Most Translated Literary Works Fall into Two Categories: Religious Texts and Adventures
There are several listings of the most translated literary texts of all time available on the Internet. They often include the source language and how many languages the document has been translated into. The lists’ contents and ordering vary greatly. We compiled several of these lists and found that they fall mostly into two categories.
Two Types of Documents
In the topmost translated texts, the two most common types of documents include religious texts (or commentaries on religious texts) and adventure novels (or children’s stories). This has remained true for centuries. Across hundreds of cultures, the most highly regarded literary pieces are consistently written on these two subjects and genres.
Why are they so popular? What do they have in common? What does this say about our priorities and interests around the world and throughout the ages? How many of these have you read…or plan to read soon?
The allure of ancient scriptures demonstrates the natural human quest for answers and direction in life. This seems to be a timeless topic with diverse interpretations.
The following classics appear on nearly all lists:
- The Bible
As the #1 most translated literary work of all time, the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures have been translated into over 3,000 languages. This count includes translations of individual books, versions of the old testament, versions of the new testament and combinations of both old and new testaments. The full combined text has been translated into around 500 languages. There are three known source languages as the content was written over an extended period of time, by multiple people and in separate “books”: Hebrew, Aramaic and Koiné and Greek.
The Bible is the most read and sold book in the history of the world, with estimated sales of 100 million copies each year. Its contents are considered the “word of God” in both the Judaism and Christianity religions.
- Listen to God and Live Forever: Watch Tower Society
This Jehovah’s Witness’ publication was launched in 2011 and has already been translated into 583 languages. Therefore, in less than a decade, this book has been translated into more languages than the complete version of the Bible was translated over centuries.
There are several other publications by Jehovah’s Witnesses that also rank high in the top translated texts of all time. Some of their books and magazines date back to the mid- 1800s and include: “The Watchtower” and “Awake” Magazines, “What Does the Bible Really Teach?”, “The New World Transcription of the Holy Scriptures”, “My Book of Bible Stories”, “The Bible – God’s Word or Man’s?” and “Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom.”
- Quran or Qur’an
The Quran is the main religious text of Islam and is believed by Muslims to be the word of God as related to the Prophet Muhammad, through the Archangel Gabriel. Because the source language, Arabic, has a range of meanings for individual words depending on the context, it is a very challenging script to translate.
Despite the challenges, this ancient classical Arabic work and portions of it have been translated into over 100 languages.
- Pilgrim’s Progress (2 parts)
John Bunyan wrote this important piece of Christian literature in English in 1678, while he was imprisoned for performing unapproved religious services in England.
The classic novel of 108,260 words of continuous narrative, not divided in to chapters, is now available in 200 different languages. It describes Christian’s journey through life to reach heaven or the Celestial City. The sequel was written 6 years later, describing the similar journey of Christian’s wife, Christiana, their sons and the maiden, Mercy.
- The Imitation of Christ
A German wrote this piece in the early 15th century, in Latin originally. Thomas à Kempis lived in a monastery and spent much of his time writing the manuscript that has since been translated into 95 languages. It is commonly used by Christians as a spiritual handbook.
- Steps to Christ
The founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen G. White, wrote this evangelistic book. It was first published in 1892 and has been translated into more than 140 languages. The contents instruct followers how to know Jesus Christ better through repentance, confession, faith, acceptance and prayer.
- The Book of Mormon
In the United States, the followers of the Latter-Day Saints movement believe the Book of Mormon contains the scriptures written by prophets that lived in America before and after the birth of Jesus Christ. The religious text was published in 1830 and has since been translated from English to around 100 other languages.
- The Bhagavad Gita
This 700-verse Hindu scripture was written in 200 BCE in Sanskrit. It contains a conversation between a prince and his guide during wartime. The title is translated as, “The Song of God” and is the primary text of Hinduism. This religious text is available in 80 languages today.
- Dao De Jing or Tao Te Ching
Another traditional classic text, this Chinese contribution to world literature dates back to the 4th-6th century BCE. Like the date of its compilation, the original authorship is often debated. Most believe it was written by the sage Laozi. It is a fundamental document for both the philosophy and religion of Taoism.
Because it has been translated into more than 250 languages, its influence has spread widely throughout the world.
Adventures: Novels and Children’s Stories
In addition to searching for the meaning of life and directions for ultimate salvation, people also seem to be attracted to fantasy and adventure tales. Perhaps these tales offer an escape from the toil of daily living and society. Alternatively, they may also provide a means of interpreting our experiences with a new perspective. Either way, our steady interest in such literature has withstood the test of time.
The following classics appear on nearly all lists:
- Le Petit Prince or The Little Prince
The most translated non-religious text of all time is a beloved fantasy story. Published in 1943, the poetic tale was once voted the most important book in 20th-century French literature. Antoine de Saint-Exupery both wrote and illustrated this best-selling worldwide classic.
The narrative is between a pilot stranded in the desert and a very serious little boy. Together, the two make discoveries about human nature and the importance of life. It is estimated that the book has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, translated into between 180 to 300 languages (sources vary).
- Pinocchio or Le Aventure di Pinocchio
Many believe Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian masterpiece is the most popular work of fiction worldwide. Due to its popularity, it has been read throughout the world in over 260 languages.
The story describes a puppet boy who dreams of becoming a real boy. The puppet is mischievous and prone to lying, which he cannot conceal because his nose grows with each lie. To become human, he must change his ways.
- Pippi Longstocking or Pippi Långstrump
The popular book series, authored by Astrid Lindgren, was first published in 1945. Written in Swedish, the story of a wildly adventurous young orphaned girl has become a favourite of children worldwide. Thankfully, it has been translated into about 70 languages over the years.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Alice in Wonderland
The fantasy world classic was written in the 1860s by the English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. This novel that delights children and challenges adults’ logic has been translated into about 100-175 languages thus far (sources vary).
- Andersen’s Fairy Tales
Originally written in Danish over a 20-year period (1835-1852), the fairy tales contained in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic is now available in over 150 languages.
The collection contains many popular stories including: “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The impact these well-known stories have had on cultures worldwide are impossible to quantify.
- Harry Potter (series)
The more recent series of fantasy novels first written by British author, J. K. Rowling in 1997 have sold millions of copies globally. To date, the books have been translated into 80 languages. Undoubtedly future translations will be in the works and the adventures will be shared further.
- The Adventures of Tintin
First published in French in 1929 by the Belgian author Georges Rem. This famous series of adventurous comic albums has been translated into 96-115 languages (sources vary).
The stories of Tintin, a young Belgian Reporter, continued to be written and distributed into the mid-1970s.
- The Adventures of Asterix
Originally appearing in the Tintin magazine, this comic took on a life of its own and is still published today. The iconic series analyses French and European society. Written in French by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the series has been translated into 115 languages.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
This science fiction book, first published in French in 1870, has been translated into an impressive 174 languages. Captain Nemo embarks on a journey to track down a giant sea monster.
- The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha,El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha or ‘Don Quixote’
This Spanish early 1600’s novel by Miguel Cervantes is now available in over 145 languages. This story of a noble is considered as one of the foundations of modern literature.
Getting a book translated into a second language is a large undertaking. To accumulate enough demand worldwide to have it translated into a dozen or hundreds of languages is a rare honour.
Whether it is a classic or newly written piece, Renaissance Translations would be honoured to be your language translation partner. After all, our name literally means revival or renewal, so let us create new audiences for your content.