Transcript: Transformation Of Translation

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Interview with Anne Trager

For podcast release Monday, November 10, 2014

KENNEALLY: More than four times as many people worldwide speak English than French, yet French culture certainly punches above its weight. This year’s Nobel laureate in literature is the French author Patrick Modiano, and more French writers have won the Nobel than writers of any other country. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for “Beyond the Book.”

When Modiano’s award was announced, American readers scrambled for his books in English translation, though only three titles were available, all from the literary-minded house of David R. Godine in Boston. Unfortunately, many French writers suffer the same fate of being lost in translation. Relatively few titles ever font le pont – make the bridge – while those that do usually take advantage of hard-to-come-by grants for translators from the French government. E-books and print-on-demand technology, though, are making it more practical than ever to bring out translations for books other than prizewinners and bestsellers.

Le French Book brings mysteries and thrillers from France to new readers across the English-speaking world and is the brainchild of American Anne Trager. She joins me now from southwestern France, near Toulouse. Bienvenue, Anne.

TRAGER: Bonjour. Hello. It’s nice to be here, Chris.

KENNEALLY: We look forward to chatting with you about Le French Book and the kinds of work you do and the implications for all of our listeners about this new world of translations in the 21st century. But I guess the place to start is to talk about Le French Book and your emphasis on the story and not the format. For you, I understand, a book is a book is a book – or I suppose un livre est un livre, right?

TRAGER: (laughter) That’s right. That’s right. Le French Book began as a digital-first publisher. We started that way because it was the easiest way in, if you will. But right from the start, we wanted to get our books out in absolutely every format, because I truly, truly believe that people, the readers, don’t really care whether it’s an e-book, an e-pub, whatever – MOBI, a this or a that. They may want to read it in e-book format. They may want to read it in paper format. They may want to listen to it. But what they’re really interested is in the experience of that story – in our case, we do fiction – so of that story.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Readers today, particularly the voracious ones who are very much keen on mysteries and that genre, they now can read books from absolutely everywhere, but of course it has to be in a language that they understand. So there’s tremendous potential in books in translation today, because books can be distributed so much more freely than they ever were in the past. Talk about that a little bit, just how tempting this is, as a publisher, to reach into the books published in one language and then bring them to another language.

TRAGER: I think that you’re absolutely right, that now publishers have much more opportunity. It’s much easier to distribute books worldwide in whatever format you want to distribute them in, and therefore to reach many, many new readers. So that’s fine if you are in a language that has many, many readers. And if you’re not, then the temptation is, as you say, to translate it.

But that is not so easy. It becomes much, much more complicated when you actually try to enter into a market that is not your own and in a language that is not your own. As a publisher, this is the whole nature of translation publishing, and it is actually far more complicated than people really think.

KENNEALLY: Right. It’s more complicated than they appreciate. Certainly, one challenge is to find translators. I think it’s an interesting point that you’ve raised with me in the past, which is that this is true not only for publishers, but for the growing number of self-published authors, genre authors, who think perhaps their book might translate well into another language, might do well in another marketplace. The first thing they have to do is to find a translator and to understand what some of the costs are. Talk about these very complicated questions. How costly is it?

TRAGER: I think that actually the first thing to do is to decide whether or not that is actually the right book to translate for that market, because every market is different, and every market has different expectations and likes different kinds of fiction.

I’ve had self-published writers who have contacted me and said, oh, I’d really like to enter the French market. I’ve written two books that are set in France. To which I’ve said, well, have you written any other books, because your vision of France is not going to be the same as a French person’s vision of France, so perhaps those are not the right books to translate.

Now, we don’t – we translate French books into English for the American market and can do that because, first of all, I’m American and am familiar with the American market. So I bring that knowledge into the equation when we’re choosing books. But a lot of the books that, for example, the French publishers – the major French publishers – will suggest I translate are not necessarily the ones I would choose. They are choosing from their perspective and what works in the French market, or what has worked in the French market, and I choose from the other side of the ocean and say, well, what’s going to work here? It’s not the same. So that’s actually the first step.

