20 things I learnt about 20 languages…

… from reading Gaston Dorren’s book Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages. First published in 2018, this is the second book of language writer Dorren’s that I’ve read; you can see my blog post about the first one, Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europehere.

Chapter by chapter, Babel looks at the 20 most spoken languages in the world, which three quarters of the world’s population can speak at least one of. Dorren doesn’t just profile every language the same way, but takes us on a linguistic journey – from an English-language perspective – to discover an interesting aspect (script, grammar, phonology, or vocabulary) of each.

So here is one thing I learnt about each language, with the languages listed in the same order as the book, i.e. starting with the least spoken and ending with the biggest:

  • Vietnamese: I was familiar with Vietnamese script and the fact that up to 60% of Vietnamese vocabulary is of Chinese origin, but I was tickled to learn that the language would use different words for ‘how’ in the questions ‘how long is the snake?’ and ‘how scary is the snake?’ on the basis length can be measured precisely but scariness can’t!
  • Korean: having lived in Korea for three years, this is a language I have more than a passing acquaintance with (see my blog post here), but I never realised that it is a language with thousands of ideophones: words that evoke or depict ideas in sound imitation (and not just onomatopoeias).
  • Tamil: while many people extol their virtues of their own language, Tamil speakers consider their language sacred, divine even. This is a fairly recent development, following years of oppression, but has led to activists committing suicide in a bid to see the language flourish.

Tamil writing on a building in Chennai (photo from my trip to Tamil Nadu in March 2018)

  • Turkish: in 1928 President Atatürk replaced the language’s Ottoman Turkish alphabet (a Perso-Arabic script) with a tailor-made variety of the Latin alphabet which has 29 letters.
  • Javanese: this is the language in the book with the smallest home base in geographical terms, as it is only spoken on the eponymous island. It has a high-register style called krama, which absolutely must be used in all formal situations, such as in a law court, or between persons of lower status to those of higher status (age, seniority). Such ingrained over-politeness may be eventually be the undoing of the language.
  • Persian: has become a much simpler language to learn over the course of several millennia … partly thanks to itinerant construction workers who were brought in from other parts of the Persian Empire!
  • Punjabi: unusually for a South Asian language, Punjabi is tonal, although the linguistic jury is still out as to whether the language has two, three, or four tones, and many native speakers are not even aware their language is tonal.

Sign in Punjabi and Latin script at Southall train station, SW London

  • Japanese: women and men are expected to speak slightly different genderlects, i.e. language varieties based on gender, and translations are not exempt (e.g. Angelina Jolie speaking women’s language in a newspaper interview).
  • Swahili: as the only African language in the book, Dorren took the opportunity to look at the continent’s linguistic landscape as a whole, highlighting Africa’s ‘easy’ multilingualism. Swahili has at least twice, if not thrice as many speakers as the next most spoken language on the continent, and many intellectuals have made the case for it to become a continental lingua franca.
  • German: how ‘strange’ a language is German? In a statistical analysis of the linguistic features of 2,679 languages, German ranked at number 10 for ‘weirdness’. This is to do with its polar (yes-no) questions, /ng/ sound, rare consonants, expression of pronominal subjects, gender in pronouns, and complicated word order.

Map of the 25 “weirdest” languages of the world

  • French: the chapter concentrates on why French grammar and spelling are enforced so strictly, and Dorren suggests that French native speakers are unusual in having a widespread belief that they make a deplorably poor job of speaking their mother tongue.
  • Malay: spoken in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern tip of Thailand, as well as in Malaysia. The writer points out that Indonesia has been fortunate to enjoy linguistic peace since independence in the late 1940s despite being the world’s second most multilingual country, largely due to successful and sensible language policies having been implemented by the country’s leaders.

In Indonesia “gang” means “alleyway” (loanword from Dutch)

  • Russian: did you know there’s a (n Indo-European language) family relationship between English and Russian? The two were mutually intelligible in 3000 BCE, and while fifty centuries since has created differences, there are definite similarities to look out for.
  • Portuguese: while Dutch and Portuguese were both colonial languages, the latter has spread much more widely due to its speakers being at the right places (e.g. Brazil) at the right times (e.g. during periods of migration). In this chapter, a subject dear to my heart also gets a mention:

Creole languages also emerged elsewhere in the world, some among enslaved Africans, others among ethnically mixed groups. Most of them are now nearly or entirely extinct, but in the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion they are alive and well. The creoles of Papua New Guinea and the Seychelles, called Tok Pisin and Seselwa, respectively, have even acquired official status, once more alongside European languages.

  • Bengali: an Indo-European language spoken by 275 million people mostly in Bangladesh and India. In the latter’s West Bengal state, a record-breaking nine different scripts are in use, including Bengali, Devanagari (used to write Hindi and Nepali), Perso-Arabic (for Urdu), and the Roman alphabet for English. Including ligatures, Bengali has a total of 331 characters!

