As a non-English person who loves English classics, I just realised how many gems are hidden in non-English literature as I went back to check the literature of my own mother tongue. Yes, I am dorkish enough that I haven’t read much in my mother tongue. What’s more-I can’t read as well in my mother tongue as I can in English. Well, enough embarrasing things said. So, after the revelation that there were indeed beautiful pieces of literature in my own language, I wondered what other classics were hidden in other languages. So, here we go.
The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, The Bhagavata and the Puranas:
If you can read and write any of the major Indian languages, you could find a copy of these books in that lanaguage. They’re also readily available in English. These books contain the most important bits of Indian culture- the mythology and the philosophy. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are two major epics in Sanskrit and for some reason, they translate better to other Indian languages than English. So, if you can, please pick a copy in an Indian language.
Warning: The Mahabharata is huge. It’s English copy is about 9000 pages thick (Yep) and it is longer than the Iliad and Odessey combined by ten times (atleast wiki tells me so). But it is so worth it to have worked through it.
If you want only the bare bones of Indian mythology, the Puranas are your things. These are the books that contain the details of the Hindu myth of creation and destruction, the cosmology, etc.
Unlike Ramayana and Mahabharata which were both written in epic Sanskrit, Raghuvamsa was written in classical Sanskrit.. It is an epic that narrates the story of the Raghu Dynasty (yes, Ram’s family). Khalidasa, the guy who wrote this, is an excellent poet and has many other works under his belt. His works could be downloaded for free here.
Another very important book from this period Chanakya’s Arthashasthra. The book was lost for a thousand years and then rediscovered in 1900s. It’s a “how to be a nice king and not a loser” guide written way ahead of Machiavelli (somewhere between the 2nd-3rd century CE). It offers a look into the Indian culture back then (atleast into the lives of those living in the Mauryan empire).
I know I’m commiting a veritable crime by omitting the important works, but the Jataka Tales is the most fun part of Pali literature. They have been translated extensively and tells tall tales of Buddha and his different lives.
There are several Buddhist works written in Pali, for those interested in Buddhist philosophy.
Okay, Tamil Literature has so many amazing pieces I don’t know what to pick. The Thirukural is a collection of couplets on ethics, virtue, politics and love. I love the Thirukural the best out the entirity of Tamil literature and if you could read Tamil, please pick a copy (Nope, it doesn’t translate well to English). Its dating is unclear and range from 300BCE to 400CE, so I’m assuming it’s somewhere in between.
Well, other than that, every piece of Sangam literature is fun. They’re mostly love stories and stories of of war and the likes. Very little religious themes are seen and the stories are basically fun. Other than Sangam literature (which were written over 2000 years ago- the first sangam period is dated 4400 years ago), there is the Ponniyin Selvan which is a historical fiction that is all the rage now.
I don’t think good translations of the Sangam literature (if at all) exist, which is a shame. These stories are as fun as any Greek tragedy and it is sad that the majority of the world will never read them.
Other Indian Literature:
The Panchatantra: This book is kind of like the Arabian Nights and is often dated back to 200BCE. It is a fun to read book, with short humourous stories.
The Gitanjali: This a collection of poems from Tagore and they contain translations of Bengali poems and poems from one of his dramas.
The Charyapadas are buddhist songs composed 12th-13th century.
There are so many other works to be found in Bengali, Gujarati, Kannadam and Telugu (among other languages), but I don’t think I could do justice to them here.
(I have left out modern Indian Literature because they are so easily found).
The Entire Collection of Dostoevsky: I’m not even joking. Dostoevsky is so good at writing and all of his books are cool. My personal favourite is the short Notes From Underground. The Idiot is also really nice. The larger works, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers K are wonderful, if you can ignore the religious bits.
Tolstoy‘s works: Do I even have to work at persuading anyone to read Tolstoy? Almost all of his works are wonderful. My personal favourites are The Death Of Ivan Ilych and War and Peace.
Master and Margerita: This is a book set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and was actually banned for a while. I haven’t read it yet but according to goodreads, it is “humourous and has philosophical depth”. Well, what more could you ask?
