As an English native speaker, a fluent Spanish speaker and having learned French, German, Portuguese and Italian to different levels, it’s safe to say that I have a healthy interest in languages. I love to read and am well aware of the benefits of reading in other languages as a learning tool. However, there are hundreds of languages out there and unfortunately I don’t have the time (or the talent!) to learn them all. And so I choose to read English translations of foreign novels to expand my knowledge of foreign literature and culture, even if I can’t get to grips with the language itself. Some people pooh-pooh the idea of reading translated literature, but don’t forget that even novels you grew up on may have been translations, e.g. Anne Frank’s Diary (originally in Dutch) or Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales (translated from Danish) such as The Ugly Duckling.
It can be hard to know where to start when you’re suddenly faced with a world of publications as opposed to the literary stock you’re used to, but your options are limited anyway. Ever-decreasing numbers of English translations of foreign language novels are being commissioned, but the good news is that those which do cut the mustard tend to be the best of the best. A perfect example would be the recent phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish Millennium Trilogy. The books were so well received in his home country that they were quickly snapped up for translation and now both Swedish and American film versions have also been produced. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly page-turners, and I enjoyed them immensely. Of course, just because a novel has been a bestseller in another country – or your country, for that matter – does not guarantee that you’ll like it, but it gives you a head-start.
Many people feel that they should read the ‘classics’ from each language, e.g. Proust in French or Cervantes in Spanish. I would hazard a guess, though, that the majority would find it easier and more enjoyable to read more modern novels. I don’t think many folks I know would reach for War & Peace to take on a beach holiday, so why not be a bit more flexible? The Three Musketeers, for example, could still be considered a French ‘classic’, but it’s a familiar story and a great romp to boot. Paolo Coelho is a very popular Brazilian writer and most, if not all, his titles are available in English (The Alchemist is probably the most well-known, but Veronika Decides to Die is my personal favourite). If you fancy dipping into Gabriel García Marquez, as much as I loved and would highly recommend perhaps his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, why not ease yourself in by reading some of his short stories first (Eyes of a Blue Dog, for example).
If you do want to take on a classic, it can be more economical as the copyright will have expired. Project Gutenberg offers free titles to download, either to your PC or to a mobile device (such as a Kindle or iPhone).