The French Social Sciences and Humanities in Translation

January 22, 2015 | By Book Department

Study—Institut Français : French Social Sciences and Humanities in Translation
United States, United Kingdom, Argentina

In 2014, the Institut Français commissioned a study on the international circulation of works in the social sciences translated from the French. Centered on the importation of French authors into the markets of three countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Argentina—the study analyzes trends in, and obstacles to, translation, and provides recommendations to increase translations in the humanities. 


Although books are not the sole medium of knowledge dissemination in the social sciences and humanities, they remain a key vector for international intellectual exchange, which places the focus on translation and the obstacles it faces.

This studyaims to unveil the social conditions of the international circulation of works in the humanities and social sciences by way of translation. It centered on the introduction of texts by French authors into the markets of three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Argentina*. These case studies have revealed both the stakes and factors of the exchanges and the specifics of local situations, illuminating two distinct logics, that which rules the editorial field and that of the academic field. In both cases, they reflect, on one hand; the history of these different fields at a national level, and on the other hand, their integration in different transnational fields (the academic and editorial fields being heavily globalized.)

This study focused more on the editorial sector than the academic one, as it is from this sector that the main obstacles in book circulation arise, though the two are incredibly intertwined.  It consisted in part of mapping what is in circulation in the countries studied, in part of rendering the points of view of the key players in the editorial exchanges: editors, agents, acquisitions editors and translators.

This study was directed by the Department of Langue française, livre et savoirs of the Institut Français, under the auspices of the Foreign Affairs Ministry for cultural programming outside of France.

It is based on a qualitative survey and on an analysis of quantitative data.
In addition to observations
in situ and the consultation of archives, the qualitative survey consisted of a series of interviews with 95 intermediaries (49 editors, 21 translators, 16 heads of foreign rights acquisitions, 5 agents, 3 book department heads,1 institutional mediator.)

Of these interviews,38 were conducted in the United States, 21 in the United Kingdom (including 2 in Scotland), 20 in Argentina and 16 in France.

In order to evaluate the distribution of translations by editor (French and foreign), by discipline and by author, we analyzed accessible databases, namely those of the Centre national du livre, French book departments, the PAP Hemingway, Burgess and Victoria Ocampo, and the Chamber of commerce for books in Argentina. In all cases, these databases were completed and recoded.

*Note: For the purposes of this translation by the Book Department of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, the emphasis has been placed on translations of French to English. Certain sections on Argentina have been omitted. This is a translation of a summarized version of the study. To read the original study in French, please visités/traduction-sciences-humaines.

1/ Translation in the Humanities: Contrasting Situations

Publishing in the humanities is a market apart, one which depends on both commercial and academic publishing. In the Anglophone world, academic publishing is its own specialized sector, although in the United Kingdom various independent publishers have invested in this area.

A Vulnerable Market
If the obstacles to translation in the social sciences and the humanities are of the same order as those which have hindered the circulation of literary works, they take on a unique form in this sector. From an economic standpoint, the problem of the cost of translation, cited in multiple studies as the first obstacle to increasing translations in the field, is further amplified by the vulnerability of social science books in British and American markets.

Various factors explain the decline in this market since the 1990s: the economic crisis across publishing, libraries reducing their budget for books in favor of subscriptions to scientific magazines, the growth of the secondhand book market for textbooks, and finally budget cuts leaving universities less money to allocate to their presses. These factors first hit US markets, then, because of the primary role of US markets in the economy, the global market.

In theory, these negative factors could be offset by the added value of a book in translation; but aside from the more well-known authors and books, in reality the opposite can be observed: Books in translation don’t sell as well according to publishers, which makes them less inclined to invest the time and money these titles require. Because of this, aid from external sources is also seen as indispensable. In France, this support comes from two main sources: the Ministry of Culture by way of the Centre national du Livre, and from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by way of funds specifically designated for publishing.

