TRANSLATING BOOKS: New evidence on the global diffusion of knowledge

01 Nov 2018

Developing countries, which stand to benefit most from foreign knowledge, are the least able to access it. That's one of the findings of new research that uses book translations to examine how physical and cultural distances have affected the flow of scientific, political and social ideas between 56 countries over half a century.

The study by Isabelle Sin, published in the November 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, analyses newly digitised data on a million translations of books between 1949 and 2000 to explore how physical distance and cultural differences inhibit translations. It turns out that the further apart countries are, the less they translate each other’s books. What’s more, countries in the lowest quartile of GDP per capita are even less likely to translate books written in distant countries.

These effects cannot be explained by more distant countries being less similar culturally and so preferring different types of books. Indeed, the research finds that translations of books with strong cultural content, such as titles in philosophy, arts and literature, are less inhibited by distance than translations of titles in science.

Dr Sin comments: ‘This is the opposite to what we’d expect if an aversion to unfamiliar ideas were driving the relationship between distance and translations, and makes it more likely that translation costs that increase with distance are the dominant factor. I find this encouraging, because if the reason ideas aren’t flowing is the expense of translation, a reduction in cost could substantially increase knowledge flows between distant countries. This would be much more difficult if it were due to a culturally-ingrained aversion to unfamiliar ideas.’

It has been estimated that world GDP would be just 6% of its current level if countries didn’t share ideas, but until recently most of our knowledge about the flow of ideas internationally has come from studying patent data. This has left us in the dark about the diffusion of knowledge into low-income countries with little patenting activity and about the spread of non-technical knowledge, such as political and social ideas.

Isabelle Sin, a Senior Fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy in New Zealand, uses book translations to examine how physical and cultural distances affected the flow of technical and non-technical knowledge between 56 countries over half a century.

Her analysis shows that the further apart countries are, the less they translate each other’s books. She estimates that in the 1990s, two countries that were 10% further apart translated 4% less from each other. But if these countries were in the lowest quartile of GDP per capita the same increase in distance meant they translated 16% less from each other.

‘This suggests that developing countries, the exact ones that can benefit most from foreign knowledge, are least able to access it’, says Dr Sin.

Her research also finds that translations of books with strong cultural content, such as titles in philosophy, arts and literature, are less inhibited by distance than translations of titles in science. She comments:

‘This is the opposite to what we’d expect if an aversion to unfamiliar ideas were driving the relationship between distance and translations, and makes it more likely that translation costs that increase with distance are the dominant factor.’

‘I find this encouraging, because if the reason ideas aren’t flowing is the expense of translation, a reduction in cost could substantially increase knowledge flows between distant countries. This would be much more difficult if it were due to a culturally-ingrained aversion to unfamiliar ideas.’

Dr Sin uses newly digitised data on a million translations of books between 1949 and 2000 to conduct her research, which primarily focuses on how physical distance and cultural differences inhibit translations. She notes:

‘International idea flows are pivotal for economic growth, but have received little attention in empirical economic research, largely because they are challenging to measure.’

‘I was the first in the world to propose book translations as a measure of the international diffusion of knowledge, and use them to analyse the impediments to knowledge flows.’

‘Translations are a pure measure of how ideas flow. They’re not a by-product of trade or migration and their key purpose is to make the ideas contained in the books accessible to speakers of other languages.’

Dr Sin finds that after accounting for population and GDP, more distant countries translate less from each other, and this cannot be explained by more distant countries being less similar culturally and so preferring different types of books.

Adding controls for linguistic distance, religious distance or survey measures of cultural differences to a model of the relationship between physical distance and translation flows does nothing to decrease the importance of physical distance.

Her research shows that larger and richer countries translate more, and titles from richer countries are translated more often. She also finds that idea flows into less developed countries are hindered more by distance than idea flows into more developed nations. She reports:

‘Knowledge flows into these less developed countries have been challenging to study previously because most developing countries have little patenting activity. My research shows such countries face higher barriers to accessing foreign knowledge than prior studies would suggest.’

‘But the distance effect decreased between 1949 and 1999 as globalisation increased. I find this very hopeful.’

The Gravity of Ideas: How Distance Affects Translations’ by Isabelle Sin is published in the November 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.