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Book Review: Thinking German Translation

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Gertrud Champe photoThinking German Translation
by Sandor Hervey, Michael Loughridge, and Ian Higgins
2nd Edition
London: Routledge 2006

The new, extensively revised edition of Thinking German Translation is a carefully constructed school book that can make us working translators, at least the older ones, wish that such a book had been available at the start of our education or our careers. The operative idea that inspires this book and makes it so attractive is the "Thinking" of the title. The book does not simply intend to teach translation; it demonstrates ways to contemplate a text so that it will reveal its construction and most of its meaning. The desired result of the book is stated again and again: to sharpen awareness.

Thinking German Translation consists of 16 chapters with two or more practical exercises in each. Several chapters look at preliminaries to translation, discussing such topics as degrees of freedom, cultural issues, and translation loss. Much can be learned from the sample translations provided as part of some of the practical exercises; many things one might complaisantly consider to be the same or equivalent turn out not to be.

For those of us who are teachers, it is well worth considering (together with its teacher's manual) as a textbook.

The authors state their position about interlinguistic equivalence early on: "[...]we have found it more useful, both in translating and in teaching translation, to avoid an absolutist ambition to maximize sameness between ST and TT, in favour of a relativist ambition to minimize difference: to look, not for what is to be put into the TT but for what might be saved from the ST." Thus, there is no denial of the linguistic gap and inevitable translation loss. Rather, the reader is taught how to identify it and invited to compensate for it by applying a variety of devices.

This invitation to translators to meditate a bit on what they are doing is accompanied by detailed and well-presented analytical tools, with reminders to use them. The instructions for almost every practical exercise begin with something like "Discuss the strategic decisions that you have to take before starting detailed translation of this ST, and outline and justify the strategy you adopt." There are chapters on genre differences with the concomitant differences in the translator's decisions regarding functions such as establishing a certain degree of freedom, compensation, or dealing with cultural issues. Three chapters discuss various categories of formal features: phonic, grammatical and sentential, and discourse devices. In two other chapters, connotative and denotative meaning are set off against each other, and related translation challenges are demonstrated. In all of this, the reader is "told" and "asked" in equal measure, which makes it clear that there is no one, right answer lurking out there, like Rumpelstiltskin, daring you to find it. Rather, there are felicitous solutions, and others.

Three further chapters deal with topics in contrastive linguistics that are frequently mentioned when claiming that translation from German to English is "hard": modal participles, adverbials, and word order. Here, instead of practical exercises at the end of the chapter, preliminary exercises confront the reader, for the purpose of defining and highlighting the difficulties involved. Once more, there are no "how-to" answers but rather, the authors offer language with which the translator can think about the problems. Ja, doch, mal, auch can drive a translator to distraction or, with a little thought, be turned into TT gold.

There is indeed a great deal of analytical work in Thinking German Translation, but the purpose is certainly not to turn translators into writers of academic papers on linguistics or discourse theory. Whereas many textbooks of translation now and in the past, concentrate on language learning, theory and history, with application largely to works of literature, this one is significantly oriented to working translators, with texts drawn from advertising, automobiles, business, technology, the biological sciences, entertainment, and art, in addition to works of literature. The portions of the book that are not directly practical are not really concerned with what one would call translation theory. Rather, they are engaged in putting names to aspects of language, text, and genre so that one can talk about them. These terms of art are collected at the end of the book in a glossary, where they are succinctly defined. In sum, the best way to depict what the authors are about when they teach certain kinds of analysis is to quote what they say at the end of a detailed discussion of dictionary use, a statement that can be applied to everything they teach:

Our analyses are intended to equip students to find the best translation for an expression, not the right label for it. Is it important, after all, to find the right labels for these nuances? Does it matter that an adopted TT is, say, a generalization rather than a particularization? Not in itself, no. These analyses are a means, not an end. Doing them helps to develop the ability to work out as nearly as possible, and pretty quickly, what the ST and the draft TT are saying.

Thinking German Translation is indeed a textbook but, surprisingly, the fact that most of us are already well along in a career of translation is precisely what makes this work of such interest. Even in the first few pages, I had the delighted feeling that working through this book would be for a translator what going to a class is for a dancer. Intense concentration on specific work, whatever it may be, often calls for specific relief and reinforcement. This was made plain to me once, long ago, by a great-aunt of mine. Although by birth and training not farmers, she and her husband decided to have a gentleman dairy farm in Austria. After a day of hard work, she would jog some distance to a gymnastics class. When I asked her whatever for, since she had already had so much exercise, she explained that her muscles had been used hard, in an effortful way. Now they had to be used rhythmically, with a thought to how they work, so as to remain limber. Going through the expositions and exercises of this book provides that kind of benefit to brains that have been clenched over problems of consistency, deadlines, lack of terminology support.

The book has other benefits to offer as well. Some translation challenges are better solved by rational analysis than by "hard work." Just throwing oneself at an ugly contract or an operation manual for a million dollar piece of machinery with only a dictionary as a tool is exhausting, depressing, and not always very satisfactory. A reminder now and then to preview the text, formulate a translation strategy, or recast sentences instead of being solemnly literal is valuable, not only for a translator's own work, but for client and colleagues as well. I have in mind here the fact that translation memories, passed from one translator to another by a client, occasionally preserve some translations of dubious quality. A competent grasp of analytical methods, of the ability to think translation, will provide the know-how and the motivation to change them for the better.

Thinking German Translation is a book for many users. For those of us who are teachers, it is well worth considering (together with its teacher's manual) as a textbook. For people who are learning on the job, it is outstanding. For working translators, it is refreshing and works like a vitamin pill. In fact, I could imagine a group of translators agreeing to go through the book together, discussing the practical exercises on line. This would be very much in the spirit of the authors, who state in more than one instance that a given exercise should be done in a group.

In spite of all this praise, it must be said that the book has some weak points. Technical and scientific translation are given somewhat short shrift. Terminology science isn't mentioned as a separate entity. Not a word about computer aided translation, and only one sentence, albeit a useful one, about searching the Web. All these things must have a place in the contemporary education of translators, and these areas have to be supplemented when Thinking German Translation is used as the primary textbook in a translation course. But language transfer, with all its intricacies and impossibilities, is the heart of any translation, and this book does it justice.

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