french booksAn interesting thread at MobileRead has been discussing this article from BBC News, which poses the question ‘why don’t French books sell abroad?’ The article points out that many French novelists from the pre-war period—Flaubert, Dumas and so on—routinely make the literary rounds in English. But why do so few contemporary authors cross the great divide?

Posters in the discussion raise several theories, ranging from prohibitive costs for translation to the suggestion that contemporary French authors simply aren’t writing stuff that people find interesting. One poster raises the point that graphic novels (called BDs) are very popular in France and might be occupying the same spot there which genre fiction occupies here.

I am a dual-language reader myself—by profession, I am a French as a Second Language teacher, and I read in French to keep my own language skills growing. But I have found it difficult to find material. May of the great classics—Dumas, Verne and so on—I’ve already read in English, and the availability of contemporary French stuff really is anemic. My public library has a decent stock of French ebooks, but most of them are either translations of English books such as Harry Potter (which, again, I’ve read already in English) or Penguin Classics in the vein of Dumas and Verne.

We do get some Quebecois stuff from time to time, but much of it tends to be YA-oriented. A few years ago, a Quebecois author’s novel was chosen for Canada Reads, which is put on every year by the CBC. It was exactly the type of book that would have been perfect for my French reading—contemporary, non-kiddie, and not something I would have read already in English. Alas, Kobo only had the translated version. That strikes me as a missed opportunity. Why didn’t they offer it in French too?

I don’t know what the answer is here. I suspect it is a combination of things. I think it’s true that some of the genre market gets eaten up by the BDs, and some more of it gets eaten up by French translations of Harry Potter and other famous English books. But I think too that marketing failure accounts for at least some of the problem. I’d have liked to have read that Canada Reads book in its original, but the choice was not available to me. So I read it in English. And if a French version does ever come out here, that book will be, to me, in the same territory as Verne—been there, done that, oh well.