macabea learns to be careful what you wish for. (Translated by Benjamin Moser)
If anyone invented the modern novel, it was Flaubert, with this unmissably perfect “study of provincial life” that he put everything he had into (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he once said about his work).
He created the style and psychological insights into characters that we now take for granted, with his story of a married woman who seeks relief from boredom through money and sex. (In its time it was denounced as an “immoral work.”) This “perfect piece of fictional machinery”, as Julian Barnes described it, is made even more authentic in this translation by Adam Thorpe, who only uses words that existed in 1853, when the book was first published. (Translated by Adam Thorpe)
“A writer who is afraid is no true writer,” wrote German writer Irmgard Keun, who walked the walk. She specialised in novels about young women trying to find their way in modern society – the most dramatic of these is After Midnight, which covers the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and pokes fun at Hitler. (Keun also sued the Gestapo for loss of earnings when her books were withdrawn from German bookshops.)
But it is also a human story and a love story, narrated by 19-year-old Sanne, who likes nothing better than to get together with her friends and “exchange rapid but important information about men and love.” (Translated by Anthea Bell)
This 1984 novel by the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature is a modern classic: the New York Times called it “the most significant historical novel about black Africa published in many a year.”
Covering the first half of the 19th century, Segu features the religious clashes – between animism and Islam – that defined the period, and has continuing relevance to any period or land where conflicting cultures fail to work together. This is a complicated story with dozens of characters (in common with Condé’s shorter novel Crossing the Mangrove), but the author’s ability to keep the action gripping makes it easy to see why this novel became a bestseller in France. (Translated by Barbara Bray)
This novel, first published in 1985, is the perfect entry point to the greatest grumpy old man in modern European literature. Bernhard takes the reader through an unbroken monologue full of outrage, despair and laughs (the book is subtitled A Comedy).
It’s the story of a man in a Viennese art museum, reflecting on his friend Reger (who “slipped into art to get away from life”) and whittling away at his obsessions like a literary perpetual motion machine. Nothing escapes his rants, from Glaswegian aunts to public toilets, so the reader can only laugh along and nod helplessly when he concludes that “the terrible, after all, is always ridiculous.” (Translated by Ewald Osers)