Measures to enhance diversity


Cultural diversity is one of the most widely shared values and slogans in Europe. Its respect is enshrined in the famous Article 167 of the EU constitution – a bit suggesting however that flowering of cultures must not go too far at the expense of the local varieties.

Cultural diversity of a place – e.g. a country – is primarily a ‘given’, the legacy of past years or centuries. Diversity, however, is a dynamic concept that changes over time. Recent European history has regrettably shown more examples of violent changes (cf. ethnic cleansing) than of protecting and building cultural diversity. How to monitor current changes and measures related to this diversity? The character and degree of cultural diversity can be defined by various means, using demographic, sociological and other statistics and indicators.

Language diversity plays eminent role among the different representations of cultural diversity. Language is a central component of cultural identity, and it is also easier to conceive and detect than diversity in music, plastic arts, architecture, and so on.

In today’s Europe language diversity equals resistance to the hegemony of English. Efforts in favour of multilingualism enhance the active use of the lesser spread languages, which in some contexts include former world languages, too. Important objective is to ensure the availability of cultural products in all languages, including those spoken by very small communities.

Another focus aims at helping values born in linguistic isolation to gain access to the mainstreams. Artists, writers, thinkers and publishers who work in other than English are all handicapped in today’s world. Their products – songs, films, essays, blogs, literary works etc. – run the risk of linguistic isolation, sometimes relative (cut off of hundreds of millions of potential audience), and often absolute (in case of the least spread languages). It is in the interest of the broader community to overcome such isolations in favour of fuller richness of the cultural diversity in Europe. Besides the unipolar communication to, from, and via English, also the direct flow between the lesser spread languages should be maintained, even increased. 

These objectives require systemic and strategic measures. Promoting linguistic diversity in all cultural markets should become a declared aim.

The degree of diversity of a cultural market can be determined by exact methods[ii]. Desirable levels can be defined. Negative quotas and prohibitive acts are out of question. Auxiliary measures and positive discrimination are in place though.

The sphere of publishing translated books lends itself best to such thinking. The number of translated titles is a relatively simple natural scale (although the amount of copies printed or sold, or the sales revenues would probably provide even more reliable indicators). Before alternative harmonised systems are produced across Europe, the Index Translationum of UNESCO is the most complex source of information. The majority of countries in Europe dutifully report their data year after year. This enables us to establish the language diversity profiles of each country, from various angles – as the report on translation trends between 1990-2005, published by Literature Across Frontiers, has done. (Its update is expected by the end of this year.)

The main benchmark is the proportion of translations from various original languages within the total output on a book market defined by the language of publications. An important marker in this regard is the weight of English as a source language of translated books. One of the most important findings of the cited report is that the accession of English as the original of literary translations in Europe reached its peak in the middle of the 1990s with about 65% of titles, and has remained stable at a somewhat lower level (around 62%) since.

Besides the position of translations in general, and from English in particular, the diversity profile of a market is shaped by the structure of all other source languages. Our first example is the Finnish book market, based on the averages of the years 2000-2006. Among the 88.5 thousand titles over the seven years 16.1% were translations. The greater part of this (64.7%) was from English, which thus represented 10.4% of the entire publishing output. The graph on the left serves to display the insignificance of works translated from all other languages. On the right the percentage share of the ten most important source languages is better seen on the magnified scale.

Positive discrimination can be conceived along the logic applied, for instance, for the “convergence regions” at the use of the Structural Funds of the European Union, where 75% of the GDP is the benchmark: regions achieving less are entitled to greater assistance. In our case a rule could go like the following:

Works translated from a language that is represented on the given market less than n% are entitled to a privileged treatment. Where “n” can be anywhere between 0.5 and 2%; or more than one degree could also be applied.

If such principle was established, in order to achieve a greater variety on the Finnish book market, translations from all but the four most frequent original languages could be treated as “most favoured” source literatures. If, however, a line is drawn at one percent, French and German originals should also deserve priority – for instance at EU translation grants.

Comparable publishing statistics are very difficult to find. This is why instead of going to a different part of Europe, the Danish case has been selected, thanks to a common Nordic data source.


The basic structure is similar, just short of 100 000 titles in seven years, 19.6% of which are translations. English originals represent 64.5% of translated titles, 12.7% of the total output. Swedish was strong, providing the source of over 2% of all published books. If one percent on the market was selected as the criterion for aid, French and Norwegian (and all other originals) would qualify, but German would be over that quota.


When we establish such measurable criteria, we do not of course believe that being entitled to assistance in favour of greater diversity will automatically generate financial or other assistance. (Or if so, in certain specific cases only.) Nevertheless, applying similar benchmarks helps see the broader contexts and will offer certain guidance for the promotion of cultural diversity.

Péter Inkei, September 2012

[i] This is an updated version of a similar paper that was available on this site since 2009.

[ii] See for example Françoise Benhamou and Stéphanie Peltier: How should cultural diversity be measured? An application using the French publishing industry. Journal of Cultural Economics, 2007, vol. 31, issue 2, pages 85-107.