The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of Only about 3 percent of all books published in the United States are works that have been translated. Even for a Nobel Prize winner, it's not easy to keep a book deal with a major American publisher. In an attempt to reverse the trend, David Kipen of the NEA offers a list of his favorite foreign authors.
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The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of

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The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of

The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. It's award season for authors, and the Man Booker prize has gone to Aravind Adiga for his first novel, "The White Tiger." The prize recognizes English language novels written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or Ireland.

BRAND: The Nobel Prize for literature went to a French author by the name of Jean Marie Le Clezio. Not a lot of people and, I have to confess, myself included had ever heard of him. Maybe that's because we Americans, as the Swedish Academy's Permanent Secretary said, we Americans are too isolated and too insular.

Well, let us fix that right away, right now, and find out who else from Europe we should be reading. Our old friend David Kipen is on the line now. He's director of literature and national reading initiatives at the National Endowment for the Arts. And, David, welcome back to Day to Day.

Mr. DAVID KIPEN (Director of Literature, National Endowment for the Arts): Thank you. It's good to back on your air.

BRAND: And let's just say, you are talking to us from Moscow. So, you, at least, you're not insular or isolated, or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIPEN: I try not to be. I'm working on this NEA program called the Big Read, which tries to put America's best foot forward by getting great American novels into hands of people around the world but also gets international work read by cities and towns across America.

BRAND: Well, we're coming to you to get a list of European authors who perhaps we haven't heard of that we should. And maybe we should start there. Is there a Russian author that you like that we should be reading?

Mr. KIPEN: Yeah, actually, I was just today at the Gorky Institute and admitted somewhat sheepishly that my knowledge of contemporary Russian literature pretty much begins and ends with a guy named Victor Pelevin and a mystery novelist, Boris Akunin. But I don't know this woman named Ludmila Ulitskaya, who sounds positively wonderful. She has a novel called "The Funeral Party," which I had to hang my head in shame for not knowing. So, as a form of atonement, I pass that on to your listeners.

BRAND: Excellent. And let's move further west and get to Europe proper. And give us some of your favorites in Europe proper.

Mr. KIPEN: There's a guy named Ismail Kadare whom the more industrious readers may recognize from these perennial Nobel Prize handicapping stories where they say - surely, this is Ismail Kadare's year, or truly, this is Mario Vargas Llosa's year, the great Peruvian novelist. And the novel for which he's best known is called "The Three Arched Bridge," but the novel know him for is called "Spring Flowers - Spring Frost." Just a terrific book, though certainly readers could be forgiven for starting with the other one.

But, you can't go wrong with this guy. He's just a wonderful surreal, magical realist storyteller. And you start out thinking, Albania, what do I know or care about Albania. And the book ends not just by wanting you to read more Kadare, but also wanting to find out more about Albania, which is one of the secondary shadow missions of literature, to get you curious about people beyond yourself and beyond your borders.

BRAND: OK. Ismail Kadare, the Albanian author of "The Three Arched Bridge." What else?

Mr. KIPEN: Well, I think we should probably mention Imre Kertesz. He's proof that even after you win the Nobel Prize, you can still be obscure in America. The book for which he was best known, and I believe singled out when he won the Nobel a few years ago was called "Fateless." Not only a terrific book, a Holocaust novel adapted by Kertesz himself into an acclaimed movie. That didn't keep Kertesz, after he won the Nobel Prize, from losing the contract he had only just secured on the basis of the award with a major American publisher.

Obviously he didn't earn out what they had expected for him. So, now, he finds for himself a novella called "The Path Seeker," with the plucky small publisher Melville House. So, readers may have to look a little harder, go online or browbeat their local bookseller into ordering it. But, he's a terrific writer who is every bit as good as he was when the Swedish Academy recognized him, and it's to our discredit, I suppose, that he couldn't justify his place alongside the heavy domestic hitters of a major publishing house.

BRAND: Well, that brings me to the next logical question. And that is, how do we get these books? And how do we find out about them?

Mr. KIPEN: Well, I would recommend an outfit called Open Letter. They are an institute recently founded at the University of Rochester for the study and advocacy of international translation. They've also got a blog called Three Percent, which takes its name from the fact that in America, of all the books published, 3 percent, if that, are in translation. The rest of them are domestic, which, of course, is an absurd and outrageous one-way street considering how much of American literature gets translated abroad.

BRAND: OK. David Kipen, director of literature and national reading initiatives at the National Endowment for the Arts, speaking to us from Moscow. And we will post his entire list of recommendations at our blog. We'll include the European authors as well as a few of the non-European authors, and you too can weigh in there with your recommendations. David Kipen thank you.

Mr. KIPEN: Always a pleasure. Nice to be back.

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