Book Review: Experiences in Translation – Umberto Eco

Having recently picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation during one of my all-too-frequent book buying sessions, today I thought I’d share a quick review with you lovely people.

For those of you who have never come across Eco before, he is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, novelist and (most importantly for us) translator. While he is perhaps best known for his 1980 work Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), his list of publications includes many academic texts, essays and even children’s books.

Experiences in Translation is a short book in two halves based on a series of lectures on translation given by Eco in 1998. The first half sees Eco reflect on translation by referring to his own personal experiences (including both him doing the translating and others translating his works) while the second looks at the more theoretical side of things, using Roman Jakobson’s three different types of translation to spark a discussion into what constitutes translation proper.

You would expect any text by such a distinguished writer to read well (I must admit that I haven’t read the Italian original) and Alastair McEwen’s translation into English certainly follows along the expected path. The text is a joy to read, it is witty and concise and provides a welcome change of pace for anyone used to trawling through academic papers where style can often fall a distant second to substance or translators in need of a break after repairing one too many error-strewn source texts.

In addition to this sense of style, the text uses a number of fascinating examples: Eco’s exploration of the French and Portuguese translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ was a personal favourite in a second half that is weaker than the first, often meandering along and flitting from subject to subject, including fanciful (albeit interesting) discussions such as the possibility of translating Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into words.

By towing the line between getting too bogged down in theory and remaining purely anecdotal, the book works as something of a bridge between the lighter discussions found in general works on translation and the serious, often heavy-going business of translation scholarship in a manner reminiscent of David Bellos’ excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Beyond the fascinating examples from Eco’s own work, however, problems are found deeper within the text. While the structure of the book (1st half practice, 2nd half theory) initially suggests that the text will seek to address the divide that exists between theory and practice in the world of translation (something that I wrote about recently on my blog), this impression quickly subsides as Eco outlines his true intentions.

Despite insisting at the outset that theory and practice must be united, stating that all translation scholars should have translated and been translated at some point in their careers, Eco goes on to explain that his ‘practice’ half was placed ahead of the ‘theory’ half in order to demonstrate how translation still goes on unimpeded in a world where only ‘naive’ views of translation are on offer, forwarding a ‘common sense’ approach to the task of translation.

In reality, however, if this common sense approach were a universal asset, it would contradict not only the need for the second half of the book (it seems a bit pointless to dismiss theory’s worth before going on to spend 60 pages discussing that theory) but potentially the text’s very existence. As Anthony Pym puts it: ‘if common sense were really common, no one would have to read Eco to know about translation.’

Furthermore, this show of intent quickly transforms Eco’s text from a laudable attempt to forge a relationship between theory and practice into a veiled attack on translation studies based on the author’s somewhat skewed version of what theory has to offer.

The fact that Eco’s theoretical discussions are founded on ideas from the 1950s/60s and involve an inconsistent use of various strands of thought calls the author’s methodologies and conclusions into question. While translation theory may still be unable to fully guide us through the translation process, Eco’s exploration of the topic does a slight disservice to the amount of helpful material out there.

Instead of attempting to use theory to inform practice or vice-versa, practice takes place in isolation before Eco occasionally tips his hat to various scholars like Lawrence Venuti by labelling certain passages as ‘domesticated’ or ‘foreignized’, for example, wherever it seems vaguely applicable and without adequately justifying whether or why this is the correct choice.

In truth, the method is irrelevant as Eco’s solution has already been fixed as the correct solution (quite easily too, since most of the discussions are argued with reference to translations of Eco’s novels). Eco frequently refers to ideas such as ‘deep meaning’, ‘the intention of the text’ or ‘the guiding spirit of the text’, unfairly ignoring more recent advances in translation theory questioning such notions and simultaneously making his ideas impossible to disprove.

Ultimately, while Eco’s overview of the development of thought upon translation using his own work brings with it some fascinating examples, his theoretical explorations remain unrefined in places. Experiences in Translation represents a worthwhile addition to any bookshelf but will never bring about any profound advances in thought on translation.

eBook Review: The Translator Diaries by Lloyd Bingham

In a slight shift from my previous book review posts (How about these mini reviews or this review of Balance Your Words), this review is focused on an eBook that is available online for free. Based upon the blog series of the same name, ‘The Translator Diaries’ can be downloaded or read online here on Lloyd Bingham’s website.

The original blog series provides a new interview with a professional translator in each post and this eBook sees both series (containing seven interviews each) condensed into one handy collection. A fellow tweeting translator, I followed Lloyd’s series with great interest as each interview came out and I was eager to find some time to read through the eBook to see how he went about converting the blog to another format.

The first thing that strikes you is that the collection is extremely well presented and well thought out. Rather than simply providing all interviews in succession as I had feared, resulting in a dry, repetitive reading experience that would have been rendered slightly pointless by the interviews’ ready availability online, the eBook breaks the interviews down by subject matter and provides each interviewee’s opinion as a neat, standalone quote – with each bite-sized snippet following a brief introduction to the issue at hand (ranging from finding clients to developing specialisms).

And this format really serves to highlight what I always considered to be the standout feature of Lloyd’s interview series: its ability to ask pertinent questions which lead to valuable insight rather than just gleaning simple biographical information which, while interesting, won’t leave a lasting impression or provide substantial benefits.

