Books about Literary Translation

Back in the days before I switched to writing full-time, I was a translator. I committed both technical translations and the occasional literary translation. I regret that the market for literary translations from French to English (my language pair) is so limited, because literary translation is a creative act, similar to that of performing music. Each translation is different, and reflects the sensibilities and style of the translator.

Back then I had set up a page with resources for literary translators, and I’m going to reproduce here just the information about books: a couple of reviews of books about literary translation, and some blurbs about other books, about translation or linguistics. Literary Translation, A Practical Guide
Clifford E. Landers
Softcover – 214 pages
Multilingual Matters

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

Literary Translation, A Practical Guide, attempts to address the problems of literary translation by providing a guide to those who wish to practice this craft. The highlight is on the word practical; this is not a book espousing any specific theory of translation, but rather an overview of all the issues involved in translating literature (though he does touch on some theoretical issues).

But Landers starts out on the wrong foot. He seems to not understand that all types of translation are craft; whether technical, commercial or other. He says such things as, “only literary translation lets one consistently share in the creative process,” and “In technical translation, for example, style is not a consideration so long as the informational content makes its way unaltered from SL to TL.” This is a shame, because he is basically deriding all “technical” or “commercial” translators by saying that they are just doing grunt work; style is as important in all kinds of translations, as any professional translator knows. (The author does manage to make some stylistic gaffes in his own writing, which, perhaps, is not literary, and style does not therefore import as much. “In many countries,” he says, “writers are a small coterie, all of whom know each other.” Huh?

Landers is not a professional translator, at least not in the way I am. He is a university professor of political science who translates for the rush. “As for money,” he says, “it has been omitted from these deliberations because if it’s your primary motivation for doing literary translation, you should choose another field.” It is a shame that someone talking about building bridges between cultures seems so ignorant of other cultures. In France, where I live, many hundreds of translators make their living from literary translation. In fact, only in English-speaking countries could one truly say, as Landers does, “Many literary translators are academicians, with the language background, necessary free time, and income to devote themselves to the activity.” For this is part of the problem – the fact that there are such people as the author, willing and able to translate for below-market value rates, means that others wishing to translate literature have no choice but to do the same, or not translate. Naturally, this is compounded by the paucity of translations published in English, especially when compared to European languages, but Landers seems quite content to drive yet another nail into the coffin of literary translators.

This book is more for would-be translator/hobbyists than it is for professional translator looking to break into literary translation, or for trained translators starting out seeking commissions. Its insistence of the fact that literary translation does not pay is almost an insult to those of us who do get paid for our translations, and represents a very limited mind-set. The author would be better off giving advice on how to get better pay than how to merely get published.

Nevertheless, for novices in literary translation there is no denying that unpaid publications are better than none, and give them something to put on their resumés. It is important, however, to make sure this does not become the rule.

Landers regrets that “there is no mentorship program for literary translators.” Indeed, such a system – that could be organized by any of the many literary translators’ associations – would be beneficial to all those involved: the mentors, the apprentices, and even the publishers and the authors whose works are being translated.

An interesting example of how translators work is presented in the chapter, “A day in the life of a literary translator”. Landers goes through protocol analysis; the process of examining the thoughts of a translator – himself – when confronted with specific problems. Needless to say, and all translators know this, problems appear on every page. While this chapter gives a good idea of how translators work, I was surprised by one thing – while Landers goes on about “literature” in his book, the example he cites is of a mystery he translated (though he has, indeed, translated “real” literature as well). Hey, I read lots of mysteries too, and have nothing against them, but Landers only really approaches questions of lexis and register, and, given his example, does not discuss any questions of more global style, of writing well, and of truly rendering an author’s style in a target language. One thing I find interesting is that Landers has not really discovered the value of the Internet for translators. He mentions, in this chapter, the phone calls and research needed to find answers to translation problems, but obviously doesn’t know about newsgroups and mailing lists, where translators can help each other, and save a great deal of time.

Landers justly stresses the importance of cultural knowledge in translating. This is one of the most important areas where translators show their weaknesses. I have read many translations, in both English and French (my target and source languages) which betray a lack of cultural knowledge. In France, when watching American movies with subtitles, I see several such mistakes in every film, such as the time that the word shortstop was translated by short, as in not tall. The translator clearly did not understand the word, and did not know about baseball.

One regret is the quick brushing away of the question of style in translation. Landers covers this, perhaps the most important issue of literary translation, in a mere two and a half pages. Is it because he ignores its importance? No, it is because he believes that, “the translator strives to have no style at all.” Yet another wordsmith overcome by the tenets minimalist literature, which say that authors should have “transparent” style, or no style. Alas, it is not simple.

