Jean-Marc_Ligny_aux_Utopiales_2014_-_04When it comes to translating science fiction novels from France, Germany, Italy or Japan (and other non-English speaking nations), the U.S. publishing industry has a rather dismal track record.

Yes, Tor Books published a popular sci-fi novel from China by Cixin Liu, “The Three-Body Problem,” and not only did it win over readers in translation the by American sci-fi author Ken Lui, but Liu’s novel also won the “Best Novel” prize at the 2015 Hugo Awards. In addition, the 2015 Xingyun (”Nebula”) Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction was recently announced in communist China, with the best achievement prize awarded to Liu in his home country.

Published by Tor Books in November 2014, Liu’s novel shows the possibilities for future translations of non-English language sci-fi. In addition, Amazon has recently announced that it intends to pour more money its own translations of books from foreign countries, with a reported pot of $1 million to get the AmazonCrossing project rolling.

But in fact, the U.S. is still not translating enough books. As an example of the issues here, I’d like to introduce American readers today to an important sci-fi novelist from France, who writes only in French and has not yet been able to find a publisher in the U.S. or Britain.

aquaMeet Jean-Marc Ligny, born in 1956, and one of the top novelists writing sci-fi with climate themes in all of Europe. His most popular novel in France is titled “AquaTM” and it was released in 2006. It has sold over 10,000 copies in France, according to publishing sources in Paris, and about 5,000 copies in Germany in translation. Ligny told me in a recent email that 1 million copies of “AquaTM” were printed in China, although he added: “I’m not sure how many copies were actually sold.” Now Ligny, and his French publisher L’Atalante, have their sights on a U.S. edition. Ligny’s three climate-crisis novels Aqua™ (2006), Exodes (2012) and Semences (2015) have yet to be translated into English. His publisher has generously sent me English-language summaries, draft translations of the first several chapters of the first two novels, and an English translation of a 2012 interview with French SF blogger Gromovar. In addition to foreign rights sales to Germany and China, “AquaTM” has been optioned for a film in France, too.

The plot goes like this: In 2030 drinking water has taken over from oil as the most precious and vital commodity that people and nations are fighting over. It is, of course, a situation brought on by drought and man-made global warming. In a drought-stricken African country, a scientist, with the help of a pirated satellite picture, finds an underground water layer in its territory, but it does not all end happily. Ligny writes sci-fi with panache and with a vision, so be prepared. TeleRead offers a translation of the prologue and first chapter here.

Lingo visited Florida in October, he told me, noting that he was invited to attend a university colloquium titled “Imagining climate change” at the University of Florida.

“I’ve written three SF novels about climate change and one for YA readers, and while I am identified in France as a sci-fi writer, I am also comfortable to be considered as a ‘cli-fi’ writer,” he said. “However, this cli-fi term is not used often in France. and there’s also not many SF authors here writing about climate change, either. It’s my dream now, and has been for several years, to find a U.S. publisher for my work.”


  1. UPDATE: “AquaTM” has sold over 10,000 copies in France, and about 12,000 copies in Germany in a very good translation in 2009 by Ulrike Werner-Richter for Lübbe Books there.
    Some 1 million copies of “AquaTM” were printed in China in 2009 by Yunnan Education Publishing House there. In addition, the novel has been optioned for a feature film in Germany by German director Tim Fehlbaum, who in 2011 made the movie “Hell” (which was produced by Roland Emmerich).

  2. UPDATE 2: A reader in France, deeply into sci fi, asked me to post this:

    ”Thanks so much for your enthusiasm, Dan!

    ”Like you, I feel that foreign works in translation should be welcomed with open arms in America. It seems so arrogant to think that the pool of American sci-fi writers suffices to meet the demands of the sci-fi market. Yes, they certainly do push out books, but how many are great books? How many are truly original? So very few… As a sci-fi fan myself, I can say, “My needs are not being met, because I have yet to come up against a truly great sci-fi novel.” (Sorry!)

    ”We American readers would appreciate being able to read books by foreign writers, with their alien viewpoint. As it is now, we have no choice: we’re stuck with that pool of writers our publishers favor, or with the bewildering e-book offering.

    ”I’m not saying I’ve uncovered any truly platinum-level sci-fi fiction here in France where I live now, but I see writing that is superior to work being published and gobbled up in the USA. And given the chance to reach millions of American readers, masterpieces of French science fiction literature just may appear. The dream of every editor…if he or she will risk investing in a good translation.”

    And a reader in Canada, also very involved in Sci Fi wrote via email:

    ”Actually, Dan, there was a time when translating foreign SF novels into English was almost routine (back in the 1960s and 1970s), but it was often an editorial decision at the top (cf. Wollheim) and readers may have been more adventurous as well. This was also in the days before the crushing of the mid-list, when middling sales could be justified as long as bookstores restocked their shelves with the same titles.

    As I see it, tastes have ossified and publishers will only place so many bets on [unproven or unknown in North America] SF authors from overseas (no other publications in English, no international awards), especially considering the added costs of translation….”

  3. UPDATE 3 — The U.S. publishing industry is still not translating many scifi novels from overseas, and to get some background on this issue, I turned to David Brin, the well-known sci-fi novelist.

    Brin told me why getting sci-fi novels from other countries translated into English is still a problem.

    ​”The main problem is that the English-language market is self-sufficient,” he told me. “American editors are not prejudiced against foreign-sourced work, but few of them can read in a foreign language. As a result, they can only evaluate a sci-fi work from France, or anywhere else, after it has been translated, even a chapter or two [to get a feel for the book.]”

    “So someone has to do some initial translation work on spec, most probably unpaid, as Ken Liu did with the first few chapters of his translation of the ‘The Three Body Problem.’ That is the only way it can be done,” Brin added.

    According to publishing sources in New York, the translation of Cixin Liu’s ”The Three Body Problem” has been selling very well in North America. Brin said that Liu’s novel had advantage of a fine translator — Ken Liu (no relation) — and also had some important people championing and speaking up for the book even before publication. Brin was one of them, he told me.

    When I asked why the Chinese sci-ci novel found success in America, Brin said the book had literary and entertainment traits that the Tor editors wanted and believed would sell books in an U.S. market.

    “The key [to getting foreign sci-fi novels translated and published in English] remains to get good, high-quality translations,” Brin said. ”And most publishers, with thin profit margins, will seldom commission a translation or pay for it with an advance because they are already flooded with so many submissions in English.”

    ​Another problem is cultural ​, Brin said​ . ​What works with readers with a sci-fi novel in France or Japan, might not work as well among America readers.

    ​”​ I don ​’​ t mean this to ​sound discouraging ​ for sci-fi authors overseas who want to break into the North American market,” Brin said.​ It ​’s​ simply that ​while ​ U ​.​ S ​.​ editors have no inherent bias against foreign ​sci-fi novels , ​these American editors are not linguists. They must see ​an ​English-language ​ translation in front of them ​, and then they must feel entertained ​ by the novel, too.”​

    ​​According to Terry Harpold, an English professor at University of Florida in Gainesville, hope is on the horizon for more foreign-language sci-fi books entering the market here.

    “The Anglo-American-centrism of sci-fi reading tastes — in terms of the original language of the novel, but also in tems of the cultural sensibility of the work — is loosening up,” Harpold told me. “But it will take time. ​”

  4. I have yet to make in-roads into French Sci-Fi or literature forms because I have find it slow, dull and pompous. I read French fine. I’ll try Ligny. Notably some works do breakthrough (Planet of the Apes is originally French, and not obsessed with it’s own self-importance).

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