As Stephen King once said, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” We’re inclined to agree. A good book transports you to a different time and place, to a different world, and often to a new way of thinking. But a special kind of magic lies within a good foreign language book. Every language has specific characteristics that dictate the way it sounds, so every foreign book has its own style and flow. Even when we read a work of world literature translated into English, the rhythm of the original language often carries over and creates an entirely new reading experience. Foreign books can also teach us a lot about other lands and cultures, providing new perspectives and worldviews.
Are you new to foreign lit and looking for recommendations? We asked seven staffers from the Babbel U.S. team to tell us their favorite foreign language books and what they love about them.
1. News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish)
Gabriel García Márquez started out as a journalist, and in “News of a Kidnapping,” he investigates and narrates a series of kidnappings perpetrated by drug cartels in a guerrilla war of terrorism intended to keep the Colombian government from deporting them to the U.S. These were real-life kidnappings, and Marquez accounts the emotions of the victims and their families, as well as those of the politicians and their relationship with the “Narcos.” The personalities of the kidnappers are also depicted, and the way in which they transformed from regular people into beasts, which I found to be particularly fascinating. I’d take a stab at reading the Spanish version first.
2. Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian)
If you know Karl Ove Knausgaard at all, you’re probably aware of his massive, six-volume, somewhat fictionalized autobiography My Struggle. I am not going to recommend that one, but instead a newer book by the Norwegian author: Autumn. It is the first in a series of four books in which he wrote a short essay each day for a year about a random object, like a more poetic version of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. You can get a taste with this essay about the sun, and be assured that it is a joy to read his meditations on everyday objects and life.
3. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)
Told from multiple points of view, each narrative in this story paints a vivid picture of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Murad III’s reign. The story starts off with one of the Sultan’s commissioned artists being brutally murdered. From there, each character tells their own story, sometimes breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the reader. It’s unlike any murder mystery you’ve ever read.
4. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Italian)
The question of where — or when — Invisible Cities takes place is the mental game that comprises its essential plot. Through a series of conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, Calvino introduces us to dreamy, metaphysical landscapes that describe the existential condition of the inhabitants. Eventually, it becomes apparent that these are not distant places at all, but rather varied permutations of the same primordial City. I don’t know much Italian at all, but I don’t think it’s coincidental that Invisible Cities is a book you have to slowly savor and digest — much like an Italian meal.
5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Portuguese)
One of my favorite foreign books is The Alchemist, which tells the tale of a young shepherd boy named Santiago. It’s a classic, and it reinforced for me the value in trusting your gut and listening to what is in your heart. The cultural influences were inspiring, as there were many tidbits of information from the protagonist’s journey from Spain to Morocco, and ultimately to Egypt. The fable-like narrative makes it one of the most poignant pieces ever produced, in my opinion.
6. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (Japanese)
A Wild Sheep Chase is one of Murakami’s early works (and one of my favorites) because it feels raw and less refined than his later novels. Like most of Murakami’s work, it can be read in two ways: at face value as a whimsical, postmodern fairy tale about one man’s quest for a sheep, or as a multilayered allegory of life in post-war Japan. No matter how you choose to approach the work, Murakami has a way of weaving magic into the mundane fabric of everyday life. Tip: This is the third book from The Trilogy of the Rat, so be sure to check out the first two!
7. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (German)
Imagine waking up one morning as a giant cockroach. Such is the life of Gregor Samsa, the formerly-human-now-insect protagonist in Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). Realizing that only he has been altered while all else remains the same, Gregor must examine his relationship to his family, and they to him and his humanity. The short novella is an absurdist but poignant examination of family, money and obligation in early 20th century industrialized Germany.
8. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spanish)
Originally written in Spanish and translated into English by Lucia Graves, The Shadow of the Wind is not only my favorite foreign language book, but also one of my all-time favorite novels in any language. It’s difficult to summarize the plot without giving away the book’s spellbinding magic, but the characters are complex and relatable, and the storyline is intricately woven, spanning multiple genres including mystery, thriller, romance and historical fiction. Even when read in English, Zafón’s poetic writing style shines through and paints a captivating portrait of Barcelona in the years following the Spanish Civil War.