Month: April 2016

Books for Translators: What does your bookshelf say about you?


In the digital era we translators can no longer be judged purely on the basis of the stack of specialist dictionaries on our desks. Our tools have become invisible to the inexperienced eye…the dragon icon could be a gardening app, the trados symbol a browser button. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary and are just tabs in our diverse arsenal. Gone are the days when you could tell an expert by the size of his dic…tionary. (sorry, couldn’t resist).
So is your bookshelf a mere vestigial limb, just a distant reminder of when you had to lug that damn Langenscheidt or Larousse to the exams with you? Or is it a vibrant representation of your current high-energy career as a busy translator, replete with examples of your work as well as packed with new additions from the world of linguistics?

Back in the age of paper and ink, my grandmother gave me a great piece of advice: “Before you marry anyone, check their bookshelves carefully. They will resemble the owner’s brain. If they are empty, so too will be their brains.”

Not sure if it is always as clear cut as that, but I followed her advice, only to find out later that the presence of Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, which had assured me I was with the right guy, had been on his school curriculum and he hadn’t even opened it!

But recently I have been beginning to suspect that no one gives a flying synonym anymore about what’s on people’s bookshelves. Because no one looks at bookshelves anymore. Before you meet someone, you can spend hours trawling their instagram/twitter accounts instead. And any self-respecting urban nomad would be crazy to prioritise boxes of books if she can have it all on a Kindle or a Tablet. But what of the haptics, the pleasure of leafing through books, several spread out before you at any one time and, of course, the leisure to do so? I am still instinctively drawn to bookshelves at a party or dinner (yes, possibly sometimes because of the superior pleasures to be found there, but sometimes simply to find old friends, to confirm that my real-life friendships are supported by our inner lives too).

So here is an ode to the well-stocked translator’s bookshelf, and what (in my opinion) should be on it.

  1. Punctuation

When I was starting out as a wee young translator, still wet behind the ears, my mother gave me a little green book, quaintly called Poulsham’s Cloth-Bound Pocket Library: Correct Punctuation and Effective Sentence Construction, published in 1929, which she had bought when she moved to Coventry in the late sixties from the GDR and needed to learn English fast. It helped me enormously when I was trying to get to grips with English punctuation, a subject which had been so sorely lacking in my general education. It also happens to be a quintessentially British work of arrogance and colonial conceit, with highly entertaining examples sourced from H.G. Wells and Dickens, and also boasting unlikely but oh-so-British sentences like:
Mr. Clutterbuck netted a clear profit of seven hundred pounds for his afternoon’s work, and took with his dinner—cocoa ! (sic)
The gloomy gentleman smoothed the nap of his silk hat with a loving hand, stood it carefully upon the floor and—jumped on it.
He crossed the floor (stands England where she did?) and greeted the dago as an equal. (sic)

I kid you not. Photographic proof upon request.

Thank goodness for the advent of Lynne Truss who finally filled the punctuation void with her upbeat and beautifully typeset Eats, Shoots and Leaves. She managed to make me feel passionate about grammar and protective of its (albeit sometimes erratic or illogical) rules too.


  1. Style

As a formerly loyal Grauniad reader it almost goes without saying that I often refer to the Guardian Style Guide (although not nearly comprehensive enough and always outdated within a couple of years) when it comes to questions of style. There are plenty of others out there, but I think every translator should at some point go all out for one style. The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson is a good book for getting the lay of the land, as it clearly differentiates three types of style: book-editing style, (based mainly on The Chicago Manual of Style) and science style and news/media/business style (based mainly on the Associated Press Stylebook). But beware, this is US-English so not everything applies to Brits. I have The Chicago Manual of Style in digital form but I think it makes sense for a translator to decide which style he will mainly be working in and stick to it. That way, when a client asks why you do things a certain way, you always have a reference and explanation. So if you write “good-bye” rather than “goodbye” you can point to your book style or science style guide and explain that only news/media style guides recommend writing it like that. (I admit, I have sometimes used this method retroactively, to defend some style decisions I have made instinctively, largely because German academics certainly like to get their facts straight! That’s how I ended up sticking to the Chicago when translating into US-English, which I am sometimes called on to do.


