Saturday, January 07, 2006

Strong language (by Harry Bingham, the Financial Times)

Note of the Caption: UNESCO logo, the sponsor of Translationum.

Published: January 6 2006 09:10 | Last updated: January 6 2006 09:10

Back in the dark days of 1931, when the League of Nations was looking ever less effectual and the US was plunging deep into economic depression, the librarians of the world were bent on revolution.

Since the advent of the printing press, books have been translated at the initiative of individual publishers and booksellers, with no central record of such translations. To the orderly minds of the world’s national librarians, the system seemed little better than anarchic.

It bothered the archivists that the free market could simply call new translations into being without any authoritative record of such things. And so the League of Nations was pressured into setting up the first systematic record of translations, the Index Translationum. In 1946, Unesco took over the chore. In 1979, the system was computerised and a true cumulative database began to take shape.

And though the original project might have been of interest mostly to librarians, the results of their labours are of much wider appeal. Since there is no systematic data on global book sales, the Index has come to be the best available proxy. If you want to ask the question “Who are the most popular authors in the world?” then the Index is the only way to get an answer.

And the answers are fascinating. In what other list would Lenin rub shoulders with Agatha Christie? Where else would Enid Blyton be ranked two places ahead of William Shakespeare? In what other list of best-selling authors would the top spot be taken by an outfit, Walt Disney Inc, which isn’t in the normal sense an author at all?

It is this glorious variety that makes the data so absorbing. Although commercial authors do rather better than literary ones, there are plenty of both. Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Balzac and Kafka all feature in the top 50. But then again so do Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Alistair MacLean, Ruth Rendell and J.R.R. Tolkien. Children’s authors are well-represented, though perhaps surprisingly J.K. Rowling doesn’t make it.

Her omission points to one of the weaknesses in relying on translations as a proxy for sales. Authors who write prolifically are at a substantial advantage over authors who have written only a few books that sold massively. Even once J.K. Rowling has completed the seventh Harry Potter book, each one would need to be translated some 150 times for their author to appear in the top 50. Barbara Cartland, author of more than 700 books, gets into the top 10 with an average of fewer than five translations per book.

One also can’t help feeling that the institutions haven’t quite justified their place on the list. The Roman Catholic Church appears at number 48, yet one doubts if its works have ever had quite the mass-market appeal of Tolkien, who appears one place further down. And was it supply push or demand pull which propelled Lenin (4), John Paul II (17), Marx (30) and Engels (36) to their elevated positions? Even Disney, whose works are plainly popular, has derived much of its success by retailing its versions of other people’s stories.

But though the list has its deficiencies, it does highlight one extraordinary fact: namely, the overwhelming dominance of English language writers, and of British ones in particular. If we take the top 50 places on the list and exclude institutions and those whose works have been heavily pushed by those institutions, there are 44 authors left. Treating the Bible as authorless and the Grimm brothers as one author not two leaves just 40. Of these some 25, or over three fifths, are American or British. If the list were confined to authors whose work was first published in the 20th century, the Anglophone predominance would be stronger still.

These are remarkable facts. It is certainly true that the Index has been created in an era of American hegemony. But it’s too easy to dismiss the results as simply a reflection of global economic power. In fact, the figures show a cheerful disregard for such ephemera. The French author Charles Perrault (42), creator of the fairy tale and author of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, among many others, owes his place on the list to his work, not the long-vanished power of 17th century France, the period in which he wrote.

Likewise, Barbara Cartland (6) may have been a terrible writer, but she is certainly a popular one. Indeed the most obvious demonstration that the list has no simple link with economics comes from the remarkable popularity of British authors. Britain alone has contributed 13 authors or just about a third of our pared-down list of the world’s 40 “most translated” individual writers. The British share is almost equivalent to the combined efforts of the rest of Europe, and is significantly greater than the share of the US, a country with five times the population.

But if the cause isn’t economic dominance, then perhaps it’s a linguistic one. There’s certainly plenty of evidence for such a thought. Almost 50 per cent of all translations are from English into other languages, while only 6 per cent are from those other languages into English. This asymmetry is now embedded in the very structure of the industry. Japan is a voracious consumer of foreign work, but its publishers almost always translate from the English, even the English translation of a Spanish, French or German original. Overseas publishers regularly complain that Anglo-Saxon publishing houses are disdainful of any non-English work. Given that the US translates about as many works from foreign languages as do the tiny publishing markets of Finland and the Czech Republic, the complaint would appear to have merit.

Unesco, endorsing this view, comments on its website: “This is perhaps one way of controlling the market and maintaining the cultural dominance of English and the market is controlled through what is on offer, through the availability of products sold by the industry of culture - whether it is music, or films or books.” (Perhaps Unesco’s mangled syntax represents its own covert fight-back against that cultural dominance. Certainly there would be a lot less “industry of culture” if it was left to writers like this.)

