Saturday, December 22, 2007


"By the early 1970s, close to half of the world's book production was made up of translations, the chief source languages being English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, and Italian, the chief target languages German, Russian, Spanish, English, Japanese, and French. Because of worldwide demand for translation of all kinds, the 20c has been referred to as ‘the age of translation’".

Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1998.

World's yearly book production. Books published by language.
English 28%
Chinese 13.3%
German 11.8%
French 7.7
Spanish 6.7
Japanese 5.1
Russian 4.7
Portuguese 4.5
Korean 4.4
Italian 4.0
Dutch 2.4
Swedish 1.6
Arabic around 1%

Graddoll, Future of English 1997 (figures for Arabic pulled from a more recent UN report). Current UNESCO figures would not justify the effort. Graddoll’s report is well worth reading. For lazy readers out there, the future of English is generally bright but monolinguals beware.

Translations as percentage of the total book production, by language
French 14%
German 13%
English 3%
Spain 28% (no figure for Spanish)
Japanese 10%
Russian 10%
Chinese 6%
Korean 29%
Portuguese 11%

Around one half of all translated books worldwide are based on English-language originals. (Unesco, 2002).

Index translationum is a database containing information on books translated and published in about one hundred of the UNESCO member states since 1979. It contains more than 1,600,000 entries in disciplines like literature, social and human sciences, natural and exact sciences, art, history etc. These figures are not complete. According to Bowker Italy translated over 12,000 books in 2002. The most translated languages 1979-2007 :

By original language (translations from a particular language):

English 942,087
French 176,129
German 160,573
Russian 92,003
Italian 52,030
Spanish 40,440
Swedish 29,488
Latin 15,896
Danish 15,426
Dutch 15,084
Greek, Ancient 13,816

By target language (translations into a particular language):

German 259,602
Spanish 193,951
French 184,642
English 109,702
Japanese 104,393
Dutch 99,191
Portuguese 69,829
Russian 61,661
Polish 59,772
Italian 58,097

English is not the first choice to make in order to learn about the non-English speaking world. According to Bowker's bibliographic database English-speaking countries published some 375,000 new books worldwide in 2004. Translations accounted for a little over 3% of total book sales. If we look at the languages that provide the highest number of translations from some key world languages both past and present we'll get the perhaps most relevant comparison:

Original  Top target languages (translations)
Sumerian: German English
Egyptian: French German English
Greek (ancient): German Spanish Fr. Engl. It.
Latin: German Spanish French Italian English
Sanskrit: Hindi German English French Spanish
Hebrew: English German French Spanish Italian
Chinese: Japanese English French German
Japanese: French English German
Korean: Japanese French German English
Thai: Japanese English French
Burmese: Japanese
Khmer: French English German Japanese
Vietnamese: French English Russian
Indonesian: English Japanese
French: Spanish German English Italian Japanese
Italian: Spanish French German English
Spanish: French English German Portuguese It.
Portuguese: Spanish English French German It.
Romanian: English French German
Catalan: Spanish English French German
Russian: English German French
Polish: German English Russian French
Czech: Slovak German English Hung. Russian Fr.
Croatian: English German Italian French
Bulgarian: Russian English German French
English: German French Spanish Japanese
Dutch: German French English
German: English French Spanish
Danish: English German Norwegian Swedish
Swedish: Danish Fin. Nor. German English
Norwegian: Danish German English
Finnish: Swedish English Estonian German
Hungarian English German French
Arabic: French Spanish English German
Farsi: English Russian German French
Turkish: German English French
Hindi: English Russian German French
Former USSR (CIS) languages: Russian
Swahili: German French English

Looking at Unesco's index translationum and eliminating the main Western languages as sources (English, French, Spanish, German and Italian) the following languages offer the highest number of translations for the majority of the world's languages.

1 French
2 German
3 English
4 Spanish
5 Japanese
6 Russian
7 Italian

More about historical book production and translation here


frenkeld said...

Let's imagine two users, the Western Guy and the Wasabi Western Guy. The first one considers going the "easy" route of English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, while the Wasabi dude is mostly Western, but is contemplating adding Japanese to the above.

Now, to verify his choices, the Western Guy looks at your 2000-2007 data of books translated from other languages into, say, German. However, how many of those are translations from English, French, Italian, and Spanish? The Wasabi guy would also want to know that data for the Japanese.

reineke said...

Wasabi guy should learn how to use advanced search options. He would learn that translations from English are indeed an overwhelming majority of translations into Japanese. English vs Chinese ratio is more than 40:1. French and German score high as well further detracting from its usefulness. However one important feature that differentiates it from all other languages is that it is still the key no.1 language to go to for translations from Chinese, Korean and a number of other Asian languages. If there is one conclusion from Wasabi guy’s dilemma it’s that an avid reader needs all five just to have a respectable access to translations from other world languages, that Japanese is a special peephole if not a key to Asian literatures and that nothing can replace being able to read a particular language in the original. And that’s the strongest point of Japanese. The Japanese have a very strong publishing industry, probably a very scary cumulative number of titles published in the last 30 years, a world-class literature and a disproportionately small number of translations giving access to all of this.

Italian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Czech and Polish are all better translated than Japanese.

The French translate from Japanese the most but there are more French translations in the 2000-2007 period from Italian than from Japanese. Figures from 1979 – present are more crushing. Out of 3,789 translations from Japanese available in French some 2,144 or 57 percent were made in the last few years. However small this may seem, figures for English are downright pathetic. Translations from Danish into English are four times as numerous as those from Japanese. Good thing they did not count manga magazines. English is a good auxiliary language for translations from certain regions just like Japanese is for Chinese but both German and French are indispensable. If you’re not going to learn Arabic, you need French.