The 50 Best Literary Translations

Back in 2008, Times Online compiled a list of the 50 best literary translations. The list is quite old but I think it is very useful and, really, who can resist a list? This list includes both fiction and non-fiction.

  1. Raymond Queneau – Exercises in Style (Barbara Wright, 1958)
  2. Primo Levi – If This is a Man (Stuart Woolf, 1959)
  3. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – The Leopard (Archibald Colquhoun, 1961)
  4. Günter Grass – The Tin Drum (Ralph Manheim, 1962)
  5. Jorge Luis Borges – Labyrinths (Donald Yates, James Irby, 1962)
  6. Leonardo Sciascia – Day of the Owl (Archibald Colquhoun, 1963)
  7. Alexander Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Ralph Parker, 1963)
  8. Yukio Mishima – Death in Midsummer (Seidensticker, Keene, Morris, Sargent, 1965)
  9. Heinrich Böll – The Clown (Leila Vennewitz, 1965)
  10. Octavio Paz – Labyrinth of Solitude (Lysander Kemp, 1967)
  11. Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita (Michael Glenny, 1969)
  12. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 100 Years of Solitude (Gregory Rabassa, 1970)
  13. Walter Benjamin – Illuminations (Harry Zohn, 1970)
  14. Paul Celan – Poems (Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton, 1972)
  15. Bertolt Brecht – Poems (John Willett, Ralph Manheim, Erich Fried, et al 1976)
  16. Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish (Alan Sheridan, 1977)
  17. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie – Montaillou (Barbara Bray, 1978)
  18. Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (William Weaver, 1981)
  19. Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida (Richard Howard, 1981)
  20. Christa Wolf – A Model Childhood (Ursule Molinaro, Hedwig Rappolt, 1982)
  21. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (William Weaver, 1983)
  22. Mario Vargas Llosa – Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (Helen R. Lane, 1983)
  23. Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Michael Henry Heim, 1984)
  24. Marguerite Duras – The Lover (Barbara Bray, 1985)
  25. Josef Skvorecky – The Engineer of Human Souls (Paul Wilson, 1985)
  26. Per Olov Enquist – The March of the Musicians (Joan Tate, 1985)
  27. Patrick Süskind – Perfume (John E. Woods, 1986)
  28. Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits (Magda Bodin, 1986)
  29. Georges Perec – Life A User’s Manual (David Bellos, 1987)
  30. Thomas Bernhard – Cutting Timber (Ewald Osers, 1988)
  31. Czeslaw Milosz – Poems (Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Hass, 1988)
  32. José Saramago – Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Giovanni Pontiero, 1992)
  33. Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time (Terence Kilmartin, 1992)
  34. Roberto Calasso – The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (Tim Parks, 1993)
  35. Naguib Mahfouz – Cairo Trilogy (Olive E. Kenny, Lorne M. Kenny, Angela Botros Samaan, 1991-3)
  36. Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate (Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen, 1993)
  37. Bao Ninh – The Sorrow of War (Frank Palmos, Phan Thanh Hao, 1994)
  38. Victor Klemperer – I Shall Bear Witness (Martin Chalmers, 1998)
  39. Beowulf (Seamus Heaney, 1999)
  40. Josef Brodsky – Collected Poems (Anthony Hecht et al, 2000)
  41. Xingjian Gao – Soul Mountain (Mabel Lee, 2001)
  42. Tahar Ben Jelloun – This Blinding Absence of Light (Linda Coverdale, 2002)
  43. W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz (Anthea Bell, 2002)
  44. Orhan Pamuk – Snow (Maureen Freely, 2004)
  45. Amos Oz – A Tale of Love and Darkness (Nicholas de Lange, 2004)
  46. Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses (Ann Born, 2005)
  47. Irène Némirovsky – Suite Française (Sandra Smith, 2006)
  48. Vassily Grossman – Life and Fate (Robert Chandler, 2006)
  49. Alaa Al Aswany – The Yacoubian Building (Humphrey Davies, 2007)
  50. Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, 2007)

I have only read two titles from the list but I’m not sure which translation it was. It’s interesting to to see several collections of poetry on the list. I would have assumed they would be very difficult to translate but I suppose the translators must have done a stellar job. It’s a little strange to see War and Peace at 50 and no Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment in sight given they’re generally the more popular translated texts. The list would have been a little more helpful if they had included the publisher details too. Regardless, the list gives me a few more international titles to pick from.