In terms of audience, the eBook is primarily geared towards new translators and translation students – as attested by its subtitle of ‘Practical advice on starting out as a professional translator from successful freelancers’ – and it does a great job of providing a range of views on the key issues that you will encounter when entering the profession. The selection of interviewees encompasses an appropriately wide range of backgrounds and, more importantly, results in an even wider range of opinions on the topics covered, reflecting the lack of clear-cut answers to issues in the industry (for example, are translation-specific degrees really necessary when so many professional translators do an excellent job without them?).

Overall, the obvious verdict is that Lloyd’s eBook shouldn’t be missed. As free resources go, this is right up there with the best a new translator can get, with an impressive amount of information packed into just 28 pages from cover to cover. While the content may prove less relevant to established professionals who have encountered all of these issues first-hand, there is enough interesting food for thought to keep you turning pages (or scrolling down) and its inviting length means you can speed through the content over the course of a leisurely lunch break.

Well put together, light and insightful, the eBook provides an infinitely more compact and engaging experience than simply reading through each interview in isolation, so give it a try today.

CAT tool evaluation: WFA and Trados – David and Goliath?

Current professional standards dictate that computer-aided translation (CAT) tools play a significant role in the work of any translator looking to market themselves profitably in this technological age. Or, as Frank Austermühl puts it in Electronic tools for translators: ‘translation, as a by-product of the information age and globalisation, has become a computer-based activity’.

Familiarity with certain software packages is very often a prerequisite when being considered for a translation project and a mastery of these tools is preferred by many potential clients. This takes a significant investment of time (and sometimes money) on the part of the translator and it is important to consider the impact of certain tools on your working routine before making an investment.

Despite the increased demand for technology within many areas of the field, the prevailing attitude towards CAT tools – and machine translation (MT) in particular – is one of scepticism; the void between translation theory and practice mentioned in my previous post on translation theory somewhat mirrors the link between translation practice and MT as working translators often disassociate themselves from advances in technology, incorrectly fearing that their livelihood risks obsoletion due to advancements in MT. Austermühl allays this fear by making the point that ‘since MT systems neglect the communicative, cultural and encyclopedic dimensions of translation, it is questionable whether they really provide ‘translation’ at all’ and, in fact, it is precisely the input of working translators that is needed for CAT tools to be able to augment their usefulness to the working translator, as attested by Shreve’s belief that ‘CAT systems should be designed on the basis of empirical studies of the translators task’.

Over the course of the last few months I have worked with Wordfast Anywhere (WFA), a free, browser-based translation memory (TM) package which was chosen over other available alternatives (including SDL Trados Studio 2009 which was also used extensively so that informed comparisons could be drawn) for reasons explained below. Generally speaking, the major advantage of working with a CAT tool is the increase in productivity and morale achieved by reducing time spent completing repetitive tasks or other activities unrelated to translation such as formatting, while simultaneously helping to increase intra-textual uniformity by using the capabilities of the TM to ensure that terms are translated in a consistent manner. Indeed, studies have suggested that translation tasks can take up to 40% less time when using a CAT tool.

However, the fact that mistranslations can easily be reproduced is one notable drawback and the time taken to familiarise oneself with the software enough to be able to quickly carry out ‘simple’ tasks dictates that initial working speed is extremely low, although the benefits are quick to follow. In one translation project in particular, the production of tables was a particularly satisfying result of the use of the CAT tool, as no formatting time was required to produce exact replicas of complex tables.

WFA in particular provides several substantial advantages over other available tools, the most obvious – and perhaps most important of which – being that it is totally free while still performing to a perhaps unexpectedly high standard. Second to this is the fact that, due to it’s browser-based nature and dedicated server which can store up to ten files per user at any given time, translation projects can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection, offering a convenience and portability which cannot be matched by tools requiring installation. Other features such as an integrated optical character recogniser and a relatively straightforward layout, which allows projects to be set up quickly and easily, all serve to develop a well-rounded and extremely practical package.

Several limitations in relation to other available products became very apparent to me when using Trados, however, as features such as an integrated multi-lingual spellchecker, increased file compatibility and the ease with which multiple files, projects and deadlines can be managed provide very tangible aids to the translator’s work and make the entire package more self-contained.

Ultimately, however, despite the undoubted additional power that Trados wields, issues of convenience (and of course cost, with a single-user Trados studio licence costing from roughly £600-2000) make WFA a preferable choice for all but the more well-established or well-paid freelance translators.

Finally, some limitations that were common to all CAT tools used included problems with connectivity and crashes: WFA would occasionally fail to connect to the server or declare the TM server unavailable and log the user out, leaving the translator to panic about the status of their work, while Trados often became unresponsive, a particularly undesirable problem when negotiating tight deadlines. Furthermore, the inability to edit images was occasionally an issue and, while easily remedied in certain instances with the aid of a basic image editing package, this shows a clear deficiency of current translation technology.

Hopefully I’ll be able to dedicate some time to OmegaT in the coming months and share my thoughts on that as I have read some very promising reviews, but if anybody has experience using it – or any other tools for that matter – please get in touch here or via twitter to give me your views! Hasta pronto.

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!