3 March 09 | Chad W. Post

One of the interesting people I met at the Salzburg Seminar last week was Ruediger Wischenbart, who now runs a consulting firm, analyzes the global publishing market, and is working with Three Percent favorite Lance Fensterman on developing the program for the Arab World to be Guest of Honor at this year’s BEA.

Admittedly this sounds a bit dorky, but I was thrilled to find out that Ruediger was going to share his report on global translation statistics, complete with line graphs and percentage breakdowns. (He even ended up showing some of us his Access database for tracking European bestsellers, which was super-cool, and much more advanced than anything I’ve been able to put together . . . In comparison, our translation database looks like a crayon drawing.)

Ruediger spent a lot of time researching translation statistics and flows of books across languages, and as a result, wrote a Diversity Report, a draft of which is available in full at the link above.

In this study, Ruediger looks at two different translation statistics from 1979-2006: translations out of a particular language, and translations into a particular country. There’s a ton of information in this report—way too much to summarize here—but there were a couple of points/statistics that caught my eye and that I think are worth pointing out.

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.

The “translation into” section of the report is fascinating as well, looking specifically at trends in Germany, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Of course, translations from English into German, Polish, Czech, etc., dominate (usually around the 70% mark, although in the Czech Republic, translations from English only make up about 50% of the total), but when English is removed from the graph, it’s interesting to see how other languages have modulated over time. (Looking at Germany for instance, there’s been a slow but steady decline of translations from French into German over the past twenty-five years.)

There’s a lot more that can be gleaned from this report, but I’ll leave off with an interesting quote from the conclusion section about the leading country in terms of translations:

Solid indications have it that France has recently overtaken Germany as the world’s number one haven for translations. This change of guards has been reported in French trade media, but hardly anywhere esle. This however needs to be put in a perspective as China is catching up and has reached at least the group of the top 3.

France shows a remarkable continuity of growth as a nation of translation – and hence of welcoming literatures and books from abroad. More in depth analysis would be required to better understand the effects of both a very continuous cultural policy and a self confident industry, a development characterized by huge structural change among the largest companies, and strong medium sized or independent publishing ventures looking out for new perspectives, plus with significant new entrants recently.

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