February 7, 2000
Five years after its original English-language publication, Eric Hobsbawm's history of the "short twentieth century," The Age of Extremes, has finally appeared in French, climbing on to the bestseller lists with 40,000 copies in print as of December 1999. As Hobsbawm has long been revered in French intellectual circles, and the book had already been the subject of a nearly hundred-page symposium in the highly respected journal Le Débat, this might not seem a newsworthy development. But the book was almost never published in French at all.
As reported in Lingua Franca's November 1997 issue, every single French publisher -- including Hobsbawm's longtime imprint, Fayard -- initially turned down the opportunity to publish The Age of Extremes in translation. The absence of a French translation as the book appeared in languages like Portuguese and Moldavian caused a fair amount of consternation and hand-wringing among French intellectuals. In Lingua Franca, Adam Shatz explained why:
Three forces have apparently conspired to keep the book out of translation: the growth of a vituperative anti-Marxism among French intellectuals; a budget squeeze in humanities publishing; and, not least, a publishing community either unwilling or afraid to defy these trends.
In an essay for Le Monde diplomatique, Hobsbawm cited Shatz's analysis and agreed with it. He also noted "another argument which has been privately used to justify the continued refusal to publish Age of Extremes . . . namely that by the time a translation was made, the book would already be out-of-date."
The book's immediate retail success would seem to put that last argument, at least, to rest. But the other forces Shatz discusses in his original article may be too powerful for The Age of Extreme's French success to counteract alter significantly; in the end, it took a Belgian publisher, Editions Complexe, to publish the French-language edition. And the continuing backlash in Paris against the Marxist leanings that shaped French intellectual culture for most of the twentieth century may well continue to keep publishing house doors barred against the next Hobsbawm. Pierre Nora of Gallimard justified his refusal to publish the book with the argument that since France was "the longest and most deeply Stalinized country," the post-Cold War "decompression" there had "accentuated hostility to anything that could from near or far recall that former pro-Soviet, pro-communist age."
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