But Unesco, characteristically, overstates the case. Who precisely does Unesco think “controls the market”? A secret cartel of wicked Anglo-Saxon publishers? A cabal made up of Bush, Blair and Murdoch? Surely not. The publishing industry is as keen on profit as any other business. When foreign books come along that seem to offer that profit, British and American publishing houses will jump at the chance, no matter how tiny the publishing market of origin.

Indeed, little-known settings may actually boost marketability. Peter Hoeg, the Danish author of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, is one case in point. Not only was his book beautifully and cleverly written, but the Danish-Greenlander subject matter introduced Anglo-Saxon readers to a world that few of them had previously encountered. That novelty was unquestionably a strength, not a weakness, in marketing terms, and the book sold like hot caribou-cakes because of it.

Such books do not emerge at random. On the contrary, there’s a large and well developed market for the purchase and sale of international rights. The Frankfurt Book Fair is, in essence, just that: the publishing industry’s own version of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

And after all, the asymmetry in translations into and out of English is just what one would expect if English language authors were simply more popular than others. Why should this be either hard to believe, or politically incorrect to state? Nobody has a problem accepting that the German musical tradition is better than the British one, or that the Italians have done more for opera. Why not also acknowledge that the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition is more successful because it’s better?

If that’s true, then part of the explanation may lie in the language itself. The English language is a remarkable beast. There’s its sheer capacity for one thing. French can muster around 100,000 words, German perhaps double that. The English language, on the other hand, counts at least 500,000 words, and probably half as many again. (Both leading American and English dictionaries come to a word count of around half a million words, but they don’t always count the same ones. Guesstimates of the overlap suggest a total closer to three quarters of a million.)

Size isn’t everything of course, but English is also remarkable for the manner of its formation. Anglo-Saxon forms the bedrock of the language, providing almost all its most commonly used words, but bedrock isn’t the same thing as mass. There are only around 25,000 Anglo-Saxon words in use today. The rest of the half million or more words come from other languages, notably French and Latin. And that gives English a rare and wonderful suppleness. It can be earthy when it chooses to be, high-flown when it cares to. English is one of the few languages in the world in which one can swear like a German and make love like the French.

And yet neither size nor structure quite explains the success of English literature. English has certainly been unusually free in adopting foreign words and creating new ones from thin air. But this is less likely to be a cause of literary fecundity than the result of a national delight in language. Equally, though English literature certainly owes a lot to its twin Germanic and Romance sources, the fact is that the England of Alfred the Great - two centuries before the Norman conquest - produced a literature which even then was unmatched in Europe. Perhaps the real explanation is also the simplest: that nations differ in their artistic tastes and choices, and that those differences tend to persist through time.

Meantime, Unesco continues to update its Index. J.K. Rowling will surely make it to the top 50 sometime soon. Dan Brown will surely follow. Rudyard Kipling (46) is probably too unfashionable to hold his place on the list for long. And somewhere out there a novelist is scribbling down a novel that will propel him or her to international stardom. The novel may be for kids or adults. It may be romance or adventure. It may be good or bad, sad or funny.

But the chances are it will be written in English.

Harry Bingham is the author of several novels, most recently “Glory Boys”, and has been translated into around a dozen languages.


1 Walt Disney Inc US

2 Agatha Christie UK

3 Jules Verne France

4 Vladimir Lenin Russia

5 Enid Blyton UK

6 Barbara Cartland UK

7 William Shakespeare UK

8 Danielle Steel US

9 Hans Christian Andersen Denmark

10 Stephen King US

11 Jakob Grimm Germany

12 Wilhelm Grimm Germany

13 Bible (New Testament)

14 Isaac Asimov US

15 Mark Twain US

16 Alexandre Dumas France

17 John Paul II Poland

18 Georges Simenon Belgium

19 Jack London US

20 Arthur Conan Doyle UK

21 Rene Goscinny France

22 Bible

23 Fyodor Dostoyevsky Russia

24 Robert Louis Stevenson UK

25 Leo Tolstoy Russia

26 Charles Dickens UK

27 Astrid Lindgren Sweden

28 Robert L. Stine US

29 Victoria Holt UK

30 Karl Marx Germany

31 Alistair MacLean UK

32 Oscar Wilde Ireland

33 Sidney Sheldon US

34 Rudolf Steiner Austria

35 Ernest Hemingway US

36 Friedrich Engels Germany

37 Hermann Hesse Germany

38 Honore de Balzac France

39 James Hadley Chase UK

40 Bible (Old Testament)

41 Nora Roberts US

42 Charles Perrault France

43 Ruth Rendell UK

44 Edgar Allan Poe US

45 Robert Ludlum US

46 Rudyard Kipling UK

47 Plato Greece

48 Roman Catholic Church

49 J.R.R. Tolkien UK

50 Franz Kafka Czechoslovakia

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1 comment:

Amina said...