The next step is, as you say, finding a translator. There are a lot of translators out there. But if you don’t speak the language, then you don’t necessarily know whether or not the quality of the translation is good. So that’s a key issue. But assuming that you can find a trustworthy translator, the next issue is to understand what the different editorial expectations are of your target market. One of the things that I find is that the French editorial tradition is very different than the American editorial tradition, and so therefore the readers have different expectations, and there has to be some adaptation. So you have an editorial aspect, as well.

KENNEALLY: I’m very curious about that, because I haven’t really thought about that phrase before, but it’s a fascinating one – editorial traditions. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Is it a question of pacing? Is it a question of reliance on dialogue over exposition? What sort of things are you thinking about?

TRAGER: I think that every writer, when they write a book, makes mistakes. And every writer needs somebody to come in and say, wow, that’s really great, but you shift your point of view three times in this paragraph. Can you do something about that? We all know that. Anybody who’s written a book or anybody who’s worked with writers knows that there’s something editorial involved. Now, in the French tradition, the writer has always been – how can I say it? It’s almost as if the writing is an inspiration, and therefore you don’t touch it very much.

KENNEALLY: In a sense, the writer is his or her master of his own fate.

TRAGER: Exactly. At least in genre fiction, in the United States, there’s a lot more work that is done on a text. Also, the writers tend to also work together to figure out what actually works as a writer – again, in genre fiction. I’m speaking very much from what we work in, which is mysteries and thrillers. So the writers will spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to write better mysteries and thrillers.

There are some very, very fine mystery and thriller writers in France. That’s not the question. They’ve got great stories. But they don’t necessarily have the same editorial approach. They haven’t had an editor who’s gone in and said, well, your American readers will want to see this. You see what I mean? Of course they haven’t, because the French readers are expecting something else.

And I say that again – and it’s not that – the French edit it differently, because the readers have different expectations. And if you talk to – I have discussions with French publishers about this, and they say, oh yeah, on our American books, we always cut – and I don’t know what it is. We always cut some description, because it’s way too long for our readers.

So those are the kinds of things that – and it’s very culturally specific. And then an editor who comes from the French culture will know what the French readers are looking for, and an editor who comes from the American culture will know what American readers are – and what the obstacles may possibly be to those readers.

KENNEALLY: Right. You know what it makes me think of, Anne, is the very different approaches that filmmakers in France take over those in America. It’s a very broad generalization, but I think it’s true that French films are more talkative. There’s a lot more dialogue in a typical French film of any kind – comedy, romance, whatever it may be – than in an American film. That is just again a question of the viewers’ expectations.

TRAGER: Exactly.

KENNEALLY: The tradition and so forth. We are speaking today with Anne Trager, who is the founder of a publishing company called Le French Book. And she’s speaking with us from France about the effort to bring more French books – more French novels, mysteries – to the American market in English translation.

Anne, so we’ve been saying how things have changed. But still what hasn’t changed is a publisher has to find a business model that makes all of this work. I’m sure that that must be a very tricky thing to do, particularly today, when the costs are being pushed out of publishing in so many different ways. As a publisher – as a small publisher that does commercial fiction – what are the kinds of things that you’ve had to do to make these numbers work?

TRAGER: First of all, I’d like to say that yes, things are changing. But as I’ve mentioned to you in our previous discussions – is that I don’t think the model in translation publishing at all, at least, has changed much at all. You still have to have a book that works. You still have upfront costs that are not scalable, that cannot be turned into variable costs. You have to pay for translators. You have to pay for editing. And then you have an issue of marketing, which we haven’t even talked about, which is that the author does not speak the language to market the book. So you need to deal with that, as well.

