Anthony Pym


_Video material

Two principles, one probable paradox and a humble suggestion, all concerning percentages of translation and non-translation into various languages, particularly English


    Anthony Pym 1999  

    Abstract: Data on translations of books into various languages have been used as part of arguments that there should be less translations from English and more translations into English. However there is some empirical evidence that the relative proportions of translations and nontranslations from and to English fall into line with two general principles: 1) The more books published in a language, the more books tend to be translated from that language; and 2) The more books published in a language, the lower the rate of translations tends to be in that language. As a probable paradox, it is also hypothesized that 3) The more foreign-language books are published in a country, the higher the percentage of translations in that country. A further suggestion is that 4) The inner diversity of English carries out the work that translations are called upon to do in the case of smaller languages. These hypotheses suggest that the relative abundance of translations alone cannot tell us how open or hegemonic a culture is, nor whether there should be more translations into English.  

    The Debate  

      One must accept that translations account for only 2 to 4 percent of books published in the United States or the United Kingdom. This general proportion or rate is much lower than the percentages often cited for other countries: 15 to 18 percent for France, 11 to 14 for Germany, some 25 for Italy, 25 to 26 for Spain, to bring together reports for years between 1985 and 1992 (Ganne and Minon 1992; Venuti 1995: 12-14). Nor can one really doubt that translations from English account for a good deal of the movements into other languages. UNESCO figures indicate that English was the source language for an average of 41% of all translations in 1978-1980 (the years that will interest me here) and this proportion may have been as high as 49% in 1987 (Venuti 1998: 160). Let's accept these rough numbers. What do they mean?  

      On the surface, the disparity between what is translated into English (not much) and what is rendered from it (a lot) is great enough for Lawrence Venuti to talk about "a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications" (1992: 14). It prompts him to complain about the commercial opportunism of American and British publishing companies: "Quite simply, a lot of money is made from translating English, but little is invested in translating into it" (1998: 160-1). And this is just part of an unhealthy world situation where American and British publishers have "reaped the financial benefits of successfully imposing Anglo-American cultural values on a vast foreign readership, while producing cultures in the United Kingdom and the United States that are aggressively monolingual" (1992: 15). The result, says Venuti, is symptomatic of "a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described--without too much exaggeration--as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home" (1995: 17). I've picked phrases from three of Venuti's books, which make more or less the same argument on this point. Now, do the numbers really mean all that?  

      I suspect not. Or better, some pernicious exploitation no doubt exists, but I don't quite see how the data can reveal the scandal. I'll try to explain my doubts in two ways: first in terms of a mental warm-up, second with some actual numbers.  

    Two Simple Mind Games* 

      The first warm-up exercise is just common sense. Imagine, if you will, that there is a language with a huge number of books in it, and another with just a few books. Now, which of these languages is going to have the greater number of books translated from it? Why, all else being equal, the bigger one, of course. So we might imagine that there are a lot of translations from English just because there are a hell of a lot of books published in English. And this need not imply any global conspiracy on the part of publishing companies. (That was a game for simple minds.)  

      Second game: Let me suggest, as a general idea, that a language in which a lot of books are published will have a lower translation rate (i.e. translations as a proportion of all books published) than one in which less books are published. I've put forward this idea in several places already (Pym 1996, 1998); no one seems to understand; so I'll go slowly, again.  

      Here I'm talking about any language whatsoever. Forget about English, French and the rest for a moment. All we have to picture is the same scene as the one we've just thought about: Language A, with a lot of books, has more things that could be translated than does Language B, which has less books.  

      For example, Language A has 100 books, and Language B has 10.  

      Now, let's impose an ideal world where translation rates apply to all books independently of their origin. Let's say 10% of all books in this imaginary world are worth translating and are translated. That means 10% of all A's books are translated into B, and 10% of all B's books are translated into A. Universal justice! But look what happens: Language A gets just one book from B and finishes up with a translation rate of 0.99% (one translation for the 101 books published). And B receives 10 translations from A, so its translation rate is actually 50% (translations now account for half of all books published).  

