the complete review Quarterly
Volume V, Issue 3   --   August, 2004


How international are we ?
Literature in translation at the complete review

How international are we ?: Original report

Update: through review 1300 (3 November 2004)
Update: through review 1400 (4 May 2005)
Update: through review 1500 (8 October 2005)
Update: through review 1600 (2 April 2006)0
Update: through review 1700 (7 September 2006)
Update: through review 1800 (3 February 2007)
Update: through review 1900 (1 September 2007)
Update: through review 2000 (19 January 2008)
Update: through review 2100 (7 July 2008)
Update: through review 2200 (23 December 2008)
Update: through review 2300 (28 July 2009)
Update: through review 2400 (4 February 2010)
Update: through review 2500 (4 July 2010)
Update: through review 2600 (6 January 2011)
Update: through review 2700 (26 June 2011)
Update: through review 2800 (12 December 2011)
Update: through review 2900 (17 May 2012)
Update: through review 3000 (27 October 2012)
Update: through review 3100 (20 March 2013)
Update: through review 3200 (22 September 2013)
Update: through review 3300 (30 March 2014)
Update: through review 3400 (29 September 2014)



How international are we ?: Original report

       We frequently complain about how little foreign literature -- and specifically foreign literature in translation -- is reviewed (and published) in the English-speaking world. Eventually (five years and over 1200 reviews later) we also started wondering just how good a job we were doing of it -- hence this survey. We're fairly confident that the coverage at the complete review is among the most international available (only a few publications, such as World Literature Today, are clearly more dedicated to the cause than we are), but we wanted to see if we weren't possibly mistaken.
       "Foreign literature", nowadays, is often written originally in English. Even ignoring the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and English-speaking Canada, a great deal of contemporary writing is in English: literature from India and Africa that is available in the US and UK, in particular, is more likely to have been written in English than other local languages. We cover a lot of these foreign-but-English books, but looking at books originally actually written in a foreign language seems a more accurate gauge of how truly deep (or shallow) our coverage is. With over fifty titles under review that haven't been translated into English at all we figured we were doing a reasonable job of providing information about literature from all across the globe -- but a closer look at the languages books we reviewed in were originally written in does yield a few surprises.

       As it turns out, a clear majority of the titles we have under review were originally written in English, almost exactly two-thirds of them. More than anything, this is a reflection of the ease of access to such books: there's always one at hand (while it takes considerable effort (or luck) to find a book translated from Thai or Finnish or any number of other languages). English being the dominant lingua franca even among the multi-lingual cast of characters at the complete review, books in it (originally or in translation) are also the easiest to share and compare.
       Through review number 1200 (posted 12 May 2004), there were only a dozen languages-of-origin which we'd covered a double-digit number of books from:

Language of origin
Rank Language 1-1000 1-1200 per cent
1 English 681 797 66.42
2 French 74 98 8.17
3 German 50 61 5.08
4 Spanish 41 55 4.58
5 Dutch/Flemish 35 37 3.08
6 Italian 16 20 1.67
7 Japanese 10 16 1.33
8 Persian¹ 15 15 1.25
9 Swedish 12 13 1.08
10 Polish 11 12 1.00
11 Chinese 9 11 0.92
12 Czech 10 10 0.83

       ¹ "Persian" includes both classical and modern Persian (Farsi)
       Note also that some languages -- Italian, Persian, and Sanskrit -- benefit from multiple reviews of different translations of the same original text.

       In all, through review 1200, there were only 30 languages-of-origin; see this page for the entire list and rankings. More continue to be added (Welsh and Hindi, for example, recently) as we try to expand our horizons; still, the concentration among a few languages is striking.
       The most popular languages generally reflect the languages those associated with the complete review can read (i.e. where there's at least one person who can read a work in the original), though these are also the languages in which the most material tends to be available in English translation. (French and German fluency have also turned out to be helpful in making some books accessible that have been translated into those languages, but not into English.) The good Spanish showing comes as somewhat of a surprise (the Spanish-language skills hereabouts are rudimentary), but is a reflection of the wide availability of especially Latin American fiction in English translation.
       More surprising are all the bad showings. Russian, in particular, comes as a stunner (four titles), and all the Scandinavian languages added together still only yield sixteen titles. Non-European language fare even worse: works from India originally written in Malayalam, Urdu, and Sanskrit have been reviewed, but major languages such as Bengali, Marathi, and Tamil (and, until review 1224, even Hindi) are not represented. Arabic is represented by a single author (Naguib Mahfouz), and Afrikaans is the only other African language represented (all other African books having originally been written in English, French, or Portuguese).
       Disappointing also is the showing of classical languages, with not a single title originally written in Latin under review, and only two in ancient Greek. This is a reflection of the fact that reviews tend to be predominately of contemporary or at least modern works, but still somewhat surprising.
       Certain languages are clearly one-offs, or close to it: it seems nearly impossible that we would ever find another work translated from the Chaghatay Turkish (or would learn the language ourselves), so the Baburnama will surely remain the only book under review originally written therein. Otherwise, however, there is little good excuse for the limited and uneven representation.

