Le Monde Started Translating Its Stories Into English. Here’s What It Learned

Elvire Camus. Photo provided by Le Monde.

Le Monde in English aims to bring the 80 year-old French newspaper’s hard hitting investigations to an English-speaking audience along with articles about film industry sexism and Paris’ best brioche.

This week the majority shareholder, the telecom billionaire Xavier Niel agreed to put his stake into an endowment fund with the idea that this would protect the outlet from editorial interference. Le Monde’s journalists are fiercely independent. Back in 2019, they wrote to their owners demanding approval of new controlling shareholders.

After Euronews was acquired by new owners, Le Monde reporters in concert with other European publications, revealed that allies of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban were behind the pan-European TV network.

I caught up with the editor-in-chief of Le Monde in English, Elvire Camus, at the Villa Albertine in New York last month to ask about progress. 

Q: You launched Le Monde in English two years ago. What was the reason to do that?

The first English edition was a weekly in 1969. That ended in 1972 and ever since that period, we did different things with English publications. The Guardian published supplements and then more recently, we translated some of our biggest stories into English. The first time that we really did that was when our reporters went to Syria in 2013 and revealed that Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons on demonstrators. It was such a big scoop that we thought that it had to exist for a broader audience. Each time we had big stories we would hire a translator and then edit the page in English. We feel that our reporting is good enough to exist globally and we feel that it’s important to add a different perspective than the dominant American perspective on global news, because the global language is English. And as we all know, two people reporting on the same story don’t write the same story.

Q: How would Le Monde see a story differently than say an American outlet?

A: When we launched the site in May 2022, there was a big shooting here in the US [Uvalde] and we wrote an editorial about guns and America’s relationship to guns and how it was something that couldn’t be translated and was very different from the way that we in France or Europe see it.  Abortion is the other obvious subject where it’s very different in France than in the US. [France just added abortion rights to its Constitution.]

Q: What are American readers looking for from Le Monde in English? 

A:  The most read story of the year is our investigation into fentanyl labs. We had a business school teacher who was able to access Mexican cartels and kitchens and how they produce and make fentanyl from scratch. He did a series of three or four video investigations that got a lot of attention. And then, the year that we launched we did a whole investigation on forever chemicals and that has also been read a lot. We use tools to see what people would read in real time and every day it’s one of the top stories.

Q: Primarily, are you telling stories about America, for an American readership or about France and Europe?

A: I’d say that we do both, because the number one thing that we do in English is reach a broader audience. We have 500 [editorial] people. Compared to other big publications it might not be huge, but for us, it’s really, really big and so we are able to cover a lot of things.  We have correspondents all over the world. We have three people in the US. We’ve also found that France is appealing to our readers: French politics, French strikes, French protests are things that people are very curious about.

Q: You have a deal with OpenAI. How is Le Monde using AI in journalism?

A:  We have a very rigorous charter on how we can use AI in the news and that is we don’t use it to make journalism. We use it to help us do things like searching through large piles of documents, rewriting a text from French to English. We’re using AI, but not generative AI.  All of our articles are translated first by Deepl  and then we edit that work. 

Q: How many people are reading? Is it growing?

A: I can give you the visits monthly. It’s three million. 

Q: How did you become the editor of Le Monde in English?

A: I started there in 2012 and I did a lot of different things in the newsroom. You can do some reporting and then be an editor, and then you go back to writing and then do something more strategic. So that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a great place to work.

I worked at the Paris bureau of the New York Times and I really understood and was fascinated with this idea of perspective.  When I started there, it was the one year anniversary of a law that we have in France that forbids people from covering their faces in public which was designed to stop the full face veil. The way that this story was covered in France was so different from the way that the New York Times was approaching it. 

Q: What’s Le Monde known for in France and who owns it? 

A: It’s international for sure. When it was created, it was a diplomat’s publication and it would report on ministries and now it’s broader than that. It’s more global news. The journalists own a big part of it but the main shareholder is French billionaire Xavier Niel. 

(*Groupe Le Monde’s shareholders now include an endowment fund called NJJ Presse created by Niel to protect the company from “third party influence,” according to a press statement. The entity also houses Telerama, Courrier International, La Vie, the HuffPost and Le Nouvel Observateur.)

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