Since 2011, the 31-year-old publisher has been compiling a catalogue ranging from emerging talents to the genre’s battle-hardened veterans. Editions du Sous-Sol recently translated Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbor and its portraits of “fanatics and lost souls” in 1930s Manhattan, while Michael Hastings’ The Operators – the caustic report that led to the downfall of the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan – will be published in French on November 2.
France-Amérique: The expression “creative nonfiction” has no direct translation in French, and yet this genre does exist in France. Why do you think it is more popular in the United States?
Adrien Bosc: French writers such as Albert Londres, Blaise Cendrars, Joseph Kessel, Jean Hatzfeld, Emmanuel Carrère, and Florence Aubenas have indeed always defined themselves as journalistes littéraires, or “literary journalists,” the closest thing to creative nonfiction. But it’s true that this genre is very American, as it was theorized in the United States. Tom Wolfe outlined its definitions and characteristics in New York Magazine in 1972 [and in the preface to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism]. They included purposeful subjectivity, construction of narrative through scenes, attention to detail in descriptions, and faithful, unedited reporting of dialogues. Creative nonfiction was also developed in the United States via prestigious newspapers and magazines. We have never had an equivalent to the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, or Esquire in France. The short story is a similar example of a genre that grew more in the U.S. than in France.
How do you explain the surge in popularity of creative nonfiction in France?
New York author David Samuels offered a charming image to explain why this sort of literature appeals to the French. He wrote that creative nonfiction is the only specifically American literary genre, and claimed its standing in the United States is founded in the myth of the Frontier. The appearance of the first major U.S. newspapers coincided with the time of the Wild West. In the 19th century, it was important for Americans on the East Coast to read about this fabled West they knew little or nothing about. By creating a link between the two coasts and their populations, these articles helped construct the American identity. A similar context exists today in France: The destruction of Europe’s borders undermines French identity. Through their personal involvement and subjectivity, nonfiction authors offer a window onto these people who live on the other side of the country. In-depth reports offer a closeness to others that traditional journalism and television do not.
You publish French translations of the best in American literature, written by National Book Award and Pulitzer laureates. How do you select the translators you work with?
For each article, and each book, we try to find a translator capable of reproducing the author’s voice and the power of their writing. Literal translations are not enough. We discovered Hélène Cohen to be the voice of Nellie Bly. She understood everything about this independent woman and daring journalist who was voluntarily interned in a psychiatric hospital in New York in 1887 as part of an undercover report. In a similar way, we knew that Anatole Pons would be perfectly comfortable with the wide-open spaces of Ted Conover’s literature. Journalist William Finnegan’s autobiography Barbarian Days [published by Editions du Sous-Sol in March 2017] was also a real translation challenge. The writing is underpinned by a rich vocabulary that saw the author win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, and includes descriptions of some 100 waves of differing appearances and colors. Frank Reichert’s translation does this baroque, technical literature justice.
Editions du Sous-Sol published the French translation of Jane Kramer’s 1977 article, The Last Cowboy, in February of this year. The book is currently out of print in the United States. Does your work involve a responsibility to transmit culture?
One of our objectives is to catch up on everything that hasn’t been published in France. We believe that all literature deserves to be translated and made accessible to those who cannot read English or who are unaware of American newspapers and magazines. It is important to publish contemporary authors such as Ted Conover, David Samuels and Maggie Nelson, but also those who pioneered the genre and influenced today’s journalists and writers, such as Nellie Bly, Joseph Mitchell, Gay Talese, and Jane Kramer. Their books are timeless, and often strike a chord with current events. In The Last Cowboy, Jane Kramer offers one of the best frames of reference for rural America of our modern day. The forgotten America that voiced its exasperation by voting for Donald Trump last November.