Google had a particularly intriguing logo today, and clicking on it revealed that it’s the 183 birthday of French author Jules Verne (aka Joolz Voin, according to joke 356 in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor). That’s definitely something to celebrate, even if 183 is a rather uninteresting number.
Well, Google lead me to Wikipedia, and Wikipedia politely informed me that Verne is the third most translated “author” of all time according to something called the Index Translationum, a database of known translations maintained by the United Nations (!). And while playing around with the Index, I got to their page of the fifty most translated authors and was rather surprised when I glanced down the list.
There, nestled at position number 17, right between Arthur Conan Doyle and Pope John Paul II is none other than Isaac Asimov.
I was expecting that Asimov would be relatively frequently translated, but I did not expect him in the top 50, let alone so close to the very tip-top. He outranks the Bible (#26), for goodness sake. Granted, that’s the whole Bible; the New Testament by itself is at number 13—a rather, um, interesting number for the Word of God. Still, the Bible? There are more translations of Asimov than of a book he wrote several books about.
Asimov outranks such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens (#27) and Leo Tolstoy (#24). Asimov is the second-highest sf writer on the list, and the only “modern” sf writer to break the top fifty—Heinlein and the late Sir Arthur Clarke are nowhere to be seen.
The modern authors who outrank Asimov (such as Barbara Cartland [#7] and Stephen King [#10]) generally make it there by virtue of being major best-sellers, and they tend to have a lot of movie or TV tie-ins. Even Agatha Christie (#2) and Georges Simenon (#15) have well-known films and/or TV series based on their works. There has yet to be a really successful film or TV series derived from Asimov (the I, Robot movie doesn’t count).
Now, granted, Asimov gets there partly because of his breadth. The Foundation Trilogy alone is going to make him among the most translated of sf writers, but his non-fiction has also been proven to travel well to other languages. In fact, if you look at the science writers in the top 50—well, unless I’m mistaken, there’s just the one. Only two “non-fiction authors” outrank Asimov (Lenin [#6] and the aforementioned New Testament [#13]), and inasmuch as both of them provided the philosophical foundations for major political powers, they have natural advantages Asimov lacked.
All in all, it says a great deal for Asimov as a writer that his works have proven so popular in translation.