The 100 Best Novels in Translation

The 100 Best Novels in Translation

by Boyd Tonkin


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Ian McEwan:

“This is a brilliant and extremely useful guide, approachable on every level. Boyd Tonkin opens up infinite worlds of the imagination.”

(quote for front cover)

Following the great success of the hardcover edition of Boyd Tonkin’s 100 Best Novels in Translation, Galileo is very happy to announce a trade paperback edition.

The author was Literary Editor of The Independent newspaper and started the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize which ran from 1990 until 2015 before becoming part of the Man Booker awards.

He has made an extraordinary selection of ‘classics’ ranging from the well known authors such as Proust, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Cervantes, Nabokov, Marquez, Kundera etc, to name just a handful, to lesser known, but no less deserving, authors writing in languages from every corner of the earth. For each selection he has written a commentary on the plot and theme of the work concerned, as well as writing about the merits of the particular translation(s) into the English language. The works are arranged in date order of publication, and are not ranked in any other way.

The result is a rich tapestry of the best fiction from around the world that will surely accelerate the recent trend towards a more outward looking approach to what we read. It is both a work of reference but as importantly a book that can read from cover to cover with huge enjoyment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781912916047
Publisher: Galileo Publishers
Publication date: 09/26/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,217,831
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

The author was Literary Editor of The Independent newspaper and started the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize which ran from 1990 until 2015 before becoming part of the Man Booker awards

Read an Excerpt


Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes


Translated by Edith Grossman (Vintage)

In Don Quixote, dawn breaks at twilight. Over the four centuries since the Knight of the Doleful Countenance first set out from his home in La Mancha "to wander the world righting wrongs and rectifying injuries", the two volumes of Cervantes' novel have become the acknowledged pattern-book or seed-bank which germinates every branch of Western fiction. If so, then the novel in the West begins at the end of days. Most obviously, the threadbare gentleman Señor Alonso Quixano has gone crazy from reading antiquated books. Thanks to obsessive consumption of old romances of chivalry about legendary heroes and their far-fetched exploits, he imagines himself as "Don Quixote" and embarks on his – yes, "quixotic" – mission to revive "the lost and dying order of knight errantry". He has even sold "acres of arable land" to buy these silly yarns. The priest and barber forever try to talk, or trick, the Don out of his madcap "sallies" with the peasant farmer Sancho Panza, who consents to act as his "squire". They seal his library and burn the noxious books.

So, as its founding premise, Don Quixote tells of a nostalgic fixation with a worn-out genre which prompts a delusional countryman to dream of restoring a defunct medieval honour-code: "I have redressed grievances, righted wrongs, punished insolence, vanquished giants, and trampled monsters." Even the manuscript that recounts his fantastical forays, Cervantes tells us, is a translation from the Arabic of the Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli, "flower of all historians", found in the market-place in Toledo. Later, we hear that reading translations is, in any case, "like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side". Besides, this retro tale supposedly composed in a half-forgotten language, now taboo in Catholic Spain, unfolds over a landscape of decline.

Hunger, strife, decay and dislocation dog the steps of Quixote and Sancho – one on the bony nag Rocinante, the latter on his accident-prone donkey – across La Mancha, Aragon and Catalonia. Starved villages, chained prisoners, hunted fugitives, squalid inns (which the ever-innocent Don takes for castles with "spires of gleaming silver"): their adventures unroll amid "detestable times". The peerless comedy of his feats and follies, recounted with a sympathetic irony that never slips into mere burlesque, leads us into the darkest corners of Cervantes' world. From the tales of sea battles with Muslim pirates and slavery in Algiers (both of which the author had experienced) to the plight of ethnically-cleansed "Moriscos" (Muslims who had converted to Christianity), Don Quixote plants its stories of "enchantment" in the soil of history. On these stony plains, the "golden age" of "peace, harmony and friendship" – conjured by the novel's interpolated tales of well-born, love-lorn swains and damsels disguised as goatherds or shepherdesses – has long vanished. Only in his visions can the Don enter his paradise of chivalry: as when he descends into the Cave of Montesinos and witnesses an idyllic fairyland, "reserved only for thy invincible heart and wondrous courage", or in his tireless devotion to the flawless Dulcinea of Toboso (in truth, a warty peasant wench). Or, perhaps, that courtly Utopia lies in his friendship with Sancho: those complementary archetypes of imagination and reality that every novel, like every mind, must learn to balance.

