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Translating a Cover - How do Book Covers Change with their Translations?

By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Snollett and Kate Williams

When a book is translated, the translator must take into account a wide variety of cultural and linguistic factors in order to arrive at the final product, as we have discussed previously in The Publishing Post. However, the translation of book covers across different languages and cultures is much less discussed, and so in this article we are looking across the genre spectrum to see how greatly (or otherwise) these vary across borders. We hope you enjoy reading this, and that the next time you see the cover for your favourite translated book, you look at it in a slightly different way.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, published in 2008 by Scholastic Inc.

The books in The Hunger Games trilogy are some of the most popular YA books of the last decade or so. The first one has been translated into twenty-six languages, so it has many different covers. The original English cover has a black background with a gold bird with an arrow in its beak inside a ring with the title in block letters at the top. The bird, a 'mockingjay,' depicts the pin that Katniss takes into the Hunger Games.

Many of the translated editions have a very similar cover to the original. Some of them are even the same. However, there are a few editions that have taken a completely different approach. The majority of these have a picture of a girl, often surrounded by leaves or forest (German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch editions). This is not unusual for the time, as having pictures of people on YA book covers was a trend in the late 2000s to early 2010s. The Georgian and Serbian editions combine these two trends by having both the mockingjay pin and silhouettes of people on the cover. The most unique covers are on the Thai and Norwegian editions; the former has two arrows on the cover while the latter has a smoking target. Despite being different from the rest, the covers still fit the book.

Crime Book Covers in Translation

A typical cover for a crime book is dark, shadowy and eerie, reflecting the mystery and ominous themes of the book. Fred Vargas’ L’homme aux cercles bleus is a typical example of this, with a dark blue and black background and shadowy figure walking through smoke. However, when crime fiction books are translated, while they generally emulate these typical characteristics, they often also include an additional element which draws attention to the source culture of the story. For example, in this 2009 Penguin Books edition of Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, we see the same dark, shadowy images, however this time the main image is of a Parisian Metro sign, perhaps to remind English-speaking readers of the source culture and language of this book.

Similarly, the translation of Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders cover, originally written in Japanese, is interesting. The Japanese edition depicts a person wearing a cat mask, which relates directly to the masked man in the story. The English and Italian editions, however, are focused on highlighting the Japanese cultural source of this story; the English edition is clearly inspired by traditional Japanese calligraphy with the choice of typeface and red, black and white colours. The samurai sword in the middle is also a clear Japanese reference. The Italian edition drifts even further from representing the plot of the book, with the illustration of a typical Japanese village.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, originally published in 1994–95.

Haruki Murakami has been translated into over forty-one languages, leading to iconic covers, from the eerie close up faces of 1Q84 or the black, red and white minimalist Vintage covers.

The French and Swedish covers for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle focus on an automated bird, which whilst true to the title, is not a key theme of the story. The Spanish and Turkish covers feature a real bird and are typical of these countries' traditionally conservative book covers. The German cover hints towards a bird but instead hones in on the details of the wind up mechanism used for such automata. The circle around the mechanism brings to mind to a watch’s needle and echoes Murakami’s playing with concepts of time. This recalls Japan’s flag but also a bird’s wingspan. The Japanese cover displays a huge bird, and under it an inescapable well of sorts with a character trapped in its confines. One UK Vintage cover flips this by having the bird be trapped underground and a phone be the conduit guarding the well’s entrance. All these covers approach the bizarreness in Murakami’s work differently, some by depicting a bird as a symbol of escape, others by showcasing automata and the fluid realities held within this book and some by using key objects of the story as props to signal familiar Murakami-esque themes.


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