How to become the world’s most translated author

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Becoming the world’s most translated author is no easy feat. Many of those in UNESCO’s Index Translationum list of the top 20 most translated authors have held a place in the list for some years. Or decades. Or, in the case of William Shakespeare, centuries. But that doesn’t mean that the list isn’t open to new entrants. Danielle Steel and Stephen King are both within the top ten, giving hope to those still writing away in the hope of making it big enough to need to engage an army of professional translators to spread their novels around the world.

The Index Translationum reveals some interesting information about those whose works have been translated more than any other authors’ in the world. Here we drill down into the detail in search of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author.

Clearly, being an incredibly talented writer is the most important element behind making it onto the Index Translationum list, but analysis of the other factors reveals some interesting results. When it comes to becoming one of the world’s most translated authors, less is definitely not more. All of those on the list are (or were) prolific writers. The most recent entrants have all written dozens of novels, with Danielle Steel being known for writing up to five novels at a time.

Language is also a key factor. Of the top 20 most translated authors, English was (or still is) the language used by nine of them. French comes next, with four authors writing in French, followed by Russian and German with two authors each.

Gender is also relevant. Of the top 20 authors, only six are female. While the literary world has become far less dominated by men – in particular over the last 50 or so years – there are still many countries where women are not encouraged not to become authors (or are forbidden from doing so altogether). Given these facts, that four of the top ten most translated authors are women is actually very encouraging. Men might still have the edge, but the ‘fairer sex’ is catching up fast.

Subject matter is the final important element when it comes to the criteria for making it onto UNCESCO’s list. Six of those in the top 20 wrote books for children, while five chose murder/mystery/suspense as their genre (including the author at the very top of the list, Agatha Christie). Other genres in the top 20 were as varied as religion, romance and politics.

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Based on these fascinating insights, it’s possible to identify the key characteristics of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author. If you’re a man who’s writing dozens of murder/mystery fairy tales in English, you might just be in with a chance!

About the author
louLouise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.

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Guest post: Fernando Pessoa translator

Are you ready for another lovely guest post? Today, I’ll keep a bit of a secret and will not introduce our guest. Read on and you’ll find out who she is at the end. 😉

Welcome, my dear secret guest!

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Fernando Pessoa: Portuguese writer, poet, literary critic and… freelance commercial translator

When Caroline asked me to write something for her blog, I was happy but also a bit undecided. What could I write for her blog? I needed something that would resonate with her readers. Definitely not the kind of things I blog about… J It had to be good, serious, interesting and relevant to the blog of a talented young lady translating to Brazilian Portuguese.  And then it struck me. It had to be about a writer that has always intrigued me: Fernando Pessoa. Considering that the 30th of November marks 79 years from his death and we are in November now, I told Caroline I would write about Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa, one of the world’s most significant literary figures, a writer, poet and critic, was born in South Africa on the 13th of June, 1888 and died on the 30th of November, 1935.

Do you know him?

I am sure you do.

But do you know he was also a translator?

Okay, many writers translate. It’s in the nature of translation. Translators write. Translation is the par excellent conduit to writing.

But, as I did some googling around to see any interesting facts about Pessoa, I stepped on an article about a slogan… yes, a slogan, he wrote for Coca-Cola!

And at that moment I was sure this was the topic I would write for Caroline.

So, let’s take a gander at some facts about him as a person and a writer that I think could resonate with most translators and, of course, writers.

