Books You Didn't Realize Were Translations

Translators are the invisible heroes of the literary world. Usually, we don't think too hard about how books go from one language to another. I mean, sure, you know that Homer didn't write The Odyssey in English. You have a vague idea that a lot of those big fat Russian novels were originally written in Russian. And you are probably aware that there are millions of book-lovers out there who read in multiple languages. But when we read a book, we think of the words as coming straight from the author—even if they went through a translator first. So here are a few popular books that you might not have realized are translated, because literary translators deserve a lot more credit.

After all, despite all those YouTube videos with 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' theme song fed through Google Translate several thousand times, most translations are not done by a computer. There is a real, live human writer who must figure out a way to translate all the idioms and references and descriptive language of a book from one language to another. It's not always easy (hence why in French, Voldemort's middle name is "Elvis"). But a good translation is a work of art. Here are some translations you may have already read, without even knowing it:


'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa

Persepolis is the true story of young Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It's one of the most notable graphic novel memoirs ever written, much loved for its nuanced, funny, and horrifying portrayal of childhood during wartime — and it was originally written in French. It was translated by Mattias Ripa, who just so happens to be Marjane Satrapi's spouse.

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'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R. Clarke

O Alquimista has been translated from Portuguese into over 70 languages. The story of the shepherd boy named Santiago who's off chasing treasure (spoiler alert: he finds something far more significant) is clearly a universal one, and The Alchemist is a bestseller in a number of languages.

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'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland

I have to say, I'm a little partial to the original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is Män som hatar kvinnor. It literally translates to "Men Who Hate Women." The plot is the same in both languages, of course, but boy does that original title change your perspective going in (I guess Americans really love their books with "Girl" in the title).

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'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante has long been shrouded in mystery as the pseudonym of one of Italy's most brilliant novelists. Even her translator, Ann Goldstein, reportedly doesn't know Ferrante's real name. But Ann Goldstein does know how to translate an immersive Italian epic about friendship and family into a sparkling English novel.

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'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson

This French novel seems to resonate with speakers of every language. Two misfits live in a Parisian apartment building: the 54-year-old concierge who secretly yearns for more intellectual companions, and the 12-year-old genius girl who longs for death. Their story is equal parts moving and funny, in both English and French.

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'The Three-Body Problem' by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

If you just picked up this book at the bookstore, or off of a bestseller list, or read it straight through without looking at the cover, you might not know that Liu Cixin is one of the most beloved sci-fi authors in China. The Three Body Problem, translated into English by Ken Liu, introduced the English speaking world to a masterpiece of alien invasion fiction.

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'The Neverending Story' by Michael Ende, translated by Ralph Manheim

I honestly never realized that this book was translated as a kid, despite it saying so right on the cover (in my defense, every time I read the title I get the song from the movie stuck in my head, and then I'm too distracted to read). But the inventive fantasy novel Die Unendliche Geschichte was originally written in German, luck dragons and all.

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'1Q84' by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

To be fair, a lot of readers do know that Murakami writes in Japanese. But as his books steadily gain cult-status popularity in the English-speaking world, a lot of people just assume that they've always been in English. The strange, beautiful love story/dystopia/mystery/fantasy novel of 1Q84 is a translation though... and given the density of the source material, it's no wonder they needed two translators.

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'The House of the Spirits' by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin

Isabel Allende is well known for her lush, masterful writing style. The House of the Spirits weaves together personal drama with political history over three generations of the Trueba family. But if you've read The House of the Spirits in English, you're also reading the sweeping imagery of Magda Bogin, who translated the book from Spanish.

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'All Quiet on the Western Front' by Erich Maria Remarque, translated by A.W. Wheen

This war novel to end all war novels tells the story of a German soldier during WWI and it was, naturally, written in German. The English translation was quite significant at the time, giving English speakers a chance to see their own post-war trauma reflected in by the German side as well. The German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, literally translates to "In the West, Nothing New," which may even be bleaker than All Quiet on the Western Front.

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