Yet it only takes another ragged traveller to meet them on the road and "Brother Sancho, we have an adventure!" "May God make it a good one ...". Just as the hard-headed Sancho intermittently shares the fantasies of his "master" and so connives in his dreamworld, so Cervantes sweeps his reader into a realm of invention while keeping one foot securely planted on this dusty earth. Don Quixote abounds with debates about the virtues and vices of fiction: a literary canon the duo meets argues that worthy tales must, "by restraining exaggeration and moderating implausibility", "enthrall the spirit and thereby astonish, captivate, delight and entertain". Reality should tame fancy. From the forty windmills of La Mancha charged by the gangly Don ("these are giants!") to his sword-fight with an ogre in the guise of tavern wine-skins; from his frenzied attack on the "pasteboard figures" of Master Pedro's puppet show to that descent into the spellbound Cave, the Don's escapades thrust him – and us – into the hazy borderlands between myth and truth. Cervantes folds the ancient into the modern, romance into realism. By presuming to mock the "lunatic actions" provoked by "perverse books" of chivalry, he proves by example the authentic nobility of the storyteller's art. For these days, as the canon claims, "the epic can be written in prose as well as verse".

Proud of his artistry, scornful of his imitators, jealous of his fame (Part Two echoes to the sound of the author crowing about the success of Part One: "Thirty thousand copies of my history have been printed"), Cervantes tilts at his detractors much as the Don gallops at his own – actual or imagined – foes. Don Quixote, which pioneers so many of the novel's classic tropes, even becomes in Part Two a thoroughly "postmodern" jaunt through metafictional terrain. In these later "sallies" his own celebrity becomes one of the fiercest giants he must fight. Meanwhile, his old friends from the village, and the friendly graduate Sansón, try to return the Don to his home and his wits. Intrigued by the renown of this eccentric vagabond who inspired a bestseller, aristocratic patrons subject the Don and Sancho to cruel stunts. Only a well-intentioned deception, when Sansón defeats the Don in a joust while disguised as the Knight of the White Moon, will guide him back "from madness to sanity", and into a peaceful death. Those "enchanters" the Don blamed for his mishaps have ceased to plague him. The grounded magic of his story remains. Cervantes, as much the chivalric hero as his scatty hidalgo, has championed the honour of the old-new novel, his own Dulcinea, and released it from its mystifying bonds. Knight-errantry may be extinct, but fiction's armour shines. As an inn landlady says, recalling how her weary customers love to hear a tale after a long day's harvesting, "I never have any peace in the house except when you're listening to someone read".


The Princesse de Clèves (1678) by Madame de La Fayette (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne)


Translated by Robin Buss (Penguin Classics)

Small worlds breed grand passions. Today, much of genre fiction, film and television turns on the pressure cooker intrigues of life in workplaces and institutions, from university campuses to hospitals and police stations. Crucially, the presence of women in these professional milieux, holding positions of responsibility, drives plots in which the need for respect and autonomy can fall foul not only of overt discrimination but of individual desire. "There were so many different factions and parties," The Princesse de Clèves informs us, "and the women played so great a role in them, that love was always allied to politics and politics to love".

It may sound strange to consider a sort of fictional chamber-drama, set within a narrow circle of nobles in and around the French court of the late 1550s, as a prototype of modern stories about the entanglement of private and public life in societies that pay at least formal tribute to equality between the sexes. In contrast, the engineer's daughter who became Madame de La Fayette on her marriage to a much older widower in 1655 survived – and managed to thrive – at a court that only granted power to non-royal women strictly behind the scenes. In Renaissance or Baroque palaces, the personal was invariably political.

