Translations of the Bible and Other Classic Texts: Why So Many?


The Wall Street Journal recently asked “How Many Times Can a Tale Be Told?” The piece comments on our superabundance of translations of classic texts and the fact that more come out every year. Why do we need so many translations?

One of the books that we seem to have too many translations of is Anna Karenina.

There are half-a-dozen English-language translations of the 1878 Russian novel available for sale online, including the 2001 version produced by celebrated translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. An endorsement by Oprah Winfrey turned that edition into a best-seller, with more than 1.3 million copies in print to date.

Yet next year, two new translations of the massive novel will hit the shelves. “Why two more now, and in the same year? I have no idea,” says Mr. Pevear in an email.

WSJ suggests that one of the reasons for these new translations is that publishers hope to boost their revenue stream. They are relatively inexpensive to produce, since translators don’t expect as much compensation compared to an author, and the new translation might find a home in the college classroom, providing the publisher with a small but steady income.

Of course it’s not just about the money, at least not for the translators themselves. The translators think they can bring more accuracy to their own editions. In most cases it’s a labor of love.

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