Landers does point out that each translators makes unique choices, but the question of style is one that sinks many translations. How many translators of fiction pay attention to the basic rules of writing fiction? At least for those translating into English (the main audience for this book), there are literally hundreds of books on writing fiction, that range from global books about plot to more detailed discussions of dialog. Ignoring this means ignoring an ambient tradition of fiction-writing. It is not enough to say that a translator should have no style; this is a surrender to nothingness. Naturally, one should strive to reproduce the original author’s style as much as possible, but this is totally impossible. You cannot reproduce a style faithfully from another language. You can approximate, but, no matter how hard you try, the final style will be your own version, your own interpretation of the author, in the same way that a pianist plays his or her interpretation of Beethoven’s or Mozart’s notes.

The book also contains several chapters of varying usefulness on such questions as footnotes, titles, puns and contracts. But, in the end, it is essentially a book for novice translators who want to do literary translation as a hobby. I cannot fully express my disappointment at such a book that will only continue the age-old problem of literary translators’ not being paid correctly for the work they do. Yes, for some, it can be a hobby, but for many, especially those in the rest of the world, outside of English-speaking countries, it is a profession, and one that deserves greater recognition. It is a shame that an apparently qualified practitioner of this craft brushes off this issue, and accepts it so blindly.


Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English
Olive Classe (Editor)
Hardcover – 900 pages
Fitzroy Dearborn

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

This brilliant work, “one of the first attempts at a large-scale charting of the field of English-language literary translation”, helps demonstrate the importance and scope of literary translation into English. But it goes much further – it helps enhance the importance of non-English-language literature, in an increasingly globalized world.

As a freelance translator, doing some literary translation to feed my mind, and technical and commercial translation to feed my stomach, I am delighted to see such a work published. Translations into English are becoming increasingly rare, and any work that contributes to an awareness of “other” literatures can only be positive for the translation profession.

Indeed, fewer books are being translated into English, for a variety of reasons. While this is perhaps not within the purview of this encyclopedia, it may be the central issue of literary translation into English (and not into many other languages, where translations from English are very common): the only way to ensure that translations continue into English is to address the many issues that are contributing to their rarefaction.

In any case, this work fills a gap – that of providing a compendium of information about literary translation. More than a mere work of translation theory, this encyclopedia features three types of articles:

– General and historical surveys of English literary translations from the major world languages, both ancient and modern;
– Authors and their works, including critical analyses and comparisons of various translations,
– Translation issues, covering the history, theory and practice of literary translation.

Those articles covering translation issues provide brief overviews of some of the main issues literary translators must deal with, together with bibliographical references. But, there are perhaps not enough of them, and some of them are far too short (the editors imposed a 1000 word limit on them). Nevertheless, taken together, they offer a fine glimpse of the issues involved in translating literature, and will be useful for both translators and readers of translation.

But this raises the question of the intended audience for this work. The introduction says, “One of the intended functions of the Encyclopedia is to further [the rapprochement between translators and translation scholars and theorists]. However, one can note the general lack of translators featured in this work. Most of the articles are written by “translation scholars”, some of whom have certainly translated literature, but for most this is not their bread and butter occupation. Examining the list of contributors, one sees an interesting dichotomy – some translators are called “freelance translator”, and others “professional translator”. I find it difficult to understand this distinction, since, in almost all cases, we translators are indeed paid for our work.

In any case, the cost of this work ensures that most literary translators will not be able to afford it. We are poorly paid for our work, and do it more out of love than for money.
The articles on translations from specific languages are interesting, giving an overview of the history of translations from these languages, and showing how the types of authors and books translated has varied over time. They also examine the influence literary translation has had on target cultures. To use French (the language I translate from) as an example, the article examines translations from before the Renaissance to the present. But, oddly enough, the section on the 20th century is somewhat limited, discussing, say, Asterix and Simenon (as well as many influential French thinkers of the late 20th century) while paying little attention to recent authors.

I feel that the most valuable part of this encyclopedia lies in the articles about specific authors. Each of these articles gives an overview of the author’s life and works, and goes on to discuss some (or all) of the English translations that were made. Several hundred of the world’s most important authors are examined, and these articles allow both translators and readers to have a better idea of the quality and style of the available translations.

The authors take an analytic point of view for these articles, discussing the merits and demerits of specific translations, putting them into the context of the time they were published, and not hesitating to outright criticize poor work. This is a good thing, because nothing is worse for translation as a whole than poor translations.

