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Blog Entry
History's Bestsellers in Translation Part II: Nonfiction
Cali Kopczick
October 20, 2014

We’ve already discussed how some of history’s bestselling works of literature shape up in translation. We looked at which ones are represented in the most languages, how things look across time versus sales, along with some of the interesting twists and turns that the translation process has taken.

While literature has an undeniable influence on people’s lives, it’s often a subtle one. Not so for these books. This time, we’re looking at some of the bestselling books in history that haven’t made any attempts to hedge their influence. These books are offering salvation; they’re offering riches; they’re offering life advice and political ideology and tips for knot-tying. Below, you’ll see a chart of how the various books stack up. We took our titles (the same as last time) from Publishing Perspectives the Huffington Post, and How Stuff Works. As several of those source lists point out, the Bible is typically put in the top spot (in fact, its count was too high to fit on our chart, though we’ll list it below). There are numerous factors complicating this count, however; many of the source lists pointed out the difficulties of counting religious texts, which are so often handed out for free to prospective converts. Alongside that you have the difficulties of translating—how are you ever supposed to translate the words of a deity? Which other countries are going to be interested in a text so firmly rooted in its own national values? We’ll point out some of these snags and quirks below, along with the actual translation counts.

translation chart

  • The Bible (1st Century BCE-2nd Century CE, original Hebrew, Greek). Segments of the Bible have been translated into over 2,800 languages, with full versions in 513. Source. This is a prolific count, though not surprising one considering the volume’s history; setting aside for the moment its often-violent spread over the globe, the Bible was composed at so many different times by so many different people (not all of them working in the same language) that its very existence is dependent on being somewhat adaptable.
  • The Qur’an (609-632 CE, original Arabic). Also stylized in English as the Quran or Koran, this volume had 102 translations as of 1936.* Why would the count be so much lower than the Bible when it’s such a major world religion? Well, as numerous scholars have pointed out, the nature of the Qur’an makes it extremely difficult to translate. In addition to the standard difficulties of finding ways to convey words with no equivalents, the Qur’an has elements of syntax, metaphor, and music that simply won’t survive translation. In carrying the message of Allah, the way in which the Qur’an looks and sounds in Arabic is just as crucial as any literal meaning. Source.
  • The Book of Mormon (1829, original ancient language). Framed as an update to the Bible, The Book of Mormon has only ever been known in its translated form. Joseph Smith translated the text on some gold plates from an unspecified ancient language. If you count English, then, the text is now available in 30 translated languages… 31 if you count “Broadway Musical.” Source.
  • The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life (1879, original in English). This Bible study textbook for the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been printed in 116 languages according to their illustrated magazine Awake!.**
  • Steps to Christ (1892, by Ellen G. White, originally English). Penned by one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this evangelistic book has since been printed in 140 languages. Source.
  • Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (1908, by Robert Baden-Powell, orig. English). Adapted from Baden-Powell’s earlier work Aids to Scouting and coming in the midst of the Boer Wars, this book launched a patriotic frenzy of scouting. Both the context and the title (Good Citizenship!) mark this book as coming out of a specific national agenda, so it’s perhaps no wonder that it hasn’t translated to too many other countries: 14, by this count, though the British Scouting website says “all major languages of the world.” Multiple sources.
  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946 by Dr. Benjamin Spock, originally English). Even though this book isn’t as overtly ideological as most of the others on this list, it’s perhaps just as powerful. After all, Dr. Spock’s advice shaped the way entire generations of Americans were raised; where parents had before felt beholden to strict, rigid rules of parenting, this book encouraged them to trust their instincts. The simple message turned out to be a resonant one, and in addition to selling in huge numbers, the title has also appeared in over 39 languages. Source.
  • Quotations from Chairman Mao (1964, by Mao Tse-tung, originally in Chinese). Also known as the Little Red Book, this volume collects speeches, writings, and miscellaneous maxims from the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Its place on these bestseller lists is not surprising—China is a big country, and there were plans to print enough copies for every single citizen. It’s since appeared in at least 50 languages. Notably, though, this isn’t Mao Tse-tung’s only entry on the lists of history’s bestselling books. It was the only volume for which we could find a translation count, but Chairman Mao also happens to have penned a collection of classical Chinese poetry, along with a book of selected articles. As some scholars have pointed out, though, political squeamishness and cultural divides have dampened the spread of even Tse-tung’s creative works.

All of these books have clearly had huge influences on citizens, devotees, and families. It’s funny to think, though, how their spheres of influence have limited their movement into other languages, and vice versa. On the scale of these titans of print, it’s suddenly easier to see a phenomenon that’s constantly shaping what content we’re exposed to—and, more importantly, what we’re not. How many of the titles on your bookshelf are translations? How many translations are you missing? Those gaps were likely in the bookstore where you got your collection; they were in the classrooms where you first learned how to think; nowadays they’re probably on the news station where you get your updates. How different might the world look if you came at it from another language? If you have any thoughts on the ideology/language intersection, or on translation in general, we’d love to hear them.

Source notes: Chairman Mao’s poetry and selected articles weren’t the only bestsellers to get left off due to a lack of info; we were also unable to find translation figures for Jiang Zemin’s On the Three Represents, along with Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. *Afnan Fatani, "Translation and the Qur’an." in Oliver Leaman. The Qur’an: an Encyclopedia. (London: Routledge, 2006), 657–669, courtesy of Wikipedia & New World Encyclopedia ** pg. 28 of the October 1990 issue, via Wikipedia

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