Indie Fiction Subscription #6: Les Fugitives

Les Fugitives sprang to life in 2015, publishing Francophone authors whose work had not yet been translated into English. We love their description of their wide-ranging remit as:

We favour storytelling that follows in the steps of the modernists’ efforts and their successors, and writing that sits comfortably between genres: non-linear narratives, sometimes better described as textes (in French).

We sat down with publisher Cécile Lee to talk about connections, movement, process, persistence, and the past, present and future of publishing in translation to celebrate the publication of Poetics of Work, which is our February Indie Fiction subscription title.

Find all of our Les Fugitives titles here, and say hi to them on Twitter 🐦@LesFugitives and Insta 📸

Bonjour, Cécile! The name of your press suggests texts with escape velocity: you talk about “wandering and wondering” on your website. How do you corral books that want to get away, narratives that move on tangents, writers who don’t fit Anglophone publishing? 

Well, whichever way I do this (with my whole wayward being, I guess!), it seems I’ve spectacularly failed: all writers published by Les Fugitives fit Anglophone publishing… I think? It’s more the characters, or the ‘real life’ people, and/or the first-person narrators of most books published by Les Fugitives, who don’t fit in, who think from and live in the margins, who are or become outsiders. More often than not, their experience of the margin – the outsider, wanderer, or criminal aesthetics and poetics they embody – is revealing and understandable to most people, there’s a great universality about it.

Les Fugitives is entering its seventh year! You exploded into our consciousness with Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger in 2015, which you co-translated with Natasha Lehrer. How have you kept going? Did you start with a five-year plan or has it been more intuitive and connective? 

I’ve had the seven-year itch ever since I started – seriously – aching to get off that slow but steady little train I’d got on somehow, this has become a sort of personal trope, and a joke for those who’ve known me since Les Fugitives started. And it started with the idea that I had not much to lose, which soon proved quite wrong of course. Needless to say, there was never a five-year plan (and there still isn’t one!) so I’ve just been trying to avoid making too much of a mess of it all. It’s lovely but also amusing to hear that LF exploded into people’s consciousness in 2015. Back then it certainly didn’t feel that way… but we sold the North American rights to the wonderful Dorothy Project, and I think that’s when the book really started to have an impact. In the UK, it’s been more of a slow burner – like most of our books. Developing the catalogue has been a dream; keeping the business going at nuts-and-bolts level has been another story.

Thinking laterally has been crucial and making it up (including the money!) as I went along has forced me to stay close to my initial ideas for the press so yes, it has been very much intuitive and connective a process. Les Fugitives is growing organically – like organic produce, in terms of its list and its people: very pure! There was a turning point in the Fall of 2019, when we finally managed to file a successful application for funding with Arts Council England. Then some more money came from the Jan Michalski Foundation, and the ACE Emergency Fund, which makes it easier to see both the wood and the trees, and allows us to keep going. Until then, we had been relying on translation and publication grants from the French Institute and the Centre National du Livre, with the exception of one PEN UK Award for Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel. 

In those seven years, have you seen a change in British independent publishing and reviewing (leaving aside the horrors of British politics) – it feels like there’s been a very welcome emergence of very thoughtful, incisive indie translation publishers, often focusing on particular regions or languages. Does Les Fugitives feel like a part of that loose conversation or community, and has that changed how the books are received and read? 

There’s healthy emulation out there and a sense of community among certain literary indie presses large and small. Initiatives such as Peirene’s Borderless Book Club are great. By the way, translated literature in the UK seems to have always been thoughtful, vibrant and incisive – I’m thinking of John Calder, Marion Boyars, and more recently, of course, Christopher MacLehose. As to reviewing and the reception of the books, I think the readership has always been and will always be there. I just need to make sure readers know we exist!

Many of the titles you publish defy Anglophone conventions on categorisation, particularly the fiction/essay/autobiography “divide”. How do you like to see the books displayed, shelved, discussed? Has the impact of Annie Ernaux’s work, categorised as auto-fiction, in English translation helped change the rigid conversation around genre? 

It hasn’t really, no. I don’t think -- alas! Think of a book like Mother by Sarah Knott which, despite the publisher’s efforts to categorise it as or y, would end up in very different sections of Waterstones. If we’re talking about retailers here, booksellers will place a book wherever they think it belongs. If it’s a media success, they’ll display the book prominently in whichever way works best for them – which is fine of course! I like to see Les Fugitives’ books displayed in fiction unless I expressly say in metadata speak that they are non-fiction. But what do you do with a book of non-fiction that quotes a lot of poetry? In three languages at that. The common denominator is that they are literary works that articulate an interest in language itself, and, for some, in their own creation. Our books ought to be placed, for ease of purpose, with books by other foreign authors, books in translation, all genres together, even though ‘literature in translation’ isn’t a literary genre. Anyway, the novel as a genre has always exploded its own boundaries, as we all know, this goes back to Werther– no, Tristram Shandy – hang on, no, Don Quixote! What matters is that there’s a discussion around the books but dwelling on the question of genre(s) often ends up obliterating what the writer is actually saying (or not saying).

