Alex In Leeds

(Book Reviews and Adventures…)

Review: Becoming A Translator ed. by Douglas Robinson

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Becoming A Translator ed. by Douglas Robinson

Full Title – Becoming A Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation

Category: Non-Fiction/Education/Arts – Paperback: 230 pages – Publisher: Routledge – Source: Public Library
First Published: Third Edition, 2012

I don’t really want to be a translator. I seem to forget language as easily as I learn it so I suspect it would be an uphill struggle if I tried. :)

One of the quirky threads that runs through my reading though is books about how languages work, how they spread and develop across time and other countries and how words adapt to fit new needs. I  have a whole shelf of books about words and language but, like a few of my specialisms, I want to rent rather than buy some of the books on the topic.

Becoming a Translator is one of those titles I was never going to buy but when I saw it in the public library I was curious enough to borrow it and see what this industry-focused text recommended as the best approach to dealing with slang, how to define a ‘good’ translation etc. I knew I wouldn’t want to read it all but dipping into the theoretical bits seemed like it might be interesting.

Now on it’s third edition, Robinson’s guide isn’t focused on any particular language-pairing, balances psychology and linguistics with pragmatic advice about being a freelancer and includes exercises, discussion points and plenty of examples from real online forum threads and emails throughout each chapter.

The opening chapters (1-4) are focused on the day to day process of working as a translator and how to approach a text and then later chapters (5-9) move on to heavier, more specialised theory about translation and ideas like pattern building. A surprising amount of Robinson’s advice would be useful to any freelancer (building up confidence, understanding the freelance-client dynamic and finding online groups to tap into for help) but it was the sections about different translating techniques and ways of ‘solving’ tricky words that I found most interesting.

Although I read fiction in translation and follow several blogs that focus on translated fiction, changes in the market, new texts and authors being made available etc, it’s very obvious that these all approach the work from the end-user’s perspective. I found it really thought-provoking to consider issues like translators turning jobs down for ethical reasons, concessions on word choices being forced by the specific job’s time constraints and the pros and cons of word-for-word translations versus those of sense-for-sense versions.

There’s an interesting look at the potential political impact of translation – for example in strict Hebrew translation Mary is not described as a ‘virgin’ but as a ‘young woman’ – and how Eastern/Southern texts struggle to reach a Northern/Western audience, yet Northern/Western texts dominate the translated works markets in Eastern/Southern countries. And there was lots to learn in the section on cultural impact where it discusses how to handle euphemisms and ‘political correctness’ – to a non-Anglo American audience such attempts to massage the truth are greatly distrusted, yet to a US or UK audience texts in some foreign languages often sound blunt or antagonistic.

The book *is* a little dry in places – mostly in the later chapters which share more theory and include some diagrams – and it shows the translation business in a very warts and all way that might disappoint those looking for a more encouraging/hand-holding/you-can-do-anything style of book. I personally found that rather refreshing, I imagine if I was thinking about translating as a career I’d want honesty rather than candy-coated enthusiasm, and I enjoyed seeing the professional’s view from the other side of the translation fence. Dipping into this helped me clarify my thoughts about a variety of translation issues in a way that shorter, more specific-text or specific-news-story focused online articles hadn’t quite managed to and left me with lots of new ideas to think about.

I won’t be running out to buy a copy of my own, but I am very glad that the library has one for reference. :)

Buy the Book: Book Depository

Other Thoughts: More in depth reviews can be found on Linguist List and at The Journal of Specialised Translation

List of books read in 2013 / Index of Non-Fiction

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Author: Alex in Leeds

Book reviewer, blogger, photographer and adventuress who completed 101 goals in 1001 days. I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInLeeds.

5 thoughts on “Review: Becoming A Translator ed. by Douglas Robinson

  1. As someone who would be interested in literary translation in an alternate universe (one in which it would make me money!), this sounds like an interesting book :)

    • I know, I’d think about it more seriously if it wasn’t so undervalued as a profession. This is well worth buying if you ever fancy doing it as a sideline. Also, with the amount of fiction in translation and foreign texts you read I reckon you’d get a lot out of it. :)

  2. Some of it does sound quite dull, but the rest sounds very interesting, I guess it therefore has a wide appeal. I remember learning about the Bible wording at school. It is weird in a way how such a change can have an impact, and that the impact continues to play a role even when the differences in the words are known.

  3. This sounds like an interesting read. I’ve dabbled in translating in a small way, but it’s so much easier to make a living teaching a foreign language than it is translating that I’d never consider it for a career. I’d be nice to learn a few more tips and tricks though.

    • I can definitely see some of the end of chapter exercises and discussions being interesting in a TEFL/TESOL setting if you wanted to start looking at how language reflects culture and reasons why some things are accurate but not polite or correct. :)

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