Around fifteen years ago, after publishing a couple of translations of 18th century philosophy, I set to work on French fiction. See, I’d found a bunch of really interesting, weird literature that had never been translated and I figured that if there was no question of paying rights of translation, I would be able to find publishers for these distinctive, unconventional, often influential works. How wrong I was.
The first novel I chose was Enemy Force (Force Ennemie) by John Antoine Nau. Back in 1903 it had won the first Prix Goncourt, France’s best known and most prestigious literary award. A poet mysteriously wakes up in a lunatic asylum, apparently checked in by a relative for his alcoholism or perhaps out of jealousy. He then becomes possessed by an “Alien Force” from another planet, Kmôhoûn, whose voice is constantly screaming in his head. Soon he falls in love with a female inmate but she leaves, so he escapes to track her down, resulting in a series of wild adventures with the Enemy Force cohabiting his body. Philosophical ruminations, social commentaries, science fiction, thwarted love and madcap adventures, questionable reality and a postmodern ending before its time, it has it all – a visionary masterpiece. So why was it never translated into English?
Well, I tackled it. And I sent it to several publishers specialized in literary translations. Negative. I sent it to publishers of weird fiction. Negative. More mainstream fiction? Negative. Why? Here I first encountered responses that I would receive over and over again for years to come. It’s too much science fiction for us, we do literature. It’s too literary for us, we do science fiction. It’s too weird and violent. It’s not weird enough, too tame. It just doesn’t fit.
What I realized very quickly and have seen confirmed over and over again is that works of fiction that don’t fit neatly into the defined genres of Anglo-American publishers will find it nearly impossible to get printed in English. Foreign fiction, by its very nature, doesn’t fit into these notions of genre. Either the notion of the genre is different or pushing its limits, eclipsing it, liberating it, as it were, is a distinct goal. But isn’t this difference the very thing that would be appealing to audiences? To get a glimpse of other visions and lose yourself in unfamiliar narratives, to experience other ways of thinking and seeing, isn’t this part of the adventure of reading? It seems to me that Anglo-American publishers believe their readers or rather book-buyers (since commodity trumps culture) want familiar stories that won’t challenge preconceived ideas. Are they right?
Personally, I don’t think so, but I could be wrong. And I’m not a publisher. Today the bottom line is paramount – sales win out. Since foreign authors are considered hard to sell, tough to market, an uncertain investment, they don’t be published. Risks are not being taken on translated books because profits must be sound. That’s my feeling anyway.
Thus, we’re left with the famous 3 percent. Of all books published in the USA and England, only 3 percent are translations. In comparison, Spain has roughly 35 percent, Italy 22 percent and France 15 percent. In most countries, the statistics I’ve seen show the number of translations has been increasing over recent years, except in English-speaking countries where it has remained stagnant. Now we have only a handful of small presses who are willing to take a chance on foreign authors and try to keep up that 3 percent. When it comes to science fiction, well, the situation is obviously worse. But there is hope.
For myself, beginning with Enemy Force, I was fortunate to discover Black Coat Press. Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier are single-handedly (or double-handedly) saving French “genre” fiction from falling into oblivion, as happens in too many other countries. They have set out to publish in English the best of French science fiction, fantasy, horror and other pulp. “The purpose of Black Coat Press is to help remedy the state of affairs by providing a fairly comprehensive selection of the best and/or most representative works with proper introductions, bibliographies, etc.” Thanks to their accomplishments, a whole history of imaginative fiction, from the 18th century up to the present day, is available to the daring English-language readers who want to expand their horizons beyond the conventional, the acceptable and the mainstream.
After publishing a few novels with Black Coat Press, I decided to try to break through the short market with some contemporary authors. Like any other writer I went to magazines and sites online and read carefully through their submission guidelines to make sure they would at least consider the story. My estimate (not statistically verified but anybody can look and see for themselves) is that the vast majority of the magazines are looking for the same thing. From the big “pro” markets down to the “token payment” sites, the editors could have cut and copied their requirements. They’re all looking for something “different” provided it is A, B or C (the admissible qualities and style) along the lines of X, Y and Z (the standardized authors of the canon). Nevertheless, I managed to find a very few brave editors who were actually enthusiastic about publishing a translation and was able to get authors like Jacques Barbéri, Pierre Pelot, Catherine Dufour and others published in English for the first time.
And this brings me to Michael Iwoleit’s InterNova – International Science Fiction. This e-zine is not just a welcome addition but a much-needed channel for English-language readers to discover a whole world of new and alternative fiction that are breaking down the barriers erected by the restrictive, conservative, profit-driven markets of today.
Just some personal reflections.
Michael Shreve, May 2023
In his mundane Multiverse Michael Shreve has worked as an archivist, private bookseller, printer, locksmith, warehouseman, delivery driver, taxi driver, croupier and assistant mortician. He has also taught Classical Civilization, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and English in universities and private schools in the US, Canada, Mexico, Malaysia, Lebanon, Iceland and France.
He has translated dozens of books for Black Coat Press and dozens of short stories for contemporary authors. He has also published non-fiction, such as Jean Meslier (with Michel Onfray) and Voltaire (with S.T. Joshi).
He currently lives in Antananarivo, Madagasgar.