Make no mistake: Reading is awesome.
Reading in Spanish while learning the language is even more awesome.
But reaching for a dictionary every time you don’t understand a word can be frustrating—and if you decided to go with your best guess, you run the risk of guessing (and learning) incorrectly.
Plus, you may simply find yourself wondering: What would this sound like in English?
When you sit down to tackle a book that’s not written in your native language, you’re bound to hit a few roadblocks.
For those times when reading in Spanish just isn’t enough, you should try picking up a book that uses parallel text—a format in which Spanish is printed on one page and the English translation is written on the next page.
This will allow you to get the reading practice you need in Spanish and quickly get answers when you can’t seem to figure out the corresponding word or phrase in English.
Here are a few books and resources to help you get started.
Two for the Price of One: Helpful Bilingual Books for Adult Learners
Short Story Collections
1. “Side-By-Side Bilingual Books” (series)
“Side-By-Side Bilingual Books” is a series that teaches Spanish through short folk stories and legends—the kind where wickedness doesn’t prevail and wisdom and courage win the day—collected from various parts of the Spanish-speaking world and retold in student-friendly language.
The stories presented here are quick reads. Each one is just a few pages long and can easily be completed in one sitting. This, combined with the prefaces giving the historical context of each tale, makes the series a good choice for early-career readers, those with an interest in history and those looking to add a little parallel text to their study routines without committing to a longer book or story.
Since language learners are the target audience, the language is relatively simple in nature, but you’ll still get a drop or two of rarer words like candelero (candlestick) and rescate (ransom) to add to your vocabulary.
You can also find a detailed glossary in the back, which is helpful for looking up the meaning of a word rather than relying on how it’s translated in context.
2. “Dover Dual Language” (series)
If you want to sink your teeth into some more advanced material and learn more about the foundations of Spanish-language literature, you should check out the “Dover Dual Language” publications.
This series includes parallel texts in a variety of languages, and their Spanish-language offerings include many of the greats from Cervantes to Borges. They also include detailed prefaces that explain a bit about the authors and the context of various works.
Even if you’ve already sat in a literature class poring over some magical realism at this point, the classics have more to offer you if you haven’t read them in parallel text format.
Sure, it’s great to read foreign-language works in their original language to get the author’s original intentions and such. However, a faithful translation can also do a great job of capturing those intentions—perhaps even better if your proficiency is anything below the native level. Reading the two together lets you approach the text using both strategies.
If you’re looking for something a little simpler, not to worry—Dover also offers beginner-level books with simple stories and adaptations to help you get your foot in the door. And the more you practice, the sooner you’ll be ready for the good stuff.
Needless to say, if you’re looking for something of literary merit to practice your Spanish with but don’t yet have a particular area of interest, you’re going to have to whittle your options down. To do that, you might choose to focus on a specific genre or literary movement.
“Spanish-American Short Stories,” one of the books in the Dover series, provides a good overview of some of the fascinating short Spanish works that have come out of the Americas.
The anthology features seventeen stories from different countries spanning more than 50 years. You can check out the short bios on each author to have some direction before starting your literary excursion.
The book opens with the editor praising the “gratifying international recognition” of Spanish-American authors, and this collection makes it clear why that recognition is due. Whether it’s the otherworldly society of gnomes and fairies in “El rubí” (“The Ruby”) or the cruel, dark coal mine in “La compuerta número 12” (“Ventilation Door Number 12”), you’re bound to find something that piques your interest.
4. “Learn Spanish: Parallel Text” (series)
This grow-with-me series is one that could work either in a classroom setting or for individual use. The books use a numbering system to help you pick material that’s suited to your reading level, and as with “Side-By-Side Bilingual Books,” the stories are written with language learners in mind. The stories are a little longer than those in “Side-By-Side” but can still be tackled in one sitting.
Pick up the first book in the series and you’ll be met with some fairly simple narratives involving characters’ excursions in Spain (be prepared for a little vosotros, by the way), going to the tomatinas festival and so forth. As you move along, the language gets more complex and more idiomatic.
Some of the stories will include words in bold and phrases like vete tú a saber dónde (who knows where) and todo el mundo (everyone) with their English equivalents in bold as well for easy learning.
And for those of you who like to listen while you learn, the books come with audio accompaniments to help you follow along with the text.
5. “El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha” (“The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha”)
You know his story. You’ve seen the John Lithgow movie. At the very least, you’ve heard the phrase “tilting at windmills.” And now, thanks to parallel text, you can have twice the fun while reading “Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
This is another good example of a classic work that language learners will get a little more out of by reading it in two languages. Specifically in the case of the famous knight-errant, the book’s subtle brand of satirical humor can be a bit tough to pick up on when reading in your second language, and being able to take a peek at the English text definitely helps.
