FOUND IN TRANSLATION By Nataly Kelly and Jost Zietzche (A Perigee Book, 2012)

To educate in an entertaining way is the goal of many a failed teacher.

‘How can I make learning fun?’ is not a bad question but the risk is that too much emphasis is placed on topics that are superficially lively and entertaining without being that informative or mind expanding.

The laudable aim of the authors of  Found In Translation is to show how translators and interpreters deserve more attention and greater appreciation. For example, they ask if it can it be right that “those who translate the ingredients on the packaging of your toilet paper earn more than those who translate the works of the greatest poets”?

In the introduction, Kelly and Zietzche detail their forty years of combined experience in the field both as researchers and practitioners but then add “that’s the boring part……..now here’s the fun part”.

What follows is an outline of the book’s topics which range from the linguistic philosophy of Google Translate to that of Iceland’s airline company and from the woman who translated Dr Seuss to a 91-year-old man who interpreted for the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials.

This diverse content seems promising but turns out to be a series of short anecdotal essays with plenty of ‘fun facts’ written in a self-consciously conversational style. The subtext throughout is ‘we may be academics but our chief goal is to entertain’. It reads like a package of short magazine articles and there’s no real flow to the narrative.

They are right to praise the work of translators who, in field of medicine or the theatre of war, can quite literally save lives. Yet aside from this, they rarely draw from their own experiences and remain irritatingly un-opinionated.

Last year, I wrote about ‘Is That A Fish In Your Ear’ by David Bellos which covers much of the same ground of this book but is in a different league. Bellos gives a deeper and more personalised picture of the pitfalls, motives and rewards of the translating industry and, most importantly, credits the reader with having a far greater attention span.

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