Monday, January 18, 2010

Important Books for Translators and Language Lovers

Whether you are a translator, a language professor or simply a lover of words, I have six books to recommend.

The first is for lovers of the English language. Have you ever wondered how English evolved or what influences from various languages have made it what it is? If you have ever studied the history of English, you've probably heard about how English came under the influence of French after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and how the English of Chaucer underwent a great vowel shift -- explaining in part why Shakespeare's English is so familiar to us but Chaucer's is difficult. Well, that's just the beginning of the story.

Get John McWhorter's book: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and hold on for an exciting ride through time. The English language has a very complex -- and surprising history.

McWhorter is a writer who really engages the reader by challenging many conventional views of history and backing them up with strong evidence. According to native speakers I know of Twi, a language of Ghana and Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, he makes a couple of minor errors in his brief citations, but overall, his arguments are sound and well organized.

The second book I recommend highly is Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.

In a nutshell, this book treats languages as if they were living things and explores the big question of why some languages survive, becoming major world languages and others die or become marginal players. Ostler examines what happens when languages come into contact with each other and fine-tunes the simplistic notion or conventional wisdom that says that languages spread by conquest and commerce. An overarching question in the book is the question of what will happen to English. It is a book that language lovers will not be able to put down. It is written at just the right level for educated non-specialists to understand and enjoy and reads like an adventure.

The third book is for people who wonder what the life of a famous literary translator is like. Let me be clear: it is not about the interpreters you sometimes see with earphones at the UN or the voices you hear, interpreting a foreign head of state on the evening news. This book: If This Be Treason, is the personal memoires of one of the most famous literary translators of the 2oth century, Gregory Rabassa.

Rabassa is perhaps best known as the translator of Gabriel García Márquez's Nobel Prize winning Cien años de soledad, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. (If you're interested in a short review of that novel, see my previous blog postings.)

This book tells of his childhood in New York City, being raised in a bilingual home, his years in Italy in WWII and beyond. He writes with passion, flair and lively Latino humor. To the delight of translators, he takes a few stabs at the "industry" where many monolinguals sit in judgement of, or suppose themselves worthy of judging translators' work.

For very serious scholars, the fourth book I recommend is After Babel, by George Steiner.

This is no book for the impatient. Steiner's erudition is nearly boundless as he takes up the perennial questions of the origin of language and why there are so many, challenging along the way the Chomskian notion of a universal deep structure. Steiner holds a more mystic or poetic view, without being "religious" about it. He resoundingly refutes the notion that there are "theories" of translation. It is a dense book that requires serious time and effort to extract its treasures, but it is well worth it.

Finally, on the practical side, I recommend The Translator's Handbook, by Morry Sofer and A Practical Guide for Translators, by Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown. Both of these books are gold mines for translators who want to make a living translating mostly non-literary texts. Translators who make money do not generally translate literature. Rare exceptions like Gregory Rabassa exist, but they are just that -- rare exceptions. 

These two books are what they say they are: reference works for the business of translation. So if you plan to make translation your home-based business, they are musts for your library and will help you avoid a lot of mistakes in your business start up and daily operations as a freelance technical translator.

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