Why is there a lack of French literature in Anglophone countries?
France has produced some of the most famous literary writers across the globe and ranks first in the list of Nobel Prizes in literature by country. It boasts a culture rich with the ideas of Voltaire, Maupassant and Molière, and Paris was for a long time considered the hub for writers of the western world.
So why is it that we simply do not see a lot of French literature published in Anglophone countries?
The French aren’t short of contemporary writers and dedicate an annual conference to literature: Le Salon du Livre in Paris. They are avid readers, of both their own writing and of littérature étrangere. The readers of our New French fiction column love French literature, yet as a literature lover myself, I often find that the foreign fiction sections in UK bookshops are rather sparse.
Why won’t Anglophone publishers publish French literature?
Perhaps this problem stems from the reluctance of Anglophone publishers. It has been suggested that French literature is seen by many as too philosophical and elitist to understand. It has been described as abstract, threatening, overly intellectual and difficult to read. Anglophone readers have accused French writers of focussing on sociological observations instead of plot, and writing in a language that is too formal.
Added to this is the use of a simple cream cover and standard photo of the author on books in France – a far cry from the colourful and eye-catching covers used in Anglophone countries. Is it for these reasons that Anglophones are ignoring French literature?
No need for French writing in the Anglophone book market
The Anglophone book market is thriving and people are reading more than ever before. Literature has become a respected art form, and books written in the English language are devoured all other the world, translated into countless languages and coveted by book bloggers and publishers alike.
Perhaps the truth is that the Anglophone book market has no need for French literature. I asked Jane Aitken, founder of Gallic Books (a UK publishing house publishing only French literature) her thoughts on this.
…they are expected to speak English if they are to take part in live events, or radio or TV. Many authors do not have that level of English.
“There is a huge amount [of literature] available in English. So much is written in English from the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa. There’s a huge amount of diversity in Anglophone literature which draws on a rich seam. But this helps explain the lack of foreign literature in general, not the lack of French literature.”
A shared reading taste between the French and Anglophones?
Jane founded Gallic Books alongside Pilar Webb after living in France and observing how successful UK fiction was there. “I had seen how almost any work of UK fiction was enjoyed by French readers – even books that seemed more likely to resonate with UK readers because the themes were very British.”
“So, there seemed to be an overlap of reading taste between the French and the British, and a huge French publishing scene that was not being tapped into.”
Jane suggests that it is not necessarily the disinterest of Anglophone readers and publishers that is the problem, but the presence of certain barriers that hinder the publication of French literature in the UK.
“It is undeniable that the cost of translation presents a sizeable disincentive,” she says. “It is also a lengthy procedure editing a translation properly as you have to balance two texts.”
The French have a different way of referring to races that can appear inappropriate to a UK audience.
“With regards to the French, it is harder to promote their authors because they are expected to speak English if they are to take part in live events, or radio or TV. Many authors do not have that level of English.”
Should we be more ‘ouverts d’ésprit’ when it comes to French literature?
According to Jane, more and more publishers, such as And Other Stories, Istros Books and Europa are focusing on translations.
I asked her if it was necessary to make many changes to French literature to make it appeal to Anglophone readers. “Occasionally we have to adjust phraseology around race, for example.
The French have a different way of referring to races that can appear inappropriate to a UK audience. But our aim is to paint the same picture for the UK reader reading our edition, as the French reader will have received reading the French edition, so our policy is not to make changes.”
We know that French writers are talented and that the French do not turn their noses up at literature that is not their own. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book and show more interest in foreign fiction.
In an interview with the BBC, Marie Darrieussecq said the fact French readers enjoy foreign fiction “shows that we French are very curious about other people and other cultures. You too – you should be curious. You should be more open.”
What are your thoughts on the lack of French literature in Anglophone countries? Join the conversation and add your comments in the box below!
1. French bookshop by adamskev, via Flickr.
2. Girl reading by gerdushe, via Pixabay.
3. Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, via FreePhoto.com.
4. Books HD by Abhi Sharma, via Flickr.
This is a very interesting article and vast subject that reminds me that I have always wondered why some books were being translated while others, even masterpieces, were not. It is surely about money but also the passion and adventurous spirits of some publishing companies. French Bestsellers (The Elegance of the Hedgehog for instance) and famous authors (like Michel Houellebecq) can be found abroad but , unlike literature in English, you won’t be finding any gem. However all anglophone literature is not translated into French either. The French put forward authors who are not necessarily number ones in their countries : Paul Auster, James Ellroy, John Fante. For instance ‘The Girl in the Train’ was recently quickly translated into French because it had become such a viral success.So far I have not read or heard anything about this book in France that could match up its craze in English-speaking countries. There is an undeniable strong cultural aspect in the choices that are made by both publishers and readers !
Hi Jacqueline. You make a very interesting point! I’m surprised to hear that the French put forward authors who are not necessarily the most popular in France-perhaps they are authors whose work the French feel would have more success in English-speaking countries? I too know of the success of The Girl in the Train in the UK but I haven’t heard talk of it in France. In any case, talking with Gallic Books about the cultural choices made by publishers in different countries was fascinating!
Thank you for this. I have often wondered why it is so difficult to buy French authors in Australia. A lot of it is the cost of translation and our demands that authors do the dreaded ‘book tours’. I tend, when I come to France, to buy the originals – but it takes months to read them (my French requires a dictionary beside me), so I restrict myself to ‘livres de poche’ and books written by journalists, which tend to be more to the point and have shorter sentences! Is there a way to buy good translations of French novels – and non-fiction – over the internet?
Hello Jan. This must be so frustrating for you. I know what it’s like to be reading a book in a different language and constantly having to refer to a dictionary! I’m in the UK, so to get hold of French books translated into English, I type the title of the book I want in French into the Amazon UK search bar, and an English translation usually comes up. Perhaps you could try this with the Australian Amazon? I know that you can buy literature in translation directly from Gallic Books, however I’m not sure how much the postage would cost to Australia. It’s definitely worth looking into. Best of luck, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the article!