  1. Semantics

Sometimes, when I was arguing with my dad about something (aka trying to wriggle out of doing my jobs around the house) he would say in exasperation, “Well that’s just semantics!” or “That’s a tautological argument!” (which was worse than being told something was codswallop in my family). Ushering in a brief study of semantics and semiotics. There was Saussure with his arbitrary signifiers and signifieds, Steven Pinker with The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, and  Chomsky, who writes powerfully on the idea of how language can create reality, taking the American press as a case in point in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which made me realise how language can also be a weapon as well as a tool. I understood how language, and the vocabulary we use, is comprised of signs. Each sign carries so much more than just its literal meaning. I realised that as a translator I can transport not only literal meaning, but values, aspirations. So describing something as frivolous as a skirt by Coco Chanel, I could choose to describe it as “swishy,” “capacious,” “operatic” or “post-Utilitarian”, each in turn transporting different meanings, to those who know how to read the signifiers. Calling something “rad” is a completely different kettle of fish to calling something “revolutionary” or “innovative” or “new and different”. Each choice carries with it centuries of connotations, politics, class and stylistic preferences that your target group may be aware of, consciously or subconsciously, or not at all. So it is not only about the meaning of the original text, it is also about your audience. You could be the best translator in the world, but if you’re using Oxford English to translate a German poem for school kids in East LA, you might as well be using Farsi.


  1. Etymology

It’s always good to know your roots. This applies to your personal life, as well as for the language you use. Knowing the fascinating history behind the vocabulary and terminology of any language not only gives you a sense of history, engendering almost an automatic affection for the language you use, but it also helps make sense of words that are unfamiliar.

Melvyn Bragg’s book on the evolution of the British language entitled The Adventure of English is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in etymology or indeed in the rich history of the British Isles. I have read it twice, because I truly have the brain of a goldfish and while reading all those fascinating facts about how our language was shaped by over-zealous monks, or medieval Highland housewives, I forget it all immediately. Needless to say it is one I go back to again and again, like a goldfish revisiting that faux stone arch in its bowl.


  1. Monolingual Dictionaries
    (One at least for each language you work from and into.)
    As soon as you have progressed from basic level in a language, monolingual dictionaries are a must. They provide so much more detail and background information than bilingual ones.
    When I was studying German at Liverpool Uni, the Wahrig was prescribed. And there it still squats, with its fat sans-serif font in its bright red jacket. It led a sad and useless life, initially because of my heightened need for partying, and later, when I realised it didn’t even contain words like “Schlaumeier” or “Handy,” because it was so old. But, thinking that any self-respecting translator should at least make a gesture towards having a dictionary in hard copy (just imagine if the internet broke!) I chose to go with the Duden because, as well as the heft and haptics, the fact that you automatically scan and come across other words while you search is an added bonus. The Collins I invested in for the same reason, however it only comes off the shelf when my dad is visiting to trounce me at scrabble.
  1. Thesauri (Usually, however, one will suffice.)
    Roget’s Thesaurus used to be a source of great enjoyment when I was a teenager writing lovelorn poetry and trying to find words to rhyme with “Depeche Mode” or “depressed”. Or when translating German music lyrics for friends who expected them to miraculously rhyme and sound like Rolling Stones hits. But these days I use, because it is faster and you can more easily play “word tag” – you know, where you are searching for a word in your mind and you click on a similar word to find the one that eluded you.
  2. Grammar
    Reference books once fulfilled a purpose that has perhaps now largely been replaced by the internet, but the individual history of certain reference books is still fascinating.
    For example my stepmother recently gave me a doorstop of a book, which, considering my normal suitcase situation when I return from London (think Angel Delight, teabags, Branston Pickle and Paxo), I was initially reticent to accept.
    But I am glad I managed to squeeze it in, as I now use it on a weekly basis when proofing German texts.
    It’s a lovely turquoise-coloured Deutsche Grammatik by Gerhard Helbig. My stepmother told me how academic colleagues of hers and many dedicated West German language students would cross the border into the East especially to buy it, because it was such a definitive and well-written grammar, rivalling any produced in the West. I have to admit, even now, thirty years on, it is incredibly accessible and easy to navigate, and useful despite subsequent reforms in the German language. It also has such choice nuggets as these for my enjoyment:

“Ein Komma steht dagegen nicht, wenn das Verhältnis der Satzglieder zueinander nicht adversativ sondern kopulativ ist.” (Beispiel: Das Wetter war stürmisch und kalt.”