      From this game I conclude that a low translation rate in a language may be due to no more than a relatively high number of books published in that language. And this seems as obvious as the idea that the more books there are in a language, the more translations there are likely to be from that language (the finding of our first game). It also seems clear that any analysis that does not compare the numbers of books is manipulating a pretty poor version of materialism.  

      Is something wrong here? Let me address two possible objections.  

      First, you might say, my second game is deceptive because, in reality, there are many languages involved; we have to picture an extended-play scenario. Okay, now imagine five languages that have 100, 80, 50, 30 and 10 books respectively. If our 10% rule is applied we get translation rates of 14.5%, 19.2%, 30.5%, 44.4% and 72.2% respectively (take a few minutes to work it out for yourself while waiting for a bus, train or plane). So the differences become even more pronounced!  

      Second, some might object, the ideal world should have a 10% rate or whatever for each individual language, such that Language A with 100 books would be obliged to translate all the 10 books from Language B, and Language B with just 10 books would be obliged to translate no more than one book from Language A. Fair enough, that's a possible scenario. But, in our extended-play model, if each language takes its translations in accordance with the distribution of books available to be translated, the biggest one will still have the most books translated from it (take a few more minutes to work it out, once you get on the bus, train or plane). So even this does not entirely solve the problem of a general "trade imbalance". Further, I wonder if our theorists would be entirely happy with a command economy that were really so indifferent to the relative qualities of books. Would they really want to judge and translate texts solely in terms of their origin?  

    Some Unruly Data  

      The games only give us models and hypotheses. To test them we need data on the translations and nontranslations published in a fairly wide range of languages. The numbers most readily available are those in the UNESCO yearbooks, although the yearbooks become less complete and appear less trustworthy from 1986 (thanks in no small measure to the withdrawal of the United States). I have thus decided to look at the data published in 1985, which actually includes figures for 1978-1983. Some notes on these numbers are necessary before proceeding:  

      - This is a terrible database: key countries are missing in many of the tables; the figures given in different tables sometimes do not agree with each other; the notes on the language breakdowns are incomplete.  

      - This is also a tricky database because different countries have different definitions of the basic categories (e.g. what counts as a book; what counts as literature; whether we are counting first editions or all editions). Care must thus be taken to ensure that the raw data for each country are compared only with other raw data for the same country (e.g. translations in Germany vs. nontranslations in Germany), so that the more blatant differences in definition can be overcome. In search of the least perilous path I have looked at the numbers of first-edition titles in all categories of books (by whatever definition) for 21 languages (which were actually all the languages available for comparison with any degree of certitude).  

      - This is an intriguing database because it gives information on books published in non-national languages (e.g. books in French published in Sweden). This enables us to estimate the total number of books published in English etc. without being limited to national categories such as the United States or the United Kingdom. It also gives us some kind of measure as to how non-nationalist certain countries are about their publishing (on which, more below).  

      - The database gives figures for several years, so some anomalies can be ironed out by taking the means. It also covers a fair range of languages, both big and small.  

      - The period concerned was one of relative stability in political terms, perhaps free of the high volatility that marks the translational development of languages with few books. For example, we find from another source (Vallverdú 1978) that translation rates into Catalan were at 55% in 1965, 8.3% in 1973, and 16.5% in 1977. Our test numbers should try to avoid such rapid shifts, which are due more to local developmental factors than to the general (and boringly stable) principles we are interested in falsifying.  

      - Perhaps because of the above reasons, the percentages of translations found in the UNESCO data are generally lower than those given in other sources for more recent dates. I found only 13% (instead of 25%) for Spanish; only 11% for German and French apiece. However, since the rate for English is just over 2% both here and in other sources, the fundamental difference we are interested in was not quite obscured by the uncertainties of UNESCO. This allows us to take a deep breath and proceed, no matter how bad the data.  