What do you think of the list? Are these really the best translations?


    1. That is a new title which I’ll have to check out! I wonder how authors feel when they’re translating their own books. I’m sure it’s marvellous because they’ll have complete control but does it feel to them that they’re writing the book again in its entirety? Or even changing the book to match the language idiosyncrasies?

  1. I heartily agree with #33, Marcel Proust, however I prefer Rosemary Edmonds’ translation of War & Peace. It’s old, but good. 🙂 I wonder how many books on the list have been translated into English more than once?

    1. Most of these translations seem to be older but I think perhaps publishers might not be so keen to translate texts that have been already translated to save money. I think new translations are always interesting. There was bit of drama with the new translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir a few months back.

  2. I love lists! I think I´ve only read 4 or 5 of them, but I´ve read the German ones in German so I guess that doesn´t count 🙂
    I have one or two of Parmuk´s works but still haven´t read them.

    1. Have you read those German titles after they’ve been translated into English? What do you think of the translation?

      I’ve yet to read Parmuk. I’ve been meaning to read ‘Snow’, as well as Italo Calvino, Proust, Eco…

  3. I have only read Suite Francaise, and The Name of the Rose, but I don’t remember the name of the translator. I tried and gave up on War and Peace. Maybe the transalation mentioned here might make a difference

    1. I want to buy a copy of War and Peace but there’s so many translations out there. I guess I’ll go for the standard Penguin but I still like to know my options. Whose translation did you read it in?

  4. I love the Howard translations of Roland Barthes’ texts. Most especially in A Lover’s Discourse, just so swoonable. The language was just so fantastic. I owe it to the translators who bring us these works. I get envious, too, that they can feel the text in its undiluted form.

    Whenever I read translated works, I’m always hyper-aware of what could be lost, what’s missing, or what’s been changed due to the constraints of the language you’re translating to. I once translated a novel for a Filipino author, & the work played with a lot of expressions and idioms. There were so many I had to adjust, to make new–all the while keeping true to the original text. But sometimes, it just feels seamless.

    I also hate it that the translators are given teeny-tiny fonts in the book covers. As much as possible, in my own book blog, I mention who were the translators. It’s through them, after all, that we experience the books. That’s why I feel guilty sometimes when I can’t remember who the translator is. For example, I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I had to Google who translated the edition I read. Eek.


    1. PS! The Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of Tolstoy’s works, they say, goes a long way in diminishing the intimidation factor of Leo Tolstoy. They say. I am yet to pick up a translation of theirs–though The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories is very very tempting–since seeing “Tolstoy” on a book cover still has me running in the other direction.

      1. Wow! You translated a work? I can appreciate how difficult it is. There are many expressions and words that simply don’t exist or don’t mean the same thing in different languages. Keeping true to the story, its essence and the language style is very difficult!

        I give billing to the translators too. Their job might just as well be as difficult as the authors. They are, in some aspects, writing a book themselves.

        I’ve just checked my copy of Anna Karenina and it’s by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Hurrah! I’ve also just realised that they’ve won a translation prize. Honestly, with Tolstoy, and any Russian novel, it’s not the translation, it’s simply all the names, nicknames and variations of both names and nicknames that makes me quake in fear!

  5. I only recently started to pay attention to translators. I feel very stupid about that now.

    Thank you for this list, it’ll be a great resource.

    1. Glad you found it useful. 🙂 I started paying attention to translators in high school when I was studying classics and my teacher did a song and dance about having to have right translation of the texts so that has stuck with me since.

  6. I have only read Calvino’s If On A Winter Night though there are a few books there that are on my physical or mental tbr. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t usually pay attention to the translators. I really should, since I’m usually super-conscious when I’m reading a translated work that it is a translated work.

