Best translations of non-English classics of literature

If you are an avid reader then you might know that English isn’t the only language in which great books  have been written. A number of them have also been written in languages other than English. And if you don’t know those languages, then you are bound to read the English translation of those books.

You can find plenty of  translations of every great book. But you must not rely on famous publishing houses for providing you with the best translations. And it would be a pity if you reject a great book just because you came across a faulty translation. So, before forming an opinion about a book, you must go through at least a few translations.

For your reference, here’s a list of some great works of literature and a few of their acclaimed translations:


1. Iliad by Homer


Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem which is generally attributed to a poet named Homer. It depicts many important events that happened during the last year of the Trojan War. It was written in 12th Century B.C. in a language called Homeric Greek.

Iliad is very hard to translate as ancient Greek is quite different from English. And on top of that, Iliad is a poem, which makes translating it even more difficult. Nevertheless, it has been translated hundreds of times in English since the 16th Century.

Here are a few of translations that you must try:

1. Richmond Lattimore(1951) : A more literal and less poetical translation. Lattimore tried his best to avoid any poetical outbursts in order to preserve the original structure of the book.

2. Robert Fagels (1990) : Fagels was a poet himself. His translation is very elegant and full of poetical beauty. It provides a great contrast to Lattimore’s more literal translation.

3. Robert Fitzgerald (1974) : In his translation, Fitzgerald altered the verse of the poem to make it fit more easily into the tradition of English poetry. It’s a bit difficult when compared to other modern translations, but definitely worth a try.

4. Alexander Pope (1715) : If you want Iliad to sound like some old Victorian poem then you must read Pope’s translation of the book. Its really nice.


2. The Divine Comedy by Dante


It took Dante twelve years to write the Divine Comedy. He started writing it in 1308 and completed it in 1320. Rather than writing his epic in traditional Latin, he chose to write it in the Tuscan dialect of the Italian language. He used a strict rhyme structure called ‘terza rima’ throughout his book.

The Divine Comedy is layered with meaning. It draws upon a wide number of influences, ranging from Greek philosophy and Christian theology to Dante’s own personal life. It would be best if you read it in the original Italian as this book doesn’t have any definitive translation.

Still, some translators have partially succeeded in recreating the magic of Dante’s writing. Here are a few of them:

1. John Ciardi(1970) : Ciardi’s translation is one of the best modern translations of Divine Comedy. Even though he is not completely faithful to the original book. He follows Dante in his rhyme scheme and expression, but he would never ruin a difficult passage by making it too literal.

2. Robert and Jean Hollander(2007) : The Hollander translation doesn’t follow Dante’s rhyme scheme, but still it’s very smooth and poetical. The choice of words is simple and it is  very easy to read.

3. Allen Mandelbaum (1984) : Mandelbaum’s translation is very faithful to the original in terms of the meaning. It’ll be the best translation from the point of view of a scholar. And even a reader won’t dislike it.

4. Dorothy L. Sayers (1962) : Sayers did a commendable research on Divine Comedy. Her translation completely follows the ‘terza rima’. But the quality of her work varies throughout the book.

5. Robert Pinsky (1995) : Pinsky translated only the inferno. And did a great job. His version has everything that a good translation needs. It’s a must read.

6. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867) : Longfellow’s version is quite old and archaic but it’s still quite relevant. His poetry closely follows Dante’s and is never dull. It’s really worth a try.


3. Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes


Don Quixote is a Spanish novel written by Miguel De Cervantes. It was published in two volumes. The first volume was published in 1605 and the second was published in 1615. It is considered as one of the greatest works of literature.

Some of the prominent translations of Don Quixote are listed below:

1. Edith Grossman(2003) :  Her translation has been called a great achievement. The language that Grossman uses is quite modern. Throughout her translation she has preserved the meaning of the original book.

2. John Rutherford(2000) : Another nice modern translation of Don Quixote. It is less literal and more humorous than Grossman’s translation.

3. Burton Raffel(1995) : A very simple and accessible translation of the book.

4. John Ormsby(1885) : As a translation, Ormsby’s version is surprisingly close to the original. It’s very accurate and was written in sort of an old fashioned English. It had remained as the standard edition for a long time. Even now reading it is always an enriching experience.

5. Tobias Smollett(1761) : Smollett wrote the first noteworthy English translation of Don Quixote. It contains a lot a outdated words. But if you have a nice annotated version of the book with you then that’s not a problem.


4. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka


The Metamorphosis is one of the most celebrated works of Franz Kafka. He wrote it in German in 1914. His style is very intense and clear. It’s almost inimitable in English. But, ironically it was English translations of Kafka’s works that made him famous.

Here are a some important translations:

1. Edwin and Willa Muir (1933) : The first English translation of Kafka that appeared in print. It remained as the standard for a long time. It might seem a little less modern to us but the English that Muirs used is contemporary to Kafka’s German.

2. John R Williams (2014) : It’s a very recent translation. The choice of words and sentence structure, though not always similar to the original, are very remarkable. Overall, it’s pretty nice.

3. Joachim Neugroschel(1993) : A nice readable translation of the book. One worth consideration.

4. Michael Hoffman(2007) : The word preference of Hoffman is often questionable. Yet his translation successfully preserves some of Kafka’s black humor.  If you are reading Kafka for the first time then you might like his translation.


5. Petersberg by Andrei Bely

Petersberg is Andrei Bely’s masterpiece. It was published in the original Russian in 1916. It is considered as one of the most important works of 20th Century Russian literature. Despite that, it was unknown to the outside world for decades as it didn’t have any translation.

Also, this book had two editions. The first edition was published in 1916. Later, Bely thought that his book didn’t get the response that he expected. So, he edited it and published a briefer version of the book in 1922. The translations of both the versions are available.

The first English translation of the book appeared in 1959. So far, only four English translations of this book have appeared. Here are they:

1. Maguire and Malsmsted(1978) : It is a deeply researched translation of the book. It comes with a lot of notes. It is the translation of the shorter version of the book.

2. David Macduff (1995) : It is the first translation of the longer version of the book. Everything is pretty much fine about it. You can put your money on it.

3. John Elsworth(2009) : Another translation of the longer version of the book. Elsworth also did some research on musicality of Bely’s work. And you can see it’s effect in his translation. It’s very smooth. Anyway, his translation won the Rosicca translation prize in 2009.

4. John Cournos(1959) : Cournos was the first person to translate Petersburg. He set a benchmark for all the translators that followed him. He translated the shorter version of the book.


(NOTE: All the translations of the books are merely suggestions. I have read only a few of them and learnt about the rest through reviews, posts and discussions etc.)


Author: Aaditya Balouria

I'm like any other internet induced Indian intellectual. One from the league of all those blabbering bibliophiles, cynical cinéphiles and the rest.

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