Books on translation

Why did I, a highly qualified, experienced and capable scientist, become a translator? Was it the only job I could have got? Certainly not. Was it well paid? Pull the other one! After the initial opportunistic jobs, what made me persist with this? Apart from the bloodyminded determination to make a business where other people couldn’t see one (which partly succeeded, some of the time 😉) it was also the fascination with the activity of translation, and the relationship between my two languages.

When I was getting going, I looked into a few university-level books on how to translate between German and English but I was pretty much already beyond them. The books I found most helpful were a bit more profound. They are few in number. But in them I found inspiration, a few like-minded people who were after the same thing I was after. Maybe they led me astray, maybe they were part of what diverted me from some other profitable career I could have had. I don’t really care. This is what I wanted to do, it is the stuff I still love thinking about and love doing.

The books here are specifically about the activity of translation. Books on writing in English, and English-German contrasts, are listed in a separate post.

After Babel, by George Steiner
This book should need no introduction; it is a monument. I don’t like all of the writing in it; as a scientist, I’m a bit at odds with the idioms of literature studies and this book is largely literature-based. But it is a fabulous account of the joys and uncertainties and possible triumphs of this work with language and words. Anyone who would like to consider themselves generally educated should make the effort of reading it. I think the most important insight I found in it was about the improvisational nature of speech acts, and how “translation” is not really a separate activity from what we do when we communicate in a single language.

Übersetzen – ein Vademecum, by Judith Macheiner (aka Monika Doherty)
This book wasn’t easy to find, but I did find it, and it found me. I think I got it because it was cited by Prof. Mair (see his book over here). I had to read it very slowly because it demands a lot of staring at the detailed examples that illustrate issues in translating between German and English. In this way I suppose it was my introduction to close reading, this discipline of looking at the words that are actually there on the page, which I hadn’t learned, because I hadn’t done a language degree. It is unique, quirky and eccentric and a bit brilliant, possibly like everyone who has been bitten by this language bug.

Alles Leben ist Übersetzen, by Swetlana Geier
“Nase hoch beim Übersetzen” – how true. How often the solution to a sentence or paragraph comes when I am looking up, away from the screen, taking a Twitter break (well, that’s over now) or looking out the window into the garden. Just the same for technical translations as for literary ones. Swetlana Geier was a daughter of Russian parents who grew up in Kyiv, and later settled in Germany, where she had a long career as a literary translator from Russian into German and as a teacher. There’s a film about her, too: Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten. And I love watching her sit by her window puzzling things out. Why should I not still be doing this, inshallah, when I’m in my mid 80s?

Translation Quality Assessment, by Juliane House
This is a classic of translation studies. Anyone intending to work as a translator should have read it, it’s as simple as that. My favourite bit is Chapter 8 on Contrastive Pragmatics, because it confirmed that I should be doing certain transformations which I felt needed to be done, but which were often surprising to clients.

Translation – Transkreation: vom Über-Setzen zum über-Texten, by Nina Sattler-Hovdar
I had the good luck to take part in a workshop by Nina Sattler-Hovdar some years ago. There I learned about the concept of transcreation, which seems to be a moderately well-established idea in the world of marketing and advertising. It is also a way of escaping from fixed conceptions of what translation should be like and how translations can be purchased. Instead of just taking in orders and sending back translations without meeting the client, this service works with briefings that enable a conversation with the client about what they need. This makes it possible to define the benefit that a client can expect from working with me, so that they can see its value, which is essential if I am offering my service at a price which may seem off the scale compared to conventional translation agencies or the diverse cost-cutting options that exist today. Something analogous to this strategy is needed for scientific and technical translation.

Dolmetschen bei Gericht – Erwartungen, Anforderungen, Kompetenzen, by Mira Kadrić
An account of court interpreting and translating as it is actually done in Austria. It’s fascinating work and I would have loved to try it, but I was put off by the economic conditions and also the way interpreters are expected to perform, which too often, in my view, comes with ethical risks. It is linguistically, intellectually, morally complex and challenging work which I think would be wonderful to do well; but for the massive combination of competences it takes to do that, people should be getting paid properly, and as far as I can see, they aren’t.

Sprache und Translation in der Rechtspraxis, edited by Martina Rienzner and Gabriele Slezak
This book gets into the weeds of interpreting and translating as it really happens in difficult administrative-legal contexts such as the asylum process. It’s a tough business. I bow to the people who are trying to make the best of it. It’s a very interesting read about the problems and it includes a sympathetic approach to the problems faced by officials doing their jobs. Again my only conclusion is more or less a political one: the state should be resourcing this work properly. It would pay off for everybody.