Books on English-German contrasts and writing in English

On this page I present some books that have been important to my thinking about how to write in English and how to manage the relationship between German and English versions of a story. I’m not aware of too many other people who have got into the subject in this way, at least, not anyone with a scientific or technical background who is involved in producing technical writing.

This all started in one of the phases when my translation business was in the doldrums. I had my doubts about whether what I was doing made any sense at all. I remember chatting to my brother, who worked for many years as a “sub” on the London newspapers. He said my problem was being too much of a perfectionist. “Sometimes people just want crap, on time”, he said. Well, of course, the only response to that that I could manage took the form of Burrowing Deeper Into the Subject.

German and English are a fascinating language pair because they are historically so closely related but have diverged in specific ways which have effects at every structural level of a text: from sentence-level syntax through information distribution to paragraph-level and whole-text level coherence. And then there are pragmatic issues of, for example, explicitness versus implicitness, reader orientation versus subject orientation, or the appropriateness of expert language versus ‘ordinary’ language. These are topics that are familiar enough to students of language. But they are pretty foreign, I’m sure, to the ears of most scientists or engineers. And yet, all scientists and engineers practice forms of subject literacy in which all of these levels of text quality are relevant to the communication.

These books have been relevant for me in my own translating and writing practice, by making me do much more consciously things that I originally tended to do just because I felt they were right. And they are relevant to my efforts at teaching and coaching scientific and technical writing because I can see that some awareness of these topics is key to helping German-speaking authors get past a certain level of writing where they often seem to be a bit stuck.

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins are friends, as far as I know. What they also have in common is that I tend to think they’re both a bit full of themselves, but you gotta hand it to them, they have each written an introductory book to a subject that to my knowledge is unparalleled in its clarity. (In Dawkins’ case it was The Selfish Gene). In the event that you have written a starter book on linguistics as good as this one, I want to hear from you!

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, by Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey Pullum
This is the small introductory book related to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, of which Huddleston & Pullum are the leading authors. Once, on the occasion of my being in Edinburgh, I procured a couple of copies of this book, and invaded Prof. Pullum’s personal space to bother him to sign them; which he kindly did. For me, this book was necessary to get into the concepts and jargon of grammar sufficiently to understand the other books listed below. Not that I can keep much of it straight in my head for more than a few minutes at a time!

Englisch für Anglisten, by Christian Mair
Many many years ago, when I was living in Dundee, I was visiting a friend and ex-classmate in Glasgow and went to a student party there. One of the people there recited a poem by Tom Leonard in perfect Glaswegian dialect (I think it might have been A Scream). Not that surprising in Glasgow, you might think, but she was a visiting student from Germany! Many years later when I was trying to find stuff about English pragmatics, I came across a set of lecture notes from Prof. Mair online. Now, our performer was an Anglistin from Freiburg, and he was working there, and when I came across a Tom Leonard reference in the notes I suddenly knew who I was dealing with!
Anyhow. This is a very accessible book, written in German, that can give you a first comparative view of German and English. Anyone who speaks both languages can and should read it. It’s fun!

Understanding English-German Contrasts, by Ekkehard König & Volker Gast
This is the English-German comparative stuff, but in hardcore. “Parsimonious in its use of complex technical jargon”, the blurb on the back cover says. That’s not quite how I found it, coming along with no linguistics background at all. But I sensed that here was the stuff I needed to understand what I was doing in my translations and editing, and it absolutely delivered the goods. Well worth the effort. I really should read it again now that I’ve been teaching a while.

Translation Quality Assessment, by Juliane House
This book is a cornerstone of translation studies, but the bit that really did it for me, as a self-taught translator, unsure about what I was doing, was Chapter 8, “Contrastive Pragmatics of English and German”. What a relief to find that what I was already doing was actually right and something other people were thinking about. Some of the examples in there – such as the different tendencies in film titles – will be hilariously recognisable for anyone fluent in both languages.

Writing in English: A Guide for Advanced Learners, by Dirk Siepmann, John D. Gallagher, Mike Hannay, and J. Lachlan Mackenzie
For me, this is The Book. Everything you need for improving the written language skills of typical German-speaking scientists and engineers is here. Module I rehearses the general stuff that will be covered in any academic writing course. I don’t want to knock this, but it’s not really my focus of interest. Starting from Module II, “Building Effective Sentences”, though, the book goes in off the deep end. Truly this is “the bag of tricks it takes to get me though my working day”. There’s only one snag: It’s written for students with a linguistics background. But this book and the next one are what I’m drawing on in the writing course I’ve been teaching for the last few years. Stealing the ideas to make them accessible for tech students; that’s what I’m up to. Guilty as charged on the stealing, and probably shonky enough in the implementation, but that’s what I’m trying to do.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams (with Gregory G. Colomb)
One of Geoffrey Pullum’s trademarks is as a critic of the popular American writing guide The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White. The gist of his criticism is that while they insist the key to good writing is to “omit needless words”, they deliver precious little accurate advice on how to spot which of the words are the needless ones. I asked Prof. Pullum if he could recommend a book that did do that, and he said: this one. And it’s fabulous. I don’t get through much of it in my writing course*, but the first couple of chapters are a guideline for what I try to get across and if people can get these points, it already sets them on the way to massively improve their writing.
*I mean, if someone would like to order a longer writing course, I’m sure we could go further into it …

Writing Science, by Joshua Schimel
This is the only book I know that discusses scientific writing first and foremost from the point of view of the story a paper (or a grant application, or thesis, or whatever) is trying to tell. I don’t have many details of its content in mind but I think it’s pretty much all good stuff. It’s the basic approach I agree with most. Yes indeed, scientific papers (like all other technical writing) are written for people. This vague presumption that there is creative writing over here, and then there is dry, matter-of-fact technical writing over there, and ne’er the twain shall meet, is just wrong. So wrong. And that’s why a book like this comes to me like a drink of water.

Finally, I have to acknowledge Linton Kwesi Johnson for the title of this post. If I was worthy to wear a hat like he does (which I doubt), I would tip it to him.