Part of a poem written in Bengali and English by Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore

  • Arabic: as a vocabulary nerd I found this chapter one of the most interesting, as Dorren listed several dozen English words with Arabic etymologies. While some (e.g. algebra) were well known to me, many others (e.g. admiral, baobab, alchemy, carat, alkali, sash, tamarind, hazard etc) weren’t.
  • Hindi-Urdu: I never knew until reading Babel that Urdu and Hindi are actually two registers of the same language, with the same grammar, and are mutually intelligible despite some vocabulary differences. Hindi is written in the Devanagari script, while Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script.
  • Spanish: two verbs for ‘to be’, ser and estar, make Spanish difficult to master for non-native speakers.
  • Mandarin: approximately 98% of Chinese characters are not pictograms or ideograms, i.e. you cannot work out their meaning based on their resemblance to things in real life.
  • English: until now, the only language spoken on the moon has been English.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve purposely limited myself to just one item for each language, but there’s much more to learn in the book! I’ve also highly condensed what are some very detailed and interesting explanations. And while I read the book in English, it’s been translated into 15 other languages including Italian, Slovak, Greek and Norwegian.

Further reading:

Language puzzles

I recently finished The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos, a fascinating book that combines languages and puzzles, celebrating the diversity of the world’s languages through conundrums and brainteasers involving wordplay, logical deduction, and decipherment skills. It’s divided into ten chapters of ten questions each, with every chapter being based on a different theme such as language and technology, ancient codes, words for family and relatives, different alphabets, invented languages, etc.

Each chapter starts with some multiple-choice questions as a warm-up, then you are given just enough information to elucidate the puzzles (if you can’t solve them or want some help, explanations and answers are at the back of the book). While some are tougher than others, surprisingly I found that getting to grips with things such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and braille was easier than I would have expected. I also found interesting the background and context that Bellos provides in between puzzles. In fact, here are a few tidbits that I learned while reading working my way through the book (if you’re thinking of buying it, don’t worry, none of this information gives the solutions!):

  • In the late Middle Ages, Europe had three competing number notations: Roman numerals, “Arabic” numerals, and a secret system used by Cistercian monks. Arabic numerals came out on top because they included a symbol for zero, making arithmetic easier, however the description of these numerals as Arabic is misleading as the notation originated in India, around the 5th century AD
  • Cistercian monks, who for a thousand years until 1975 were prohibited from verbal communication, developed and used their own sign language. Their word for England consists of three signs: drink+tea+land!

Signs from above

  • Cuneiform was first used in ancient Babylonia, and gradually developed from a pictographic style 5000 years ago (think ancient emojis) to what is called “late Assyrian” circa 650 BC. The earliest major work in world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform, and there are so many surviving tablets and fragments in cuneiform (about a million in total) that many are still awaiting their first read by Assyriologists
  • While writing was invented independently in Sumer, China, Central America, (and maybe other places too), the alphabet was invented only once, by the Phoenicians, and all the other alphabets of the world are descended from it. The Phoenicians were merchant traders whose major export was a reddish-purple dye from the secretion of a sea snail, and their name comes from the Greek word for ‘purple’. Extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and substantial labour, meaning only the rich could afford it, which is why purple became associated with royalty

Painting The Discovery of Purple by Hercules’s Dog by Theodoor van Thulden, c. 1636

  • The Phoenician alphabet only contained consonants (22 of them), so the Ancient Greek alphabet is often considered the first ‘true’ alphabet, as both consonants and vowels were treated equally. Adapted by the Romans, the Latin alphabet (which we still use today) has become the most-used alphabet in the world.
  • Celtic languages, which became extinct in mainland Europe by the 6th century AD but survived in the outskirts of the British Isles, have seen their spellings change to reflect pronunciation. (If the same were to happen in e.g. US English, Americans would write “goddit?” and “whaddever”!)
  • The symbol for Bluetooth is a merger of two runes symbolising the initials of 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth. The name “Bluetooth” was proposed in 1997 by an Intel mobile computing engineer who was then reading a historical novel about Bluetooth, and whose success in connecting ancient Norse peoples was seen as an appropriate metaphor for connecting electronic devices
  • Both Jacob Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien started their careers as historical linguists rather than authors. In fact, Tolkien said the point of his fictional universes was to enhance his fictional languages, rather than vice versa
  • In the 1830s a Frenchman invented a language called Solresol made up entirely of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si, which are the French words for the seven musical notes of the tonal scale

The seven conventional notes, colors, syllables, numerals, and glyphs used to convey solresol phonemes.

