Book translations and the impact on us

Considering that English is the most widely-spread language in the world, us native speakers take for granted how much is available to us. Those unable to speak English are thrust to the corners, forced to wait for translations – which can, of course, reduce the quality of originally English work. Entire books, films, and careers are denied to those who cannot communicate in English. The power of effective translation then matters greatly, especially in a world that’s becoming “smaller” or more connected.

Discussions about the environmental impact on books makes this question more important: Do we print another copy, damaging the environment simply to produce a translation? Yet, the environmental impact should be considered alongside the wider, humanity impact.

Books are of course a primary way for us to become connected as people: the famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, is regarded by many as the greatest writer who ever lived. Many who think this can’t speak a word of Russian. No longer should different languages be a barrier for us to consume what could be great works of art or information.

It’s therefore surprising to discover which books have received the most number of translations, in terms of number of languages.

The Bible (Complete Bible: 484 languages; the New Testament; 1,257 languages)

Considering it was also the first book printed, it’s unsurprising that the Bible has been translated into over 2,000 languages. According to United Bible Societies, the aim for their societies is to have the Bible in all languages currently existing.  Furthermore, considering that most people around the world consider themselves (some variation of) Christian, it is also not surprising that Bibles are so readily available in different languages.

The Little Prince (216 languages)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator, published his famous work in 1943. One fan has collected 216 variants of the book, in everything from a Milanese to Xhosa translation. This charming and beautiful story is renowned the world over and has delighted fans for more than half a century.

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (159 languages)

The Little Mermaid, the Emperor’s New Clothes, Thumbelina. We all know the tales and have probably seen the delightful Disney films (and other companies’ films) based on them. Of course, Andersen never penned his stories exclusively for children: His tales are able to be read by adults, too, due to their universal nature and powerful themes of loss, love, and so on. There is little wonder as to why his collection of fairy-tales has received so many translations.

Based on quality, importance, cultural significance and other reasons, we can see then that books do get read and translated widely. Grounded on universal themes and universal demands, a book will get translated and move beyond the narrow bounds of English so that all can benefit from them.

Before we can discuss whether we should add to the environmental damage by having yet another book printed because we want a translation, we should recognise why books get  translated at all. The environment does connect us too and we must consider it if we do decide to keep making translations of popular books.