Seven books about translators and translation


Every translator is, at heart, a writer, so what could be more interesting than reading books written about translation? Inspired by this idea, we’ve created a short list of some of the best fiction and non-fiction works we’ve come across, but these only constitute a very small portion of everything that has been written on the topic. 

Looking at works of literature, we can highly recommend the following titles:

The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

Donna Tartt’s spooky coming-of-age story follows a group of American university students that study Greek under the auspices of the mysterious professor Julian. Although much of the plot centres around youthful rebellion and the study of the classics, the shocking and unsettling core story of the novel is the cover-up of a murder, and one of the more interesting subplots is a discussion around translating scientific texts from Persian in order to learn how to poison a witness. At turns stylish and spooky, the novel has received mixed reviews which in part stem from the unlikeability of the central characters, but as campus novels and books about studying languages go, it’s absolutely one of the best.

The Frozen Waterfall (Gaye Hiçyılmaz)

A classic immigrant story, this young adult novel captures the story of Selda, an adolescent Turkish girl whose parents are guest workers in Switzerland. As part of one of the novel’s main themes of integration, the story involves Selda learning to speak German in secret and her role as a linguistic and cultural go-between for her mother and female family members. Equal parts beautiful and raw, the book looks at what is embraced, and what is left behind, when becoming part of a new and foreign culture. 

Lipstick Jihad (Azadeh Moaveni) 

Working in the opposite direction. Azadeh Moaveni’s highly readable memoirs relate the experience of a young Iranian-American woman who relocates to the country of her ancestors to work as a journalist for Time magazine and reconnect with her cultural heritage. A lot has happened in the Middle East since the book was first published in the mid-2000s, but many of her observations about life between cultures remain sharp – not least her reflections on speaking a language learned as part of a diaspora – and the book remains a fascinating snapshot of a particular moment in geopolitical time. 

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Olivia Waite)

One for the LGBT literature fans, this novel describes a relationship that develops between two unlikely women: a wealthy widow, and the daughter of a deceased scientist who is tasked with translating a ground-breaking astronomical work from French into English. This sumptuous historical novel is as eloquent as its title, but it also takes on contemporary social issues such as race and class, with a twist surprise ending. A real page-turner. 

Bringing up the non-fiction books, we have:

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (John Koenig) 

Have you ever wished there was a concrete word for a particular concept, such as “the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place”, or “the quiet amazement that you exist at all”? John Koenig has created a whole compendium of these expressions, which are imaginatively made up on the basis of existing words, such as “monachopsis” and “suerza“, to put a name to the above two sensations. Even if the words are made up, the feelings are very real, and you’re bound to find something you’ll relate to in this intriguing and unusual tome. 

Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe (Gaston Dorren) 

Originally written in French, Gaston Dorren’s lively and easy-to-follow work is a must if you’re interested in the language landscape of Europe. There’s a dedicated chapter for all of the main widely spoken and studied European languages, in addition to many less well-understood (though no less impressive) ones such as Shelta and Romani. Every chapter is a story in itself, and you’ll learn more than you expected about the languages he covers. Compelling reading for all lovers of languages.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (Gretchen McCulloch)

Not so much a guide to translation as a means of better understanding the way the internet has changed how people speak today. Although written by a professional linguist, it’s surprisingly accessible, and you’ll almost certainly learn something new by reading it. How are emojis created? Why do people begin sentences with lower-case letters even when automatic capitalization makes it more cumbersome to do so? The answers to these questions, and many more, are all here.  

This selection barely scratches the surface of the vast pool of work available, and is mainly focused on books written in English, so if you know of others in your language (or a language you’ve studied), please let us know in the comments. We can also highly recommend a long list of titles by GoodReads which is available here:

Do you have a translation-related book that’s not on any list, or do you want to air your thoughts about one of the ones that is? We’d love to hear your reviews, recommendations and impressions, so please don’t hesitate to share your ideas in the comments. Happy reading!