  • The mother of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was deaf, and so his father devised a phonetic alphabet to help deaf people pronounce spoken language more accurately (although it never caught on)
  • In the early 19th century a Cherokee silversmith called Sequoyah invented his own writing system, despite not being able to read. He saw European settlers communicate via the written page, and referred to their correspondence as “talking leaves”. His system had a unifying effect on the Cherokee tribe, and led to them becoming literate faster than their white neighbours. Sequoyah became world-famous, and an Austrian botanist paid him tribute by naming a genus of giant redwood trees after him: sequoias

Me in a sequoia forest in Northern California

  • You’ve probably heard of the WWII Navajo code-talkers, but did you know that the Native American language Choctaw was used to encrypt messages during the First World War? (The reason Navajo was used is apparently because other Native American communities had been overrun with German linguistics students over the previous two decades)
  • As there are no family surnames in Iceland, all lists of personal names (e.g. phone directory, author references in bibliographies, the national registry) are ordered alphabetically by first name
  • About half of the world’s people have an Indo-European language as their native tongue; two-thirds of the 2.3 billion who speak English speak it as a second language
  • The longest written work in world literature is the Sureq Galigo, an epic poem transcribed in Lontara, a hard-to-decipher Indonesian script originally written on palm leaves. Lontara takes its name from the type of tree that provides the leaves used

Sureq Galigo manuscript

  • While there are 160 Aboriginal languages in Australia, only the 13 languages that are currently spoken by children have a chance of surviving to the end of this century. Aboriginal rules of social organisation are so complex that mathematicians, as well as linguists and anthropologists, study them
  • Did you know that the world’s largest language family, in terms of the number of languages it contains, is Niger-Congo? It is made up of about 1,500 languages spoken across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Portugal uses a labelling system code called ColorADD to help colour-blind people with everyday tasks. Developed by a Portuguese graphic designer, it uses six basic shapes in black and white to describe up to fifty colours

ColorADD code signs and colour combinations

  • The inventor of the green and white “running man” exit sign, Japanese graphic designer Yukio Ota, is most proud of another invention, the Lovers’ Communication System or LoCoS, a pictorial language

The “running man” exit sign designed by Yukio Ota in 1979

  • “Abkhaz” is the only word in English that begins in an ‘a’ and ends in a ‘z’ that is not a place name. However it is the name of a language that has 60 consonants and just two vowels: one of the highest consonant to vowels ratios in the world, if not the highest
  • The Caucasus mountain range alone is home to about fifty native languages from seven different language families, and two alphabets that are used nowhere else in the world; Armenian and Georgian
  • The candlefish (a type of fish common off the Pacific Northwest coast) gets its English name because, when dried, the fish is so oily it can be burned like a candle
  • In most of the world’s languages, the terms for intercardinals (southeast, northeast, northwest, southwest) are combinations of the words for the cardinal points. However for a handful of languages such as Maltese, Estonian and Finnish, there is no etymological connection to the cardinals. As part of the Semitic language family, Maltese is the only Arabic language written in the Latin alphabet (and the only Arabic language that is an official language of the European Union)

Maltese compass rose

If you’d like to try your hand at some of the puzzles, a few are in this Guardian article.

Baldur, the Norse god of peace and light and spring. Deciphering Europe’s oldest runic alphabet is not as difficult as you might think. (Photograph: Ivy Close Images/Alamy)

By the way, if the writer’s surname seems familiar, it’s because I’ve previously blogged about two of his language and numbers books here, and also because he’s the son of well-known translator and academic David Bellos (whose language book Is that a Fish in Your Ear? I blogged about here).


Elsewhere on the blog:


19 interesting facts about language and numbers

Like many translators I’m not really a numbers person. I did alright in Mathematics in school and have no problem doing my own accounts, but despite having a maths-teacher husband, and a father who started his career as a maths teacher, I’ve always preferred language to numbers. However I recently listened to a podcast episode about the language of numbers in which they mentioned a book by Alex Bellos called The Grapes Of Math (US)/Alex Through the Looking-Glass (UK) and my curiosity was piqued. I ended up reading not only that book, but the preceding volume Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (UK)/Here’s Looking at Euclid (US)!

Now I won’t pretend to have understood everything in the books  😉 but I do recommend them especially if you’re more mathematically minded than I am. Although they’re primarily journeys through the world of numbers, I couldn’t help but be interested in some of the language-related facts they contain*:

In The Grapes of Math:

  • “The Sumerians did not look far when coming up with names. The word for one, ges, also meant man, or erect phallus”.
  • “English … is the only major European language to have unrelated words for odd and even. In French, German and Russian, for example, the words for even and odd are ‘even’ and ‘not-even’: pair/impair, gerade/ungerade,  chyotny/nyechyotny
  • Zipf’s law: in most languages the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table, i.e. there is a mathematical pattern governing word choices.
The rank vs. frequency rule of Zipf's law also works if you apply it to the sizes of cities.