For example, the article on Proust gives a good overview of the translations available and their problems, both in register, specific terms used, and even the title chosen for the English version of A La Recherche du temps perdu. The author of this article, Anthony Levi, helps the reader understand just how difficult it is to translate such a text – not only must the translator consider lexis and syntax, but also the many subtle connotations Proust’s words vehicle from the complex social structure he wrote about.

Another example is the article on Cervantes, which gives a good presentation of two translations of Don Quixote, with examples that show the different tone and style chosen. However, the author dismisses all the other available translations, and it would be nice to have an idea why.
One could easily make a list of authors who are missing from this work. There would be hundreds, if not thousands, from major languages as well as minor languages. This does not lessen the value of this encyclopedia, though, even if some people will feel left out, especially those from some of the “minor” languages – only 41 languages are represented.

The encyclopedia contains an alphabetical list of entries, but this contains two serious mistakes. First, while authors are listed in alphabetical order, their names are in first name – last name order, which makes it much harder to browse. Second, I feel it would have been useful to have separate lists for the three types of articles, to make it easier to browse the content of the encyclopedia. I would like to be able to see a list of all the articles on translation issues, but they are interspersed with the entire contents.

It is good to find a list of authors, titles, and even translators mentioned in the book, as well as a thorough index.

All in all, this is a valuable work for translators, teachers of translation and those readers interested in reading literatures from other cultures. It belongs in any library that claims to present foreign literature to English-language readers, and, ideally, should be easily found by readers wishing to know more about the literature of other countries.

Literary translators will certainly find it interesting, especially the comparative analyses of various translations. There is a lot to be learned from reading these, no matter what language one works with, because the underlying issues – context, culture, register, etc. – are the same for all.

This excellent book is, unfortunately, somewhat expensive, but those who cannot afford it should certainly try and find a library where they can examine it. It fills a much-needed gap in the field of literary translation, both for translators and readers.


Performing Without a Stage – The Art of Literary Translation
Robert Wechsler

One of the most interesting books on literary translation. Explains why and how translators translate, and gives a thorough analysis of the craft of literary translation.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

Le Ton beau de Marot – In Praise of the Music of Language
Douglas Hofstadter

A meditation on translation, through the analysis of the author’s, and others’, translations of a short poem by Marot. Hofstadter brings in issues such as artificial intelligence and the untranslatable. (He claims (perhaps rightly so) that this book is untranslatable, and assured me that he will not allow it to be translated…)

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

Other recommended books:

After Babel – Aspects of language & translation
George Steiner

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

A Textbook of Translation
Peter Newmark

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

Paragraphs on Translation
Peter Newmark

A series of tidbits on translating and translations. While not specifically a book on literary translation, Newmark discusses many literary translations. His opinions, while sometimes controversial, are always enlightening.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

More Paragraphs on Translation
Peter Newmark

A follow-up containing more interesting tidbits. Thought-provoking, as usual.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

In Other Words – A Course in Translation
Mona Baker

A course book on translation based on a Hallidayan approach to language. Interesting, if you want to have a more linguistic approach to the subject.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

Metahors We Live By
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

A delightful book on the prevelance of metaphors in the English language. While not specifically about translation, the ideas it presents can certainly help translators, of any language.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations
Jonh Benjamins, 1998

This is an extraordinary tool for translators into English. It is a dictionary of collocations, and provides information that is hard to find in other dictionaries. It helps you find that elusive word that goes with another, and answers many questions about which preposition to use.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language
Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik

This monumental grammar book is based on a corpus, and provides a descriptive grammar of English. While a huge book, it can answer most of the questions you will have concerning grammar and usage.
It does not give rules, but rather observes how language is used.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK

The Functional Analysis of English
Bloor and Bloor

Halliday’s functional grammar is a unique way of describing how language is actually used in a social situation. This is not a grammar of rules, but rather an analysis of language and its functions.

Tom and Meriel Bloor’s book is the best introduction to this grammar. Written as a course textbook, with a clear, methodical presentation and exercises, it can also be read as a general introduction for the curious. It is complete and highly readable, and the grammatical theories it presents and explains can be useful to anyone who works with language, to better understand how language works. Language is not examined here out of context – in fact, context is one of the key factors in Halliday’s grammar – rather, Bloor and Bloor show how isolated bits of text fit in with the larger perspective of language as a whole.

Buy from Amazon.com USBuy from Amazon.com UK