Pop quiz: What do Agatha Christie, William Shakespeare and Jules Verne have in common?
Answer: They are the three most translated authors in the world, according to stats from UNESCO’s Index Translationum, an online database of book translations from around the world.
Literary translation is not new — after all, books have been translated for thousands of years. But it’s only since 1946 that the United Nations has kept an international bibliography of these translations. Indexing over 2 million works from a variety of disciplines, including exact science, art and literature, the Translationum is like a curriculum vitae for the human race — it speaks to the depths of our collective knowledge. Thanks to the help of national libraries from the 100+ participating countries, the index is updated regularly with new translated books in all fields of knowledge.
You can search the translation database by author, title, subject, original language, target language, publisher and editor.
Here are some fun facts about the Index Translationum:
The top target language (the language that the text is translated into) is German. According to the most recent numbers, 290,386 books have been translated into the language of Goethe. The runners-up are French, Spanish, English and Japanese.
The top original language (or source language) is English. 1,168,467 English-language books have been translated, according to the most recent stats. The top source languages after English include French, German, Russian and Italian.
The top 50 translated authors form an eclectic group and include such names as Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Anderson, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Mark Twain, Jack London, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe and Gabriel García Márquez.
The Index Translationum is just one of the ways that UNESCO encourages cultural and linguistic preservation. Check out their Collection of Representative Works as well, a project that culminated in the translation of 1,060 masterpieces of world literature.
The Collection of Representative Works and Index Translationum remind me of a metaphor from one of my very favorite translated novels: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. In La Sombra del Viento, originally written in Castilian Spanish, Zafón explores the idea of a “Cemetery of Forgotten Books”, which he describes as “the greatest, most fantastic library you could ever imagine…a labyrinth of books with tunnels, bridges, arches, secret places… maintained by a secret society of people that are trying to preserve books and memories and ideas.” The rule is that when you pick a book from the cemetery, you become responsible for making sure that it never disappears or is destroyed.
In many ways, this “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” and UNESCO’s projects share the same purpose: to preserve and protect the world’s greatest ideas, to which every culture and language group should have access.
Thanks to the painstaking efforts of UNESCO, and, of course, the translators who make it all possible, information, traditions, beliefs and ideas circulate freely around the globe. Long live translation!
Photo attribution: Patrick Gage