       Numerous languages are still missing entirely: aside from the Indian languages, most of Southeast Asia fares badly: Thai, Malay, Burmese, Vietnamese are all still missing. There must be some African novels in translation we can get our hands on (Ngugi's Gikuyu work seems the most likely, along with books written in some of the South African languages). European languages fare tolerably well, though there are no works in, among other languages, modern Greek or Finnish under review.

       Beyond our coverage of books originally written in French, German, Spanish, and Dutch, which seems adequate, we're fairly disappointed. Both the number of languages represented and the number of titles in these languages seems far too low.
       Ideally, we'd like to increase the number of reviews of books originally written in a foreign language, reducing the percentage of English-language works reviewed. It's unclear how realistic this is. Quota systems of any sort are unworkable (the random element to what books get reviewed when seems to be the dominant one, no matter how hard we try to plan ahead). There are certainly enough titles out there originally written in foreign languages, but we like to keep on top of new publications as well, and there the percentage originally written in English overwhelms all else.
       For now, we suppose we can be satisfied with being modestly international, but we do hope to become more so.

Go to complete list and rankings.

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Update: through review 1300 (3 November 2004)

       Reviews 1201 through 1300 were slightly more international than average, with only 56 per cent of titles originally written in English. Four new languages were added (bringing the total to 34): Finnish, Hindi, Turkish, and Welsh.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 16 different languages. More than one of the titles read was written in each of ten foreign languages, French again leading the way (9), followed by Spanish and German (5 each), and Japanese (4).

       Japanese looks to be making the greatest strides (a 1 per cent rate through review 1000, 3.33 per cent since then), in no small part due to the availability of new Japanese titles from Vertical. Disappointments continue to include Russian (1 title added) and Chinese (none added),

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Update: through review 1400 (4 May 2005)

       Reviews 1301 through 1400 were dominated by foreign language titles: only 42 of the books under review were written in English, the lowest percentage to date. Three new languages were added (bringing the total to 37): Bulgarian, Icelandic, and Indonesian.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 18 different languages. More than one of the titles read was written in each of ten foreign languages, French again leading the way (with 11). Norwegian (8 new titles), Japanese (7), and German (also 7) showed great gains.

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Update: through review 1500 (8 October 2005)

       The trend towards foreign language literature coverage continues: of the 100 reviews (1401 through 1500) a mere 31 of the books covered were written in English, by far the lowest percentage to date. Four new languages were added (bringing the total to 41): Hebrew, mdoern Greek, Ukrainian, and Yoruba.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 18 different languages. More than one of the titles read was written in an astonishing fifteen foreign languages, French again leading the way (this time with 18). German and Japanese (7 new titles each) and new-comer Hebrew (5) showed the greatest gains. Finally, there were also decent gains for Chinese (4) and Russian (3), though both still seem under-represented. Spanish (only 2) had a surprisingly poor showing.

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Update: through review 1600 (2 April 2006)

       Books written in English only made up 38 of the 100 most recent reviews (1501 through 1600). Only two new languages were added -- Acholi and Estonian (bringing the total to 43).
       Besides English, books were originally written in 20 different languages. More than one of the titles read was written in sixteen foreign languages, French again leading the way (this time with 11). Arabic had solid gains (5 -- but unfortunately all were by one author (still Naguib Mahfouz). Coverage was fairly wide-spread, with good gains among Scandinavian and Eastern European languages, as well as Japanese and Korean.