The rank vs. frequency rule of Zipf’s law also works if you apply it to the sizes of cities.

  • “From the translation of the Latin [pars minuta prima and pars minuta secunda] we get the words ‘minute‘ and ‘second‘, our units of time, which are the most prominent modern relics of the ancient practice of counting in groups of sixty.”
  • “The Arabs transliterated [a Sanskrit word] as jiba, a meaningless term, but it sounds a bit like jaib, meaning bosom, or bay, which they came to use. Latin versions of Arab texts translated jaib as sinus, the word for the fold of a toga over a woman’s breasts. Sinus became sine.”
  • “Optical applications .. in fact, explain the origin of the word ‘focus‘: it is the Latin for ‘fireplace’. In German its etymology is clearer—’focus’ is Brennpunkt, or burning point.” (‘Focus’ meaning the burning point of reflected light beams).
  • “The earliest stargazers observed that planets do not move in straight lines—they meander across the skies, often temporarily looping backward. (The word “planet” comes from the Greek planetes, wanderer.)”
  • “A double negative in English, of course, is a positive. The linguist J. L. Austin once told a conference that there are no languages in which two positives make a negative. It is said that the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, replied: “Yeah, yeah.”
  • “Latin versions of [Arab mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi]’s surname were later used to describe the arithmetical techniques he publicized, and are the root of the word ‘algorithm‘.”
  • Non-linguistic but interesting fact: according to French mathematician Cédric Vilani, Paris has more professional mathematicians than any other city, about a thousand.
Flamboyant French mathematician Cédric Villani at his office at the Institut Henri Poincaré. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

Flamboyant French mathematician Cédric Villani at the Institut Henri Poincaré.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

  • “The term for a word that appears only once in a text is hapax legomenon, which sounds like a character from an Asterix story, or a Scandinavian death metal band, and in this text appears only once.”

It’s only when I got to the end of The Grapes of Math and read the acknowledgements that I realised Alex’s father is David Bellos, of Fish In My Ear fame! I then read Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, which is in fact the previous book:

  • “The word ‘grocer’ … is a relic of a retailer’s preference for 12 – it comes from ‘gross’, meaning a dozen dozen, or 144.”
  • “The procedure the Treasury used was … a system of ‘double tallies’. A piece of wood was split down the middle, giving two parts – the stock and the foil. A value was marked – tallied – on the stock and was also marked on the foil, which acted like a receipt. If I lent some money to the Bank of England, I would be given a stock with a notch indicating the amount – which explains the origin of the words stockholder and stockbroker – while the bank kept the foil, which had a matching notch.”
Medieval tally sticks SourceFlickr

Medieval tally sticks (Source Flickr)

  • “Imagine, as was common practice [in Pythagoras’ time], counting with pebbles. (Latin for pebble is calculus, which explains the origin of the word ‘calculate’.)”
  • “Greek mathematics was almost entirely geometry – derived from their words for ‘earth’ and ‘measurement’”
  • Ever heard of ‘piems’ ? They are poems that represent π (pi) in a way such that the length of each word (in letters) represents a digit (a 0 requires a ten-letter word). Based on the same principle, whole stories have been written in the pilish style. Quite a constraint!

A mnemonic for remembering the first 7 decimal digits of pi

  • gEOLOgIZE, ILLEgIBLE and EISEgESIS are the only three nine-letter words that can be made with an electronic calculator (using the letters O, I, Z, E, h, S, g, L and B, which are the LED digits 0 to 9 when turned upside-down).
  • Infinity symbol: did you know the endless loop ∞ is called a lemniscate? The word comes from the Latin lēmniscātus meaning “decorated with ribbons”.
  • Ambigram: a word (or set of words) written in such a way as to conceal other words, often the same word (or set of words) written upside-down.”
Animated ambigram of the word "ambigram".

Animated ambigram of the word “ambigram”.

* in chronological order, but without page numbers as I read digital versions of both books.

Others posts you might like:

Recommended links:

Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe

Why is Basque so baffling, and which language sounds like a machine gun when spoken? Which Iranian language is represented in Europe and where is Gagauz spoken? Why has Frisian been elevated the rank of official regional language and how come tiny Slovenia has so many regional linguistic varieties? Answers to all these questions and much more can be found in ‘Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe‘ by Gaston Dorren, a book I discovered when I attended The World in Words, an event at Edinburgh Book Festival with the author and Ann Morgan. Gaston Dorren is a Dutch linguist with proficiency in fifteen languages. Originally published in Dutch as Taaltoerisme (‘Language tourism’) and translated into English by Alison Edwards, Lingo packs 60 chapters into less than 300 pages, divided into various themes such as languages and their families, history, grammar, politics, or vocabulary, as well as linguists who left their mark (mostly on stamps 😉 it turns out). Almost every chapter ends with a word or two that English has loaned from the language under discussion, as well as a word from that language that doesn’t exist in English but perhaps should. Here are a few snippets from the book to whet your appetite:

