Books Every Translator Should Read (For Fun)

You don’t need to be a translator to know that books, like foreign languages, can give you a glimpse into a world that was previously invisible. That’s what makes books so great. Here’s a list of book recommendations for translators (and everyone else, really), tackling topics like different cultures, linguistics, freelancing or how to become a translator.

Note that these are not the typical textbooks you work through at university, but books you can read for fun. If you have additional book suggestions, let me know in the comments below!

Through The Language Glass by Guy Deutscher

As a translator, you might have come across the so-called Sapir Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity. When Wittgenstein said that the limits of your language are the limits of your world, was he right? That’s part of what Guy Deutscher explores in this excellent book.

I found Through The Language Glass to be immensely entertaining and also eye-opening. As the subtitle describes, the book essentially explains why (and how) the world looks different in other languages.

This goes from simple things like how the perception of colors can be different depending on their categorization in a language, to having to pay more attention to your surroundings if they are relevant in your language. (If you’re going to the movies with a friend, Germans will need to know what gender your friend is!)

Highly recommended regardless of which languages you speak.

How To Succeed as a Freelance Translator by Corinne McKay

Whether you’re just getting started on your freelance career or you’re already advanced, I’d still recommend you get Corinne McKay’s excellent book How To Succeed as a Freelance Translator.

Taxes and legal issues are tailored to an American audience, but everything else works for pretty much any translator anywhere, like how to set your rates, what different kinds of work translators do, how to market your services, where to find direct clients, etc.

I think it’s fair to say this is currently the comprehensive English language guide on becoming a freelance translator and probably one of the cheapest investments you can make to get your career started on the right track.

Corinne McKay also used to have an excellent blog called Thoughts On Translation, which she mindbogglingly (from an SEO perspective) rebranded as Training for Translators. You’ll also find many useful articles on translation there, although the site can be cumbersome to navigate. (It’s also available as a book meanwhile.)

Translators in Germany

If you’re a freelance translator in Germany, I’d also recommend Überleben als Übersetzer: Das Handbuch für freiberufliche Übersetzerinnen by Miriam Neidhardt, which covers a lot of the same issues of marketing yourself and how to set your rates, but also covers issues related to Germany and German taxes, like the Kleinunternehmerregelung. Personally, I own both books and think they’re both work having.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who used to work for Merriam-Webster as an editor, which means she used to puzzle about what words mean and how best to describe them.

If that sounds a bit dry, rest assured she wrote a book about it that’s both hilarious and fascinating: Word by Word.

I recommend it first and foremost for her great sense of humor, secondly for the insight it gives into how the Merriam-Webster Dictionaries are made, and thirdly for the love of language it contains.

Watching The English by Kate Fox

Kate Fox is an anthropologist who decided to study her fellow countrymen, the English, and has come up with an excellent and entertaining book called Watching The English.

Since she’s an anthropologist, she actually researched what she writes about and carried out experiments (like bumping into people and counting how many said “sorry”), so this is a much more in-depth look at Englishness than you’d get from purely humorous books like the Xenophobe’s Guide series.

There are some observations you’d expect, for example that the English like to queue, but there are many detailed chapters on things like weather talk and humor rules and phone etiquette and so forth. Read it before you go on a trip to the UK to compare your experience!

To me, the most insightful part was to learn how entrenched the English class system is and how not only certain pronunciations but also certain words are indicators of your social class.

Watching The English is entertaining in general, but will likely appeal to you most if you’re interested in British culture.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

If you want to read a riveting memoir that’s all about soaking up a fascinating new language (Japanese) and its culture, and all the triumphs and frustrations that come with it, look no further than Fifty Sounds.

Polly Barton is a literary translator who translates from Japanese into English, and this book will give you a very personal insight into her journey from learning this brand new language to being steeped in the culture and still feeling like an outsider.

The book is very honest about the author’s love-hate relationship with the culture (and her love of literary translation) and it’s very insightful maybe not just about the Japanese language and culture, but also about human nature in general.

I don’t do the book justice in my review here, but I highly recommend it. You’ll likely enjoy this most if you’re interested in Japanese culture, language, and society, but you don’t need to know any Japanese to enjoy it.

The Awful German Language by Mark Twain

Let me say that I am German and I love my language, and yet this book by Mark Twain which is essentially bashing it is hilarious.

Here’s a guy who managed to learn German quite well and he goes and points out all the things that make the language difficult and the language learner struggle. And because he’s Mark Twain, the book is very entertaining.

I have a small hardcover version of the book that comes with the English text on one side and a German translation on the other, and the book is still available in print in various versions. If you want to read this immediately and without spending money, you can also find the whole text online on the site of Georgetown University.

This book is best enjoyed if you have some understanding of the German language.

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is an American writer who has written a number of funny books, several of them about British and American culture. He was born in Iowa and later emigrated to England where his wife is from, and Wikipedia tells me he meanwhile holds dual citizenship.

I really enjoyed his books Notes From A Small Island (about England) as well as Notes From A Big Country (about the US), and Down Under (about Australia) is also well worth reading. The one that made me laugh the most, however, is his 1992 book about traveling around Europe with a friend, Neither Here Nor There.

Whichever book you pick up by Bill Bryson, though, I think you won’t be disappointed.


Have other books to recommend? Let me know in the comments below!

One comment

  1. I like just about everything from Bill Bryson but “Neither here nor There” is particularly good. And Mark Twain’s piece on the German language never gets old. Thanks for the other suggestions.

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