The language is somewhat advanced and includes a touch of archaic Spanish, but it’s still accessible to anyone reading at least at an intermediate level.
6. “El cántico de Navidad” (“A Christmas Carol”)
¡Bah! Tonterías. (Bah! Humbug.)
Works originally written in English are also available in parallel text format. And while they don’t carry the cultural lessons of some of the works already mentioned, they’re just as helpful when it comes to language learning. They also offer the bonus of allowing you to learn through a story you may already know.
Such is the case with “A Christmas Carol,” which has worked its way into the cultural consciousness through an abundance of specific lines and moments you’re probably familiar with.
The translation referenced here is also a great example of being faithful without being overly literal, as Charles Dickens’ idiomatic style has to find its own poetry in Spanish—nephew Fred’s “And I say, God bless it!” becomes “Por eso grito: ¡viva la Noche Buena!” (“And so I cry: long live Christmas Eve!”)
It’s a good way to learn Spanish, learn some interesting expressions and get into the Christmas spirit while you study.
That there would be a need to make Shakespeare accessible to speakers of other languages isn’t surprising per se, but how does one go about translating a writer whose appeal is so closely wound up in language—poetry, wordplay and so forth?
The parallel text version of “Macbeth” referenced here offers another good look at literary translation from an English-speaking perspective. Rather than making the Spanish version fit Shakespeare’s rhyme structure, the translator gives similarly poetic language at its own pace with the English text handy to give you the feel of the original: “El mal es bien, y el bien es mal: cortemos los aires y la niebla.” (Fair is foul, and foul is fair: hover through the fog and filthy air.)
You may learn as much about Shakespeare while you’re at it, but as language learning goes, it’s a good way to pick up words and learn what wordsmithing looks like in Spanish. Just don’t say the name in a theater (in Spain or otherwise) and we’re good.
If the idea of reading familiar titles appeals to you, you may want to do a little digging and find something that really sparks your interest—whether it’s a classic you’ve already read or one you’d like to try for the first time in Spanish. In addition to being a fun way to learn, it provides the kind of memorable context that can have a great impact on retention.
Bilinguis.com is a good place to start. The site offers translations of public-domain works for the purposes of language learning. Currently there are five offerings available in Spanish, ranging from novella to book length: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “The Metamorphosis” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
If you care to incorporate any of these tried-and-true works into your study routine, the next thing you learn to say in Spanish could very well be “Se encontró sobre su cama convertido en un monstruoso insecto” (“He discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous, verminous bug”) or “Señor Holmes, ¡eran las huellas de un sabueso gigantesco!” (“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”)
The title is short for “languages on the web,” and this volunteer-powered site has quite a few of them. The homepage design is a little off-putting, but navigate down to the Spanish section and you’ll find a well-curated selection of short stories.
The Spanish works on this site are fairly straightforward and mostly deal with a certain private detective called Daisy Hamilton. The length varies greatly from story to story, so you should be able to find one that’s about the size you feel like reading.
For a quick and easy read about how Daisy handles a lost pequeña (little one), give “La búsqueda de lorna” (“The Search for Lorna”) a click. For something a little more advanced, you can read about the life of a struggling painter in “De cabeza” (“Upside Down”).
From online to on the go, this site offers downloadable e-books of novellas written in parallel text format. This is another resource that’s notable for breaking things down pretty clearly by skill level. The e-books are sorted using a letters-and-numbers system with stories like “La sorpresa” (“The Surprise”) and “El restaurante” (The Restaurant”) available to beginners.
Upper-level learners may want to check out “Amor en el supermercado” (“Love in the Supermarket”) or “El caso del cuadro robado” (The Case of the Stolen Painting”).
If some of the resources mentioned so far are a bit outside of your skill range, the beginner-level books (A1) are a particularly good choice, using the simplest of sentences to give the reader a taste of parallel text. As for the others, they’re respectably more complex without hitting the range of high literature.
Be sure to check out the free sample chapters so you can be sure you’re getting something suited to your skill level. Audio is also available for some titles.
How to Move Forward with Bilingual Books
Discussing parallel text raises an obvious question: What about just reading in Spanish the old-fashioned way? Is reading parallel text really better than reading only in your second language? Which one is better, honestly?
As with all study methods, reading parallel text and reading only in Spanish each have their own benefits. Of course having only Spanish in front of you encourages context-based learning, but parallel text facilitates learning more precise English equivalents and helps ensure you’re following along properly.
Your best bet, then, is to practice a little of each—or simply figure out which you prefer and plan your study sessions accordingly. There’s more than one way to learn Spanish, and being familiar with different methods makes it that much easier and that much more fun.
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