21 Great Books to Demystify and Remystify Translation


The Craft of Translation, eds. John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte

For a primer on the central dilemmas and activities in the practice of translation, you can learn a lot from the essays collected in this book. (Also see Biguenet and Schulte’s Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida.)

The Man Between, eds. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Russell Scott Valentino

A tribute to Michael Henry Heim, one of the most artistic and successful translators of the 20th century, plus a remarkable translation advocate and a man who translated from nearly a dozen languages. The book collects tributes, essays, and interview to give an accessible idea of Heim’s ideas on translation, the nuts and bolts of his translation practice, and the impact of his translations (make sure to see Sean Cotter’s piece on how Heim’s translation of Kindera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being essentially gave the English language the construction “the un-x-able y of z”).

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

Another good, accessible primer on the central questions in translation and the practical matters of how people translate. Bellos is a major translator of French fiction, having done, among other things, the English-language edition of George Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, an extraordinarily challenging (if not impossible) translation.

If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa

Rabassa, who recently passed away, is one of the great translators of the 20th century, creating the English-language editions of canonical authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar (García Márquez claimed Rabassa’s English-language One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than his original). This is Rabassa’s memoir of a lie in translation, as well as his ideas on the practice.

The Subversive Scribe by Suzanne Jill Levine

Levine is a translator (and friend) of many canonical Latin American authors, including Manuel Puig, Julio Cortázar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and this is her book laying out her ideas and experiences. Notable here is Levine’s idea of translation as subversion.

The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship by Alex Beam

This forthcoming title tells the tale of the feud between Nabokov and Wilson over Nabokov’s highly controversial (and widely panned) translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Looks to be a fascinating book for people curious to know more about translation orthodoxy and how/why Nabokov decided to shatter it in his translation of the canonical Russian novel in verse.

The Delighted States by Adam Thirlwell

Thirlwell’s fun, very readable, anecdotal trip through some of history’s major translation questions. Although Thirlwell can be maddeningly superficial at times, he does a good job of explaining (and subverting) translation practice, making this a good one for both demystifing and remystifing translation all at once.

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger

In looking at 19 different translations of a single Chinese poem, Weinberger gives you some fascinating trivia on the Chinese language, as well as some excellent reasons why translation is impossible (or at least translating Chinese poetry into English). Eye-opening if you’ve never seen the practical side of translation up close.

Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig

Craig, who was an editor and translator on the mammoth project to make Beckett’s letters available in English, discussed the particular questions the came up with the project. This included the challenge of reading Beckett’s handwriting (often stylized to the point of incomprehensibility), dealing with Beckett’s movement between languages in a single letter, and many others. Also see all the Cahiers (or which this is #16) for more great discussions of translation in all its forms.

The Poetics of Translation by Willis Barnstone

Barnstone is, among other things, one of the major Biblical translators, as well as a collaborator with Borges. These are his ideas of how translation can be an art form of its own. His discussion of Biblical translations (ancient and more recent) are especially interesting.

The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes

Few if any people have written better than Barthes on what happens when a reader experiences a text. This is a matter essential to translation, because translation is often (and probably rightly) called the closest form of reading. The “erotics of reading” (Richard Howard) that Barthes creates in The Pleasure of the Text must deeply discuss what happens in a translator’s mind while immersed in the remarkably complex task of translation.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

The book where Queneau famously wrote the same brief anecdote 99 different ways is great for seeing how many different forms a story can take (many of the ones in this book transcend language altogether). The expanded 65th anniversary edition from New Directions has additional exercises from the likes of Jonathan Lethem and Enrique Vila-Matas to give greater breadth to the idea of translation here. Also check out Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story, which brings Queneau’s idea into the realm of graphic fiction.

Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey

These are Hawkey’s experimental translations (and/or mistranslations) of the major Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl (including translation via shotgun). Along the way you get Hawkey’s reflections on the art of translation and his personal experiences of Trakl (or his ghost).

Deformation Zone by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson

In twinned essays, McSweeney and Göransson lay out their (sometimes controversial) ideas of translation as Frankenstein-like deformation of the original text (as opposed to the ideas of fidelity and transparency that translators generally espouse).

Experiences in Translation by Umberto Eco

In addition to all the writing he did, Eco translated a great deal (including the Italian edition of Queneau’s Exercises), and this is Eco’s definitive statement on the practice, with copious illustrations from his own experiences of translating and being translated. (Also see Eco’s Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation.)

After Babel by George Steiner

After being released in 1975, this boo quickly became an essential text on the theory and practice of translation (although it’s also still an accessible work. Steiner finds translation as an essential quality of all communication and an indispensable practice for cultures to comprehend one another. He also, memorably, claims translation to be “not a science, but an exact art.”

The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys

Leys’s massive essay collection is a bounty in many ways, one of which are his reflections on translation (which he did much of himself). “The Experience of Literary Translation” is his most direct approach to the subject, but you can fin observations and theories throughout the other essays in this book.

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach

Not a book on translation per se, this is the major study on how reality has been transformed into literature throughout 3,000 or so years of Western literature. An essential book for anyone interested in the many ways reality can be composed into literature and the cultural and historical differences that have made for different representations. Without translation, this book wouldn’t exist, and it gives a good idea of the many different ways of seeing and comprehending the world that a reader can discover by reading translations.

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin

Recommended because it contains Benjamin’s major essay “The Task of the Translator,” which lays out Benjamin’s (often controversial) ideas on translation as well as his thoughts on what he calls a “pure language.”

Dictionary of Untranslatables, eds Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, Michael Wood

A mammoth compendium of some 400 philosophical ideas that are “untranslatable.” A weird, fun, in-depth book that will live with you for some time (it’s over 1300 pages long).

Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt

The incredibly massive, Joycean German mega-novel deals with a pair of Germans translating Poe. According to David Auerbach, the book is about “a sort of shared linguistic unconscious, where ‘etyms’ form a deep structure of language that guides how we interpret reality”—a provocative idea for those who are trying to get a better grasp of translation.

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Surprised you forgot Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book on translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot, wherein he takes a single poem of Clement Marot and spins out different translations, with all the varied rationales, for nearly 600 pages. Fascinating reading throughout, knowledge of French only minimally required.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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