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Translation and Information Flow

I was researching a piece for WorldChanging when I found myself wondering how many texts are translated from Arabic into English in any given year. It’s well-documented – and much bemoaned – that there’s little translation from English into Arabic. The 2002 Arab Human Development report notes that a fifth as many books are translated into Arabic from English than there are into Greek. Tragic! How terrible that those Arabs don’t want to learn about American, Canadian and English culture. Don’t they know what they’re missing?

As I’ve been discovering with much of my media research lately, the problem cuts both ways. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of translation from Arabic to English either. And English turns out to be the language most often translated into Arabic. On the other hand, Arabic doesn’t even make the top ten of languages translated into English. So maybe we’re the ones with a problem.

All this data can be found in UNESCO’s wonderful Index Translationum, which is my favorite database of the week. (Yes, it’s unseated Overture, at least temporarily.) UNESCO asks national libraries and copyright bureaus to send them information on every book translated in a given year, and logs the metadata in a vast (1.4 million record), searchable database.

Want to know how many books have been translated from Tuvan into English? Fire up the query form and you’ll discover that a single Tuvan book – an account of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tuva – appears in English and Russian, while 52 additional volumes have been translated from Tuvan into Russian. Is the Index perfectly comprehensive? Probably not. But it’s better than anything else I’ve found…

So how does information and translation flow between speakers of “major languages”? Well, it’s worth starting by trying to define a “major language”. It’s actually quite hard to find agreement on a list of the ten most widely spoken languages in the world. The variation has a great deal to do with whether one considers the various dialects of Chinese and Arabic as single languages, or the Malay and Indonesian languages, and what one does with primary and secondary speakers of languages. (For instance, lots of people speak English as a second language, whereas almost no one speaks Korean as a second language.) Milton Turner, a professor at Saint Ignatius High School, has a terrific page analyzing possible strategies for counting languages. Infoplease, compiling data from Ethnologue, list the following ten most-spoken languages (including secondary speakers): Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia/Bahasa Malay and French. German sneaks onto many lists, as do Japanese and Korean. (Ethnologue is a mindblowing index of 6,809 “living languages” and their geographic distribution.)

Between 1979 and today, the Index Translationum tells us that 101,295 volumes have been translated from English into Spanish. English is also frequently translated into German (135,227), French (98,650), Portuguese (40505), and Russian (25,810). When we move east from Europe, translations from English drop off: 4,558 into Turkish, 3,984 into Arabic, 3,332 into Persian. But the drop off steepens in Asia: 852 into Hindi, 731 into Bengali… and 186 translations from English into Chinese from 1979 to the present.

Translation of languages into English is follows a similar Eurocentric pattern, but at a much smaller scale. There are 20489 translations from German to English (or roughly 15% as many as there are from English into German. By way of comparison, German has roughly 109 million speakers worldwide, while English has 408 million. Perhaps the Germans just aren’t publishing enough books worth translating…). French, Russian and Spanish follow, then Italian, Hungarian, Danish, Hebrew, Japanese and Dutch. Arabic, as mentioned before, doesn’t make the top ten – we’ve translated roughly twice as many volumes from Danish (spoken by 5,300,000 people) into English as we’ve translated from Arabic.

While there’s not many volumes translated from Arabic into English (1097), we’re still in second place, behind those damned French speakers (1159). There’s interesting regional dynamics around Arabic translation – 650 volumes have been translated into Turkish, 238 into Persian, and 518 into Indonesian, the language spoken in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

Why are so few books translated from Arabic into English? One possibility is the overall size of the publishing industry. It’s estimated that 150,000 books are published in English every year, while it’s likely that less than five thousand are published annually in Arabic. Proportionally speaking, far more Arabic titles are translated into English than English titles into Arabic. And while there’s far less information flow from the Arab world into the English speaking world than one might hope for, there’s even less flow between Arabic speakers and Chinese speakers: five volumes translated in the last 25 years.

Given English’s emergence as a language of scholarship and the preferred second language to learn for participation in the global economy, one might expect disproportionate translation from “small” languages into English. (In other words, if you’ve written a great scholarly work in Icelandic, you’ll likely want to translate it into English to put it in front of an audience of more than 250,000 possible readers worldwide.) This doesn’t seem to happen – Dutch speakers can read 50,750 English titles in Dutch, but only 1,839 are translated from Dutch to English. Denmark, Poland and Norway have similarly dismal ratios.

(Denmark 31482/2558; Poland 25860/1703; Norway 18258/658). Index Translatorium points out that roughly 50% of the translations they index are translations from English into other languages. Translations into English represent 6% of the translations they track.

The answer may be that writers who speak “small” languages choose to write in English or French to reach a wider audience. (As Icelanders have remarked to me when I’ve congratulated them on their flawless English, “If we waited for the rest of the world to learn how to speak Icelandic, we’d never talk to anyone else.”) Or, as the Index Translatorium folks speculate, it may be that US/UK publishing houses are unwilling to publish translated works… probably because they know British and American audiences don’t buy books in translation.

If I manage to get my Christmas shopping done soon, I may write a little scraper that will build a matrix showing translation flows between widely spoken languages. I’m especially interested to learn whether translations into Chinese are increasing and whether there’s similar regional flow in North Asia like we see in the Middle East.

Bonus link: Juan Cole has launched a project called the Global Americana Institute, which is translating and distributing classics of American politics – writings by the founding fathers – in the Arab world. What are the key Arabic texts we’d want to see translated and distributed in the US?

Update, 12/29: Isabelle de Pommereau has an excellent piece in the Christian Science Monitor about Arab writers at the Frankfurt book fair and increasing European interest in Arab writing.