There’s an account on the Open Letter Books blog Three Percent of a recent survey of translation statistics, Ruediger Wischenbart’s (draft) Diversity Report. Open Letter publisher Chad Post discusses some of the salient features of the report:

First of all, there’s no real surprise in terms of which languages are most often translated—looking at the global market, books originally written in English represent approx. 60% of all translations around the world. This number has increased dramatically over the past quarter century, rising from just over 50% of all translations in 1979 to almost 64% in 1999. When you look at the graph in the report, it’s almost shocking to see the English line rise and rise while all the other languages remain muddled at the bottom of the chart, fluctuating slightly, but not nearly as dramatically as English . . .

It’s also not that surprising, but the second and third most translated languages are French and German, respectively. Put together, these three top languages represent around 80% of all the translations published globally. The next five most translated languages are (in descending order): Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch. And taken as a whole, the top 8 languages account for 90% of all translations. (It’s like a wealth pyramid!)

There’s a special section of the report on Central European languages, which is really interesting as well, and it’s from that research that Ruediger uncovered a very interesting correlation: aside from a select handful major political occurrences (e.g., fall of the Berlin Wall) the only identifiable event that directly impacts the translation statistics is when a country is the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. As you can see in his report, translation numbers for both Hungarian and Polish jumped when the two countries were chosen to be Guests of Honor (in 1999 and 2000, respectively) and translation levels from those languages are still higher than what they were pre-Frankfurt Book Fair.

Wischenbart’s report is in part based on the statistics available at UNESCO’s Index Translationum, which has a variety of databases and search forms available. Evidently UNESCO takes stock of all titles published in translation every year, categorizing them according to original language, target language, country of publication, author, and publisher. It is not clear to me from the website exactly how complete this bibliography is, what kind of books it includes (I assume it is the total number of translated books regardless of field), or what their methodology is for collecting the information. It also doesn’t take translations into periodicals into consideration. Also, there seem to be some errors in data entry, as when the numbers for total annual translations from Czech into English jumps from 19 in 2001 to 109 in 2002 and increases again to 308 by 2004 (not that it’s impossible or that I don’t wish the Czechs greater popularity in English, but it seems unlikely given the averages for the previous two decades and the lack of any explanatory event, such as guest-country status at the Frankfurt Book Fair).

Anyway, here are some stats for Polish literature that I compiled based on the Index Translationum data. I cannot vouch for their incontestability, but they do give an idea, I think, of the position of Polish literature in a global book market.

Poland, with 12,279 translated books, is #14 on the Index’s list of the top 50 translated languages, after the following (total number of translated books in parentheses):

1. English (1,000,758)
2. French (186,036)
3. German (169,387)
4. Russian (93,779)
5. Italian (55,397)
6. Spanish (43,365)
7. Swedish (30,738)
8. Latin (16,602)
9. Danish (16,222)
10. Dutch (16,050)
11. Czech (14,642)
12. Ancient Greek (14,315)
13. Japanese (13,437)

It precedes:
15. Hungarian (10,487), 16. Arabic (9,952), 19. Hebrew (8,161), 21. Chinese (7,411), 32. Ukrainian (2,706), and 44. Hindi (1,387), among others.

THE 12 MOST POPULAR TARGET LANGUAGES FOR TRANSLATIONS FROM POLISH (again, total number of translated books in parentheses):

1. German (2777)
2. English (1960)
3. Russian (1325)
4. French (1060)
5. Czech (897)
6. Hungarian (515)
7. Spanish (497)
8. Slovak (405)
9. Italian (297)
10. Bulgarian (291)
11. Lithuanian (286)
12. Dutch (200)

THE 10 LEAST POPULAR TARGET LANGUAGES FOR TRANSLATIONS FROM POLISH (languages with large populations or relatively large readerships):

1. Indonesian (2)
2. Malayalam (2)
3. Hindi (3)
4. Chinese (4)
5. Icelandic (8)
6. Persian (14)
7. Arabic (22)
8. Korean (24)
9. Turkish (31)
10. Greek (31)


1. English (37,423)
2. German (8472)
3. French (5531)
4. Russian (3190)
5. Italian (2546)
6. Spanish (1155)
7. Swedish (752)
8. Czech (689)
9. Ancient Greek (525)
10. Latin (517)


1. German (23,332)
2. French (22,353)
3. Russian (11,531)
4. Spanish (6899)
5. Italian (4307)
6. Danish (3427)
7. Hungarian (3137)
8. Japanese (2625)
9. Czech (2347)
10. Dutch (2234)

Here are two charts comparing annual numbers of translations into English from 1978 to 2005 from the following original languages: Polish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian. The reason I’ve chosen these 7 is that after French, English, and German, Polish, Italian, and Spanish are the three most widely spoken languages in the European Union. And clearly Polish, Czech, and Hungarian share a common region and circumstances for transmission into English.

First the numbers:


And now the data compared:


That gap there is pretty extreme. And Polish could be doing better (maybe one day even overtaking Italian?!), though it’s hard to know how to make that happen, especially in the current financial environment. As I mentioned above, the sudden surge this past decade for Czech seems a little fishy. I suspect the numbers are actually in the double digits, with an average of around 25 books per year from 2001-2005, instead of what was entered into UNESCO’s database; but who knows. It is, at any rate, interesting that the Central European languages have generally fared worse since 1989, as Chad Post pointed out. And the spike in 2001 for translations from Polish confirms Wischenbart’s claim that events like the Frankfurt Book Fair have a direct influence on numbers of translations (one would, by that logic, expect a similar spike for the Hungarians in 2000, but it looks like it happened a year earlier, 1999, the year they were the guest country in Frankfurt).

Last but not least:


1. Stanisław LEM (551)
2. Henryk SIENKIEWICZ (389)
3. Czesław MIŁOSZ (186)
4. Janusz KORCZAK (178)
5. Witold GOMBROWICZ (160)
6. Sławomir MROŻEK (149)
7. Ryszard KAPUŚCIŃSKI (146)
8. Karol WOJTYŁA (Pope John Paul II) (133)
9. Joanna CHMIELEWSKA (123)
10. Wisława SZYMBORSKA (92)

Of them, only the popular writer Chmielewska has never been translated into English. Which is interesting, but would require doing some research to figure out why.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s