In addition to economic obstacles, there are cultural, and occasionally political, factors . Despite increased collaboration across the global book market, cultural differences hinder exchanges at all levels, from discrepancies in the presentation of books in editors’ foreign rights catalogues to methods of promoting published books, including language and contract clauses (droit d’auteur versus copyright, for instance) as well as citation and copyediting standards. Rights relating to digital publishing in particular were a significant source of tension in recent years.

However, it is important to take into account variations between countries. If in the United States and the United Kingdom, there has been a downward trend in [translating] in general and of French works in particular since the end of the 1990s, in Argentina there has been a sharp increase.

In the United Kingdom: A Rise in “Radical Publishers”

In the United Kingdom, the Anglophone market for academic publishing is dominated by major textbook publishers. As a result, the economic capital is concentrated. Because of this, in the United Kingdom the humanities and social sciences are dependent in part on publishing houses which cater to institutions of higher education—a market dominated by Pearson (as well as Sage, which has also entered the translation market) ; and in part on scientific publishing—a market dominated by the conglomerates Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis (along with Routledge, which translates titles from certain French thinkers), Thomson and Wolters Kluwer.

The academic publishing market in the humanities and social sciences is divided into the non-profit sector and the commercial sector. The former is made up of university presses, the most reputable of which are also the oldest and best funded, such as Oxford UP and Cambridge UP. At the other end, there are independent, for-profit editors, for whom translation represents a long-term investment, among them Polity Press, the leading publisher of French social science and humanities texts in British and American markets, and a group of socially and politically engaged editors (“Radical Publishers”). In essence, these editors fulfill a niche in nonfiction publishing. They have invested in contemporary French authors, who have been left behind by Oxford and Cambridge presses, which focus on the classics.

American University Presses: A Relative Divestment
In the United States, social science and humanities publishing is controlled exclusively (with a few exceptions) by university presses, a group divided hierarchically based on size, years in operation, and resources, with the presses of Harvard, Princeton and Yale at the top of the pyramid. The investment in contemporary French social science texts during the 1960s and 1970s set American publishers apart from their English language colleagues across the Atlantic, whose focus was on classics. The term “French Theory” was constructed during this time period.

This investment is, however, unequally divided. If presses with less funding do not have the means to invest in translation, then the level of engagement, measured by the number of titles translated, is not linked to the size of the press. It is closely linked to their scholarly disciplines and thematic specializations, and perhaps a form of branding and a way for presses to distinguish themselves in the academic publishing landscape. If we observe a divestment in translation at houses such as Cornell UP and Stanford UP, The University of Chicago Press and Columbia UP have maintained a steady lead on the market, having published, along with Fordham, the greatest number of French translations in the United States since 2008.

The Decline and Revival of “French Theory”
Numerous editors have declared the end of “French Theory,” which seems to belie the fact that Barthes and Cixous are among the authors that have been translated most often into English between 2010 and 2013 (6 and 4 titles, respectively), as well as the University of Chicago Press’s project to publish the translated seminars of Derrida in their entirety. In the past few years, philosophy has consistently been the subject most translated into English (30% of titles), well ahead of history (13%), anthropology and sociology (8%), literary theory (7 %), political science (6.3 %), art history (4%) and economics (3.3%), according to the database of the Book Department at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Moreover, new authors have appeared on the list of favorites, notably Laruelle, Badiou, Stiegler and, to a lesser degree, Rancière. It is also of note that female authors are underrepresented among the writers of nonfiction works translated into English.

If the majority of translation projects undertaken by publishing houses tend to be monographs, there are also large scale projects for the translation of works or series of works which require significant investment: seminars, re-translations of complete works, dictionaries, etc. Two recent collective projects distinguish themselves from the individualist tendencies which prevail in the translation market: the English translation of Vocabulaire européen des philosophies, also known as Dictionary of Untranslatables(edited by Barbara Cassin) from Princeton University Press, and the complete lectures of Jacques Derrida (a project with a projected completion time of 80 years) from the University of Chicago Press. These two projects required the work of teams of translators working individually or together.