'Lingo, a language spotter's guide to Europe' by Gaston Dorren

‘Lingo, a language spotter’s guide to Europe’ by Gaston Dorren

  • Life of PIE: Of all the world’s living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles Proto Indo-European (PIE), the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages.
  • Did you know that two centuries ago Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain?
  • I had heard of Bokmål and Nynorsk, but didn’t know the difference. In the book I learnt that all Norwegians speak a regional dialect, and that the aforementioned are just two of the four existing versions.
  • Sweden’s well-known linguistic informality only dates from the 1960s when the incoming Director-General of the Public Health Board announced that he intended to address all employees by their first name and would like them to do the same for him.
  • ‘Moped’ is a portmanteau word of Swedish origin (from motor (engine) and pedaler (pedals).)
  • Iceland is the only country in Europe that has a language that’s unique to that country. No other European country has identical political and linguistic boundaries.
First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

  • Modern Greek contains loan words such as farmakología and sti̱thoskópio that are actually foreign-built compounds created from Classical Greek.
  • Most Portuguese loanwords in English come from the colonies, such as ‘fetish’ or ‘caste’ (Portuguese words for colonial phenomena) and ‘banana’ or ‘dodo’ (local words).
  • While most languages translate the names of famous cities into their own tongue, Latvian has the unusual tendency to translate all names. Thus Charles de Gaulle becomes Sharrl de Goal and Miguel de Cervantes is Megell de Therbahntess.
  • Diminutives are found throughout Europe except for Scandinavia.
  • Breton has a vigesimal numeral system, based on sets on twenty. Thus 45 is ‘five-and-two-twenty’; 77 is ‘seventeen-and-three-twenty’. (The same number in Welsh is ‘two-on-fifteen-and-three-twenty’).
  • Basque has a useful, single word for the act of translating from one’s own language into a foreign one: erdaratze.
  • Irish has the second oldest literary tradition among living European languages, after Greek.
The Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

  • Manx has no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. (If someone asks a question, you have to answer with a verb in the correct tense).
  • Finnish has 15 cases, and ‘234’ written out in the sixth case becomes kahdestasadastakolmestakymmenestäneljästä because every individual component must receive its own case ending.
  • If you’re European, words from which Afro-Asiastic language are printed on your passport? Which is the only Semitic language to be written in the Latin script? Maltese.
  • Sign language family groupings are different from spoken languages groups: one group includes Sweden, Finland and Portugal, while another includes France, USA, Ireland, Netherlands. The British manual alphabet (used to spell out names or concepts for which the signer doesn’t have a sign at their immediate disposal) is two-handed, while most others are one-handed.
  • One fascinating chapter lists all the clues that can help you identify an unknown language. What diacritics or unfamiliar characters does it use? What frequent letter combinations or odd letter patterns rarely turn up in another language?

These are just a few excerpts from the book, which seems to have something fascinating to point out about every European language. I found the section on languages and their grammar slightly less interesting than the eight other sections, but that’s purely due to my English-native-speaker’s grammar prejudice rather than to any shortcoming of the author’s. And I although I no longer live in the UK, I was fascinated to learn so much about the languages of the British Isles about which I know so little: Anglo-Norman, Shelta, and Manx to name but a few. Now all we need are similar books about other continents’ languages!

P.S. In his Further Reading section the author lists David Bellos’ ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear?‘ as “the only book on translation you ever need to read, unless you want to make it your job. Erudite, recalcitrant [sic] and fun”. You can read my blog post about that book here.

Further reading:

Related blog posts:

Edinburgh Book Festival 2015

Travel plans to see family have once again coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Founded in 1983 the Book Festival was initially biannual, then started to be held yearly in 1997. It now welcomes more than 800 authors in over 700 events every year, and is billed as ‘the largest festival of its kind in the world’.


Two years ago I went to see a translation duel there, where it was mentioned that it was the first such event to be held at the festival. As 2015’s theme is ‘Around The World’, translation and language have played a more prominent role this year, with 32 events under the Talking Translation banner. I chose to attend six of them:

