French Translations and American Publishing: A Roundtable

Article excerpt

Jacqueline Pavero, Foreign Rights Director of Albin Michel, Anne-Solange Nobie, Foreign Rights Director of Gallimard, and John O'Brien, Dalkey Archive Press publisher and RCF editor, exchange views on the problem of why more French literature is not published in the United States.

The Unequal Exchange of Rights between France and the United States

Jacqueline Favero

A quick review of the few figures available on the exchange of rights between France and the United States shows that there is an obvious imbalance which merits further examination. According to SNE (Syndical national de l'edition) sources for 1994, 148 titles were sold in the United States, against 713 titles bought, taking all categories together, or about 3 percent of all French rights sales to other countries. In comparison the figures climb to 8 percent for Germany, 11 percent for Spain, and 12 percent for Italy. Moreover, in recent years rights sales to countries in Eastern Europe and to Korea have grown considerably, while promising markets like China, Vietnam, Asia as a whole, lie on the horizon. According to figures from American publishing sources this time, translations from all languages account for 3 percent of total U.S. output.

Viewed from the other direction, the number of translations coming from the American market to the French market represents some 40 percent of all acquisitions. These figures speak for themselves, but with one consolation (a substantial one): the 0.8 percent market share for translations from French is the highest among all foreign languages in the United States!

If one attempts a comparison in financial terms (purely indicative, in view of the difficulty of obtaining reliable figures), the average size of advances when rights are sold to the United States can be estimated at $2000 to $3000--not counting those special (and rare) cases of titles that go to auction--whereas this amount can easily be multiplied by ten when we buy American authors, and very often by a hundred for best-sellers.

Thus France has considerable difficulty in selling to the United States, but what kind of book sells best? Very clearly works in the humanities, which account for nearly 35 percent of the total. In this field France remains a leading light to other countries, whether in history (much followed since the Annales School), in philosophy, psychoanalysis, or science. Not only do American publishers buy our publications, but they await them, thanks to a university network that is culturally very active and open to French thought, through the university presses. The works bought are often specialized and considered as basis texts. Some examples of authors translated in these various fields: Alain Bourreau, Alain Corbin (Albin Michel, Flammarion), Philippe Aries, Marc Ferro (Seuil), Georges Duby (Flammarion, Gallimard, Seuil), Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie (Plon, Fayard, Flammarion), Pierre Manent (Calmann-Levy, Fayard), Jean Orieux (Put), many authors from the "Vie quotidienne" series (Hachette), Michel Foucault (Gallimard), Jacques Derrida (Gallimard), Paul Ricoeur (Calmann-Levy), Pierre Bourdieu (Seuil), Alain Tourraine, Julia Kristeva (Fayard), Jacques Lacan (Seuil), Elisabeth Roudinesco (Fayard), Elizabeth Badinter (Odile Jacob), Jean-Pierre Changeux (Fayard, Odile Jacob), Andre Comte-Sponville (Put), Luc Ferry (Grasses).

The picture is more disappointing for fiction. The great "classic" authors of course remain very popular, hence the craze for the recent "unpublished works" by Jules Verne (Paris in the 20th Century, from Hachette) and Camus (The First Man, from Gallimard). Marguerite Duras (Minuit, P.O.L.), Jean Rouaud (Minuit), Jean Levi (Albin Michel), J. M. G. Le Clezio, Sylvie Germain (Gallimard), Erik Orsenna, and Dan Frank (Seuil) are translated in the United States, but how many of our great novelists do not reach this market?

It is interesting to note that, apart from the authors mentioned above, French fiction is often bought by label: women's or feminist books, gay books, and so on. …