Those pronouncements coming from the bibliorati often overlook the obvious. As this post from Melville House (via Book Business) points out, despite regular claims to the contrary, translations sell plenty well: it’s just that we tend to ignore them when thinking about the question. Notorious as the best selling book of all time, the Bible, is of course a translation — actually recently a plethora of translations. While there are still a few sturdy souls who can enjoy the originals, all Greek and Latin literature is available to us only in translation. In fact almost everything written before Chaucer (some might even say Shakespeare) now has to be read in translation by the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Are there translations which sell better than their originals? The Bible obviously, but that’s probably an exception to any rule you’d like to make. The classics (Greek and Roman I mean) no doubt. But more modern stuff? There are a lot of people in Russia of course, but I wonder about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Doctor Zhivago was the top selling book in the USA in 1958 and second in 1959, while Solzhenitsyn’s August, 1914 was #2 on the year’s bestseller list in 1972. All Quiet on the Western Front was the top selling US book of 1929. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson topped the list in 2010. How about Simenon? Probably more sold in English than in French I’d bet. Tove Jansson — almost certainly; how many Swedes or Finns are there to enjoy the Moomins? There are probably more sales in English than German of Kafka’s works: Carolin Duttlinger certainly suggests as much in her review of Michelle Woods’ Kafka Translated in the Times Literary Supplement of 22-29 August 2014. How about Hans Christian Anderson? Ismail Kadare? Sándor Márai? All you really need to do in this game is pick a translation you’ve heard of from a language with a smallish number of native speakers, and Bob’s your uncle.

Here’s a link to Publishing Perspectives in which a German Book Office spokesman ruminates on the sorts of books which go well into the American market.

In an excellent New York Times Book Review Bookend piece (16 November 2014) about the way the French value their books and culture so much more than we do, Daniel Mendelsohn, a really smart classics-based cultural critic, adds his voice to those twitting Americans for our insularity when it comes to publishing translations. In USA a shockingly low percentage of our publications are translated, merely 3%, he tells us, while in France fully 14% of books published (in 2008) were translations. But 14% of the books published in France represents 5,866 titles, while 3% of those published in the USA comes to 8,760 books. My publication numbers are from 2011 it’s true, but I doubt that the proportions have changed radically over those 3 years. We in the English-speaking world don’t have any reason to be embarrassed about our international awareness: we have plenty of translations to turn to — and it appears that plenty of us are doing so. Nor does this mean the French need to do anything about the “shocking” situation that they publish almost 3,000 fewer translations annually than we do: no cultural significance can be given to the number or percentage of translations anyone deals with. They are just numbers.

I have held forth on this topic of proportions before, in June last year.