  1. Bestselling Books Abroad saw crime writer Peter May and children’s author Julia Donaldson look at how a writer’s work travels to other nations, and how authors keep ownership of their translations. We were even treated to a multilingual sketch of The Gruffalo! Interestingly Peter May, a Scot who lives in France, had been unable to find a publisher in the UK for his crime novel but a French publisher bought world rights, had the book translated into French, and only later did it become a bestseller in the UK, having first become successful in France. The talk was very smoothly chaired by historian and Italian to English translator Lucinda Byatt.
  2. Penguin Classics have embarked on a 7 year project to retranslate Georges Simenon’s work and the tagline of the Celebrating Simenon talk was ‘Retranslating a Literary Legend’. Despite being chaired by translator Daniel Hahn, it was more an exploration of Georges Simenon’s life, work and legacy with the late writer’s son, John, than a discussion about translation. It was nevertheless very interesting, and I came away with the desire to (re)read some of Simenon’s novels. However I’m having trouble picturing Rowan Atkinson playing the lead role in the new ITV Maigret series … (filming starts September 2015 in Budapest).
  3. The following day I attended my second-ever French Translation Duel. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne politely crossed verbal swords over the translation of a 400-word passage from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As was the case on the previous occasion, the time spent poring over the nuances of just a few sentences absolutely flew by, and I found it totally engrossing. On leaving the tent I heard other audience members remarking they hadn’t realised how complex a process translation could be.
  4. David Crystal‘s Accents Speak Louder Than Words looked at dialects and then accents. David is a well-known  British linguist, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. He’s also a lively and entertaining speaker (during the second half he was also joined by his actor son Ben), and there was some interaction with the audience when he asked us if we knew such Scots dialects words as ‘chirp’ (to emit a creaking sound), ‘fouter fouter’ (to walk in an effeminate way), ‘dabberlick’ (a mildly insulting way of talking about someone who is tall and skinny) and – my personal favourite – ‘mumple’ (to seem as if going to vomit).
David Crystal and his son Ben.

David Crystal and his son Ben.

5. The World in Words saw Gaston Dorren and Ann Morgan talk about the joys of languages and literature in other languages. I’ve blogged before (here and here) about Ann’s challenge to read a book from each of the world’s 196 nations, so I won’t go into too much detail in this post, but one thought-provoking moment for the audience was when she mentioned that if she looks at the shelf with 144 hardcopies of books she read she can only see one translator’s name on the spine. Gaston discussed and read excerpts from his book ‘Lingo’, an entertaining trip through Europe’s languages which includes anecdotes about everything from Esperanto to Limburgish. His enthusiasm convinced me to break my strict rules about luggage limits and buy his book; watch this space for a blog post about it soon.

6. The final talk I attended was Stories Without Borders with Ann Morgan and German to English translator Michael Hofmann. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, this event looked at whether it matters to readers where a story originates or in what language it was first written, and what is gained from knowing the linguistic identity of a book.

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

My attendance at the festival should normally have ended there, but circumstances meant I found myself back a few days later helping out at The Spectacular Translation Machine. This free, drop-in event involved translating an entire book from French into English in one day using a collaborative approach. Organised by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone, we helped members of the public create an English version of Bessora and Barroux’s graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan-Gare du Nord, about a man’s journey from the Ivory Coast to France in search of his family. It was great fun, and I really enjoyed seeing the translation take shape over the course of the day, as well as helping out the Edinburgh public.


During The Spectacular Translation Machine (Sarah Ardizzone and the illustrator Stéphane-Yves Barroux are standing at the back right of the photo)


During The Spectacular Translation Machine


Some translations


Some finished translations


The cover of ‘Alpha Abidjan-Gare du Nord’

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What’s In A (Fish) Name?

As a linguist and keen scuba-diver, when I first heard of a book about the etymology of fish names I could only but be interested! Given that one of the co-authors is Henriette Walter, whose book Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is a favourite of mine, I was even more eager to read a copy of La Fabuleuse Histoire Du Nom Des Poissons. The book is written in French and mainly discusses French names, but the name of each fish is also given in English, German, Spanish and Italian along with an explanation of the etymology in each of these languages, which makes it even more interesting for a linguist. Here are some of the most intriguing facts I learnt:

  • Did you know the Baie Des Anges at Nice, in the South of France, takes it name from the angelshark? These sharks, known as ange de mer in French, once used to be common in the bay.
  • Rollmops are pickled herring fillets whose name comes from the German rollen (to roll) and mops (a pug). Apparently the rolled herring fillets look like the wrinkled dog’s head …
  • The name sardine comes from the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, as does the word sardonic. Whereas the current meaning of ‘sardonic’ is an expression of derisive, cynical or sceptical humour, it originally meant a rictus caused by ingesting the sardonion plant from Sardinia.
  • The name Grouper (sometimes called ‘groper’ in Australia) doesn’t come from any gregarious tendencies of this fish to group, but from the Portuguese garoupa, which itself probably comes from an Amerindian word.
  • Wrasses take their name from the Cornish word wrach which means ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’, and originally ‘witch’. Most wrasses are beautifully patterned, however some species have spotty colouring rather like old, wrinkled skin, which might explain this etymology. One enormous species of wrasse I’ve been lucky enough to see while diving is the Napoleon (also known as Humphead wrasse) which doesn’t take its name from the French Emperor but from a New Caledonian farmer called Louis Napoléon who collected these fish as trophies.
  • Damselfish are so-called due their bright colours and eye-catching movements, and Surgeonfish have dangerously sharp scalpel-like spines on either side of the tail.
  • The Moorish idol is common, but is also one of the most unusually named fish I’ve come across when diving. I learnt that the etymology comes from African Moors, who believed the fish to be a bringer of happiness or luck. Moluccan fishermen were also superstitious about it, and if they caught one would throw it back into the water after bowing and showing signs of respect.
Moorish idols

