What Are Some of The Greatest Books That Were Not Originally In English?
Posted on 16th of August, 2018


I don't know any great foreign language books that haven't been translated yet, but there are some that are considered classics and which are now available in many different languages. One of the most famous and popular ones is probably Cien años de soledad, or One Hundred Years of Solitude as it is known in English, by Gabriel García Márquez. The book came out in the late sixties and covers the lives of the Buendía Family and their involvement with the town of Macondo. I haven't read the original, but the english translation does a good job with capturing the symbolism and metaphors that are rife in the story.

You are probably aware of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux. This French novel was eventually translated to the much loved The Phantom of the Opera, which everyone should know. Then of course there is El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes that all of us in the English speaking world know as Don Quixote.
Cré na Cille is an incredible novel and until very recently it was impossible to read if you did not understand Irish. It is relatively easy to find best sellers that were not originally in English as popular books these days get translated into hundreds of different languages. Cré na Cille is very different in this regard as critics have been calling it one of the greatest Irish language novels of all time, but for some reason nobody was successful at translating it to English despite numerous attempts. The book, which means Churchyard Clay, was first published in 1949 by the Irish author, Máirtín Ó Cadhain and involves a lot of conversations between the dead in a graveyard. It wasn't until 46 years after it was first published that the book was translated into Norwegian and five years after that to Danish. English readers however had to wait 67 years until the book was translated into their language. I can highly recommend this book and you will love it if you appreciate the works of Joyce or Beckett as these authors have a similar style.
If you only ever read one book that is not English, make sure that it is Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The book is set appropriately enough in the Three Kingdoms period, which was when China was split between Wi, Shu and Wu after the dissolution of the Han dynasty. Now despite starting in 169 AD, this book is not a boring historical tome. It does contain a lot of history yes, but also lots of myths and legends, which makes for plenty of excitement. The book is considered to be one of the greatest works of Chinese literature and it is simply mammoth. Since it has more than one hundred chapters I cannot even begin to describe the plot, but if you like epic military battles and political ploys you will love the book. One thing that you absolutely have to watch out for is reading the correct translation of the book. You have two choices for reading the full story, either the Brewitt-Taylor version or the Moss Roberts version. The first uses nicer language, but for some reason uses an alternate system for the names, which can be very confusing if you are already familiar with the story. The Moss Roberts version is more modern, so it doesn't have the same type of flowery language, but at least the names will be more recognizable. The first chapter can be a slog to get through, but after that you are in for a wild ride.
Some of my favorite books are translations. Here are a few that I can highly recommend if you have not read them yet.

1. The Name of the Rose by Italian author Umberto Eco. Eco wrote this book in 1980 and, as far as I know, it is is a best-seller. English readers had to wait three years before William Weaver translated the book. The best way to describe The Name of The Rose would be a murder mystery. It takes place in an Italian monastery where some bizarre deaths occur after accusations of heresy. The book contains plenty of suspense and reading how the protagonist, Brother William, pieces everything together is a thrill no matter what language you read it in.

2. The Box Man by Japanese author Kōbō Abe is another good one. He also wrote Woman in the Dunes, but The Box Man is my favorite. The book is about a man who gives up everything and takes to wearing a cardboard box over his head while drifting through the streets of Tokyo. The way that he describes the world around him is excellent and the author came up with all kinds of cool scenarios based around this unique setup. The book is a little incoherent at times if you are not used to the style of the author, but I haven't read many other authors that come close to capturing the feelings he is able to evoke. The translation I read was done by E. Dale Saunders and he did an exceptional job capturing the ramblings of the author. The Box Man is also one of those books that you can keep re-reading and find new meanings.

3. Love in the Time of Cholera by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one that most people should know, if only for the movie that came out in 2007. The book itself was published in 1985 in Spanish and an English translation followed in 1988 courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf. It is the story of the love that blooms between the young Florentino and Fermina, which is quickly quashed by Fermina's father. He goes as far as moving to another city with his daughter to keep her away from Florentino. It is here where she ends up marrying another man, but Florentino promises to wait for her despite this. Gabriel is a very gifted author, so all of his books are worth seeking out and reading, but there is something about Love in the Time of Cholera that really captivated me. The translation for this one was done superbly by Edith Grossman.

4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. As you can tell I have a bit of a thing for Japanese authors and Murakami is one of the best. This book starts off innocently enough with a man searching for his wife's cat that has gone missing. But, in true Murakami fashion, things soon become very surreal. It is one of those books where once you get drawn into the story, it is easy to just get swept away. While reading this book I was never sure where and when the lines between dreams and reality began to blur, but everything is explained in the end, so it is worth sticking with it even when you get confused. The translation for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was done by Jay Rubin.

5. A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes by Chinese author Jin Yong. Unless you are Chinese or very familiar with Chinese culture, it is hard to explain just how influential the work of Jin Yong is. The first volume received an English translation a while back for the first time and many people consider it to be like the Lord of the Rings of Chinese literature. The English translation for this book is very good, but it is still something that can be very hard to jump into if you don't already have some familiarity with the "wuxia" genre. If you get this book, be sure to check the appendix as it contains explanations of a lot of concepts in the book that might be foreign to English readers as well as a list of characters. The latter is especially useful seeing as Chinese names don't exactly roll off English tongues and keeping track of more than thirty characters with such names can be tricky to say the least.
Some of the greatest books of all times are from non-english speaking authors. One Thousand and One Nights date back to the Islamic Golden Age and was originally in Arabic before it was translated to Arabian Nights for English readers. The books by Leo Tolstoy were all also originally in Russian, including Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
Most of the books we know as classics today were not originally in English, but translated from other languages. I'm not saying that America doesn't have great literature or that the UK wasn't a huge contributor to classic literature, but the world is a big place and there are many, many books that were originally written in other languages. To provide just one example, Alexandre Dumas was one of the most widely read French authors in the world and his works include The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. I would go as far as saying that France produced some of the best authors in the world thanks to the likes of Voltaire, Jules Verne, Albert Camus, Marcel Proust and Victor Hugo.

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