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Re-introducing the French to Watership Down

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on September 12, 2016

The classic British adventure novel, Watership Down, by Richard Adams, has been consistently overlooked in France, despite several editions. In fact, the book, published in 1972, which went on to sell more than 50 million copies worldwide had been rejected by more than seven publishers in the UK before the independent publisher Rex Collings acquired it.

"I've just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception, do you think I'm mad?" literary critic and translator Isabel Quigly recalled Collings writing to her, many years ago.

But Watership Down, which was translated into at least 18 languages, never became popular in France. Now, a Bordeaux-based independent publisher hopes to reverse the trend with a new edition just out for the Rentrée Littéraire, France’s literary season. Dominique Bordes, who founded his company, Monsieur Toussaint Louverture (after the leader of the Haitian revolution) in 2006, answered a few questions for Bookwitty:

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Why the choice now, to publish a new, edited version of Watership Down?

Because the book had been lying dormant in France for too long. I was familiar with it and its particular power, its breathless rhythm and the fact that it innundated modern culture—there is a reason why it is compared to The Walking Dead—and above all the fact that it could touch such a wide spectrum of readers.

I spent quite a while acquiring the rights, then another year imagining how to try, once it was published, to reach the most people possible.

How did the other versions of Watership Down sell in France?

Publishing is a sort of secret empire, and I don’t have all the information, but I estimate that only about 4000-5000 copies have sold in the last 20 years. For the initial sales period between 1976 and 1995, even if I have a few figures, I can’t verify them so I’d rather not say, however I can say that if the book had sold more than 10,000 copies, I would not have been able to acquire the rights.

Why did you decide to keep the original English title as opposed to the former title in French, The Burrows of Watership Down?

The title of the first translation resembled the translation itself. It was good but slightly too literary. We almost used the title that Richard Adams himself had given the book: Hazel and Fyveer. In the end we opted for the original title [chosen by Collings], which exudes a certain exoticism, and today, even if it’s in English, it doesn’t frighten readers anymore.

The cover design is very strong. How did you choose it?

Several years ago Melanie Amaral designed a T-shirt in homage to Watership Down. We always found it was wonderful and we contacted her to make a version for the book, tightening the image and creating a more sombre back cover. We printed it on textured paper and added some embossed areas for effect and voilà! 

    Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.