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Through translation, languages expand global reach

CHU GUOFEI | 2017-02-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pierre Astier is the founder and manager of an agency that represents mainly French-speaking authors and publishers. After working for 10 years in the art world (Karl Flinker Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Palazzo Grassi, Venice), he created in 1988 the quarterly short stories magazine Le Serpent à Plumes which became a publishing house dedicated to international fiction. In 2004, The Serpent was sold to the Rock Group. Pierre Astier, who does not recognize himself in the spirit of this last house, then founded the Literary Agency Pierre Astier & Film Literary Agency.

At a lecture given by Pierre Astier, I was impressed by his concern for languages that are less commonly spoken as well as the cultures without global reach that are at risk of being lost in translation. Astier is dedicated to giving all languages visibility and preserving cultures. As a French agent and former publisher, he strongly believes that France’s literary market has great potential, as he and Laure Pecher claimed in an article in The Guardian, “6,000 languages are spoken worldwide, but few have a market for books. French is the fifth-largest pool, coming after Chinese, English, Spanish and Hindi. So there is a sense of responsibility for the transmission of knowledge.” What can we do for the transmission of knowledge? What are the challenges of publishing in the Digital Age? In an interview with Chinese Social Sciences Today, the French agent shared his thoughts and solutions.


CSST: Given that English is the dominant publishing language, you have been focusing on other languages that are spoken less commonly, and making efforts to improve the diversity and communication of languages and culture. Please share with us more about your thoughts and your efforts.


Pierre Astier: We are slowly coming out of four centuries of colonization of the world by Western Europe. There were 51 members at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. After the dismantling of empires, the last being the  Union of  Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Yugoslavia, the United Nations has 195 members. We rediscover languages and cultures. Books remain the best expression of that movement. That’s what we call bibliodiversity. A literary agent has to deal everyday with a great deal of languages. Personally, it’s a strong motivation to see books being translated and circulating in the world. Of course, English is a dominant language: globalization needs a language for all exchanges.

This gives United Kingdom and the United States a strong advantage, but we have to fight to give all other languages visibility and preserve cultures. One of our biggest successes was a novel Freud’s Sister by a young Macedonian Goce Smilevski. The novel has been translated into more than 30 languages. The problem for publishers of finding translators from Macedonian was real. But we found solutions. The same goes for an author from Iceland, Gyrdir Eliasson.


CSST: Digitization has brought many changes to the publishing industry. You are open to e-books, as you once said, “This is a thorn in editors’ sides, but I feel it is a positive development. One shouldn’t see this as a problem but rather as a solution.” What are trends, challenges and opportunities, as well as the business models for publishing in the Digital Age?


Pierre Astier: The publishing world has been frightened because digitization might have withdrawn part of publishers’ work and revenues. Nothing of this kind happened. Printed book publishers continue to control the majority of all content, and their expertise has been reinforced. The question of rights is another issue, as they have to be more flexible. That’s where agents have been helpful in bringing to authors decent revenue on digital rights.

Electronic books have slightly changed the publishing contract. At the beginning of the century, publishers tried to pay a percentage of royalties close to the percentage paid on physical books—between 7 and 12 percent of retail price. Now that agents have joined that battle, authors get around 25 percent net receipts.


CSST: Please tell us the brief history of publishing, and some key changes, including the dramatic increase in the output that made it possible for ordinary people to access books.


Pierre Astier: European industrial revolution took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, bringing the Western publishing industry to a higher level. Book trade began to go beyond national borders thanks to the improvement of transportation as well as the spread of languages from Europe to the colonies.

In the 19th century, the European book industry continued to experience a golden age, until it was hit heavily by the Great Depression that first began in the United States in the 1920s. To survive the depression, various methods were adopted, including publishing cheap portable paperback books, which turned out to be a great success. Books thus became affordable among lower-income readers.

Over the years, after World War II, books have become more and more accessible to everyone. New book markets have appeared in the world. However, the book market was still dominated by European countries.

Starting from the late 20th century, the book market took on new features against the backdrop of globalization and digitalization, and it was in this context that the self-publishing industry began to emerge.

However, European markets continue to enjoy being central, historically, because of dominant languages, such as English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, that are spoken and read on all continents. And the United States took the lead among the world’s 10 biggest book markets because of creativity and professionalization. Progress in emerging markets, like Brazil and the Republic of Korea (ROK), in recent years has been noteworthy.

Although Europe, the United States and Japan continue to be leaders in terms of innovation, there are countries such as China, Brazil, Russia, India or ROK who have become major actors, even giants. The quality of their production has improved a lot. In addition, the importance of new book fairs, such as Guadalajara, Beijing or Cape Town, gives opportunities for new multilateral cooperation. This means that knowledge and know-how are no more the privilege of Europe, the United States and Japan. A phenomenon that could and should be analyzed is the proliferation of indie publishers, which sounds like a sign of good health.


CSST: What is your advice for Chinese publishers and the publishing industry to further go global and to guide its active participation and communication?


Pierre Astier: China has done a lot in a few years to reach an international level. We all need to read fewer Anglo-American books and more Chinese or Russian or Korean books (fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, illustrated books). Chinese authors probably need to “speak” to the world the way American authors do. An American author finds it natural to be read all over the world. Chinese authors should feel as comfortable.

Another suggestion is going to international book fairs again and again and confront their production to the others. The top copyright exchange fields in the world include book fairs in Frankfurt, Beijing, London, Bologne and Turin. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the global center of copyright exchanges, driving the emerging publishing markets. Its last session attracted 170,169 professionals from 129 countries and 7,145 exhibitors from 104 countries. Nearly 2.8 million visitors and 10,000 reporters also participated in the event.

I recommend publishers going to the fair every year well prepared with promotion strategies for their new books, English book introductions, meeting schedules during the fair, sending out book title lists. The follow-up work is also crucial.


CSST: What is your advice on promoting collaboration between China and France in publishing?


Pierre Astier: I would recommend developing a relationship with French-speaking countries, such as Canada, Switzerland, Algeria, Belgim, Morocco, and not focus only on Paris, thought Paris is of course the hub. Big cities like Marseille, Lyon or Bordeaux have excellent publishers, too. French is used on five continents, mainly the former colonies. We shouldn’t ignore the important French-speaking regions outside France.

In terms of advantages, 68,000 kinds of French books were published by mainly 3,500 publishing houses last year. The French National Book Center (CNL), the Institut Français and local governments all greatly support the publication of French books that embrace sustainable creativity.

The exchanges between China and France in terms of books have been steadily improving. More than 900 French books were translated into Chinese in 2011 and the number grew to nearly 1,900 in 2015 with a stable year on year growth. In 2014 and 2015, 76 and 110 Chinese books were translated, respectively, one-quarter of which were novels. During the same time, there were about 7,000 books translated from English to French. Considering this, Chinese books have great development potential.


CSST: What roles are editors playing now and in the future in the Digital Age?


Pierre Astier: André Schiffrin, a French-American publisher at Pantheon Books in the United States, published a small and pessimistic essay “Publishing without publishers,” which had a great impact. He was saying that the job and the vocation were disappearing, that financial controllers had the power, and the creative side of the job was dying. Despite the great respect I have for him, he is wrong. Thousands of small publishing houses are being created all over the world every year. Publishers are alive and playing an important role in building the world of tomorrow.