War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy; translated by Rosemary Edmonds (out of print). The greatest novel of all time, knotting and then untangling historical, military, philosophical, sentimental, religious, and social themes over a vast period. Rosemary Edmonds, who was Charles de Gaulle's personal interpreter during WW II, wrote the translation that I cherish the most.
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; translated by Barbara Wright (New Directions, $13). The same silly anecdote told in 99 different ways. In Wright's stupendously inventive translation, this unlikely formula becomes more than a game — it's a symphony in verbal form and high-wire artistry worthy of the big top.
A Void by Georges Perec; translated by Gilbert Adair (Godine, $18). Allegedly untranslatable because of the complete absence of the letter E, A Void shows just how far a gifted and witty translator can go to make "impossible" a redundant word in the vocabulary of translation. Adair's hilarious E-free version of Poe's "The Raven" is worth the price of the book alone.
The Czar's Madman by Jaan Kross; translated by Anselm Hollo (out of print). A magical re-creation of the life of Timotheus von Bock, Estonian nobleman and confidant of Czar Alexander II, who was flung into a dungeon and then declared mad. By one of the most sly and gifted storytellers to emerge from the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states.
The Journals of a White Sea Wolf by Mariusz Wilk; translated by Danusia Stok (Random House UK, $30). Reportage by a Polish journalist from the prison island of Solovki, near the Arctic Circle. A shiver-inducing yet humane reflection on survival in extreme conditions.
The Journal of Hélène Berr translated by David Bellos (Weinstein, $16). Discovered after it lay on top of a wardrobe for half a century, this personal diary of a gifted, sensitive young Jewish woman living in Paris under the German occupation is both a tragic historical document and a work of great literary merit. Of all the books I have translated, the Journal is the most moving by far.
— David Bellos' new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, will be released Oct. 11