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How many books are translated each year?

It’s the biggest event of the year for publishers, authors, and booksellers. Thousands of book lovers from around the world have gathered in Frankfurt this week for the massive annual Book Fair. Its 7,500 exhibitors cover the spectrum from academic publishing to children’s literature – and everything in between!

It’s also a not-to-be-missed opportunity for literary translators. They play a vital role in making books accessible to a much wider audience, with vast numbers of translations published every year.  In fact it would be hard to imagine an international book fair without them!

Many Book Fair events  are specifically targeted at them, with discussions on the role of the translator and international copyright. And many authors are hoping their works will catch the eye of international publishers, and find their way into translation.

This made us wonder: how many books are translated into another language each year? It’s actually difficult to come up with more than an approximate figure.  But a fascinating online database, UNESCO’s Index Translationum, can help.

Books have been translated for thousands of years, but a central database hasn’t existed for very long. In 1932, the League of Nations decided to start keeping records of translated books. Then in 1946, the United Nations took over, commissioning UNESCO with the task. And in 1979 they moved to keeping the records in a computer system.

Each year, the database is updated with roughly 100,000 new entries. It already covers more than 462,300 authors and 1,100 languages.

It lists the translations of an individual book – so prolific authors tend to rank higher than those who have written a few books, but have been translated more often. For this reason, although the Bible is clearly the most translated book of all time, it doesn’t make the top 50. And despite the phenomenal worldwide success of the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling also fails to make the list.

The Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie is the world’s most translated author, followed  by Jules Verne, with William Shakespeare in third place. British authors in the top ten include Enid Blyton, Danielle Steel and Barbara Cartland.

And which foreign authors have had most translations published in Britain? Children’s books dominate the list, including Asterix author, Rene Goscinny , Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

A search of the website can give you a huge range of information: how have translations in a particular country developed over time? Which publishing houses publish more works in translation? And how successful are the translated books compared with the original versions?

You might not be surprised to learn that more books are translated from English than from any other language by a huge margin – almost six times more than the next language, French. German is the biggest target language for translations, with English in fourth place.

Of course, the world of literary translation never stands still. The Book Fair, finishing this weekend, gives a unique insight into trends in global publishing. This year, the “guest of honour” is New Zealand. And the country has recently launched a new programme to promote translation of its literature.

But if you can’t make it, the Index Translationum is a great cornucopia of information on world cultural development and globalisation.

Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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