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Update: through review 1700 (7 September 2006)

       For the first time, books wrtten in English were not the leading language -- only 17 titles out of the 100 most recently reviewed (1601-1700) were written in English, second behind French (19). (In addition, books not yet translated into English (18) also beat out books actually written in English.)
       Only two new languages were added -- Catalonian and Gikuyu (bringing the total number of languages represented to 45).
       Besides English, books were originally written in 22 different languages. More than one of the titles read was written in sixteen foreign languages: after French (19) the most popular were Spanish (11) and then Italian and Japanese (6 each).

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Update: through review 1800 (3 February 2007)

       A considerably larger percentage of titles were once again in English than in the previous lot of a hundred, but they still represented less than a third of all titles reviewed. Coverage of French titles continues apace (13 added), but particularly pleasing was that we were able to double the coverage of Arabic titles under review, to 22.
       Only one new language was added -- Lithuanian (bringing the total number of languages represented to 46).
       Besides English, books were originally written in 23 different languages. Eleven foreign languages were represented by more than one title: after French (13) the most popular were Arabic (11), Spanish (9) and then Italian (5).

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Update: through review 1900 (1 September 2007)

       Books originally written in English accounted for slightly more than a quarter of all titles reviewed (27.5), with French accounting for just over one-sixth (17.5 -- the split title a French-American anthology). The French share of all titles reviewed is now over 10 per cent.
       For the first time in ages no new language was added, leaving the total number of languages represented at 46.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 17 different languages. Eleven foreign languages were represented by more than one title: after French the most popular were Spanish (11), Arabic (8), and then Japanese (6). Three Scandinavian languages also accounted for 6 titles, but it was good to see that, led by Arabic and Japanese, non-European languages were particularly well-represented (a total of 22 titles). On the other hand, there were disappointments -- most notably again the absence of any Russian titles (and a generally poor Eastern European showing -- a total of 3 titles, from three languages).

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Update: through review 2000 (19 January 2008)

       Books originally written in English accounted for 29 of the titles reviewed, almost twice as many as the next best-represented language, French (with 15.5).
       No new language was added, leaving the total number of languages represented at 46.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 19 different languages. Twelve foreign languages were represented by more than one title: after French the most popular were Japanese (10), Dutch and Spanish (7), and then German (6).

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Update: through review 2100 (6 July 2008)

       Books originally written in English accounted for 20.5 of the last 100 titles reviewed.
       Two new languages were added -- Nepali and Zulu --, raising the total number of languages represented to 48.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 25 different languages -- the most ever for any 100-book stretch. Fifteen foreign languages were represented by more than one title: the most popular was again French (14), followed by Japanese (8.5), Arabic (7), and then Spanish (6).

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Update: through review 2200 (23 December 2008)

       Books originally written in English accounted for 21 of the last 100 titles reviewed; for the second time, English was not the most common language books were written in, as 23 of the titles were originally written in French. It also appears clear that English will fall below the 50 per cent mark for all the books under review in the next 100-book-span.
       Two new languages were added -- Burmese and Telugu --, raising the total number of languages represented to 50.
       Besides English, books were originally written in 22 different languages. Twelve foreign languages were represented by more than one title: beside French (23), German (12) and Spanish (11) also figured in double figures. Among the more disappointing results: only one Dutch title, two each in Chinese and Russian (which, even more sadly, is still above average for both languages), and three each in Japanese and Arabic.

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Update: through review 2300 (28 July 2009)

       While books originally written in English accounted for 30 of the last 100 titles reviewed, as expected English has now fallen (just) below the 50 per cent mark for all the books under review.
       No new languages were added, but beside English, books originally written in 22 different languages were reviewed, with ten other languages represented by more than one title.
       Once again, French led the way, with 18 titles, followed by Spanish (9), Arabic (7), and German (5).
       Among the disappointing results: only one title each in Japanese and Chinese were reviewed, and none in Russian -- shocking for such major languages.

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Update: through review 2400 (4 February 2010)

       Books originally written in English accounted for 24.5 of the last 100 titles reviewed.
       Two new languages were added (Latin and Vietnamese), and, beside English, books originally written in 26 different languages were reviewed -- the most ever --, with an astonishing fifteen other languages represented by more than one title.
       French and Spanish were the most popular foreign languages, with 14 titles each, followed by Arabic (7), and Dutch (5).