Poetics of Workis your second title with Noémi Lefebvre, and in June you will publish a second book by Anne Serre, The Fool and Other Moral Tales; and you’ve also published a second title by Ananda Devi, two by Jean Frémon, and three by Nathalie Léger. How do you develop relationships with writers, and why is it important to you to publish an oeuvre rather than just a title? 

My relationship varies according to the writer. Noémi and her partner Laurent returned to London after the book launch of Blue Self-Portrait and stayed with me – so we are now friends. I have a more distant relationship with other writers, but it’s usually quite a warm relationship, albeit mostly in writing, as we rarely meet. I’ve never had even as much as coffee with Nathalie Léger! The first point of contact anyway is always the text, and I only write to an author when I need to, at some point in the project, once the translation has been delivered, generally - so that keeps the relationship very authentic, if you like. In answer to your other question about publishing several books by one author, it’s obviously a way of showing commitment, a way of insisting, of saying ‘this – this author – what they write in this book – matters.’ The writer’s universe gains in depth and clarity with every book. So does the editorial direction of this publisher.

As well as publishing writing in translation, you’ve also published an extraordinary book abouttranslation, a Burley Fisher favourite: Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated by Ros Schwartz. Why were you drawn to this book, and how have you seen it enter and change the conversation about translation in the UK?

It’s great to hear it’s a big favourite at Burley Fisher’s, I didn’t know that! This book felt like such a turning point, very early on in the life of Les Fugitives (there have been others since!). After reading it in French further to Ros Schwartz pitching a sample translation, although it wasn’t the obvious next step, I knew I had to publish it. Ros Schwartz being involved represented an opportunity for recognition, so this wasn’t a purely philanthropic decision but not a single UK or US publisher would publish it because it was way too niche. Gansel’s very personal meditation about the art of translation moved me, and so did the poetic quality of her voice telling stories of survival in exile, of life under threat during totalitarian regimes or war, stories of resilience but also of loss, which she had witnessed herself, and had put her life at risk for the privilege of being able to share them through her own writing later. I pitched it to the Feminist Press and they also saw the point. At present we’re running a campaign to promote Translation as Transhumance through talks and seminars, and I have to say our efforts have been met with heart-warming enthusiasm, and a very healthy appetite for discussing this book, which comforts me in the idea that it is a game-changer in the field of literary and particularly translation studies. It’s incredibly satisfying to know that it has this transformative power on the ground, and that it is being read outside the translation community.

What are your strategies and insights, as an editor, for working with translators and translations, because it’s quite a specific kind of editorial mediation...

Mmm.... I feel like I’m about to give away state secrets! I’m still learning my editorial skills off translators, I think. I don’t feel like a mediator between the translator and the author, if this is what you mean, it’s a relatively minor part of the role. As a native French speaker who grew up in France until her mid-twenties (by which time a lot more growing up still needed to happen), I’m perhaps more alert to subtext, different registers, and cultural references in French but, thanks to their own intimate, and self-aware knowledge of their mother tongue and sometimes an equally thorough understanding of French, translators can bring out a nuance or different meaning in the original, and then I probably go on to think it was my own idea all along. It’s a collaborative process but the bottom line is, a translator’s voice is as unique as that of the original writer of the book. My role is to respect that, while helping them along. You have a broader view of the translator’s work than they do, so patterns emerge, inconsistencies, echoes, but also the macro-structure of a text and how the two levels interact. Sometimes, a book like Translation as Transhumance or Poetics of Work comes along and blows everyone out of their comfort zone.  It’s a rejuvenating experience in that sense, I guess!

Poetics of Work is, among other things, about and in a state of emergency (specifically, the state of emergency declared in France in 2015-16): how has it felt working with the book during this state of emergency, and what resources or wisdom has it given you for carrying on working – perhaps, working differently – over the last year? 

It’s kept on reminding me that the value of my work isn’t commensurate to the revenue I draw from it for myself. It helps relativise certain things and keep my eye on the ball, on what matters (to me and others) about the work I do: its integrity, and the care I and others take in producing these books in English. And hopefully no one has been hurt in the process.It’s also made me alert to the language emanating from ‘above’ and which is now on everybody’s lips and minds: ‘social distancing’, ‘key workers’ (go tell the hairdresser, the dancer, the barmaid, the bookseller or even the IP lawyer, that their work isn’t key – it’s key to them! at the very least). So I’d like to end with the words of another French writer, Yamina Benahmed Daho: ‘Literature is the most precious thing we have left to counter a dominant, debilitating institutional language that has direct consequences on our lives, our work conditions, for which the fight is urgent. One way is to start by wielding the right words.’

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