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History's Bestsellers in Translation Part I: Fiction
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Blog Entry
History's Bestsellers in Translation Part I: Fiction
Cali Kopczick
September 9, 2014

There’s always plenty of talk about bestseller lists. They’re the success stories of the publishing world. They shape library buys, book club reads, and culture itself. These bestseller lists, though, typically run inside a single country, for books published in a single language. As a publisher with one foot in Japan and another in the U.S., with plenty of books taken up as translations, we were wondering how some of the heavy-hitters of the literary world looked through the lens of translations.

For a starting point of history’s bestselling books, we looked to this post from Publishing Perspectives, which was itself an expansion of a Huffington Post article. This list from How Stuff Works was referenced as a source for many of the other lists and articles that we saw. What all of these lists started to make evident was that the project would never fit in one blog post. We’ve therefore decided to make a series of it, with this first part covering fiction and a later installment or two addressing nonfiction titles and religious texts, which will have their own kinds of cultural and linguistic limitations. In the meantime, let’s look at some fiction.

We’ve arranged the books on the chart in a rough consolidation of their order on the bestseller lists, with one exception: we’ve left out Le Petit Prince, the classic children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The title, printed in 226 languages and dialects by one collector’s count, would have warped the scale on the chart so much that you’d have been hard-pressed to read the bars for the other books.

Note: if you can’t quite make out the titles on the images here, click through to view a bigger version on a separate page.

translation chart

As you can see, most of the books hovered in the 30-40 languages range, with a few standouts on the high and low side. You may be thinking to yourself or shouting at your computer: “But wait! These books were published at completely different times, in completely different contexts! Some have had much more time to accumulate translations than others!” And you would be right. Which is why—since a full-scale investigation into the history surrounding each book is not so practical—we tried the same graph with the books arranged in chronological order of publication:

translation chart

Here, with the books arranged chronologically, we might be tempted to see a bit more of a pattern. As it turns out, the older books like Don Quixote and Ben Hur don’t exactly dwarf recent publications like The Da Vinci Code. You could maybe argue that when you think about the ratio of languages to time in print, the new books are leaving the old ones in the dust, especially books like Harry Potter and O Alquimista that are arguably benefiting from a globalized market. I’d point out that our major outlier, Le Petit Prince managed to rack up its devastating total after being printed in 1943, but I’d also point out that the count comes from a collector who took it upon themselves to track down as many language and dialect iterations as possible. There was no centralized database for any of these counts. Though I did my best to find reliable sources, who knows how many other private collections are lurking out there, how many people quietly translated their favorites for their friends and family? Ultimately, these books and the dynamics of their translations give us a much more interesting perspective than my-favorite-is-more-multilingually-available-than-your-favorite. If you look below, you’ll find some of the insights I stumbled across in the process of finding these translation counts, insights like off-the-wall titles for pirated texts, and linguistic mash-ups that make translating nigh impossible. Take a look.
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Published in Spanish in the early 1600s, since translated into at least 48 languages. Source.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published in English in 1937. Since translated into 58 languages. Though The Lord of the Rings series, which brings us the snowballing consequences of The Hobbit, was often ranked higher on the lists than its predecessor, we opted for the single volume as being slightly more exact (who knows how the numbers varied between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers?). Either way, as a philologist who created entire languages for Middle Earth, Tolkien would likely have been intrigued by his work’s far linguistic reach. Translation count source.
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Originally published in English starting in 1997, since translated into 73 languages. Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling doesn’t have the high-profile standalone to check up on, so we’ve lumped the series. If you’re interested, though, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the first book in the series) ranked highest on the bestseller lists, usually with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince following and the others not too far behind. Translation count source.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Originally published in English in 1939, the iconic mystery novel has since been translated into 43 languages, with about as many interpretations and revisions of the controversial original title (one we’ll not reprint here). Source.
  • Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as Red Chamber Dream, A Dream of Red Mansions, and The Story of the Stone, was written in the 18th century by Cao Xueqin. Originally in baihua, the written vernacular of Chinese, as well as the Beijing Mandarin dialect, the book has since been translated into 15 other languages. This may be surprising, since the book is known as one of the four iconic novels of China, but because the book pulls from so many levels of written and spoken Chinese, the nuance is hard to capture in other languages. Translation count source.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Originally published in English in 1950, this first installment in The Chronicles of Narnia has since been translated into 47 languages. Source.
  • She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Taggart. Originally published in English in 1887, this firmly imperial-era adventure novel has since been translated into 44 languages. Source.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Originally published in English in 2003, the source text for Tom Hanks’s long-haired conspiracy-chasing film role has since been translated into 44 languages. Source.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Originally published in English in 1951, this perennially-banned novel, chock full of angsty teenager colloquialisms, has been translated into 27 languages. Source.
  • O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho. Originally published in Portuguese in 1988, the novel (which English readers will probably know better as The Alchemist) has since been published into 67 languages. Source.
  • Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. Originally published in English in 1880, the book was in 20 new languages in as many years and now has a count topping the 40s. Though Wallace was an accomplished man in his own right (a Union general in the Civil War!), at this point the name Ben-Hur is probably associated more with Charlton Heston, who played the titular role in the record-breaking 1959 film. So we have to wonder: how many languages has the movie gotten subtitles in?
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Originally published in English in 1908, this beloved Canadian children’s book has since introduced its outspoken carrotheaded main character into 36 languages. Source.
  • Il Nome della Rosa by Umberto Eco. Originally published in 1980 in Italian, the novel has since seen representation in 34 languages. This count is made even more complicated by the translations and linguistic puzzling contained and implied within the novel—the internet is full of message boards and requests for a key to the book’s Latin passages. Bonus fact: while most translations turn the title into the language’s equivalent of The Name of the Rose, there is one pirated Arabic version called Sex at the Monastery. Translation count and title source.
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Originally published in 1952, this children’s novel from the English nitpicker extraordinaire has since traveled into 35 other languages. Source.
Final note: If you clicked through the earlier links and checked out those lists, you probably noticed that several of the bestselling books, like A Tale of Two Cities, Lolita, and Black Beauty are missing. That’s because I couldn’t find any exact numbers or semi-reliable sources for how many languages these books have been translated into. If you find a better count on those books, or on any of these, let me know! This was a best attempt, not a definitive one.

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