But then, what do I know?

Via Desbladet and Libé, I see that the PUF will be releasing, for the first time, a Que sais-je? in English.

The Que sais-je? series is an essential reference title, something missing in the English language market. French reference books on the whole are better than English ones, and there are a number of gaps in the anglophone reference publishing business. But anglo firms have been catching up in recent years, particularly British publishers motivated largely by an enormous demand from English-second language users. In my particular field – lexicography – the British Collins Cobuild dictionary and its copycats at other British firms are well ahead of their French equivalents.

Still, French publishers have two big products with no adequate equivalents in the English-speaking world: the encyclopedic dictionary and the Que sais-je? Although this new English Que sais-je? is written for a francophone market, I do wonder if this doesn’t augur a change in reference publishing. Will French firms now start moving into English reference book publishing? Will Que sais-je? become as indispensable in English as it is in French?

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About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

7 thoughts on “But then, what do I know?

  1. Que sais-je is an encyclopaedic series of more than 3500 small monographic books, about 150 pages each, and each about a different subject. They are sometimes a bit too advanced to serve as introduction to a domain, but browsing a Que Sais-je shelf at the local library always ring off the “I always wanted to learn about that – and this – and that too” feelings.

  2. Linca, for shame! They are always, but always and without exception exactly 128 pages!

    In English, the newish Oxford “Very Short Introduction” series is strikingly reminiscent ot the Qs-j look and feel, but we’ll see how they get on when they’ve got a few hundred under their belt.

  3. Linca – that was basically how I went through grad school: reading QSJ’s and then deciding if I wanted to keep reading in that field. In my first practical terminology class, the QSJ was actually the first piece of manditory reading. There are certainly some QSJ’s that are better than others, but the idea of an exactly 128 page introduction/essential info for a topic is an inspired idea that just doesn’t seem to have an equivalent in English.

    One of the many potential thesis subjects that I keep collecting – alas, not for my PhD – is an ethnological study of reference book culture. I suspect it is not a topic with a lot of existing research and its something that a big publisher might pay top dollar to know.

    QSJ is very much cultural. Three generations have read them, expect to find them, and understand how they’re structured. Even if PUF went under, the concept would persist. Other publishers have moved timidly into the same market in recent years, and more would if it wasn’t for the strength of the QSJ brand. But in English, there is no Que sais-je tradition just like there is no encyclopedic dictionary tradition.

  4. The QSJ’s I’ve read have all seemed higher quality than anything comparable from the U.S. Some British popularizations seem as good.

    I think that in France and maybe Britain they seem to be writing for smart people in a different field, or new, young smart people, whereas American popularizations have a condescending air to them. “How can I simplify my technical knowledge for the common man”?

  5. Scott, if you want to pass your research over to me, I’ll make a diss. out of it! (kidding) But really, after literature departments theorized themselves out of existence, various disciplines loosely clumped together as “The History of the Book” have recently become fashionable. You may have a niche…

    Here’s my take on an English-language Que Sais-je?: it won’t work until they have an impressive stock translated. The inspiring thing about QSJ is the sheer quantity of things you can learn about.

    Oh, and I suspect that American audiences won’t take so well to the bizarre typographical formatting that the QSJ resorts to maintain that 128-page limit.

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