Once people know that you are writing a book called 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, you can never enjoy a dinner party in quite the way you did before. No matter how many books you’ve managed to consider, and no matter how many pages you’ve written, every conversation with a fellow reader is almost sure to provide new titles to seek out, or, more worryingly, to expose an egregious omission or a gap in your knowledge—to say nothing of revealing the privileges and prejudices, however unwitting, underlying your points of reference. I became similarly aware of my boundaries as a reader when it came to consideration of works not written in English, where the limitations of my own learning are merely a subset of the larger parochialism that the gatekeeping of translation imposes.
That gatekeeping, of course, still leaves plenty of marvelous translations from Spanish for readers of English to enjoy. Though I know there are at least 70, if not five times that number, that have an equal claim on readers’ attentions, here are seven (listed from the oldest title to the newest) that made their way onto my literary bucket list.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated many times, especially invitingly by Edith Grossman in 2003.
This brilliant feat of narrative magic illustrates storytelling’s unscientific but unshakable presence at the root of our humanity.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, translated in 1962 by Anthony Bonner, Anthony Kerrigan, and others. A new translation, by Andrew Hurley, appeared in the 1998 volume Collected Fictions.
Although he worked in many forms, Borges’s lasting fame rests on his short fictions, including “Funes the Memorious,” a haunting memoir of a man who, after an accident, finds himself possessed by cripplingly acute mental powers. His “implacable memory” makes life—literally—unforgettable. That’s also the word for Borges’s intricate, playfully dream-weaving work.
Cronopios and Famas by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn in 1969.
Regardless of whether you count yourself among the creative and hopelessly impractical cronopios (a word invented by the author), the type-A famas (fames), or the easygoing esperanzas (hopes), you need to read this book of freewheeling literary inventions. Why? Well, as Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda declared, “Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1970.
From the first sentence, past, present, and future are entwined as García Márquez chronicles the bizarre, impossible, beautiful, and desolate history of the mythical town of Macondo. The author’s oracular voice polishes the town’s collective sense of remembrance into legend, as if the pages of the novel have evolved their own memory.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin in 1985.
The novel vividly charts the personal experience of three generations of women against the backdrop of Chile’s volatile, violent 20th-century political landscape. Vibrant strands of magic realism heighten the color of Allende’s sweeping tapestry of romance, revenge, social upheaval, and reconciliation.
The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 2013.
Though it wears the armature of a mystery, Marías’s novel finds its energy not in its plot but rather in the metaphysical coils of its telling. The author’s labors as a translator—of Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James—inform his prose with a combination of music and meaning that is singular. If it is a developed taste, it is a lasting one, for his style—digressive, allusive, pondering—brings a kind of psychological and aesthetic acuity to his work that invites readers into a new dimension.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney in 2015.
The protagonist looks back on his life as a traveler, legendary auctioneer, and collector of teeth, including those of Plato, Petrarch, G.K. Chesterton, and Virginia Woolf. Most wonderfully, he has replaced his own unfortunate molars, incisors, etc., with those that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. From revelations of mundane experience to arcane and absurd epiphanies, Luiselli’s book contains more surprises per page than most novelists can pack into a shelf of fiction. Its underlying subject is how value and meaning accrue to art and literature—in other words about how stories shape significance—but its overriding spirit is one of invention, exhilaration, and delight. Christina MacSweeney’s translation not only catches that spirit, but contributes to enhancements of it.
This article is adapted from material in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich, recently issued by Workman Publishing.