3 Moorish idols, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

  • I was fascinated to learn that Tilapia were known to the Ancient Egyptians (there’s even a tilapia hieroglyph). Their name comes from the Latinisation of the Tswana (Bantu) word for fish, thiape.
  • Here in Reunion swordfish are commonly fished and eaten, and predictably their name comes from their long, flat, sword-shaped bill. While in its original English version Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea centres on the fisherman’s struggle with a giant marlin, the novel’s first French translator, Jean Dutourd, chose to translate ‘marlin’ as ‘swordfish’ (espadon in French), considering that the former was not well enough known in France at the time (1952).
  • Another common fish in the waters around Reunion, the marlin‘s name comes from ‘marlinspike‘, which is a sailor’s tool used in marine rope work. Marlins have a spear-like bill, and marlinspikes have a polished metal cone tapered to a point, hence the connection. ‘Marlinspike’ itself derives from from the practice of ‘marling’, that is winding small diameter twine called ‘marline’ around larger ropes to form protective whippings.
  • Did you think Lemon sole got its name from the citrus fruit? ‘Lemon’ is in fact a deformation of the French word limande (the same fish is called Limande in French) which itself comes from lime, meaning “[abrasive] file” referring to a former use of the fish’s skin.
  • I was once lucky enough to see a Mola Mola, the heaviest bony fish in the world, while diving in Bali. ‘Mola’ is latin for millstone, which the fish resembles because of its grey colour, rough texture, and rounded body. It is also called ‘sunfish’ in English due to it’s habit of ‘sunbathing’ at the surface of the water.  However most other European languages call it ‘moonfish’ in reference to its pale colour and rounded shape.
Mola Mola

Mola Mola

  • I’ve long been fascinated by coelacanths, rare fish occasionally found deep in the Mozambique Channel and Indonesia. Thought to be extinct until 1938, their name comes from the Greek words koilos ‘hollow’ and akantha ‘spine’ referring to the hollow caudal fin rays of the first fossil specimen described.
  • Not in the above-mentioned book but a beautiful etymology I learnt while diving in Madagascar last year is that of the whale shark (a filter-feeding shark, and the world’s largest fish species). In Malagasy it is called marokintana (‘many stars’) due to their spotted skin, which is unique to each individual.
Whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

Whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

Overall, the authors point out that composed fish names, e.g. goldfish, flying fish, clownfish, triggerfish etc., are much more common in the fish kingdom than in the mammal or bird world (they should know – the same authors also wrote similar books about bird and mammal names!).

With this post I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating subject, but to finish I couldn’t resist listing some of the many English idioms we seem to have about fish:

  • a big fish in a small pond
  • a fine kettle of fish
  • like a fish out of water
  • fish for compliments
  • have bigger fish to fry
  • there are plenty more fish in the sea
  • shooting fish in a barrel
  • to be a cold fish
  • drink like a fish
  • something smells fishy
  • a queer fish
  • to be neither fish nor fowl


  • La fabuleuse histoire du nom des poissons – du tout petit poisson-clown au très grand requin blanc by Henriette Walter and Pierre Avenas, published by Robert Laffont, 2011, ISBN 978-2-221-11356-1
  • Coelacanth – the ‘fossil fish’ – a short blog post about this fascinating fish on my travel blog.
  • Fish Caught In Time – the Search for The Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg, published by Perennial, 2000, ISBN 978-0-06-093285-5
  • Swim with the giant sunfish – a TED Talk about mola mola by marine biologist Tierney Thys
  • Our swim with a whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013 (1’55” video)


10 of my favourite books in translation

This week an article in The Guardian talked about readers’ favourite children’s books in translation. As a child I enjoyed Aesop’s Fables, Tintin and Asterix (although I never understood the latter’s wordplay e.g. Getafix until I was older!), but as an adult with an interest in international literature (see my blog post about that here) I also enjoy translated books.

A few statistics: out of 505 books that I’ve listed on Librarything, 335 were originally in English, 130 originally in French, and the 35 remaining* were in other languages which I don’t read, so were translations. I read 70% of all my listed books in English, and 30% in French.