  1. Pessoa was trilingual. He spoke Portuguese, English and French. According to Wikipedia he translated from English and French.
  2. He was raised in South Africa and moved to Lisbon, Portugal when he was 17.
  3. While attending the Durban Commercial School, he started writing short stories in English, some under the name of David Merrick, many of which he left unfinished.
  4. Pessoa used pen names from an early age. He later called them heteronyms instead of pseudonyms. Besides his own name, he made up round about 72 more!
  5. In a letter to a schoolfellow Pessoa complained of “spiritual and material encumbrances of most especial adverseness.”
  6. Pessoa was a loner and he was fearlessly communicating this through his writing. I have been considering Pessoa to be an extreme pessimist but it depends on how you want to look at it and on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist yourself. This is one of the things that strike you evident in his writings and his choice to create characters and heteronyms.
  7. The same schoolfellow writes that Pessoa “took no part in athletic sports of any kind and I think his spare time was spent on reading. We generally considered that he worked far too much and that he would ruin his health by so doing.”
  8. A turn of events forced him to drop his studies and following his return to Lisbon at the age of 17, he complemented his British education with Portuguese culture, as an autodidact.
  9. In 1909, he set up his own publishing house, the «Empreza Ibis», with money he inherited from his grandmother. His business closed down one year later.
  10. Along with other artists and poets, he created the literary magazine Orpheu. He also founded the «Art Journal» Athena (1924–25).
  11. Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator but he was also a writer and a literary critic, contributing to journals and magazines.
  12. He never left Lisbon since the day he moved there. He wrote a poem “Lisbon Revisited” (1923 and 1926), by his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.
  13. After his family left Pretoria to come to Portugal, Pessoa found himself moving from one rented place to another because of financial troubles and the troubles of the young Portuguese republic.
  14. Bernardo Soares, one of his heteronyms supposedly lived in a world that Pessoa knew quite well due to his long career as freelance correspondence translator. From 1907 until his death in 1935, Pessoa actually worked in twenty one firms located in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in two or three of them simultaneously.
  15. “The Book of Disquiet” (Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa) is perhaps the most famous book by Pessoa and a best-seller. It was published 47 years after Pessoa’s death. Pessoa was 47 years old when he died. His book was signed under Pessoa’s semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares and it includes a preface by Fernando Pessoa. “The book of Disquiet” is a fragmentary lifetime project and according to Pessoa a “factless autobiography”. Pessoa never edited his book.
  16. According to an article from The New York Times from 2008 Pessoa “remains one of the trickiest and most voluminous legacies among the great writers of the modern era.”
  17. The vast majority of Pessoa’s papers belong to the National Library. The remainder, some 2,700, to the heirs.
  18. Eduardo Lourenço, Portuguese literary critic, said that Pessoa “had a way of being that is distinctly Portuguese… It has to do with everything and nothing — that we Portuguese can have everything, but still feel we have nothing.”
  19. According to Lourenço, Pessoa is “the most tragic of the Portuguese poets…the pleasure of unhappiness is particularly Portuguese.”
  20. His surname in Portuguese means both “person” and “people”.
  21. Pessoa wrote a slogan for Coca-Cola (true!) which had a bad fate. When Coca-Cola decided to launch in Portugal, they asked a company who had exclusive rights to import products from the USA. It so happened that future poet and writer Fernando Pessoa worked in that firm as a translator. The slogan he wrote was “Primeiro estranha-se, depois entranha-se” which would translate to First it amazes you, then it gets into your veins. Pessoa’s slogan was not welcome and had a similar fate to Coca-Cola who eventually didn’t launch in Portugal during that time. This “slogan” story was never revealed until 1992 when a heir of the Portuguese firm where Pessoa worked talked about it during an interview. Pessoa actually risked to be fired because of his slogan (according to this article – in Italian). 

His introversion, solitude, narcissism and inclination to avoid all action and the futility of this world should not be taken heavily. The “Book of Disquiet” is so personal that people who find themselves feel even remotely like Soares might sulk into a psychological state that reverberates that way of thinking.

For this reason, I highly recommend to read this article here. It’s about a writer who gives a very beautiful account on his life through his experience as a reader of this book.

Whatever one might say about this book, I prefer to see beyond it and towards the man who wrote it. A translator, poet and writer, someone who was raised in South Africa but who spent most of his life in Lisbon, an introvert (I’d keep that), a mysterious personality (is Soares really Pessoa?) and Portugal’s most famous modernist poet.

Pessoa’s writings are a reflection of the human soul in its most bare nature. Pessoa is true. He is not lying. Even if he spoke through the voice of the 75 or so characters he invented.

To conclude this rather long post, here are some of his quotes that I find powerful.

No intelligent idea can gain general acceptance unless some stupidity is mixed in with it.

There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.

I’ve always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.

We never love anyone. What we love is the idea we have of someone. It’s our own concept—our own selves—that we love.

In order to understand, I destroyed myself.

At this point, and after reading the last quote which brings to mind that translators are always trying to “understand” things and often stay up all night translating nonstop, I wonder to what extent did Pessoa’s career as a translator influenced his writing… I fear it kind of did but it’s time to call it a night. See?

Thank you, Caroline.

P.S.: To write this post I used Wikipedia, this article here from the New York Times and this one here from Il Post in Italian.

Thank you, Magda, for kindly accepting my invitation and for taking the time to research and write such an interesting post!

Did you know Fernando Pessoa was also a translator? Would you like to add anything to Magda’s words?

About the author
F5Dv6eTrMagda Phili lives in Italy and works as a freelance translator. She loves writing, creating slogans, coffee, the mountains and the Greek islands. She can be found at her blog and on Twitter.