How popular is Virginia Woolf around the world?
The Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer can help us figure that out. The database is culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books. Its dataset consists of the 500 billion words in books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian, explained the New York Times back in December.
This new resource allows anyone who logs onto the site to type in a string of up to five words and see a graph that charts the phrase’s frequency over time.
Take “Virginia Woolf,” for instance. The graph at right shows the number of times her name appeared in English language books between 1920 and 2008. As you can see, she reached the pinnacle of her popularity in those books in the late 1980s.
But we can break this down further. While her popularity peaked in British English books in the mid- to late 1980s, for Americans, the highpoint came in the late 1990s.
Among authors writing in German, Woolf peaked in the late 1980s, but her popularity was still riding high among authors writing in French into the mid-1990s. In both Russian and Chinese, Woolf’s popularity is simply a flat line.
This next bit will interest Alice Lowe, author of Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, published by Cecil Woolf Publishers. Woolf peaked in the English fiction category in the late 1990s.
Woolf as commodity
Books, however, are not the only medium invoking Woolf’s name. In Virginia Woolf Icon (1999), Brenda Silver analyzes the appropriation of Woolf by both high and pop culture, from her 1937 appearance on the cover of Time to more recent appearances in movies, TV and theater.
And you can see for yourself the long list of items in the right sidebar that use her name, her words and/or her image. They range from dolls to mugs to tea towels to underwear.
Woolf in the online world
Virginia Woolf is a huge presence online, something that has grown dramatically since Silver published her book. Online sightings of her name and work come in by the dozens each week.
In “Virginia Woolf in the Cyber City: Connecting in the Virtual Public Square” in Woolf and the City: Selected Papers from the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, I mention that on 17 May 2009, my Google Web search on the name “Virginia Woolf” turned up 2.7 million hits (215).
On that same date, I found 31,400 hits for “Virginia Woolf groups” and 458,000 hits under the Google Images category for “Virginia Woolf.” My Facebook search conducted on the same date found more than 500 Woolf groups, with the total number of group members ranging from six to 2,600.
Tidbits on Woolf’s popularity in Europe and beyond
- In recent days, Woolfians from Italy, Africa, France and the U.S. have subscribed to Blogging Woolf.
- According to the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of the Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Woolf organizations exist in the Netherlands, Korea and Japan, in addition to the Société d’Etudes Woolfiennes in France. And, of course, we must not forget the International VW Society and the VW Society of Great Britain. Links to these organizations appear in the right sidebar.
- During the 1920s and ’30s, Woolf’s texts were translated into French faster than into any other language, according to Caws and Luckhurst (5).
- On Page 10 of their book, Caws and Luckhurst provide a full list of European languages and dates of publication of translations of the full text of Woolf’s writing in book form. Swedish was first with Jacob’s Room in 1927. Lithuanian was last with Mrs. Dalloway in 1994.
- The first of Woolf’s books to be translated into Turkish was To the Lighthouse, which appeared in 1945.
- In “‘For God’s and Virginia’s sake why a translation?’ – Virginia Woolf’s Transfer to the Low Countries,” published in Comparative Critical Studies in 2006, Els Andringa says the first mention of Woolf in a Dutch publication was in 1920 in a scholarly book on literature. But only after 1925 did regular reviews and essays begin appearing (204), while the first translation of her work in Dutch was not published until 1948. However, the boom in Woolf translations did not arrive until 1976 (205).
- The Hogarth Press encouraged formal, consistent relationships with foreign publishing houses that may have helped spur translation of Woolf’s works (Caws and Luckhurst 330).
- Susan Sellers posted an interview with Professor Yang Lixin in which the scholar explained Woolf’s popularity in China: “As an important pioneer of the ‘stream of consciousness’ literary technique and the western feminist movement, Virginia Woolf is well known in China – particularly to the common reader she herself valued so much.”
- Biljana Dojčinović-Nešic discusses the political ramifications of translations of Woolf’s work, as well as Woolf’s views on translations, in “Translation as Border-Crossing: Virginia Woolf’s Case.”