The decades since World War II have witnessed the globalization of both commerce and culture. National businesses have been amalgamated into transnational or multinational corporations, and popular culture--whether music or movies--seems everywhere to be the same. Some nations have tried to resist this trend, whether to protect a domestic film industry, to retain a distinct national identity, or to preserve a language. Yet homogenization often seems irresistible, especially since the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, which cross national boundaries without having to confront customs officials.
Objections to the internationalization of culture are based on the belief that what is taking place is, in fact, not internationalization but Americanization. In the realms of celluloid and CD, this perception is probably accurate. But in the realm of the book, it is less the case. Looking at the statistics for book translations in the first 25 years after the war, and at the reality behind the statistics, reveals a far more complex pattern of cultural exchange. While the numbers show a growing U.S. presence, the titles that generate those numbers suggest far more mutuality of cultural contact and influence. For a genuine understanding of the trade in translations, one must also examine the varied motivations for this form of cultural exchange as well as the mechanisms within the publishing industry that govern what is translated.
Statistics on translation have been compiled and published annually by UNESCO since 1932, with a hiatus between 1938 and 1948. The UNESCO publication, the Index Translationum, was printed until 1993. Since then it has been available only in CD-ROM format. For each country that participates, the volume presents a numbered list of translations that usually includes author, title, city, publisher, number of pages, and price of the translation, as well as the original language. Sometimes the name of the translator and the original title are also provided. Very rarely, the original publisher is listed. Each country's list is subdivided into nine subject areas, and entries within each area are presented alphabetically by author. Each volume includes a summary table of totals by subject area for each country and an index of authors.(1)
Although the Index Translationum is an extraordinarily rich source of information, the methods of data collection and presentation limit its usefulness. Because different countries participate from year to year, the totals are not comparable over time. Each country collects and reports its own data idiosyncratically, so that comparisons between countries are problematic. (Among other things, nations vary in the completeness of their data and handle government publications and internal translations differently.) Data for some countries are extremely inaccurate. For example, the U.S. data cease to be reliable around 1980 and vanish altogether in 1986.(2) The volumes report totals of target languages but not of original languages, so that in order to determine how many books were translated into, say French, from English, German, Spanish, Russian, and other languages, one must count them. Finally, the entries list language of origin rather than nation, so determining whether a book was originally published in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, or another English-speaking country relies on personal knowledge or consulting national bibliographies--a daunting task when thousands of titles per year are listed. Because of these problems, I have drawn conclusions only from numerical differences large enough to be unaffected by these variations.
The data are much more useful for studying culture than for studying commerce. In every country in every year, much of what is translated is …