Reading up on translation: 5 mini reviews

There’s something a little different in store for my post today with an attempt to give a little something back: over the course of the last few years, I’ve spent many long hours poring over books of all shapes and sizes to satisfy my need for all things translation and I thought a few mini-reviews of what I consider to be the best introductory texts would be a great way to try to provoke a little bit of interest in the field.

Personally, I find translation theory fascinating and have read much of what translation studies as a discipline has to offer, even to the extent of reading Palumbo’s ‘Key Terms in Translation Studies’ (essentially a glossary of the key terms in the discipline) from cover to cover. If it sounds like a far-fetched claim, it is important to consider that, as a fairly young discipline, the amount of literature on the subject isn’t actually that big and can be covered in a few months of intensive study.

Of course, the list is not comprehensive by any means; despite my constant scouring of the market for new literature, there remain texts that I maybe should have come across and if you can recommend anything I may have overlooked, or anything that you think will be of interest, then please leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

The reviews only scratch the surface of what each of these great books has to offer, but hopefully it is enough to whet the appetite:


Found in Translation – Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

I thought I would start with one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf, and a book that is currently making waves in translation circles following its release last year and many positive reviews. ‘Found in Translation’ is a collection of anecdotes on the subject which are both accessible and hugely entertaining. Anyone with even a passing interest in languages or translation will find it fascinating and it is the perfect place to start if you want to indulge a potential interest in the area. While the bold claim in the blurb describing it as ‘by far the most meaningful book on the subject of translation that I have ever seen’ may be going a bit far, this book takes steps to put translation on the map and that is exactly what the profession and the discipline need.

Is that a fish in your ear – David Bellos

This book pre-dates ‘Found in Translation’ by a year or two and is written to largely the same end goal: another collection of anecdotes which aim to inspire interest in the field, and it is one that really delivers. Written with a sense of humour that makes it a joy to read, Bellos provides an insight into how translation has shaped the world we live in and how it affects our daily lives. Criticised as being slightly inaccessible for the uninitiated while also lacking adequate substance for more academic tastes, it may not be as suited to testing a tentative curiosity as the previous book, but the author’s style and the content actually make this my (marginal) pick of the two.

In Other Words – Mona Baker

Rather than a collection of anecdotes on the subject, this book is more scholarly in nature and stands as an invaluable companion to the budding translator getting to grips with the subject. There are other introductions to the discipline out there (Susan Bassnett’s ‘Translation Studies’ is the go-to book for many people looking to get into the field and has an excellent, detailed history of the discipline) and other introductory textbooks (Peter Newmark’s ‘Textbook of Translation’ and Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introduction to Translation Studies’ among the best known) out there, but Baker’s coursebook is an amalgamation of the best aspects of each of these and provides a substantial guide to the challenges that translation offers, all coupled with practical examples which serve to help the new student orientate themselves in an alien discipline full of terms and ideas that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

The Scandals of Translation – Lawrence Venuti

The name of Lawrence Venuti has become one that goes hand in hand with translation studies as a discipline, and it is his work that forms the core of the canon. While Baker’s book ventures into more scholarly territory, Venuti’s goes far beyond the outskirts and represents the heart of scholarship. This can make it heavy-going for readers looking for something more accessible but with that said, there are very few authors who have managed to show the extents of translation’s power in the globalised world, and this book is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the humanities. ‘The Translator’s Invisibility’ is a similarly absorbing read which further develops his theoretical ideas, but I feel that ‘Scandals’ provides just a little more accessibility to merit its inclusion here.

Can Theory Help Translators? – Chesterman and Wagner

The last of the books on the list is a bit of a departure from the others as it doesn’t represent an introduction to the area at all. However, it addresses a question that causes ongoing debate in the field, and a question which I personally have tried to find answers to. There is a clear vacuum between translation theory and practice; many (maybe even most) freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory and still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards, calling into question the necessity of theory. As such, this book throws a theorist and a professional together in an attempt to ascertain whether or not one can help the other and, while ultimately posing more questions than it answers, it is a must read for anyone curious of the link between the two and the benefits of theoretical knowledge.

As mentioned before, please get in touch with suggestions for books that I may have overlooked or books you have enjoyed, I’m always looking for new reads in the area!

Faking it in foreign languages: How far can you get with Google?

On the back of reading this great article by Nataly Kelly on clearing up the top ten myths of translation, and after recently reading up on Translation and Technology, I thought I’d have a little look of my own at myth number nine, that ‘Machine translation is crushing the demand for human translation’, with a bit of research into the most popular, free, and supposedly most advanced online translation service: Google Translate.


Google Translate works by using the capabilities of its own search engine to sift through a vast corpus of hundreds of millions of documents to look for matching phrases in texts that have previously been translated in order to make a kind of educated guess at a suitable translation, and with over 200 million monthly users and 65 languages supported, it certainly gets its fair share of usage. But how much can someone with little or no knowledge of the foreign language realistically gain from this service? In order to find out, I thought I’d test it with some French texts from a wide range of genres that I have previously translated to see how effective its results are in comparison.

The first thing to note is that the translator is infinitely better now than a few years ago. Instances of struggling with the most basic phrases, as was often the case in its first few years of existence (readily acknowledged by the guys at Google), are few and far between and their heavy investment over the years has clearly been put to good use. When translating a highly specialised medical text packed with technical jargon, for example, the end-product was quite remarkable. This is no doubt due to the vast amount of material in the field available online and the ready equivalents for terms in the two languages, but it was nevertheless a very pleasant surprise.

Several of the other translations were less convincing, however, with simple slips creeping in (one such example saw ‘Echecs et succès’ [failures and success] coming out as ‘Chess and successfully’ – echecs can mean chess too but how often would you talk about chess and success over success and failure?!) and all of the translations would certainly require some level of post-editing to make them professionally usable. As such, the idea of a fully automatic and free machine translation service still seems like a very distant concept and when the extent of revision is so great that the text has to be practically retranslated, machine translation today still seems to offer little beyond the most basic of gist translations.

But this is not to detract from the service as a whole: the key idea behind machine translation is that it is fit for purpose. How often does somebody go onto the site hoping or expecting to produce a publishable text in another language? In terms of being used for more realistic and more manageable purposes such as a handy multilingual dictionary, as a way to scan texts for key information or to just get a general idea of what a text says, the system works perfectly and, as long as its very definite limitations are recognised, it remains a valuable tool.

All in all, the myth above remains exactly that; machine translation is not going to usurp human translation any time soon and is an area that should be embraced by the translation community rather than feared as an enemy looking to bury the profession.

A machine translation system such as Google Translate is undoubtedly an aid to millions of people every month, translators included, but if you’re looking to skip those language lessons and make some easy money as a Transgoogler, it might be worth waiting a few more years.