Vulpes Libris

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.

Guest Article: Jane Aitken on Marketing French Translation in the UK

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.

25 comments on “Guest Article: Jane Aitken on Marketing French Translation in the UK

  1. rosyb
    July 15, 2008

    Really interesting article, I enjoyed reading that.

    I found it interesting what you say about universality and the kinds of trends in French writing that would definitely NOT translate well into the UK. Although, I was wondering how far you see it important to go in terms of not putting a barrier in terms of people being aware it is a translation. As a reader I wouldn’t want a clunky translation but I think a sense of somewhere else and the very French context and feel would be something I would actively like (thinking about the equivalent in film. There is a definite feel to French cinema that draws people.) I suppose it must very much depend on what kind of book it is in terms of feel and style and maybe how much that style has a precedent for UK readers.

    It’s interesting how you say you are drawn to historical crime novels. I wonder if the conventions of the crime genre itself can act as a certain cultural bridge – so that UK readers can relax with a familiar genre and structure, which allows the less familiar context and references be easily absorbed.

    I read about The Elegance of the Hedgehog elsewhere and liked the sound of it.

  2. Moira
    July 15, 2008

    Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to write such a thoughtful piece, Jane. Most of this I freely admit I had never thought of …

    It’s interesting what you say about cultural transference … that there isn’t an equal flow in both directions. I think I already knew that at a subconscious level.

    Do I get any brownie points for knowing who Ravaillac was? :)

  3. Pingback: French Literature - Page 2 - World Literature Forum

  4. Stewart
    July 15, 2008

    It’s good to see that we are getting more French books in translation and, with all the smaller publishers in the UK, we are getting a good range, be it the historical crime from Gallic Books, some navel-gazing from Pushkin Press, or classics from Penguin. Or, indeed, the more Francophone titles like Marion Boyars recent offering, or the Africana from the Heinemann African Writers Series.

    I do question the use of the word English though. At times it’s fine, referring to the language, but other times it feels as if anglophone or British may have been more appropriate and sensitive. What chance is there of accepting other cultures when we can’t even recognise those within our own?

  5. Jane
    July 15, 2008

    Quite right, Stewart. I meant English for the language, but perhaps anglophone would have been better.

  6. Stewart
    July 15, 2008

    No problems, Jane. As a Scot, I feel the urge to jump up and shout, Hey! We’re here too.

    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.

    I was actually having a little snigger at this as it’s this sort of book that won last year’s Booker. And if the spread of Amazon reviews for that is anything to go by, you’re right.

  7. marygm
    July 15, 2008

    A very interesting article, Jane, thank you. And best of luck with your venture.

    “That is 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”
    I’m not sure that readers need to be too molly-coddled though. I think people are capable of making the leaps of understanding over the bits they don’t know about but I do think a bit more mutual exposure to the French and British cultures might help relations.

  8. marygm
    July 15, 2008

    PS Leena, I didn’t see it at first glance but now that I see that little fox on your photo, it’s obvious! I’m sure you won’t look at your kitchen door the same way again. :)

  9. pilarw
    July 17, 2008

    rosyb

    Good to read your thoughts on Jane’s article. Yes, at Gallic our aim is to try to retain the Frenchness of the books as much as possible without making it a clunky read. It’s a fine line though sometimes, involving tiny decisions all the way through the translation and editing stages.

    Stewart

    fyi Jane is a Scot too – so you can be sure she only meant English in the sense of the language!

  10. RosyB
    July 17, 2008

    Thanks for commenting Pilar. It must be very rigorous work, yet quite fascinating too, I imagine, to work on translation edits.

    I’m a Scot too! And there’s a number of us on Vulpes. We often cover Scottish books (or books published by Scottish writers or publishers should I say!). I take Stewart’s point on “English books” but I’m a bit dubious about the word “anglophone” though. I’d prob just say books in English or books from the UK. But I’m sure some people wouldn’t like that either.

  11. Stewart
    July 17, 2008

    Oh well. That’s alright then. ;)

  12. Lisa
    July 17, 2008

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    “…there is in the UK an increasingly open attitude to the writing of different cultures.” Quite right too! I’ve discovered some fabulous translated fiction this year. Good translators are heaven sent. The Carina Burman book I reviewed for Vulpes was brilliantly translated by Sarah Death, without even a hint of clunkiness.

    Talking of which, we should get our resident Finnish fox on the translation case. She speaks about, er, five languages. Then there’s our fox in Chile who’s another one with about half a dozen languages in her repertoire.

    Puts me to shame with, er, GCSE Spanish…;)

    Anyway, thanks again, Jane. Very thought-provoking piece.

  13. IvoD
    July 17, 2008

    Anglophone, English, whatever. Semantics aside anything that gets French or any other literature out in front of a wider audience has to be a Good Thing. I’ve never heard of Gallic Books before but I’ll be looking out for them. Interesting piece. Thanks.

  14. Jackie
    July 17, 2008

    One of the reasons I read is to learn about other places and times, so I applaud Gallic Books for concentrating on this area. A lot of the authors and books mentioned sound intriguing and I shall be looking for them.
    If you think non-English speaking authors are ignored in the UK, it’s even worse in the US. Marquez is about the only one who is commonly read here, with more ambitious types spring for Eco. America is even more insular than the UK, when people do bother to actually read a book.
    Ms. Aitken provides much food for thought, especially with the observations of the pervasiveness of English speaking countries vs. common knowledge of other cultures.That is troubling. Hopefully Gallic Books can help bridge that gap, even in a small way. Much success to her company and authors!
    On another note—Is that really your kitchen door, Leena? I thought you’d gotten it off of Google, though why they would have close-ups of wood grains, I don’t know.

