Illustration of man reading book with U.S.-flag bookmark (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

Americans are continually interested in what’s happening in the rest of the world, and this interest is reflected in their growing appetite for world literature.

“Reading literature in translation is crucial for understanding the rest of the world,” says Susan Harris, editorial director of the online international literature magazine Words Without Borders. “There is so much of the world that we know through a strictly political prism, and literature is the best way to create understanding, empathy, compassion and appreciation for other cultures.”

Illustration of book with American flag bookmark (State Dept./D. Thompson)Recently translated U.S. bestsellers include Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, an intensely personal memoir in six volumes; Stieg Larsson’s Millennium, a trilogy of crime novels including the enormously popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, about the search for a Mexican poet; and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which includes the masterpiece My Brilliant Friend. That portrait of two friends, Elena and Lila, gained such widespread popularity that it was recently made into a television miniseries.

“These books are much more rooted in their cultures and not trying to cover it up,” says Chad Post, publisher of the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books and founder of the international literature blog Three Percent. Moreover, American writers who immigrated from other countries — such as Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri — have helped American readers cultivate a curiosity about unfamiliar cultures, which in turn has broadened their taste for foreign literature, Post says.

“People are reading all kinds of books in translation; it’s not one trend or one genre,” says Gabriella Page-Fort, editorial director of AmazonCrossing, which translates books from around the world into English. “The diversity of our biggest successes, and of other breakouts in translation, has proven that there are no secret formulas, but the result must be a great read.”

Stephen Sparks, owner of independent bookstore Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, California, says good stories are capable of transcending cultural differences, languages and politics. “There is a desire for a broader picture of the world, and foreign literature scratches this itch,” he says.

Post notes that the majority of foreign books translated into English come from France and Germany, as well as Spanish-speaking countries. Other countries where much of the translated literature originates include Italy, Japan and Russia, followed by the Scandinavian countries.

This article was written by freelance writer Linda Wang.