Kafka, Čapek, Kundera and Havel, these are all world renowned names, but what about all the others? How well are Czech authors actually known abroad? Can you find a bookshop in Berlin, Madrid, Moscow, Paris or New York that aside from classics such as The Good Soldier Švejk also sell the works of contemporary Czech authors? At Radio Prague International we have decided to map out the popularity and availability of Czech books abroad and find out which books have been translated into international languages such as English, German, Russian, Spanish and French. At the same time we will be providing our foreign audience with the opportunity to get acquainted with past and present Czech literary jewels.
The aim of the project is to give you a list of arguably the best and most popular Czech novels and poetry ever written, presenting not only the established classics, but also introducing the leading contemporary authors.
Some books were obvious candidates. Božena Němcová’s coming of age novel Babička (The Grandmother) is a classic well known to all Czechs and has a permanent presence in the school curriculum as well as being adapted for film. The fact that it has been translated into many foreign languages therefore did not come as much of a surprise. The same is the case with The Good Soldier Švejk. The World War I book that many consider a window into the Czech character has already been translated into some 58 languages.
Our selection process also took inspiration from the so-called “100 Collection”, a list of the best Czech prose and poetry selected by experts and literary critics for Czech Radio Vltava on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary since the founding of Czechoslovakia. It is necessary to admit that not all of the works featured in this list have been graced by a foreign translation.
As far as contemporary Czech authors are concerned, we based our selections on advice from the Czech Literary Centre as well as that of representatives of Czech Centres who have experience presenting Czech literature at various forums and book conferences.
While searching for Czech books that have been translated into foreign laguages we made some interesting discoveries. For example, we found that the popularity of individual books is considerably varied depending on which part of the world one is looking at. This concerns both established works (The Good Soldier Švejk is a cult novel in Russia, but less well known in Anglo-Saxon countries) and contemporary authors (Marek Šindelka is a star author in the Netherlands, but his work is unavailable in many other world languages). In Poland, Czech novels are sold in such numbers that any sorts of grants or funding are not even seen as necessary. At the same time, some books that we may have considered to be tied exclusively to the local Czech audience, for example Klabzubova jedenáctka, are in fact well known in some parts of the world. Another interesting fact is that thanks to the Czech Republic being the honorary guest at last year’s Leipzig Book Fair, the number of Czech literary works being translated into German has increased significantly.
Starting February, we will be presenting Czech books that are well worth reading and their accompanying stories. We believe that both classical and contemporary Czech literature has much to offer and can find readers not just in the Czech Republic but abroad as well. Our website will feature short accompanying videos to each book, presented by the talented contemporary author Pavla Horáková. Meanwhile, in the audio versions of our series you will find interviews with literary experts, translators, or the authors themselves, who will provide a closer look into the story and stylistic aspects of each book. We hope that our project will give you the opportunity to get acquainted with Czech literature and, perhaps, a reason to open some of these books for your own enjoyment.