  15. Stewart
    July 18, 2008

    America is even more insular than the UK, when people do bother to actually read a book.
    Ms. Aitken provides much food for thought, especially with the observations of the pervasiveness of English speaking countries vs. common knowledge of other cultures.</blockquote?
    There may be the hint that people are interested in books set in other cultures, if the success of tat like The Kite Runner is anything to go by. It’s how to sell the better examples of world literature to the masses that needs to be addressed. The Kite Runner is a supermarket book, a book for people who rarely, if ever, venture into book stores proper. There needs to be a way for the better examples to find the market. Sadly, it’s a markey driven by the weekly shopping.

  16. Jackie
    July 18, 2008

    I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Kite Runner in a grocery store. It’s paperbacks of mainly Stephen King, Danielle Steele and the like. People buy magazines at supermarkets, not books of any sort. They go to Border’s or Barnes & Noble, have a latte and buy a best seller. At supermarkets they are buying beer, snack food and frozen pizza, not books. “People” magazine is as close as they get to books.

  17. DJ Kirkby
    July 18, 2008

    This was an interesting article, thank you. I like the fox shaped pic (it was quite obvious once you mentioned it) and thoroughly enjoyed reading The Suicide Shop.

  18. Stewart
    July 18, 2008

    I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Kite Runner in a grocery store.

    The Sainsbury’s and Tesco next to me both have book sections. The Sainsbury’s one is more limited, reduced to some Orange Prize books, ones with The Emperor/Concubine/etc/ of Exotic Place, and all your Jeremy Clarkson style guff. The Tesco is a bit better, having separate genre cabinets.

  19. Pingback: Guest article: Kit Maude on translating and editing ‘Banquet of Lies’. « Vulpes Libris

  20. Jackie
    July 18, 2008

    So people do buy books at the grocers in the UK? That’s quite impressive. I wonder in general, if British folks read more than Americans? Apparently 20% of Americans don’t read a single book a year, so I would hope that’s not a worldwide statistic.

  21. Leena
    July 19, 2008

    On the side note… ;) Jackie, technically it’s a bathroom door, but yes it’s mine. It also has a baboon and a dodo.

    Okay… carry on with the intelligent conversation… :)

  22. Jackie
    July 19, 2008

    A dodo? One so rarely sees any depiction of a dodo. The bird, I mean. For the metaphorical kind, I need only look to the President.

  23. Nina Cooper
    July 24, 2008

    I enjoyed the article, “On Marketing French Translation in the UK.”
    However, I wonder why classic 19th Century detective stories by masters such as Emile Gaboriau and Fortune du Boisgobey are not currently translated and marketed in the UK and in the US. From 2000 to the present, French publishing houses are presenting newly edited versions of both. See Editions du Fleuve and Liana Levy.

  24. Blandine
    September 1, 2008

    What an interesting article! As a French myself, I did feel like the information you gave here were accurate, and I appreciated that. It always makes me cringe when people say things about us that are not accurate. Now, I have a BA in English and am now going on with an MA. That means that I am well aware of English classics, and to be honest I probably know more about English classics than the French ones, which have usually always bored me.

    I do believe that we know more about British literature in general, but it is probably due to the fact that British (and American, to a larger extent) culture is everywhere. We watch comedies with Hugh Grant, hear the latest hits in shops and know that Mr Darcy is the epitome of male perfection. Even though both England and France are both fallen empires, England still shines through its mainstream culture, which may not be the case with French culture. Everyone in France could tell who Paul McCartney is, but very little Brits could tell who Johnny Hallyday is – when he sells millions of copies of his records over here.

    But since you mentioned languages as well, I think the problem exists in both countries. I worked as a French language assistant in England, and from September to May I struggled with my 5th year pupils to make them understand “Comment t’appelles-tu?”. And it was one of England’s top schools. They clearly told me they didn’t give a damn about French because they spoke English anyway. Not to mention that they were not particularly bright, so I don’t expect them to read a lot anyway. In France, the school system is so bad that we write a lot of English, but are not given the opportunity to speak it much, which leads to a great lack of self-confidence. Most adults could probably come up with understandable sentences – even if not gramatically correct – yet they will tell you that they don’t speak any English, sorry.

  25. Jo Currie Anderson
    April 29, 2009

    Dear Gallic Books,
    In the 1980s I translated a book by Frederique Hebrard, LA CHAMBRE DE GOETHE, which had been a best seller in France, but I translated it for pleasure and not because I was encouraged or commissioned. I tried to interest two London publishers in the translation, and one in particular (a well-known name) was very interested, but at committee level it was thought that many of the references would not be intelligible to a wide English readership. However, I can assure you that the literary references were to famous French writers ! There was no publishing house in those days dedicated as you are to spreading French literature & culture.
    I didn’t send my translation to an agent. I have since published some books myself, since leaving my job at Edinburgh University to write (under the name of Jo Currie), but I still have the Hebrard translation in my cupboard. I know the areas FH wrote about very well – Montauban, the Cevennes & Nimes. I have a degree which includes French Literature and a Sorbonne Diploma in French. Interested ?
    Very sincerely, JCA

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This entry was posted on July 15, 2008 by in Fiction in translation, Publisher Features, Special Features and tagged , , , .

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