To Be Translated or Not To Be: Case Studies — France

The last case study in the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report was written by Anne-Sophie Simenel when she was Program Director for the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.

Before getting into specifics of the case study, I think it’s worthwhile pointing out some of the oddities of the French Cultural Services system. Unlike the German Book Office, appointments at the FCS are for a limited term. Anne-Sophie—one of the best books people the FCS has ever had—was, like her predecessors, limited to a two-year term, which is nonrenewable. So by the time she really figured out what she was doing and how U.S. publishing worked, it was time for her to leave. During her stint there, she worked a lot with Fabrice Rozie, who is one of the most energetic, intelligent, interesting people I’ve ever worked with, and who managed to advance a number of the innovative ideas discussed below. Of course, he’s moved on now as well.

From what I’ve heard, Fabrice’s and Anne-Sophie’s replacements are doing an admirable job and picking up right where Fabrice and Anne-Sophie left off. In fact, I’m sure they’re both wonderful and will do a great job in their positions.

My point isn’t to criticize them or long for the golden days of years past, but in relation to getting French books translated into English, this enforced turnover of key staff is a special obstacle that the French face that hasn’t popped up in any of the other case studies I’ve written about.

This case study starts off looking at the scene in France:

For some time now the French and foreign literature sections have been sitting side by side on the shelves of French bookshops in almost equal proportion. They reveal a diversity and an eclecticism that show, year after year, the opening of the French publishing scene to the world.

Of course, in France, almost a third of all literary works published are in translation. Compared to our paltry output here in the States. One of the reasons Anne-Sophie cites for this difference is the dedication of many French houses to employing foreign language editors. Actes Sud is cited as a prime example of this attitude, which, it’s implied, isn’t all that prevalent in the United States.

Another reason for the high number of translations published in France is the fact that the Centre National du Livre (CNL) finances 50%-60% of the total price of the translation. Presumably, a French publisher can get this money in addition to subsidies from other foreign governments, thus offsetting a significant portion of the total costs. This kind of support can go a long way . . .

One of the interesting statistics in this article is in regards to the exchange of rights:

According to the 2004 National Publishing Union (SNE) external statistics, the number of titles sold had risen to 6,077, of which almost two thirds (1,817) were works of literature. A comparison of the purchases and sales of rights for 2004 speaks for itself: France sells far more literature than it buys, at the rate of 1 title bought for 4.2 titles sold.

I can only imagine what this ratio is for U.S. publishers. Much worse than 1:4.2 though, I’m sure.

However, that balance is reversed when it comes to English-speaking countries. Indeed, for 240 English titles bought, only 90 French titles were sold in 2004, with the same figures for the United Kingdom and the United States (42 titles each).

This is much more balanced than most countries, a position that Anne-Sophie goes on to point out:

In the United States, even if the trade balance is unfavourable to France and there are still great efforts to be made, French publishing production is in a good position, wiht 0.8% of the total American production, of which 2.8% are translated works. In other words, about 30% of the works in translation in the United States are from French language sources.

Not sure where these statistics come from, but the 2008 Translation Database paints a slightly different picture. Of the 175 original translations currently listed, 25 (or 14%) are translated from the French.

Still, 25 original translations is far and away the most from any given language (Spanish is in second with 18, then Arabic with 17, German with 16, and Russian with 12). This is due in part to an historical interest in French writing, but also because of the variety of activities undertaken in the States to support French literature. Here’s a short list:

  • French Publisher’s Agency (BIEF) is an organization in New York that acts a rights agency for a group of French publishers.
  • The aforementioned CNL also supports publishers interested in translating French texts. Usually this support is between 20%-50% of the cost of the translation.
  • Hemingway Grants are awareded to American publishers for books not receiving support from the CNL. These grants are between 1,000 and 6,000 dollars.
  • In addition to funding publishers, CNL occasionally awards grants to translators, and also awards scholarships for foreign translators to spend time in France to complete a project.
  • French Book News contains a slew of information on French fiction and nonfiction, information on grants, translators. Updated frequently, this is a great resource for finding out about what’s going on in French literature.
  • French Voices is a new program that was started by Fabrice Rozie to promote the US publication of contemporary French titles. The goal is that by the end of 2008, 30 books—both fiction and non—published in France after 2000, would be published by American presses. The titles in this program are selected by a committee of French and American industry professionals and publishers publishing these titles receive $6,000 to offset translation fees. Books in the series will feature a logo designed by French artist Serge Bloch as a way of branding the series. Information about the program is available here including information about all eleven titles that have been included in the series so far.
  • Finally, the Book Service of the French Embassy in New York also tours a number of French authors throughout America every year, which also helps increase awareness of contemporary French authors.

Quite an impressive list of activities, and this isn’t even everything. French Cultural Services also sponsors a lot of events, readings, panel discussions every year, often in collaboration with the French-American Foundation, which helps strengthen ties between the two countries and gives out the annual Florence Gould Translation Award for the best translation of a French literary work into English.

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