Eugene Onegin : Pushkin’s works are always amazing. It again contains lots of philosophical musings. If that’s your kind of thing, you will love it.
There are so many other Russian classics that deserve to be on here, but I’m going to leave them out. If anyone is interested, please do check the goodreads list. It contains all the important works. The works of Turgenev and Nikoloi Gogol (Dead Souls) are especially wonderful.
Like India, China has a really old literary tradition and it is nearly impossible to assort everything. But..
The Four Great Classical Novels: This includes
- Water Margin/ Outlaws of the Marsh
- The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- Journey to the West
- Dream of the Red Chamber / The Story of the Stone
I have only read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and it is so good. I have had the Jorney to the West on my tbr shelf for too long and will probably have to force myself to complete it soon.
Philosophy: Since I have a newly found love for philosophy, I literally can’t leave these out.
- Analects of Confucius
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu
- Tao Te Ching
- Texts of Mohism
There’s so much in chinese philosophy and I don’t think it is humanly possible to read it all. But if anyone is interested, there are introductary books to chinese philosophy that cover a bit of everything.
Modern: A Madman’s Diary by Lu Xun
I’m just going to go ahead and list them now,
- I am Malala by Malala Yousafai
- My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani
- The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam
I think these books offer an insight into life in Pakistan. I’m sure there are other books from this pretty country that are worth reading. Please leave a comment below if you if think there are other books that deserve to be on here.
Again, just going to list them.
- The Kite Runner
- The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashmi.
- A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi
- Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi
- Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
- Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
- Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata
Of the ancient poems, Shahnameh written in the medieval era is one of the longest poems in the world. It’s written in Persian and tells the history of the Persian empire. If anyone is interested, it has been translated to English.
Then, here we go with the list:
- The Gulistan and Bustan
- Masnavi Ma’navi/ Rumi
- Five treasures by Nizami Ganjavi
- Sammak-e-Ayyar by Faramarz bin-Abdullah al-Katib al-Rajani
I’m sure you could find more if you just dig more.
The Epic Of Gilgamesh is one of those long classics, written in the Akkadian language and is considered the Mesopotemian Oddessey.
- Candide by Voltaire (and other works)
- Le Petit Prince
- Everything by Albert Camus (especially Le Mythe de Sisyphe and L’Etranger
- Victor Hugo (Just read everything)
- Sartre (I mean, if we’re going to existentialism with Camus, why not Satre?)
The Old Literature: The Song of Roland and the Arthurian romances were originally written in French.
Dear Ol’ England has lots to offer. Here we go:
- John Keats
- George Orwell
- The Hobbit
- The Lord Of The Rings
- Sherlock Holmes
Okay, I think I should stop. There are so many prolific writers in British literature that it would take an entire book to write about them. You get the point, this post is becoming too long.
Søren Kierkegaard is regarded the best in Denmark’s literary tradition because he is awesome at words. So, all of his philosophy and Diary of a Seducer (a mini novel).
And Hans Christen Anderson’s fairy tales, ofcourse.
Okay, I think you know where this is going.
- Homer. Read both the Iliad and the Oddessey now. They’re amazing.
- The Lysistrata by Aristophanes
- Aesychlus – Oresteia
- Euripides – Medea, The Bacchae
- Sophocles – Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone
I’m only going to mention those old norse books,
- Poetic Edda
- Prose Edda
These are both the only sources of norse mythology I can think of the top of my head. Both of them are really nice and the Poetic Edda, especially the Oxford translation, was excellent.
But Sophie’s World , was written by a norwegian author and I loved it. It’s a primer of sorts for philosophy and you need to read it.
I’m going to use this to throw latin classics at you,
The Latin Classics:
- Metamorphoses of Ovid
- Descartes Meditationes de Prima Philosophia
- Spinozoa’s Ethics
- Julius Caesar’s own writtings
- De Brevitate Vitae by Seneca
- The Divine Comedy
- The Name of the Rose
- Zeno’s Conscience
And I think I should I end it. I have left out several countries and even more literary pieces because I don’t know enough about the countries themselves and nor have I read their literature, so I didn’t think it would be fair to write them down. But if anyone knows of any titles that deserve mentioning, and from countries not mentioned above, please comment down below.