The Translation of French Social Sciences and Humanities Texts Into English: A Concentrated Market  
According to the database of the Book Department in New York, between 2010 and 2013 77 British and American editors published 270 translated French social sciences and humanities texts, or a ratio of 3.5 titles per publisher on average, but the titles are unequally divided. The findings of this study indicate that publishing appears to be concentrated at a few main publishing houses: over half of the titles were published by 9 houses which published 10 titles or more; 24 editors published at least 3 titles, totaling approximately 75 percent of all translations when combined with the aforementioned 9 houses.

2/ Trades, Strategies and Expertise
The international distribution of the French social sciences is made possible by various contributors around the world. Due to differences in language, nationality, education, position within in the publishing house, etc. which would seemingly put the odds against them, this constellation of contributors has forged a strong network. Nevertheless, the ties between the world of academia and the world of publishing must be strengthened.

The Diversity of Participants and the Establishment of an International Network
In England, Argentina and the United States, the processes associated with translation and the purchase of foreign books are the responsibility of the editors; it is the editors who, playing the role of “homing device,” stay up-to-date on the latest titles and evaluate their chances of being translated.

In the United States, where the fact that the publishing houses most likely to publish translated texts are university presses puts academics in a key position, publishers interviewed often confirm that supporting translation is in the best interest of furthering the “mission” of their presses, namely, to disseminate knowledge in all of its diversity. A book published abroad that interests an American editor will be presented at a monthly meeting with scientific and editorial committees. Despite their willingness to publish foreign texts, editors face various obstacles, including financial limitations, which force publishing houses lacking in funding and human resources to reject, nearly systematically, any translation proposals.

In contrast, in the United Kingdom, where the situation of translation is even more complex, the positions of those involved vary, ranging from the oldest and best-known university presses to socially conscious publishers, to presses with a scholarly focus. As a result of this diversity, French stakeholders are forced to constantly adapt their strategies and practices.

On the French side of the equation, editors are disappearing in favor of foreign rights managers. Far from limiting themselves to securing copyright contracts, they benefit from relative autonomy and oversee the entirety of necessary steps in the process, from the creation of foreign rights catalogues to following up on the translated title after the signing of the contract. These numerous tasks require an investment that only large organizations can make. Professionals in this field, which appeared in the 1960s and is characterized by a high percentage of women, have inserted itself into the French publishing chain and its internal hierarchies, a transfer of services having taken place following the increase of international exchanges resulting from globalization. They are the point people for foreign publishers, in the event that the author does not have an agent, which is fairly rare in the social sciences, or the foreign rights department does not name an intermediary, such as Georges Borchardt Agency, and above all, the French Publishers’ Agency, which plays a major role in exchanges with the United States.

Where translators are concerned, their involvement in introducing new projects and connecting the various representatives is dependent on national practices, but also on their trajectories and on the publisher’s standing within the industry.

A close examination of the role of translators in the process of intercultural mediation requires a look at their career trajectories, training, working conditions and practices. If there are specialized paths of study for translators, they are rarely taken up by the translators of social science and humanities texts. In this domain; translation requires a certain skill set, which brings us to the question of specialization. There are two distinct translator profiles: professional translators and scholars. If the former have often kept ties with the world of academia, they set themselves apart from the latter in that they make a living from translation, while scholars often work on a volunteer basis, having other sources of revenue, while the activity of translating is not always compatible with their other academic tasks. In addition to these two categories, there are students, who constitute a group apart, one which has little professional experience and is often exploited. In their search to reduce translation costs any way they can, editors often encounter a worrisome source of cheap labor. Their solution, top hire young aspiring translators lacking experience and training, is often made at the expense of the quality of the text.