    1. I wish I was literate in another language so I could do a thesis on the translations because I’m always certain that there’s something stifled about my translation. There’s an air of sterility no matter how well translated it is.

  7. I ve read ten on this list and have a further 4 on tbr pile , a good list but hard to judge what is best ,lack of arfrican fiction no chourki ,or asian no murkami does surprise me ,all the best stu

    1. That’s a very good point. I didn’t realise that. It’s very Western centric, isn’t it? Perhaps there’s another more comprehensive list somewhere…

  8. Lovely list, thanks Mae for posting it. I’ve only read 6 (and most will, I think, be by the named translator but would have to check to be sure). For a couple of other authors (such as Sebald) I’ve read other books but not the one named, and, of course, I have a few on my TBR pile. Do give Pamuk a go – and if you do I’d recommend Snow. I thought it was a clever and intriguing book.

    1. I always thought Sebald was an English writer. Clearly, I was wrong!I’m going to have to pop Austerlitz onto my TBR. I always feel sorry for that book because it’s usually shelved next to Alice Sebold who is much more well known.

  9. I have read a few off of the list namely 100 Years of Solitude, The House of the Spirits, Suite Francaise and Out Stealing Horses. I am about to start War and Peace as translated by Pevear and Volokhonsy because I really enjoyed their translation of Anna Karenina.

    The books off of that list that I have been meaning to read for the longest time are the Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz. I had completely forgotten about them, but had them out from the library at one point. Will have to go and reborrow them.

    It would be interesting to see if the Stieg Larsson books would make the list if they were to do it again now. Whether they are best translation or not, they are certainly the translated books that seem to be taking the world by storm at the moment!

    Thanks for signing up for the Australian Book Blogger Directory.

    1. Best of luck with War and Peace! My poor copy of Anna Karenina is still sleeping by my pillow – literally, and has been for the past year.

      I was thinking about the Larsson books too since they’re such a hit. I think they were pretty well translated. Usually, they’re always something slightly off but i didn’t really notice it with the Larsson books and I think thrillers are pretty difficult to translate.

      Great idea for the book blogger directory. 🙂

  10. I just found your blog on the Australian Book Blogger Directory and I found your blog and I love it! I think we have very similar taste in books. Im another book blogger from Australia, but I am in Sydney. I am loving finding all these new Aussie blogs. I will definitely be back to yours.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Becky! It’s always great to meet other aussie bloggers. I’ll be sure to check out your blog too. 🙂

  11. I was trying to comment on this the other day, when I saw the post in Google Reader, but wordpress was acting up. Couldn’t open any of the WordPress blogs on my blogroll. Apologies for the slightly late-ish comment.

    Of the list, the two I highly recommend are One Hundred Years of Solitude and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.

    Got both, The Master And Margarita and Suite Francaise on my shelf, as I type this. Hopefully, they’ll be amazing considering their place on this list.

    1. No worries, comments are always welcomed. 🙂

      I have If on a winter’s night – that’s stuffed within my TBR pile. I read a quarter of it before I got distracted. It’s very bizarre! Also got Master and Margarita. I don’t know why I haven’t read that yet. And many more!

      I wonder if there are more lists of the best translations…

  12. I’d have to disagree with the Proust, I think the new Penguin translations edited by Christopher Prendergast are better, especially Lydia Davis’s Swann’s Way. Besides which, Terence Kilmartin was mostly just revising Scott Moncrieff’s much earlier translation that had too many Edwardian flowers in it. 😉 Just a little of my Proust nerdiness creeping out!

    1. I was going to post a similar response. The translation by Lydia Davis of the fist book is lyrical. The other translations are first rate and are all by different authors, it makes one realize what a huge task Moncrieff set out for himself trying to do the entire work.

  13. This is a very cool list. Now I feel inspired to read a quality work of translated fiction.
    Nice blog you have. I will have to drop by more often.

  14. Thanks for this enticing list! I am currently reading William Weaver’s fabulous translation of If On A Winters Night A Traveler. I would like to add The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder in 2009. Although a new and interesting translation appeared last year, I am never far from my copy of Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. I felt the Spanish grandeur in Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote by Cervantes.

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