How the Market Influences What Language You Read In

My Dutch friends tell me that they read foreign (non-Dutch) novels that are translated into English rather than into Dutch.

Their English is very good, but their Dutch is clearly better. So, I ask, why read in English?

Their answer is simple: take a book originally in Swedish, like Stieg Larsson‘s wonderful Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. If somebody translates it into Dutch, the relatively small number of Dutch-speakers means that the market for the translation will be much smaller — and the royalties and profits smaller too — than the market for an English translation.

These smaller returns attract translators who are not as good as those attracted into translating a book into English; the supply curve of translators is upward-sloping.

My friends say they would rather read a good translation into a language they know well, but not perfectly, than a mediocre translation into their native language.

(Hat tip: G.P. and C.F.)


This reminds me of the time I met a upper-level chemistry student from Sweden who said that many of her texts were in English because so few Swedes studied her (more-specific) subject.


English is the Microsoft of languages.

Andreas Guiance

Also, since English is such a rich language due to its imense size, it allows for more accurate translations. That's why I, as a swede, agree with your Dutch friends: If, for some reason, I can't read the book in the original language (which is obviously always prefered), I'd rather go for the English translation.

Eric M. Jones

The largest selling translation of the I Ching in China is the MIT (Bollingen) English version. It is well edited, complete and while most Chinese can't read English, they can't read the ancient languages from which the book is sourced either.

Pierre Baume

Here's a couple more possible factors:

- English translations would typically be available earlier
- Problems in the translation might hurt Dutch eyes less when reading in English.


I wonder what this means for general language use and identity in the future.


I speak Dutch and English fluently and find that a big reason why i dont read foreign books translated to Dutch is that they are simply far more expensive than the English translation; you could end up paying twice as much for the same book which is why i will only read Dutch books written by Dutch authors and stick to English for the rest of them.


I am Portuguese and tend to read a lot of novels translated into English as well.
Besides what you mention, there's another factor. Books in English are normally much cheaper than the same book in English. Probably due to the scale effect of book producing.

I also see a different story for the bad translation. While most people in the world speak English, there are only so many people that speak both good Portuguese and good Danish. So you probably have the the better translations to English.
For instance, books translated to Brazilian Portuguese are not much better than the European Portuguese versions, and they have a much bigger market.


Here in France, many people read books in English because the translations are mediocre. This is especially true for "niche" categories like SF or cyberpunk.

Dan Lufkin

I'm a professional free-lance translator of the Germanic languages (into English) and see this phenomenon every day. English has become so pervasive as everybody's second language that all European languages have embedded English phrases and cultural references from TV , books and films. (Example: "still going strong" is an entry in my Swedish desk dictionary.)

A Swedish novelist will use these fragments of English in a natural way and they will fit naturally into an English translation. Dutch, though, has a different selection of English fragments and a direct Dutch translation of the Swedish novel will sputter a little in places, enough to annoy a Dutch reader. Passing the novel through English first helps smooth the translation.

This state of affairs goes back a long way; Swedish linguists have worked out the effects of British boys' books on Swedish vocabulary in the early 1900s.


My experience is that Europeans (and probably non-Europeans as well) whose native language has few speakers are more likely to know English well. I have come to the conclusion that imported media strongly influences this. There are a huge number of German, French, and Spanish speakers, so there is an entire industry devoted to overdubbing imported movies and TV shows in those languages. On the other hand, in countries like Sweden, imported media only gets subtitled rather than overdubbed. While living in Germany, I knew a student from Serbia who had studied German in school, yet he spoke English better. He said he learned every word of English from watching subtitled Hollywood movies.


No offense, but I don't understand why one would systematically assume that more talent is more rewarded.

In your example, you seem to assume that since an English translation allows for a bigger translation budget, the translator, better paid, will necessarily be better. I can understand the logic, but it appears to me you're missing a few points.

First, there are internal dynamics to the world of translation. For instance, it is a low-pay job (or even side-job) for most, so some people will try to grab whatever work they can. Besides litterary translation is very hard to get into, the market doesn't allow for much competition because once an author has found a translator, it will be hard to have him change, even if the quality is so-so (due to the style of writing readers get used to).

Then, there are much more people who can translate into English than people who can translate into Dutch. If one could argue for the competition it creates (and the talent it favors), I would rather argue for the reverse effect it has on the translator's potential wage (which is not necessarily calculated from royalties by the way, if I'm not mistaken) : there are more translators than there is business for translation.

I do however agree with your conclusions, although more in the way of Paolo's comment.



English, n: a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary

Dan Lufkin

@ Vincent has some good points. There's a huge gulf between "literary" translation, which actually is pretty poorly paid, considering how much work goes into a careful translation, and "commercial" translation, where the costs of really good translation are trivial in, say, a big patent suit or documenting a pharmaceutical clinical trial.

Commercial translation is by no means a low-scale job. There's a genuine shortage of translators in all but the most common language pairs. If you know a pair of languages really well, have experience in medicine or engineering and have some native ability to write clearly, you can make $50-80 an hour, once you get established. In fact, you won't be able to afford to do literary work, except on a pro bono basis.


Don't know why we couldn't have picked Esperanto or some similar thing and used it as a uniform second language.

This might have an interesting effect. Competition could focus more on a better translation since everyone in the field would be working in the same language.


I guess all that pressure-cooking leaves a lot of time for reading...


I would generally agree with your conclusion, but there are a few exceptions. Some languages, due to their history, are naturally more similar to each other than others. For example, I imagine Chinese and Korean would have much more in common than English and Korean, or Portuguese and Spanish vs. English and Spanish. In English you have no "gender" for nouns, whereas in many European languages, gender is a must. Such subtle details makes a big difference in translation.

I don't speak Dutch, and maybe it's very close to English, but I imagine there are be some "niche" languages that are a lot closer to Dutch than English, which will make a Dutch translation more enjoyable.


I completely agree with Tam. I am Brazilian and I generally prefer translations into English, but if the original is in Spanish than I might prefer a Portuguese version. The languages are so similar that almost nothing is lost in translation.


But wouldn't your analysis imply that all translator are able to translate from any language ?


Also, prices of books in English tend to be cheaper due to economies of scale...