A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The first of our two guest pieces this week is from Jane Aitken, Managing Director of Gallic Books. What has French fiction got to offer to an English-speaking audience, and what are the challenges in marketing it? Read on to find out…
Why bother to try to market translated French fiction? As the founder of a company set up to do nothing else it may seem a strange question to ask. I hope I can prove that it is worthwhile trying, but I will also touch on some of the pitfalls.
It is often said that the English publishing is too insular and too closed to the writing of other countries. Only three percent of our books are by foreign authors compared to thirty percent in Europe. But there are two points to make about that. The first was made by Daniel Hahn writing in the Guardian – the sheer volume of work produced in English each year actually means that 3% is a not inconsiderable number. The second point is that is entirely understandable that such a low percentage is published. With so much available in English most of us English-speakers could read happily all of our lives without ever having to venture into the literature of another language.
For many of us, our unfamiliarity with other languages has traditionally been a barrier to picking up a novel by a foreign author. And I would argue that it is not our fault that many of us in the UK never manage to master another language. We are surrounded by English wherever we go and it is often used as the common language by people whose first language is not English. Whilst there has always been a market for foreign fiction – Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera to pick out a few – the general perception has been that foreign fiction was literary, high-brow and not commercially successful.
But this perception is changing. The popularity of Haruki Murakami, of Shadow of the Wind and of the many bestselling foreign crime novelists, Henning Mankell, Andrea Camilleri, Fred Vargas and Boris Akunin for example, means that foreign fiction is no longer just a literary niche.
So with the barriers to translated commercial fiction coming down where does this leave French fiction? With so many languages to choose from, why should a publisher concentrate on French? There are several reasons. One reason is that France has such a rich cultural heritage and vibrant publishing industry with 8,000 novels produced each year. Although 30% of these are not by French authors (a third of the 30% are English) that still leaves roughly 5,600 home grown novels.
In addition the French and British must to some degree share reading tastes since most bestselling novels from the UK are translated into French and there are French imprints that concentrate on English novels. The French bestseller lists are routinely plentifully supplied with British and American authors and if you look at the authors on the current bestseller lists in the UK – Rose Tremain, C. J. Sansom, Salman Rushdie, Robert Harris, Sebastian Faulks, Jane Green etc – the vast majority already have French publishers. The French like our novels. Perhaps it is because the histories of our respective countries have been so intertwined, and because we are so close geographically. Or because there does seem to be a mutual fascination between the French and the British even if at times that fascination is mingled with suspicion.
It’s a hopeful sign that the French reading public like our books, but does it follow that we will like theirs? Some publishing trends do exist in both countries – crime fiction and historical fiction have recently flourished simultaneously on both sides of the Channel for example. But there have been developments in French fiction that the UK market has not wanted to follow. The first started in the 1960’s and 1970’s when a group of French authors advocated the Nouveau Roman, which rejected traditional linear story telling, and all other literary, political or moral constraints. And the second is ‘auto-fiction’ a term coined in 1977 by Serge Doubrovsky to refer to a form of fictionalised autobiography. As a result of these two influences, some modern French fiction is highly introspective – a first person narrator demands the reader be interested in their intimate soul-searching but without the framework of a plot or a reason to be interested in the character. I feel that this kind of novel would not be well received by the UK market.
And there can be other barriers for an English reader. English culture is well known in France – the French can pick up Hello magazine and have heard of many of the people written about, but French popular culture does not travel here as easily. Our points of reference are also different – Ravaillac is as well known to a French reader as Guy Fawkes, but virtually unknown to the English. Correspondingly it is likely that the English publisher of French fiction will have to launch an author who will be unknown in the UK and may not speak good enough English to take part in author events.
These considerations mean that all translations of French novels start their life in the English market a little behind an equivalent English book. When Pilar Webb and I started Gallic Books we wanted to bring to an English audience some of the wonderful French writing that had not been picked up by English publishers, but we were aware of the difficulties. That us why we try to present our books inside and out so that they can be read without the reader having any inside knowledge of France, and in fact without the reader necessarily being aware that the book is a translation at all. We do not want too many barriers between our books and English-speaking readers and these considerations also influenced our choice of initial books.
As we read and read to choose our first titles we were looking for subjects with resonance for a UK readership. At first we did not think we would publish into a particular genre. But gradually it became apparent that what we were really enjoying was historical crime fiction – books that are not just absorbing page-turners but are also written with such well-researched historical detail that the reader is immediately transported to the Paris of the Impressionists or the 18th-century court of Versailles, and is given a fascinating insight into the particular period. All of the historical titles we liked dealt with parts of French history that we in the UK are aware of – Jean-François Parot writes about the period leading up to the French Revolution, Claude Izner about Belle Époque Paris, Armand Cabasson about the Napoleonic wars and Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée about Louis XIV. So the books provide an enjoyable look at the mirror image of much of our own history.
We have recently though added books that are neither crime nor historical. Jean Teulé’s The Suicide Shop deals with the meaning of life and the value of hope. The black humour of Teulé’s writing does have an undeniably Gallic flavour, but is finding a market here. In Muriel Barbery’s wonderfully written The Elegance of the Hedgehog which we are publishing in September, although the setting is Parisian, the themes again are universal – how deceptive appearances can be, how casually judgemental of others we are and how important it is to be true to oneself. That book having sold massively in France has also been a major bestseller in Italy, in Germany, in Spain, and in Korea, and will eventually be published in thirty languages. It will be very interesting to see how it fares in English.
To sum up, there is a wealth of fabulous French writing that deserves an English audience and there is in the UK an increasingly open attitude to the writing of different cultures. Finally, although this piece has not touched on the translation process itself, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our Gallic Books translators – Lorenza Garcia, Sue Dyson, Howard Curtis, Isabel Reid, Alison Anderson and Michael Glencross.
(The picture of a vaguely fox-like shape courtesy of Leena’s kitchen door.)
To read our second France Week guest post from Kit Maude of Marion Boyars Publishers on translating their bilingual book, “A Banquet of Lies” click here.