    Two Principles Tested  

      Our first mind game suggested that the more books were published in a language, the more translations there would be from that language. When we test this principle on our data, here's what we get:  

      Well, yes, English is a long way out there by itself. And about twelve languages are huddled together in the bottom left corner, with not many books published and thus not many that they could have had translated. But the diagonal line here, the regression, averages all of that out and tells us that the general hypothesis holds. In fact the correlation is pretty damn good (p<.0001, R2=0.869), as might be expected for such a banal hypothesis. The only slight hitch is that English is clearly above the regression line, which might suggest that more books are indeed translated from it than is the norm for this field. I shall return to this problem later. For the moment, let's simply note that the fact that 41% or so of all translations are from English no longer looks quite so scandalous.  

      Our second game suggested that the more books were published in a language, the lower the translation rate would be in that language. In other words, the bigger you get, the less the share of your cultural energy you put into intranslations (i.e. translations into your home language). When we test this on our data we get the following picture:  

        Once again English is way out on a limb, at a point that is difficult to compare with other languages. I also note with a grin that the highest translation rate in the sample was for Albanian, which might thus be the ideal pluralist culture (this was the Albanian language in 1979-81) that some theorists would have us aspire to. If only English, like Albanian, had a rate of 25%! But as the scatterplot suggests, Albanian had a high translation rate not just because of any cultural openness but perhaps also because it had so few books published.  

        Unfortunately the relation here is not as strong as one might have hoped for (p=.0009, R2=0.465, which is just under the 0.5 we'd like for a convincing correlation). Yet the picture seems clear enough in general terms, especially for the languages with the larger numbers of publications. As the number of books grows, the percentage of translations tends to decline. Further, the languages above the regression line could be the ones translating more than their relative share; the ones below the line are translating less than the mean. Now, which side of the line is English on?  

      A Bonus Paradox: Translation vs. Foreign-Language Reading  

        Since there was no third game above, we might as well play it here. Or you could play it in a bookshop next time you travel. Just walk around and try to estimate the percentage of translations on the shelves (and if you're not yet convinced that English is dominant, take a close look at the business-management or computing sections). You might get estimates as high as 40% or 50%, or even 80% for some fields if the bookshop is at all academic or intellectual. But what you will also find, in many countries, are foreign books that are not translated, usually on sale in the major trade languages of our day, increasingly in English. That is, in many countries the tendency is to read directly in foreign languages, without translation. And this practice, unevenly distributed, must necessarily skew any attempt to associate 'cultural openness' (or any such value) with a high rate of translations. If the Swedes, for example, are all reading in English, they shouldn't really need translations from English, and they will potentially have a very open culture with a rather low translation rate. So all the arguments that might be based on translation data, including ours, are at best limited in what they can say about the relative virtues of cultures.  

        The hypothesis to be tested, the one that seems quite logical, is that the more a country consumes foreign-language books without translation, the lower the translation rate will tend to be into its national language or languages.  

        To test this hypothesis we really need reliable data on book exports and imports between a wide range of languages. I do not have any such data. But what I do have, sitting in the middle of all the UNESCO tables, are numbers of non-national-language books published in a lot of countries (e.g. books published in French in Germany). Faute de mieuxI propose that these numbers indicate uses of nontranslation that are compatible with a certain degree of cultural openness. True, these numbers may concern more the country's foreign projection than its internal consumption patterns. But that is no reason for not looking at the data.  

        Here's what happens to our hypothesis:  


        Despite severe limitations on the data (UNESCO doesn't tell us about non-national-language publications in the United States, the United Kingdom, France or Germany), the results are perhaps interesting enough to write home about. Our logical hypothesis is shown to be quite wrong. When countries publish a lot of books in foreign languages, they alsoend to translate a lot of books from foreign languages. The R2 here is a high 0.717 (p<.0001), which is a good correlation for a hypothesis that is not at all banal.  

        Exactly what this means requires more information. It could be that intranslation and extranslation are simply moving hand-in-hand, as complementary sides of increased cross-cultural exchange. Or it may just be that translations and non-national-language publications more actively help each other in raising public awareness about foreign books, with each practice stimulating more than its own narrow market, as was argued by Schlösser (1937: 2) when observing similar phenomena in the German reception of English literary texts.  