Ultimately, in a market with little investment from literary agents, French book departments in foreign countries play a significant role in the absence of direct exchanges between editors or agents like the French Publishers’ Agency. In essence, if new titles for translation are successfully shared through the academic network, academics are not always aware of the steps necessary to execute the operation. Publishing houses that have maintained strong ties with their French colleagues can rely on the support of book departments to obtain necessary information on the process and on available grants. In addition to seeking financial awards, to help with translation assistance, they can solicit the help of the cultural services for the organization and the management of author tours.

Event Programming
Beyond what distinguishes them, those involved work constantly to ensure the creation of a long lasting international network, in order to develop reliable, amicable relationships with their foreign editor counterparts. Electronic communication has increased the spread of information in this network but face to face meetings are still the preferred discussion method.

International fairs, the best-known of which being those in London, Frankfurt and Paris (Salon du Livre), are the most important meeting spaces of the year. Even the heads of small presses do everything in their power, despite their limited budgets, to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is by far the most important one. If the book fairs have become an indispensable step in this community’s annual agenda, it’s because they unite, in one time and place, all of the conditions which favor the sale — as well as the purchase — of translation rights: in-person meetings, the gathering of all of the major players from around the world in one place, the opportunity to be presented as well as recommended by a third party, the possibility of sharing a hardcopy of a book rather than a digital file, etc.

Otherwise, in the United States and the United Kingdom, French book departments initiate professional meetings and events which facilitate editorial exchanges and the spread of work by French intellectuals in the host country. The most successful event has been the “Nights of Philosophy,” organized in London in 2012 and 2013. Similar events are in the planning stages for Buenos Aires and Berlin in 2014.

Promoting the Dialogue on Translation
If French social sciences and humanities have maintained their symbolic capital, their importation is up against numerous obstacles, which are not all financial. The lack of communication between the various professionals in the chain of publishing —publishers, series editors, acquisition rights managers, translators and academics — is a barrier to the circulation of published research. One of the challenges of the Institut Français could take on could be to facilitate this dialogue by helping to establish a network of these professionals through mailing lists, as well as initiating professional meetings on specific topics in France and abroad, while editing a catalogue of publications in the domain of the humanities and social sciences selected by a committee of members from French and foreign universities, which would be updated regularly. In this way, the institute could strive to strengthen the ties between publishing and academic worlds, which are fairly compartmentalized.

At the international level, there would be an important role to be filled in building a reflection on the conditions of translation in the social sciences and the humanities, starting with the training (and continuing development) of translators in this domain. For in addition to the aforementioned financial obstacles, one of the obstacles to the circulation of ideas is the too-often unsatisfactory quality of the translations, which is due in part to the working conditions of the translators, and in part to the absence of specialized training. In the age of globalization, the study of translation goes beyond the question of the adequacy of the work: if we wish to avoid English becoming the sole language of communication in the social sciences and humanities, as has happened in the hard sciences, it is essential to pursue and compile a strong reflection on the specific conditions of translation on its epistemological importance.


Help With Research
àTo publish an annual or biennial catalogue coupled with a collection of excerpts from recent publications in the social sciences and humanities. The selection would be entrusted to a commission of academics both French and foreign, and its distribution would target editors of social science and humanities works as well as French institutes and French departments. The publication of this catalogue would provide an opportunity to organize, in Paris, a meeting between French and foreign editors, imprint directors and acquisitions rights managers in the field of social sciences, during which new trends in research in France and abroad would be presented.

àAbroad, the conference which the Maison Française of NYU organized in New York in 2010 between French and American social science and humanities publishers warrants repeating: involving French publishers and academics, it could be coupled with an event based around a theme related to the French social sciences of the humanities.

Assistance for the Translation and Publication of Social Science and Humanities Texts

à Avoid limiting assistance for translation to those works which have been published in French. Likewise, the publication of collections of articles which have already appeared in a foreign language or have been compiled for an unpublished publication in the language of the host country should also be encouraged. This standard practice in academia provides the local public with the opportunity to get to know the different facets of an author’s work.

