Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Index Translationum

The Index Translationum is a database of book translations compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It was created back in 1932 by the League of Nations, the UN's predecessor, as a central record and bibliography of books translated worldwide. It has been computerized since 1979 and is regularly updated with new information.

We're going to look at some of the statistics they've provided to the public, including the most translated authors and the most popular languages for translation. While these statistics are undoubtedly not 100% accurate given the enormity of the task they're attempting, they at least give us a reasonable idea of which books are translated into which languages. Some of the results seem predictable, while others are somewhat surprising.

Most Translated Authors

A plaque featuring Agatha Christie.
Dame Agatha Christie (#1) was a British writer most known for her 66 detective novels such as Murder on the Orient Express. She also completed 15 short story collections and wrote several romance novels under a pen name. She's the best-selling novelist of all time and her works have been translated into over 100 languages, so it's not surprising that she tops this list.

French author Jules Verne (#2) is best known as one of the pioneers of science fiction. His most famous works include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days. Like Agatha Christie, he was a prolific writer with over fifty books published.

We were a bit surprised that William Shakespeare (#3) didn't top this list given the popularity of his many plays. Perhaps it's because his works hail back to the 1500s, and have since been endlessly adapted into modern novels and films. Hamlet was one of the main inspirations for Disney's film The Lion King, while the Broadway play-turned-film West Side Story is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

A monument to Lenin in Ulan-Ude, Russia.
Vladimir Lenin (#5), the Russian communist revolutionary and politician, was quite the writer. One published version of his collected works is composed of 54 volumes with 650 pages each. We don't envy the translators tasked with translating that beast!

We imagine that romance novelist Danielle Steel (#6) comes out near the top because she is constantly releasing new books that become bestsellers. Her writing is not always known for being literary, but millions of people love to pick up her books for some light reading while at the beach or in the airport.

The majority of the names on the list are well-respected literary giants such as Mark Twain (#15), Ernest Hemingway (#33) and Rudyard Kipling (#45), but there are a few surprises. We weren't expecting to find children's horror/sci-fi novelist R.L. Stine (#24) on the list above Charles Dickens (#25) of all people, though it makes a bit more sense if you consider that he has written hundreds of books that have actually convinced children to read for fun. It was also interesting to see Pope John Paul II (#18) on the list, though we imagine that his writings may have been translated by the Catholic Church for its millions of followers around the world to read.

Top Target Languages

A target language is the language into which a source text is being translated. For example, if we're translating the Bible from Hebrew into English, the source language is Hebrew and the target language is English. Got it? The Index Translationum has a list of the most popular target languages for translations. German tops the list, followed by FrenchSpanish, and English. No huge surprises there, since all these languages have large populations of native speakers, plus they're probably some of the least likely to learn a foreign language given the popularity of their native tongues.

Top Source Languages Translated To English

This list gives us a good idea of whose literature is prized (or at least deemed worth translating) by English speakers. Apparently we English speakers love to read French literature converted into our much less romantic language. German is a close second, followed distantly by Russian and Spanish. We're a bit puzzled by Czech coming in ninth, though!

Perhaps Americans are more interested than Brits
in the stories of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus...
Top Source Languages Of American & British Translations

You wouldn't expect the lists of the source languages of translated texts published in the U.S. and UK to be that different from the list above since both countries are primarily full of English speakers. However, the lists for the two countries themselves differ quite a bit once you get beyond the top six source languages of French, German, English (obviously some books written in these countries aren't written in the main language, so they're translated), Spanish, Russian, and Italian. Both countries have Latin and Japanese in their top ten list, but for some reason the American list features Ancient Greek and Hebrew, while the British list has Swedish and Dutch. We'll leave it to you to come up with guesses as to why.