The power of translation: how books connect cultures

The power of translation: how books connect cultures


When I am asked at a birthday party what I do in daily life and I answer that I am a translator, the question I am most often asked is: what books do you translate? When it comes to translating, most people immediately think that you spend all day immersed in novels. However, translating books is a profession in itself.

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The first translator

In itself, it is not surprising that people think this way. For that we need only look at the patron saint of translators: Jerome of Stridon. This Roman from the 4th century AD is the very first translator we know by name. He owes his fame not to translating a few driving licenses for chariot races, but to the translation of a book, or rather THE book: the Bible. This primal translation from Hebrew into Latin was considered the word of God for centuries. Whereas before Roman citizens could not understand what was being preached in the pulpit, now everyone understood what was being preached. After that, the Bible was translated many more times (anno 2023 in 3350 languages), but in essence we still read the same message as originally intended.

Reading without borders

So a good translation ensures that a book can be read far beyond its country of origin and still be relevant many years after it was written. This is now true of many more books than just the Bible. The most translated Dutch book, the Diary of Anne Frank, has currently been translated into 73 languages and is still widely read. People all over the world are reading how World War II was experienced by a 15-year-old girl, and the Anne Frank House remains one of the most visited museums in the Netherlands. In fact, the Diary of Anne Frank has become a kind of calling card for the Netherlands. There are numerous examples of translated books that introduce a country or culture to readers from other countries. These are not just literary works. A cookbook, for example, is also capable of conveying a culture.

Which books are translated the most?

When people think of "books," they often initially think of novels for adults. After the Bible, however, the most translated books are generally children's books. For example, the second most translated book of all time is Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Also Pinoccio, Alice in Wonderland, the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and last but not least Harry Potter still score high. In addition, it is mainly pamphleteering and religious books that have been translated into many languages, such as Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto or the Book of Mormon.

Book translation: a profession in its own right

When translating a book, whether it is a 5-volume novel series or a cookbook, there is just a little more involved than with a "normal" commercial text. For example, it is extra important that the translator is a so-called native speaker. This means that the translator lives in or comes from the country where the book is published. More than with any other type of text, the translator needs to be fully embedded in the culture that future readers of a book are a part of. For example, would an Englishman have come up with the idea of translating "Albus Dumbledore" as "Albus Parchment"? It is also desirable for the translator to specialize in the subject the book is about.

At Scriptware Translations, we make sure your book ends up with the right translator. Visit our page on book translation for more information or a quote. We're happy to help!

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