  1. Translators’ Continuing Professional Development
    These days there are quite a few resources out there for translators or those planning to become one. I don’t think I really even thought of it as a “thing” when I started out, assuming it was something people did in addition to a “proper” job.
    The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban really changed that for me. I vividly remember not wanting to read it, having an instinctive aversion to books that seem to be telling me what to think or “how to…xyz.” I had a deep-seated belief that if you did what you were passionate about, the rest would follow, or not. The idea that as an individual you have quite a lot of control over your career trajectory and financial situation was new to me and made me somewhat nervous. I think it is something many translators feel. If we were hewing ice blocks we’d feel fine about charging a decent rate, but because it’s something we often feel passionate about, it somehow feels immoral. Which is indeed why housewives are still not paid and why we raise kids thinking it is a privilege rather than seeing it for what it is: a contribution to society. Just because something is fun (at least most of the time), it doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to earn a living wage!
    In a similar vein, Corinne McKay’s Thoughts on Translation and How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and a more recent addition, Andrew Morris’s book, Standing Out, offer broader motivational tips and strategies on how to approach our work and clients in general. They are all well worth reading, especially if you are struggling with your position in the realm of translation, financially, or personally. Not every translator-related problem can be solved by changing your attitude (I still think there are certain language pairs or areas of the industry that make it very hard to feel “abundance” no matter how good your contacts and skill set), but no harm has ever come from being “can-do” and friendly in your approach and going that extra mile for a client.
  2. Use and Abusage
    There is a whole series of wonderful guides called Penguin Reference that I find very useful. I am especially fond of Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge, because it has a witty, light touch. It has been updated several times since he wrote it and is easy to use: basically, it’s an alphabetical list of the problems and pitfalls in our language. I guarantee you will be a better writer and translator for it. And for some light reading at bedtime, may I recommend Bill Bryson’s chuckle-filled Troublesome Words (the ideal stocking filler for any language buff)?
  3. Translation and Linguistics
    I was full of anticipation when I was given the promisingly entitled: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos for Christmas a few years ago. Expecting humour on a par with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy combined with linguistic bonmots, I was initially disappointed. This book is really dense, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t raise false expectations with a title or a cover…because I almost put it in the Oxfam pile. But after I was over my disappointment at not being entertained, it turned out that this book was actually a mine of information. For example, did you know that 75% of ALL literary translations are either into or from English? (Source: UNESCO) Also, surprisingly, that this is followed by French, German and Russian, with Spanish coming in at only 5th! No wonder EN–SP translators are sometimes struggling in the market, grappling with low prices. Fascinating also, the fact that German often serves as a “pivotal” language, with many books being translated first into German before they catch the attention of other nations and markets and are then in turn translated into other languages (sometimes, from the German translation). (Thank you to the healthy and protected German literary market! No three-for-twos here, thank you very much!) There are also chapters on machine translation, interpreting and literary translation as well as on human rights, and even on translating humour. Truly something in here for everyone, even if I don’t agree with everything and hope that some of it isn’t true, such as this quote:

“In the English-speaking world, there are no job postings for literary translators and few openings for beginners. Insofar as it is renumerated at all, literary translation is paid at piece rates equivalent to a babysitter’s hourly charge. It is pursued mainly by people who have other sources of incomes to pay the rent and the grocer. There are a few exceptions, but literary translation into English is for the most part done by amateurs.”

  1. And if you want to beat me to it, read Spell it Out, The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal, a no-nonsense brisk walk through all the vagaries of English spelling, because I think I’ll pass, after reading the intro. He seems a bit peeved that anyone (like Bernard Shaw) could ever accuse English spelling of being “chaotic, inconsistent or unpredictable” and goes on to disprove anyone who dares to say so. But I quite like the fact that our language is so wonderfully impossible. Why do we need to prove that there is method to the madness, when the vagaries of history and various conquering nations are to thank for our rich and crazy lingo?

And so I will leave you with:
“Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through, I ought to cross the lough.”

So, tell me, fellow translators, which books do you have on your bookshelf that you simply couldn’t do without?