While many in the publishing industry bemoan the fact that only about 3% of books published in English are translated, the ones that do break through to the English-language market sometimes become international sensations.
How do they accomplish this? It’s usually a combination of factors, and no small amount of luck is involved. In most cases, a book must be highly successful in its local market before getting noticed and breaking out to the international market. Universal appeal — making the contents of the book accessible to a global audience — is a must. It certainly helps to have a literary or foreign rights agent advocating for the book and traveling to international book translation fairs to pitch it to foreign publishers. And of course, most importantly, it must be translated by a highly skilled and talented translator.
Below are 8 books that became international bestsellers after they were translated.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This whimsical novella is one of the most-translated, best-selling books ever published. It has been translated into 300 languages and dialects and had sold over 140 million copies as of 2014, with nearly two million copies being sold across the globe every year. It has been adapted for radio, the stage, the screen, the opera house, and more across the world.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
Originally written in Swedish, this psychological thriller novel was published posthumously in 2005, and became an international bestseller after its translation to other languages. It debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List at #4, several sequels have been published (some written by Larsson before his death, and some written by Swedish author and crime journalist David Lagercrantz), and two film adaptations have been released to date. The series (known as the Millenium series) has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho
This modern retelling of an old classic was written in Portuguese by Brazilian author Paolo Coelho and first published in 1988. As of 2016, it has been translated into 70 languages and has sold over 65 million copies worldwide. A film adaptation is reportedly in progress.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
This historical mystery novel was originally written in the author’s native Italian. It debuted in 1980, and as of Eco’s death in 2016, it had sold tens of millions of copies in 40 different languages. It was adapted to the screen in 1986, and the film grossed $77 million worldwide.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
This novel, set in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, topped the Spanish-language bestseller lists in mainland Europe before it was translated into English by Lucia Graves and became a sensation in the UK. It is believed to have sold 15 million copies worldwide.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
This dystopian novel was published in three volumes in the original Japanese in 2009 – 2010. Its first printing sold out on the day of its release, and it sold more than one million copies in its first month! Its success was just as astonishing in other languages, with 70,000 copies of the French edition selling out in just one week. It was translated into 42 languages and has appeared in the bestselling lists across the globe, from South Korea to Australia, Italy, Germany, and China.
The above books achieved success in their local markets before breaking out to the international market, and that is most common. Some books, however, have actually done better in another language than in their original language. Here are two examples:
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke
Kasischke is known for her poetry in the USA, and her novels were not as well-received. In France, however, they became a sensation. L’Esprit d’hiver won Elle magazine’s Grand prix les lectrices, and Kasischke was astonished to find herself quite a celebrity when visiting France.
The Inspector Brunetti series by Donna Leon
After publishing four novels in this series, Leon’s publisher refused to publish any more of them. When a Swiss publisher picked them up and published them in German, the books become very popular in that market, and it was only when the eighth book in the series was published in both English and German in 2000 that she found success back home.
Source: Ulatus Translation Blog — Translation Trends and Insights