By Olivia Snaije
Books in translation? And only from French? Most would have seen it as a long shot. Yet the founders of the 3-year old London-based Gallic Books, Jane Aitken, Managing Director, and Editorial Director Pilar Webb, have pulled it off and then some. They recently hired Guy Ramage, former general manager of the Borders shop on Oxford Street as their head of sales; they are opening a bookshop this summer, and have started a mentoring program for aspiring translators.
Gallic will be at the London Book Fair selling rights to the late French novelist Pascal Garnier’s dark thriller, The Panda Theory. Aitken likes to buy world rights but in general French publishers will sell rights to the UK and the US separately. Gallic was able to purchase world rights to the French psychiatrist Francois Lelord’s successful series of “Hector” books that focus on psychology for the layman, and sold US rights to Penguin for Hector and the Search for Happiness last year.
Aitken strongly believes that as far as marketing goes, “you can leave no stone unturned.” Gallic promoted Hector and the Search for Happiness via Spotify, online advertisements, postcard campaign and ads on the London Tube. Aitken works with book bloggers and book clubs and maintains strong links to independent bookshops. She also likes to bring their authors to the UK for their book launches. “Having a living author makes a huge difference.” Bestselling author Guillaume Musso was in London during the Book Fair to promote his novel Where would I be without you?, published by Gallic this month.
Gallic publishes close to 10 books a year and Aitken thinks they will maintain this number in order to be able to put the necessary effort into marketing.
Both Aitken and Webb come from Random House and are Francophiles. Aitken had lived in France and saw how many books were published there in translation from English. Of the 8,000 or so books France publishes yearly, roughly 30% are translated books, and a sizable portion of this percentage comprises books written in English.
“I thought we must have the same interest. There was a gap in the market. Other people were publishing books in translation but no one else was doing only French books,” said Aitken.
With the prospect of applying for grants for translation from the French book office, Aitken and Webb “immersed” themselves into the French market in 2006 and began looking for books that they thought would work well for an Anglo Saxon public.
“We looked for books with an obvious appeal, that had a strong sense of place. Paris had to almost be a character.” Said Aitken.
Crime and historical fiction had been flourishing on both sides of the channel and Gallic decided to begin its list with translations of the successful Victor Legris detective series that take place in 19th century Paris, written by two sisters under the name of Claude Izner.
Gallic continued with historical crime and mystery novels before stepping out of the mold in 2008 and publishing Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, about a friendship between a Parisian concierge and a 12-year old girl who lives in the building. This was Barbery’s second novel published by Gallimard and was a runaway hit in France in 2007, doing similarly well in other European countries apart from the UK, where the larger publishers had declined to buy the rights.
Gallic took a chance, and at the time, when the English edition was launched, Jonathan Ruppin, the promotions buyer at independent bookshop Foyles was quoted saying “I think it’s a great book but it’s going to struggle a bit in the UK…the British reading public are unduly wary of foreign fiction. And the plot is not the main aspect of this book — it’s more subservient to philosophical and sociological observations…”
But The Elegance of the Hedgehog was a hit in the UK, selling over 100,000 copies and in the US with Europa Editions where it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 52 weeks. (Gallic and Europa often share translations.)
“In the beginning we had a lot of rules but we’ve dropped that. Now there are no rules other than the book has to be contemporary,” commented Aitken.
Gallic went on to publish Barbery’s first novel, The Gourmet, and Checkout: A Life on the Tills by Anna Sam. Sam was a checkout girl for eight years and her book was a hit in France.
Aitken feels that “if a book is not a big bestseller in France then we don’t have much of chance,” which is similar to the conclusion a certain Professor F.C. Green came to in 1954 when he gave a talk on modern French literature and the English reader noting the success of books that were appealing to a larger public such as the Belgian father of Detective Maigret, Georges Simenon. “It’s easier to interest the British public in a book if the stage has already been set in France.”
Another award-winning French author that Gallic will be trying out on the British public this summer is Anna Gavalda, with Breaking Away. Aitken says that sales have not been what they should have with Gavalda’s other books, published by Chatto & Windus. “I hope we can get her the recognition she deserves. I’d love to get her back list,” added Aitken.
Translation is a major activity for Gallic as with any publisher working with foreign language books. The six-person team works with five or six translators, some work in house and others on a regular freelance basis. “We’re moving to more and more in house translation,” said Aitken, who is developing a mentoring scheme, taking on language students just out of university. Gallic works primarily with students from universities in Oxford, Bath and Leeds and is planning to take four at a time. Ros Schwartz, the “queen bee” of French translators has agreed to be a mentor. Schwartz will oversee the translations at the beginning and will answer questions neophyte translators might have along the way, as well as running workshops for them.
Until several years ago it was estimated that literature in translation made up only 2-3 % of books published in the UK and the US. This is changing, however, “there are a lot of us now,” commented Aitken, citing publishers such as Hesperus Press, Alma Books or Maia Press.