Covert female power, however, might be decisive. Women at court who armoured themselves carefully enough against compromise or disgrace could hope to sway kings and steer policy. Yet love beyond the bounds of marital convention would still expose a woman, however grand her title, to risks far beyond those run by any male paramour. At the same time, only outside marriage – a dynastic and commercial contract among the aristocracy – could "passion" be found. Towards this novel's end, the widowed Princess baldly tells the admirer she rejects that her late husband "was perhaps the only man in the world able to preserve something of love within marriage".

Madame de La Fayette's pioneering novel of passion and power in a gilded crucible of suspicion and betrayal ostensibly takes place during the last years of the reign of Henri II (1547-1559). Since its first, anonymous appearance, readers have dissected it as a veiled picture of the treacherous cockpit that the author knew as a super-observant insider at the court of Louis XIV in Paris and then Versailles. She had become a confidante of Henriette of England, wife to Louis's brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans, and perhaps projects this friendship back onto the bond in her third novel between the Princess and the gifted, beautiful but scheming "Dauphine": Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. She does take care to make her story work as a period piece rather than a topical exposé in thin disguise, drawing lavishly on histories of the earlier age. Anglophone fans of Tudor fiction and drama will find plenty of familiar characters and incidents here, from Mary herself to the early struggles of Elizabeth I, and a flashback to the already-legendary rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.

Married well at a tender age to the virtuous and devoted M de Clèves, the former Mlle de Chartres enjoys the devotion of a husband she respects, but cannot love. He only once suspects her of infidelity. When he does, it kills him. Despite herself, the Princess falls for the serial seducer the Duc de Nemours, described as "nature's masterpiece" and a charming narcissist who glories in his erotic allure. Yet she refuses to begin an affair with him. This is, above all, a tale of wrenching self-denial, control and renunciation. In the hothouse of the court, rumours and confidences serve as currency that – hint by hint, drip by drip – link the princess and the duke. Breaking all the conventions of discreet liaisons, she tells her husband of this unfulfilled passion for another. Why, he wails, could she not have left him "in that untroubled blindness so many husbands enjoy"?

In an extraordinary scene, he sends a gentleman to spy on Nemours while Nemours, voyeuristically, spies on the half-naked princess with her hair down, in her pretty "pavilion" in the forest. She, in turn, gazes at a picture of the suitor she has never touched, "with the intensity of mediation that only passionate love can induce". This fatal chain of looks will lock them all into the final crisis that ends with her husband's death in near-despair, and the bereaved heroine's refusal of Nemours – even though no barrier of law or custom now forbids their union. The serial predator, she fears, will devour and discard her, for all the evidence of true love that he shows. Meanwhile, she accepts that "I am sacrificing much to an idea of duty that exists only in my mind". Subtle, acute and startlingly modern, this novel of whispered secrets and stifled yearnings allows its heroine to glimpse a form of freedom she can never reach. Only solitude, and the lonely virtues of the convent where she will spend part of every year, lies ahead in her "somewhat brief" life.


Candide, or Optimism (1759) by Voltaire (François- Marie Arouet


Translated by Theo Cuffe (Penguin Classics)

Within the brief compass of Candide, Voltaire spares no sacred cow the lash of his mocking wit. That includes the canonisation of literary works as "classics" to be foisted on sullen students. "Fools admire everything in an established classic" scoffs the hard-to-please Venetian nobleman Pococurante while he, in short order, trashes the epics of Virgil, Homer ("it bores me to distraction") and Milton ("that barbarian"). Our gormless young hero is astonished at these heresies, for "he had been brought up never to exercise his own judgment". The rapid ascent of Voltaire's scattershot satire into the pantheon of Western civilisation began with multiple editions launched secretly, like underwater missiles, across Europe in 1759. In its own way, Candide's status confirms that slavish craving for authority, and the surrender of independent thought, that Voltaire laments in all human affairs. Yes, the naïve Candide's picaresque jaunt through the societies, the creeds and the ideologies of 18th-century Europe and America richly merits its enduring place on the syllabus, and in books like this one. But its prime targets change with the tenor of the times. Everyone can now nod in dutiful consent as Voltaire flays the hypocrisies and superstitions of organised religion, the wickedness of war and colonialism, or the commercial greed that lays waste the earth and curses its peoples. As a mutilated slave in Surinam says as he explains how punishments in the factory where he toils have robbed him of his limbs, "That's the price of your eating sugar in Europe."

