With the sheer number of books written and published every single year, only a select few make it out of their country of origin and are translated into other languages. Even fewer have the privilege of being accessible in more than two or three languages, across all continents. Contrary to what many people may think, it is a very rare feat for a book to achieve the level of recognition and interest that would push its publishers to get it translated into multiple languages.
Of course, in the case of self-published titles, it’s a little different, as it’s the author’s sole responsibility to pay for the translations. Given the high cost of such an endeavour, not many writers decide to go down that path, at least not until they sell a lot of copies in their home countries.
Since books translated into dozens of languages are such a rarity, it should come as no surprise that when a novel makes it, that fact becomes a very good selling point in and of itself. Some of the most translated books of all time are children’s books or young adult novels because they are so universal and so well received. It is much more difficult for a book aimed at an adult audience to become an international bestseller, mainly because they cater towards more specific tastes and viewpoints.
If you’ve ever wondered which books have gotten the most translations, then you’ve come to the right place! In this article, we’ll introduce you to nine titles that can be read in dozens of languages in countries all across the globe.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling’s hit series about Harry Potter, an orphaned wizard boy who gets thrown into the world of magic and witchcraft on the day of his eleventh birthday has become a global phenomenon in a flash. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in the summer of 1997 and became a hit almost immediately. Even with the success of Philosopher’s Stone, not many people found it fathomable that the series of books about young wizards and their adventures in Hogwarts would become a global phenomenon, translated into 76 languages and selling over 500 million copies worldwide.
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho
The Alchemist was originally published in 1988 in Brazil. The novel had quite the rocky launch. First published by a relatively unknown publishing house, it has sold quite well, but not well enough for the publisher to deem it worthy of their time. After just one year, Coelho got the rights to the book back. The Brazilian author never meant to give up on his work, though. He worked tirelessly to get it republished by another publisher, and when he finally got it, The Alchemist really blew up. It was translated into English in 1993, almost five years after its initial publication.
The allegorical story of a Spanish farmer embarking on a quest to find his destiny has become a worldwide bestseller and was translated into 80 languages. Despite some people criticizing it for being pretentious and over-the-top with its use of allegories, Coelho must have done something right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have sold over 65 million copies of the book around the world.
The Adventures of Asterix by René Goscinny
The comic series following a brave Gallic warrior Asterix and his merry band of Gauls who occupy the only remaining Gallic village in the area, fighting off the Roman invaders at all costs, has cemented itself in global pop culture for good. The comics have inspired multiple movies and a cartoon series, and the image of the tiny blond warrior and his large friend, Obelix, is instantly recognizable across all continents. Full of specific, French humour and creative storylines, René Goscinny’s hit series has been translated into over 100 languages.
Adventures of Tintin by Hergé
Just like The Adventures of Asterix, Adventures of Tintin are also a series of comic books written and drawn by a French-speaking author. As such, they’re equally filled with quirky humour and over-the-top, adventurous plotlines. Originally created as a comic strip character, Tintin quickly gained popularity and earned himself his very own comic book series. Despite Tintin’s appearance and childish demeanour, the initial stories often contained political commentary and satire. After running into trouble with publishers before and during the Second World War, Hergé has decided to change the tone of his comics into a more adventurous one. Most issues of the Adventures of Tintin have been translated into 110 languages, making it one of, if not the most successful, comic series of all times.
Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen
Children all over the world know the fairy tales about the Little Mermaid, the Snow Queen, or The Ugly Duckling. All of these tales, forever embroidered in the collective imagination of people brought up in the Western hemisphere have come from one source: the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. His Fairy Tales, a collection of 156 short stories published across nine volumes in the 19th century, were translated into 120 languages, and have inspired countless film adaptations, including Disney hits such as Little Mermaid or Frozen.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Hailed as the first-ever modern novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha was written as a satire of stories about medieval knights and their otherworldly feats. Its author, Miguel de Cervantes, was a fan of that genre but has grown tired of its dominance in the world of fiction novels in 17th-century Spain. The book follows Alonso Quixano, a man who’s gone crazy from reading too many of the overwhelmingly popular chivalric romance novels and embarked on his own knightly adventure. It has since been translated into 145 languages and studied all over the world as a shining example of satirical writing.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Today, we take the story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland for granted as an established, classic piece of Western literature. However, we seldom think of how much imagination and ingenuity was required to write such an odd and colourful fantasy story. The success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can partially be attributed to the fact that at the time of its release, Victorian England was overwhelmed with stories that reflected the time period: stiff, heavy, and always with clear-cut moral and logical structures. Enter Lewis Carroll and his nonsensical story of a girl entering a fantasy world upon falling into a rabbit hole. The story made little sense, and the people loved it. This 1865 book has been translated into 175 languages, and critics agree that it had a major on 20th-century literature.
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
There isn’t a person in the world, child or adult, who is not familiar with the story of Pinocchio. The fascinating tale of a wooden puppet who desperately wants to become a real boy is beloved by children and parents alike. The kids love it for its fantastical flair and Pinocchio’s engrossing adventures, while the parents surely appreciate the morals of the story, mainly those about the perils of lying and the dangers of pursuing pleasure while disregarding everything else. It’s one of the most translated books in the entire world, with a whopping 300 translations to its name.
The Holy Bible
Although books like The Adventures of Pinocchio and Little Prince have been translated into over 300 languages, which is more than any novel to date, they are still far behind the most popular, and most translated book in the world: the Bible. Its entire text has been translated into 704 languages, but that’s not all! The New Testament is available in 1,551 more languages, aside from the 704 that the entire book was translated to. Furthermore, bits and pieces of the Holy Book have earned an additional 1,160 translations! Altogether, this means that at least some parts of the Bible can be read in 3,415 languages. Given that many of these languages are now dead, or only used by minuscule groups of people, it is most probable that no book will ever get translated into as many languages in the future.
The Bottom Line
So, there you have it: the nine most translated books in the world. As stated earlier, the vast majority of these titles are children’s novels and comic books, but more mature titles, such as Don Quixote, The Alchemist and, of course, The Holy Bible have also made the list. Translating novels and comic books makes up for a sizable portion of the global translation industry. It’s a difficult job that does not only require expert knowledge of the two languages used in a particular translation, but also a certain level of creative flair that would allow for the emotions and intricacies of the original to be carried over onto the translated version. If not for the work of translators across the globe, the vast majority of the knowledge and adventures contained within the world’s great works of literature would only be available to a limited number of people. When you grab any translated book, keep in mind the amount of effort and expertise that went into creating a version of the story that you can understand!