Sunday, April 25, 2010

Questions of Translation and Publication

A study by the MOTIF (Observatoire du Livre et de l'Ecrit en Ile-de-France) on the comparisons in book translations between Paris and New York - the two capitals of translation - came out this week. It has some interesting results :
  • Between 1993 and 2000, 37,000 English written books were translated into French in Paris, when 640 French-written books were translated into English - which makes them 1/5th of all translated books in NYC.)
  • 71.7% of the books translated from English were published in Paris (=3/4) whereas 15.8% of the books translated from French in the U.S. were published in New York. (the other major center is in California). This is also due to the fact that a great deal of French books are also translated in the U.K and in Canada.
  • The number of translated books increased by 50% between 19990 and 2000 and books translated from English make it for 59% when French books make it for only 10%.
  • French is the most translated language when it comes to literature.
More interesting is what is translated :
Novels make up for 50% of all translated books on either side, but more best-sellers come from NY when more prestigious writings come from France, such as poetry and plays.
As you can see on this list, Simenon a Belgian writer who wrote detective stories) is the most translated author, followed by Jules Verne, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo and...Annie Ernaux. But the popularity of these books is on average rather limited (less than 10,000 copies sold), despite exceptions like Suite française by Irène Némirosky (1.5 million copies sold) or novels by Emmanuel Carrère, Amélie Nothomb or Anna Gavalda.
According to an American publisher quoted in the study:
"In the United-States, French authors are suspected of being formal and self-absorbed ('nombrisliste'), whereas American writers come to France with the aura of the prestige of "la littérature américaine" (American Literature)." (my translation)
Well, this, somehow does not surprise me. It is all a question of perception (and the American view may be somewhat justified since unfortunately, it is not the most humbled ones - think of Nothomb or BHL- who get some media coverage in the US.... ).

According to the study, there are many three main reasons why fewer books are translated from French into English :

1. The current decline of the teaching of French is part of the reason why American readers are less likely to be interested in French authors (and the study emphasizes the importance of universities and teachers in inciting their students to discover new foreign authors).

2. The disappearance of independent bookstores, which is even more acute in the United-States than in France.

According to another publisher :
The problem […] is that there are almost no more independent bookstores in America now. 80% of the sales are done by the big chains. The big chains, they don’t give a damn of the literature or the genre they have… When the independents represented 50% or 60%, they were always ready to take two or three copies, some of them would keep them one month after receiving them, while the chains, if you haven’t sold in six weeks, they are back in your stock, which is part of the problem.
3. The other barrier is cultural isolation :

According to a prestigious (unnamed) US publisher :

Finding an audience for translated books can be more difficult because the cultural barriers and the American reading public is less international in…Europeans are part of an international confederation anyway... we’re not. So a lot of Americans have never been abroad, and so there’s a…how would you say, a kind of myopia about the rest of the world that Americans are susceptible to.

This last point is particularly interesting as similar views are often expressed when it comes to other cultural items, such as movies or music, but also concerning the news. In fact, it seems to me that this isolation has actually increased even though the world is becoming more global and more interconnected.

The entire study is worth browsing if you can read French (PDF here). Ironically, it does not seem to have been translated into English.

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