Le French Book Debunks 6 Myths About Fiction in Translation

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According to recent statistics from the Three Percent translation database at Rochester University, fiction in translation is on the rise. In response, Le French Book, which specializes in top-selling mysteries and thrillers from France in English, says it’s time to quash six myths about translated novels.

Fiction in translation

Busting myths about fiction in translation

The media are seriously underestimating the audience for translated books.

A good story is a good story, right? Does it matter where it comes from? According to Le French Book, "non." This digital-first publisher of bestselling mysteries and thrillers from France takes a closer look at fiction in translation. Is it lost or found?

Myth 1. Translations are for eggheads.
The most common misconception about translations is that they are “too literary” and “too serious.” Yet, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, the number one most-translated author in the world is Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunit. In other words, pure genre fiction. The top five translated authors in the United States are Rudolf Steiner, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, Georges Simenon, and Hans Christian Anderson. That makes one philosopher, three fairy tale writers and a French-language crime fiction writer.

Myth 2. Nobody reads translations.
It only takes one name to burst this myth: Stieg Larsson. The Millennium series topped 64 million in sales. Many writers would like to have an audience that small. From more recent news, Amazon Publishing’s most successful titles to date have been translations: the German writer Oliver Pötzsch sold over a million copies. This supports what Joanna Zgadzai and Nancy Roberts from Stork Press wrote in Publishing Perspectives, “Major publishers and the media are seriously underestimating the audience for translated books.”

Myth 3. Nobody publishes translated fiction.
The most-repeated statistic about translation is that only three percent of all US book output consists of works in translation. Yet, Open Letter Books' Three Percent blog reports a 26.3% increase in the total number of works of fiction translated in the United States in 2012. This is due in part to the rise in new publishers that are specializing in translated fiction. Some are digital-first and very focused, like Le French Book, which does mysteries and thrillers from France, or Stockholm Text, which concentrates on books from Sweden. Others are major publishers, such as HarperCollins, that are releasing international works, often in digital format. And the most prolific publisher of translation is, in fact, Amazon, with their imprint AmazonCrossing.

Myth 4. Who needs it anyway, we’ve got machine translation.
Many people have no idea at all what goes into translating a work of fiction. It’s just another story from another place, which is exactly what it should be. However, translating fiction is far from mechanical. Take this example from the conspiracy thriller The Bleiberg Project by the French author David Khara:

  • Original: “Je suis une ordure et j’ai la gueule de bois, comme tous les matins. Le cigare est en panne, normal. Ça cogne à mort là-haut.”
  • Online machine translation: “I'm a scumbag and I have a hangover, like every morning. The cigar is down, normal. It knocks to death there.”
  • Human (the book’s translator, Simon John): “This morning, like every other morning, I’m hung over. My brain is fried. I’m a piece of shit. My head is pounding.”

Myth 5. It’s always better in the original.
Thanks to that movie directed by Sofia Coppola, the word “lost” is often put up along side “in translation,” which is totally unfair. First of all, not everyone can read in the original language. Secondly, translators work very hard to bridge not only the language, but the culture, adapting subtleties linked to one context to another cultural context, so readers can truly appreciate the story. David Bellos, who translated the French authors Fred Vargas and Georges Perec, calls it “matchmaking.” In the end, a translation is, in fact, an original. That’s what readers gain.

Myth 6: French fiction is stuffy
French fiction may have different codes, but going by just pure worldwide popularity—French is the top language translated into English—either people like it that way, or French fiction has something going for it. Following Agatha Christie, a French writer is the second most-translated author worldwide: Jules Verne. Remember Around the World in Eighty Days? Furthermore, among the top four writers translated from French, after Jules Verne, are Alexandre Dumas (adventure novels, notably The Three Musketeers), Georges Simenon (detective fiction, creator of Maigret), and René Goscinny (comics, and not just any comics: Astérix).

It seems it’s time to start exploring fiction in translation.

About Le French Book

Le French Book (http://www.lefrenchbook.com) is a New York-based digital-first publisher specialized in great reads from France. Founder Anne Trager says, “There is a very vibrant, creative culture in France, and the recent explosion in e-reader ownership provides a perfect medium to introduce readers to some of these fantastic French authors.” It launched with top-selling mysteries and thrillers. Their motto is “If we love it, we’ll translate it.”

©2013 Le French Book, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is subject to change without notice.

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