I think that we have to find ways to work differently. One of the new models that’s being tossed around is revenue sharing, and then how much – who do you share the revenue with, so who do you share the risk with? You can share the risk with the original language rights-holder. In our case, it’s usually the French publisher, but it perhaps it’s the original author, if they hold the rights. What I mean – you share the risk with them – is that you have a lower advance and a higher royalty. The same would be – that’s also a potential possibility for translators is to provide a higher royalty to translators and then a lesser advance for the work.

KENNEALLY: That would really, I suppose, promote a real commitment on the part of either the publisher or the author or both to become involved in making the book successful in the translation.

TRAGER: Right. Exactly. And I think that this is one of the models that people are looking at, which can be more or less successful, depending on, as you say, how involved the translators, primarily, are and the publisher in getting some real attention for the book.

I think it’s an interesting model to look into. I think that both publishers and translators, in exploring this model, need to be very careful. Translation has always been a very thankless job. Translations usually get this tiny little mention somewhere on the copyright page, and they have always been underpaid, and they’re always rightfully very sensitive to anything that would mean they’d get paid less.

The idea, however, is that perhaps they would get paid more, because if there are sales then there are more royalties. Some translators never, ever get a percentage of the sales. They would just get a write-for-hire fee, whereas perhaps maybe they should be getting a percentage of the sales. So there’s give and take on both sides.

Again, I’m being very careful. I’m trying to be very careful here, because the idea is not to, once again, denigrate the translators, but rather to give them their more rightful place as writers. In this respect, translators have a lot to learn from the self-published authors, who have made tremendous progress in understanding what it means to build a brand and to market their books and to get out there and actually get some visibility. There are translators out there who do that, and there are also translators who don’t do that yet and should perhaps be looking into it, because I think that there’s a real future in this model, and I know a lot of people are looking into it.

I also think, honestly speaking, that translators who do literary translation probably need to have other sources of income, because literary translation doesn’t make a whole lot of money for anybody involved.

KENNEALLY: Nevertheless, you persevere. I was looking at the list of upcoming books from Le French Book. It’s probably – again I’m kind of falling back into some old stereotypes, but one series really did jump out at me we might as well tell our listeners about, and that is the so-called Winemaker Detective mystery. Now, I know you have what’s described here – self-described – as an irrational love for France and good food as well as crime fiction, so this was probably a natural for you. But it features a wine expert and a sidekick who have to solve such mysteries as a serial killer stalking Bordeaux. Tell us briefly about that series.

TRAGER: Oh, yes, this is a fabulous series. I just love it, again, as you say, because I love France and I love good food and good wine, and so it’s got it all. And I love mysteries, and it has it all. In French, there are 22 books in this series. We have currently brought out four books in this series and have several more currently in translation.

It features Benjamin Cooker, who is a wine consultant and a wine expert, and he’s from Bordeaux. He’s got a British father and a French mother, so he’s bicultural. He hires this young assistant, and so you also have the difference of generations. And they go from vineyard to vineyard, and they stumble upon these mysteries.

You can classify them as cozy mysteries. But since the French don’t really have a tradition of cozy mysteries, sometimes that’s a little bit misleading, because they’re just very, very French and really fun. So you have a gentleman detective who will solve these crimes, and you learn a lot and lot about winemaking. They both say – not only did they come up with this series drinking a bottle of Cahors wine that’s from the southwest, but that each book is as much a wine novel as it is a mystery.

It’s been made into a series in France, a television series, with the French actor Pierre Arditi, which is actually now available in English, as well. So we’re really excited about this series.

KENNEALLY: Indeed, it sounds fascinating – the sort of books to be sipped or to be gulped, I suppose, depending on your taste. Anne Trager, the founder of Le French Book, speaking with us today from southwestern France, near Toulouse. Thank you very much for joining us today, Anne.

TRAGER: It’s been a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: We have to add as well, bon continuation – good luck with your work.

TRAGER: Thank you very much.

KENNEALLY: “Beyond the Book” is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow “Beyond the Book” on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to “Beyond the Book.”

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