French News in English: an Interview with the Editors of “Le Monde in English”
Tocqueville 21: First of all, congratulations on the launch of Le Monde in English! The editors, contributors, and readers at Tocqueville 21 all know Le Monde well. In my own case, a decade and a half ago, when I was studying abroad in France for the first time, I made an effort to read Le Monde every day in order to improve my French. I particularly remember poring over the results of the 2007 elections in Le Monde’s extremely detailed special section. It was a wonderful discovery on not just a linguistic level, but also on a cultural and sociological level.
But I know that the French in Le Monde can be intimidating for some non-native speakers, and, of course, there are many people interested in French politics and society who do not read French at all. So I know I speak for many when I say I am very happy to see Le Monde in English see the light of day.
To start off, can you tell us about the original impetus for Le Monde in English? How did this project develop?
Elvire Camus: The idea of offering Le Monde to an English-speaking audience isn’t new. We have been translating some of our articles for a while now. But we used to do it from time to time and on specific articles, such as major investigations or stories with global impact. One of the first pieces we translated was our investigation about Le Monde journalists being witness to a chemical attack by Bachar Al Assad’s forces in Syria, back in 2013. More recently, we translated our editorial about the dangers of Brexit.
The idea to do more of this, to bring our journalism to a broader audience, has always been there. But we took a different turn. We chose to first develop our French audience, by launching Le Monde Afrique in 2015.
Then last year, when our former correspondent in Washington, Gilles Paris, came back from the United States, he had the idea of writing a daily column, in English, about the French presidential election. Sort of a “French politics for dummies,” if you will. At the same time, Le Monde in English, a separate website with Le Monde stories translated into English, was starting to take shape. And we were able to launch just a couple days before the election.
T21: In your introductory post for Le Monde in English, you mention that this idea has been in discussion for some time now. However, in 2015, it was originally decided instead to launch Le Monde Afrique. What have you learned from that experience that is applicable for this current project?
EC: I would say that the main thing we have in common is to find a way to reach out to readers that don’t necessarily know Le Monde as a brand. Via social media mainly.
T21: When we speak of translations of the foreign press, the publication that immediately comes to mind is Courrier International, which is owned by the Le Monde group. Have you been able to draw from their experience at all?
EC: Not really, but it’s only because we are two very different publications: Courrier is a weekly newspaper and Le Monde in English is a 24/7 website. The publication rhythm, the team and the organization aren’t the same. I assume that one of our main goal is the same though: to make sure we bring top quality translations to our readers.
T21: Do you have a clear idea of who your audience is or will be? Are they mostly Americans? Native English-speakers? Anyone who reads English?
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank: The goal is to attract a range of native English-speaking audiences, including in North America and the UK, as well as others who speak English, in parts of Europe and Asia. Given the size of the potential readership in the United States and Canada, this is a particularly important group for Le Monde in English. There is also a readership of foreigners in France who speak English.
EC: Our goal is to reach anyone who speaks French or English all over the world (I know :)). The idea is to bring our take on world events to a broader audience, when we used to be limited to one language.
T21: Now, if I understand correctly, you are only translating Le Monde articles that have already been written. In the future, as this project develops, do you imagine that you will commission articles or editorial columns from Le Monde’s staff that speak directly to anglophone readers?
HS-F: Yes, almost all of our content is translations of Le Monde stories that were published in French. We do have one column that is written in English, which is Gilles Paris’s “The French Test.” Mr. Paris used to be Le Monde’s correspondent in Washington, D.C. and since January 2022, has been writing the daily “French Test” column to explain the French presidential election to a foreign readership. Since the election, it’s now coming out a few days a week, focusing on the new government and the June legislative elections.
So there is a lot of potential to expand to more original content potentially in the future.
T21: How do you choose which articles to translate for Le Monde in English?
HS-F: Just like Le Monde, Le Monde in English strives to cover a range of both the biggest news of the day (and some scoops!) as well as more in-depth analysis and feature stories across a range of topics. Looking at our home page, a reader would get a sense of the biggest stories in France and beyond from a range of both journalistic and editorial perspectives. The idea is to cover both breaking news, as well as the broader picture. There is also a focus on highlighting stories that aren’t getting coverage in other media outlets. We also translate many cultural pieces that provide a break from hard-hitting news as well as “Letter from,” written by Le Monde’s correspondents around the world that are sometimes lighter in tone. In one day, for example, you could read about the May Day protests in France, a controversial desalination plant in Senegal, avoiding global famine and how to cook langoustine.
T21: What kinds of subjects will be “too French” to publish in Le Monde in English?
HS-F: We only really avoid pieces that are too in the weeds on French topics that don’t have a deep interest to foreign audiences. That being said, a large part of our mission is making these articles accessible to non-French people, including adding short explainers about French politicians, institutions, concepts, etc.
EC: We would typically not translate technical pieces about specific tax reforms or book/movie critics that don’t have an English version. Maybe a better way to put it would be “French only” stories, rather than “too French.”
T21: The translation of your articles is done by international agencies with the help of artificial intelligence. How have the recent rapid improvements in translation technology influenced your decision about whether (and when) to launch Le Monde in English?
HS-F: The available artificial intelligence technology continues to improve every day, so much so that a project like this would seem unthinkable even a decade ago. That being said, our translators and team of editors play a crucial role in polishing the translated content and making it read as smoothly and clearly as if it was written in English.
EC: AI cannot replace a pair of human eyes, and it cannot replace a Le Monde editor. But it enables us to save a lot of time, and thus to offer translated pieces within reasonable timing and at reachable costs.
T21: What kind of perspective do you believe that Le Monde offers that is not currently available in Anglophone media?
EC: Precisely that, a non-Anglophone perspective. A major French newspaper’s take on world events. Our reporting about Europe, for instance, is not the same as an Anglophone media. And that is true of any subject, be it religion, the many aspects of the war in Ukraine or, of course, the French election.
T21: What distinguishes the French journalism of Le Monde from American journalism?
EC: I would say the differences are mostly regarding formats and style. In France, we can write a feature that is also a news story and also an investigation! In the U.S., a news piece is something much more specific, written very “straightforwardly.”
HS-F: I often find there is more creativity in French journalism, whether that’s using a clever turn of phrase, flowery language or dedicating space to really paint a picture of a scene for a reader. Often, this might mean it takes a French article a little bit longer to get to the point or issue at play, but I think it often results in journalism that is less cold or bland.
T21: As we move from the second round of the French presidential elections towards the legislative elections, what should readers of Le Monde in English be paying attention to?
H S-F: Now that the second round is over and President Macron was re-elected, readers should be paying attention to how he’s forming his government in the face of increasing re-organization from the political left and far right. The June legislative elections will be an important metric to see which of the three leading candidates (Macron, Le Pen or Mélenchon) are able to unify their base and win greater governmental influence. It will also be important to look at what happens with traditional French political stalwarts le Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains, which received some of the lowest number of votes in the election.
Elvire Camus is editor of Le Monde in English. She has been working at Le Monde for nearly 10 years and was previously an editor of the French website.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a copy editor for Le Monde in English. A graduate of the University of Oregon and Sciences Po in Paris, she has previously written for publications including the New York Times, Atlas Obscura and Vice.