15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976
"When I was a kid living in Amman [in the 90s], Arabic translations of Agatha Christie's works were available in abundance in most bookstores. In fact, the first book I bought with my own money was Appointment with Death." - Ibtihal Mahmood, writer, and professional translator
Agatha Christie is an English literary icon. She has written 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, mostly recounting the mysterious adventures of her two fictional detective characters, “Hercule Poirot” and “Miss Marple”. Within the professional translation community, she is said, by Index Translationum, to be the most translated author in the world. Her most popular professionally translated works are Murder on the Orient Express, and Then There Were None. Exploring her work as translated into Icelandic, Italian, Arabic and French (among many others), her stories have an unparalleled influence on the global translation community.
- Agatha Christie holds The Guinness World Record as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her works are the third most widely published, behind Shakespeare and the Bible. Christie’s best selling novel, And Then There Were None, has sold 100 million copies to date making it not only the world’s best-selling mystery ever but one of the best-selling books of all time.
- Ragnar Jónasson has translated 14 of Christie’s novels into Icelandic. Translating Christie has become part of Jónasson’s life’s work, with one project, in particular, taking ten years to complete. Jónasson explains that due to an “a particular two-word clue, which to me felt inextricably bound to the English language, scrutinizing Christie’s works so closely has been like a master-class in writing.” This has led him to a writing career of his own, as the author of the best-selling Dark Iceland series.
- The professional translation of detective stories has been met with somewhat destructive efforts in Italy, however. Detective fiction has historically been disregarded by Italian literary critics as “paraliterature without any literary value”, and is mostly ignored in Italian academia still today. No matter how popular her novels got, Christie’s work is not immune to this bizarre phenomenon. Before the 1980s Christie’s work was abridged, condensed, reshaped, and censored under Fascist Italian leadership. Not only was Fascist Italy hostile to foreign writers, but detective fiction was considered an immoral genre. Fascist censors forced professional translators to remove any references to suicides, sexual scenes, or Italian characters who were “represented ridiculously”. Long passages were also removed, rendering the literary quality of the translations extremely poor. Copies of these translations can still be found in Italy to this day.
- Success rose slowly for Christie in France, too. Taking three years to sell 3000 copies of her work in France, is wasn’t until 1927 that the French translation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was first successful in the “Le Masque” series launched by the Librairie des Champs Elysées.
- The lack of popularity of Christie’s novels in Europe was made up for when her work was published in Arabic in the mid-20th century. Copies of her novels circulated from Algiers to Cairo to Amman to Damascus. Many Arab writers recount “coming of age” through Christie’s mysteries. Christie herself traveled widely in Syria and Iraq throughout the 1930s, writing some of her most popular work and indulging in archeological exploits. Her popularity in Arabic was not without controversy, though. Arab readers have widely criticized Christie for her portrayal of cultural and racial stereotypes in the region. Still, fans consumed her work like a wildfire.
Agatha Christie’s novels have touched the world. With a rich translation history, Christie’s characters, writing style, and cross-cultural significance make her status as the most translated author in the world self-evident. She has also written the world’s longest-running play and six romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott. Sometimes one person’s success is too great for just one name.
Agatha Christie in numbers:
7,233 Number of translations conducted from Christie’s original English.
100+ Number of languages into which Christie’s books have been translated.
2B Number of copies of Christie’s books sold.
6 Number of initial rejections Christie received from publishers at the start of her career.
Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920.
For further cross-examination into translations of Christie, click here.
For a history of Agatha Christie’s translated works into German between 1927 - 1939, click here.
About This Article
Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We are researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog. You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site - just contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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