11 Great Books About Translation 

Books About Translation
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Are you looking for some good books about translation to add to your holiday reading list? We picked 11 of our favourites from several different genres.  Interested in history? Looking for romance? Suspense? It’s all here, so go get yourself a cup of hot tea and get ready to curl up by the fire!

Found in Translation

How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

Through a series of carefully chosen anecdotes, industry legends Kelly and Zetzsche show “the surprising and complex ways that translation shapes the world.”

This is a fun read for translation-industry insiders and language geeks alike. It’s smart, but also entertaining and accessible. It’s on the reading list of every localisation sales team I know and there are stories in there which anyone in the language industry can relate to.

If you work in this industry, it’s one of the best books about translation to recommend when people ask “So, what is it you actually do again?” If the translation professional in your life doesn’t have this, I recommend you ask Santa to put it in their stocking this year.

You can buy it on Amazon here.

Lost in Translation

An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders

In this New York Times bestseller, Ella Frances Sanders illustrates more than 50 words without direct English translations.  For example, take the German  Kabelsalat, meaning “a tangle of wires.” Here, it is illustrated by multi-coloured wires, tangled like spaghetti.

Razliubit, a Russian word for the bitter-sweet feeling of falling out of love, is illustrated by the figure of a person tumbling off a giant rose, with rose petals falling all around. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Available on Amazon here.

Girl in Translation

A Novel by Jean Kwok

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to move to a new country, one where you can’t speak the language? Jean Kwok’s  Girl in Translation tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who emigrates to the United States with her mother.

Follow along as she learns to balance school with sweatshop labour, Chinese culture with American culture and “learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.”

Available on Amazon here. 

The Murderous History of Bible Translations: Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning

The Bible is the world’s most translated book.  

Historically, it’s also been one of the most deadly books to translate.  St. Jerome, the first Bible translator, lived to a ripe old age. But many later translators were not so lucky. This book describes how and why so many of them were burned, beheaded or otherwise died horribly for attempting to translate the ancient text into new languages.

Available through Amazon. 

The Translation of Love

by Lynne Kutsukake

Translation is an important part of this story, which is set in occupied Tokyo, just after the end of World War II. Two of the main characters are translators: Japanese-American Corporal ­Yoshitaka (Matt) Matsumoto, who translates letters written in Japanese to General MacArthur, and Kondo-sensei, a teacher who translates love letters from Japanese women to American GIs.

Their stories intertwine with the stories of two Japanese schoolgirls, a Japanese teenager who entertains American soldiers at dancehalls to support her family, and others.

This is writer Lynne Kutsukake’s first novel. Reviewers gave it  4 out of 5 stars on Amazon.  And The Globe and Mail says “The Translation of Love offers rich insights into an underreported period in history, despite holding some of its subject matter at arm’s-length.”

Available on Amazon.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

by Nicholas Ostler

Looking for an interesting perspective on the past 5,000 years of world history? In Empires of the Word, Nicholas Ostler describes the rise and fall of the world’s most influential languages, including Chinese, Greek, Sanskrit, English and more.  And of course, this includes the histories of the people and the cultures that made them so important.

Ostler also offers insights on what the linguistic future of the world might look like. Spoilers! It’s bad news for the “English only” crowd.

Empires of the Word has 4 stars on Amazon and was praised by reviewers when it was released in 2005.  For example, The Guardian calls it “a great book. After reading it you will never think of language in the same way again – and you will probably think of the world, and its future, in a rather different way too.”

Available on Amazon.

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

by Guy Deutscher

Why do colours vary so much across different languages? Why do languages have gender? And how much do all of these linguistic differences affect how people see the world?

Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass attempts to answer these questions. The result is an engaging read that’s fun for anyone who loves languages and does an excellent job of detailing the many linguistic quirks that make a translator’s job so challenging.

Reviewers on Amazon gave it 4 out of 5 stars. But Kindle users should beware: apparently some of the illustrations didn’t make it through intact when it was converted from hard copy to ebook.

Meanwhile, the Guardian says “The book is a joyous and unexpected intellectual journey through the strange interaction between language and the world that language attempts to describe.”

Available on Amazon.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos

Tying together translation, history, and anthropology, Bellos argues daringly that translations of all sorts can be just as good as the original works.

Does a book about translation theory sound dry? Perhaps even boring? Don’t worry! It’s not. According to the Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard, “It is also engagingly written, not to mention fascinating throughout.”

He covers the topic well that a translation is a substitute for the original, and will never be an exact copy. But if there’s a language barrier present, a substitute in a different language is what we need.

It’s worth noting that without the art of translation we’d have no knowledge of the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, or Planet of the Apes.

Find it on Amazon here.


A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren, translated by Alison Edwards

Lingo takes you on a tour of Europe via its languages. Author Gaston Dorren compares and contrasts the languages spoken on the continent in all of their idiosyncratic glory. Learn fun facts about each language, their quirks, and interesting vocabulary words.

Plus, find out why English is like Mandarin Chinese. The Guardian calls it ” a richly diverting exercise, organised into sections on languages and their families, history, politics, writing, vocabulary, grammar and state of endangeredness.”

Available on Amazon.

The Summer Before the Dark

Doris Lessing

In this classic book by British novelist Doris Lessing, a bored housewife with a bad case of empty-nest syndrome takes a job as an interpreter. Travel, an affair and an identity crisis ensue. Eventually, her whole life comes crashing down.

The book is critically acclaimed. Here are just some of the gushing reviews:

‘This is probably the best book Doris Lessing has ever written. It would be a deprivation not to read it at once.’ Economist

‘An honest, perceptive, serious book.’ Irish Times

‘Painfully, poignantly authentic.’ David Lodge, New Statesman

Available on Amazon.

The Mission Song

John Le Carre

The main character in this thriller is Bruno Salvador, a half-Congolese, half-Irish interpreter working for British Intelligence.  Until now, his assignments have involved interpreting intercepted communications from a distance. As the novel opens, however, he is given his first job “in the field.”  And it’s a doozy.  After flying to a secret island to interpret for a conference of African warlords, business interests, and intelligence agencies, he discovers a terrible secret.

This one got mixed reviews. The Guardian says John Le Carre “delivers a tale that few could equal and none will surpass. In The Mission Song, he has made the heart of darkness his own.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times called it “clunky.”  If you like John Le Carre, you’ll probably love this one. If you don’t, it’s unlikely to convert you.

Available on Amazon.

What are your favourite books about translation and interpreting? Tell us the books we missed in the comments, and happy reading!

 Note: This post was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to list more great books about translation.