        Such speculation goes beyond my present concerns. All I am really interested in showing is that if translation rates are to indicate something like cultural openness, nontranslation rates might be assumed to operate the same way,at least until we find good data able to prove that translation and foreign-language-reading are compensatory rather than complementary intercultural strategies.  

      And a Suggestion about the State of English  

        I am not arguing that there is no cultural hegemony. In fact, if we attempt a slightly different kind of calculation, translations into English might have been numerous enough to develop a certain kind of productive hegemony. For the period 1960-1986 the Index Translationum lists more than 2.5 times as many translations in Britain and the United States (1,872,050) than in France (688,720) or Italy (577,950). That is, the number of publications in English is now so great that readers can indeed find more translations there than they can in some languages with higher translation rates. This perhaps amounts to saying that imperialism can bring certain translational rewards; the victors carry off the trophies. Less provocatively, it means we are being less than astute whenever we try simple comparisons (the above lineal regressions) between the world's major trade language and other languages.  

        The sheer size of English means it has its own dynamics. It is not only the first language of some 320 million people worldwide, but also a second language for perhaps that number again. It is an official or dominant language in over 60 countries and "routinely in evidence" in a further 75 countries (Crystal 1997). It has multiple standardized varieties and is the matrix language for some 44 creoles and pidgins across the globe. This is one hell of a big language, with countless variations churning within it.  

        I suggest that sheer size brings with it a very high degree of inner diversity-, visible in a wide range of distinct yet more or less mutually comprehensible varieties. Further, many of those different standards and non-standards gain access to printed communication, and do so in many different countries. Our data give some 24% of all books in English being published outside of the United States or the United Kingdom; the presence of writers born beyond those two main centres has become a regular feature of English-language literature. In fact, to complete my argument, the sheer size of English could mean that a lot of the diversity and new blood that other language groups seek through translation, English-language cultures may be getting without translation (for the same argument in slightly different terms, see Constantin 1992: 126). Thus, in order to carry out a comparison between the United Kingdom and, say, Albania, we might want to take some of that 24% non-central publication rate for English and add it on to the United Kingdom's basic translation rate.  

        The point, once again, is that if we are trying to gain some degree of cultural openness or diversity, translation alone is neither a sufficient measure nor a sufficient remedy. Nontranslation may also be a measure of cultural variety and openness. We cheerfully conclude that English could even be in advance of Albanian cultural ideals.  



        * The author would like to thank Gideon Toury for correcting the numbers in the mind games.  


        Constantin, Jean-Paul. 1992. 'Les éditeurs'. Françoise Barret-Ducrocq, ed. Traduire l'Europe. Paris: Payot. 125-133.  

        Ganne, Valérie, and Marc Minon. 1992. 'Géographies de la traduction'. Françoise Barret-Ducrocq, ed. Traduire l'Europe. Paris: Payot. 55-95.  

        Crystal, David. 1997. English as a Global Language. Cambridge University Press.  

        Pym, Anthony. 1996. "Venuti's Visibility", Target 8/2. 165-177.  

        Pym, Anthony. 1998. Method in Translation History. Manchester: St Jerome.  

        Schlösser, Anselm. 1937. Die englische Literatur in Deutschland von 1895 bis 1934. Jena: Biedermann.  

        UNESCO. 1985. Statistical Yearbook /Annuaire statistique / Anuario estadístico. Paris: Unesco.  

        Vallverdú, Francesc. 1987. "Els problemes de la traducció". Carme Arnau et al., Una aproximació a la literatura catalana i universal. Barcelona: Fundació Caixa de Pensions. 95-107.  

        Venuti, Lawrence. 1992. "Introduction". Lawrence Venuti, ed. Rethinking Translation. Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. London and New York: Routledge. 1-17.  

        Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator's Invisibility. A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge.  

        Venuti, Lawrence. 1998. The Scandals of Translation. Towards an Ethics of Difference. London and New York: Routledge.  

Last update 2 February 1999  

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