à In the same vein, support could also be given to volumes consisting of compilations of the contributions of several French researchers on a current issue or theme which would interest an editor, with the participation of researchers in the host country if necessary.

à If the compensation of the translator is, and rightly so, a criterion for the granting of financial aid from the CNL, book departments should make their decisions with local customs in mind. For example, in a country like Argentina, where translation is often done by volunteers or by academics and students, a translation grant could be allocated to students for longer works or collections of articles if a contract has been signed with an publisher. This grant should be given directly to the translator, to prevent the publisherfrom keeping it.

à It would be ideal to reproduce, in the host country, collaborative decision-making model used by Institut français commissions to endorse projects; and to involve the major participants in the publishing chain (publishers, imprint collection editors, translators, marketing directors, academics, booksellers, and librarians) by establishing local panels of experts for the selection of books that will receive a grant for translation and publication

Visiting Fellowships and Translation Residencies
à Strengthening the program of fellowships and residencies in France for translators of social sciences and humanities texts and extending it to languages other than English.

Inviting Researchers
à Avoid limiting invitations of French Embassies to researchers who already have a work translated in the host country. The publication of a work in French could be an opportunity to invite the author, in partnership with local universities, to introduce his work to a new audience, promoting the reception of the work in the academic realm in the host country, thereby increasing the chances the work will be translated while diversifying the ties between the two countries.

à Improve the collaboration between book department heads and academic affairs attachés. This kind of collaboration would also be ideal for the planning of events, such as conferences, lecture series, etc.

à Improve the dialogue with French research institutions abroad and the Unités mixtes internationales (UMI) put in place by the CNRS.

à  Identifying the exchange programs which exist between French and foreign universities so as to benefit from French researcher fellowships to organize events and meetings.

Support for Scientific Event Organization
à Initiating events to correspond to current trends in research or major societal questions.

à Recognize the central role of reviewers in the translation of research findings. In areas in need of convincing, survey non-institutional local reviews and involve them in projects which would favor the translation of French authors, and to make them outlets for the spread of information about current French debates.

Strengthening The Links with the Members of the Publishing Chain
à Involve the translators (professionals and academics) in the organization of cultural activities and events as a way of highlighting their fundamental role in the circulation of texts.

à Negotiate intern contracts between French students and French speakers — in philosophy, literature, sociology, political science, law — and foreign publishing houses.

Promote the Analysis of Translation in the Humanities and Social Sciences
à Take advantage of the events dedicated to translation in the host country, such as International Translation Day, or the “Literary Translation” stand at the London Book Fair, or even “European Literature Night.” In these forums, address the question of diversity of thought by the bias of translation.

à  Strengthen ties with the European commission on translation questions. This could be the responsibility of the intermediary of the representatives of the commission in the host country.

à Initiate encounters and debates on these questions with translators and imprint editors in the host country.

This study was directed by the Département Langue Française, Livre et Savoirs of the Institut Française, which supports France’s participation in international intellectual exchanges, assists the initiatives of the French network abroad, advises members of this network by facilitating connections between them and researchers, as well as other experts, and suggests original projects to increase awareness of the contributions of contemporary French culture.

The study was undertaken at the Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique (CESSP). It was conducted by an international team led by Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS-EHESS) including: Alejandro Dujovne (CONICET), Heber Ostroievsky (UNGS, Buenos Aires), Marcella Frisani (CESSP), Jill McCoy (CESSP), Hélène Seiler-Juilleret (CESSP) and Gustavo Sorà (CONICET).

Many thanks to the publishers, translators, foreign rights editors, agents (in particular the French Publishers’ Agency) and state representatives (namely, the CNL and the French Book Departments in New York, London and Buenos Aires) for the rich interviews they gave and for their help throughout the research process.

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