Voltaire, though, pushes his all-weather scepticism even into the self-satisfied circles where enlightened minds congratulate one another on their superiority to the common herd. Although he might share Voltaire's opinions on Homer and Milton, the carping Pococurante becomes a figure of fun, narcissistically in thrall to his "pleasure in not being pleased". In Paris, quarrelsome capital of "this absurd nation", Candide runs into fault-finding "men of taste" whose slash-and-burn criticism exposes envy rather than rigour, "just as eunuchs hate successful lovers". Voltaire sees that the forces of Enlightenment, whose power he did so much to promote as satirist, historian and polemicist, might also be an army of the night. No one escapes whipping – not even the weary pessimist Martin, hedged against suffering by a conviction that "a man is badly off wherever he is".

Suffering and misery in every form burn at the molten core of this skipping, skittish work. Voltaire's "philosophical tales", with Candide foremost among them, ditch any pretence to plausibility in favour of effervescent, ideas-driven fantasy. Today, Candide might remind us of an animated film, a graphic novel, or a high-end TV satire. It feels like a stylised game, a lark, a romp; but one that takes aim through its cartoonish episodes and quick-fire shifts of scenery at the weightiest institutions and ideas. Voltaire, though, seeks to tickle rather than bludgeon them to death.

Candide is a Westphalian adventurer, both scamp and innocent, expelled from the "earthly paradise" of his estate, and separated from the Baron's daughter, his beloved Cunégonde. He and his tutor Dr Pangloss endure battle, flogging, disease, prison, torture, enslavement and robbery as they bounce from Germany to Lisbon, Buenos Aires to Paraguay, Paris to Constantinople. Misfortune by misfortune, atrocity by atrocity, from earthquake to syphilis to plague to rape to massacre, Voltaire skewers in deadpan prose the folly of Panglossian optimism, with its belief that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". The dogmatic rationalism of Leibniz, his principal bugbear, has sunk into oblivion, along with other fads Candide also crushes. However, the evidence-proof faith in human perfectibility, either within radical politics or in brands of "new age" uplift, remains a favourite illusion of our century, as of Voltaire's. We may have exchanged old models of sentimentality for new ones; Candide remains a sovereign purgative for all. On the brink of ecological catastrophe, still menaced by nuclear annihilation, beset by conflict and oppression, we hope with Pangloss that "everything would turn out right in some marvellous way".

Although he endorses no system, Voltaire saves many of the best lines for heretics, freethinkers and non-Christians. The Anabaptist James concludes that men "were not born wolves, yet they have become wolves". At rest on a little plot outside Constantinople, Candide and his companions learn from an old Turkish farmer that honest work "banishes those three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty". All ambition and theory discarded, "We must cultivate our garden". So Candide ironises its own irony, and capsizes its cynicism. Its wide-eyed hero does return to the pastoral idyll of his Westphalian boyhood. Allergic to all absolutes, Voltaire makes sure that his critique of irrational optimism gives little succour to the doctrinaire gloom of the Manichean sage Martin, who fears that "Man's origin is evil". Such lofty notions hardly befit "such a strange animal as man", a frail vessel for fitful dreams and desires. So get digging in the garden, and console yourself with a coffee – Voltaire, something of a connoisseur himself, recommends "pure Mocha ... unmixed".


Excerpted from "The 100 Best Novels in Translations"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Boyd Tonkin.
Excerpted by permission of Galileo Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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