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Update: through review 2500 (4 July 2010)

       Of the last 100 titles reviewed, almost half were books originally written in either English or French, with 24 in each language. Despite the dominance of these two, books originally written in 28 different languages (beside English) were reviewed -- the most ever --, and three new languages were added (Amharic, Assamese, and Bengali), bringing the total number of languages represented to 55.
       After French, the most popular foreign languages were Spanish (9), Japanese (7), and Arabic (5).

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Update: through review 2600 (6 January 2011)

       The last 100 titles reviewed were originally written in English (21.5 of them) and 26 other languages (27 if one counts Dari as a separate language, but we're including it under Persian/Farsi). No new languages were added, but the total number of languages was adjusted to 56 since we decided Czech and Slovakian should be counted separately.
       After French (14), the most popular foreign languages were German (9.5), and then Japanese and Spanish (8 each).

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Update: through review 2700 (26 June 2011)

       The last 100 titles reviewed were originally written in English (21 of them) and 22 other languages; no new languages were added, the total number of languages remaining at 56.
       After French (15), the most popular foreign languages were German (11), followed by Japanese and Spanish (8 each); among the disappointments was the absence of any works originally in Chinese.

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Update: through review 2800 (12 December 2011)

       The last 100 titles reviewed were originally written in English (22 of them) and 25 other languages; 13 languages other than English were represented by 2 or more titles. Once again, no new languages were added, the total number of languages remaining at 56.
       After French (18), the most popular foreign languages were Spanish (14, solidifying its overall position as the third-most-popular language), after which there was a big drop off to Norwegian (5), followed by Arabic, Italian, and Japanese, with 4 each.

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Update: through review 2900 (17 May 2012)

       The last 100 titles reviewed were originally written in English (29 of them) and 24 other languages; 15 languages other than English were represented by 2 or more titles. One new language was added -- Georgian -- bringing the total number of languages represented to 57.
       After French (17), the most popular foreign languages were German, Japanese, and Spanish, with 6 titles each, followed by Arabic with 4.

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Update: through review 3000 (27 October 2012)

       The last 100 titles reviewed were originally written in English (34 of them -- the first time since reviews 1501 through 1600 that more than a third of all reviewed titles were written in English) and 23 other languages; 11 languages other than English were represented by 2 or more titles. One new language was added -- Basque -- bringing the total number of languages represented to 58.
       After French (19), the most popular foreign languages were Spanish (10), Portuguese (5), and Italian (4).

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Update: through review 3100 (20 March 2013)

       Only once has English not been the language the most reviewed books were originally written in (1601-1700), but in this batch of a hundred it was actually only the third most popular language: with 18 title written in French (less than in the last batch of a hundred !) and 13 in Japanese, English placed third with only eleven. The next most popular languages were: Spanish (8), Russian (7), and Arabic (6).
       Two new languages were added -- Kannada and Tigrinya -- bringing the total number of languages represented to 60.
       Reviewed books were originally written in 24 different languages, aside from English, and at least two books from each of fourteen languages other than English were reviewed.

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Update: through review 3200 (22 September 2013)

       Once again, English was not the language the most reviewed books were originally written in -- taking a backseat, with 16 books, to French (23). Books originally written in an impressive 28 languages aside from English were reviewed, tied for the most ever, with Spanish (11), Italian (8), and Japanese (7) the next most popular languages.
       Two new languages were added -- Kyrgyz and Occitan -- bringing the total number of languages represented to 62.
       French dominace was also really French dominance, with 22 of the 23 written-in-French titles also written by authors from France; usually the geographic spread is much wider.

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Update: through review 3300 (30 March 2014)

       French (20) narrowly edged out English (19) as the language in which the most reviewed books were originally written in, while the last 100 reviewed titles were only written in 21 different languages aside from English. There was a surge of German interest -- 13 titles -- followed by Spanish (8), and then Japanese and Russian (6 each); impressively, three titles were originally written in Georgian.
       Only one new languages was added -- Thai (finally !) -- bringing the total number of languages represented to 63.

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Update: through review 3400 (29 September 2014)

       English finally reasserted itself as the most popular language this batch of the last 100 reviewed titles were written in, with 22, just ahead of French (18). Japanese (8), Spanish (7), and Italian (6) round out the top five, as an books originally written in an impressive 26 different languages (aside from English) were reviewed (plus one title that goes in the 'diverse' (multiple languages) catageory).
       Only one new languages was added -- and that barely, as the book in question was written in German and Romansh -- bringing the total number of languages represented to 64.

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© 2004 - 2014 the complete review