Below are a few of my favourite books in translation:

Kleifarvatn, July 2012

  • L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] by Milan Kundera, translated from Czech to French by François Kérel. This 1984 postmodern novel is about two women, two men, a dog and their lives in the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history in 1968.
  • Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong aka Lü Jiamin, translated from Chinese to English by Howard Goldblatt. This semi-autobiographical novel is about a young Beijing student who is sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Caught between the advance of civilisation from the south and the wolves to the north, humans and animals, residents and invaders alike struggle to find their place in the world. Will be released as a film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 2015.

Teaser poster for the film ‘Wolf Totem’

  • Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende, translated from Spanish to English by Margaret Sayers Peden. Spanning four decades and set in the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue and the lavish parlours of New Orleans, this novel leaps between the social upheavals from the distant French Revolution to the Haitian slave rebellion, to a New Orleans fomenting with cultural change.
  • Woman At Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi translated from Arabic to English by Sherif Hetata (the writer’s husband). This novel is the first-person account of Firdaus, a murderess who has agreed to tell her life story before her execution.
  • Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, translated from Swedish to English by Reg Keeland aka Steven T. Murray. Is there any need to present this trilogy of crime novels?
  • The Swarm – a Novel of the Deep by Frank Schätzing, translated from German to English by Sally-Ann Spencer In this science-fiction novel full of twists, turns and cliffhangers, a team of scientists discovers a strange, intelligent life force that takes form in marine animals, using them to wreak havoc on humanity as revenge for our ecological abuses.
  • La vie rêvée des plantes [The Reverse Side of Life] by Seung-U Lee, translated from Korean to French by Mi-Kyung Choi and Jean-Noël Juttet. This highly acclaimed Korean novel reveals how the conflict of the secular and the divine manifests in the real world.
  • Who Ate Up All The Shinga? by Wan-Suh Park, translated from Korean to English by Young-Nan Yu and Stephen J. Epstein. In this ‘autobiographical novel’ Park, growing up in Korea, describes the characters and events that came to shape her life.
Shinga (Aconogonon alpinum)

Shinga (Aconogonon alpinum)

  • Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel (the author’s wife). This work recounts the author’s experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War.

What about you? Please share your favourite translations in the comments.

* the total doesn’t equal 505 as a few books use two languages to a greater or lesser degree




Parallel novels

I recently finished reading Geraldine Brooks‘ March, which I think along with Jean RhysWide Sargasso Sea, is only the second parallel novel I’ve read. What’s a parallel novel? According to Wikipedia:

 “Parallel novels are written within, or derived from, the framework of another work of fiction by another author. This does not include franchised book series, which are typically works licensed by the publisher of the original work to use its settings and characters … . Works … usually have the same setting and time period, and many of the same characters, but are told from a different perspective”.

So for example in March, Geraldine Brooks took the character of the (absent) father from Little Women – who had gone off to fight in the American Civil War – and wrote an original story recounting his experiences. It’s a powerful book that I enjoyed reading which explores themes such as injustice, a woman’s place, miscommunication, abolitionism, racial bigotry, slavery, and obligations. I last read Little Women when I was, well, little, and couldn’t remember very much about the story but that wasn’t a hindrance in understanding or following the story in March. I’m not surprised it won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although it has been compared to ‘respectable’ ‘fan fiction‘ (see here).

First edition cover of ‘March’

I read Jean Rhys’ most successful novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a few years ago, and enjoyed it too, although maybe not quite so much as March. Published in 1966 it acts as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, written in 1847. It tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (known as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage with Mr Rochester and relocation to England. Rhys, who was born in Dominica, re-imagined Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’, and deals largely with the theme of racial inequality. She used several narrative voices: Antoinette, Rochester and Grace Poole (the caretaker). In 2005 WSS was named by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923, and is rated N° 94 on the list of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

First edition cover

First edition cover of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

Have you read any parallel novels? I’ve been unable to find any in French – if you are aware of any do let me know in the comments. What about in other languages?

Some other examples of parallel novels:

Further reading:

Books about Reunion and worldwide literature

[Updated January 2023]

A recent exchange with Ann Morgan, who’s currently reading her way round the world, got me thinking about Reunion Island books in English. As far as I’m aware, with the exception of ‘Bourbon Island 1730’, the list I came up with contains only books that I have been written directly in English and not translated. In fact as far as I know there are no English translations of books by well-known Reunionese authors like Daniel Vaxelaire or Axel Gauvin, although the latter’s books have been translated into German.

Books about Reunion I haven’t read myself (but which are all on my Bookmooch wish list!):

  • Reunion: An Island in Search of an Identity by Laurent Medea
  • Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage by Françoise Verges
  • Island Born Of Fire: Volcano Piton de la Fournaise by Dr Robert B. Trombley
Cover of

Bourbon Island 1730

Books I’ve read myself:

I’ve written reviews of all of the books above.

Also: Bonnes Vacances!: A Crazy Family Adventure in the French Territories by Rosie Millard which is about a 4-month tour of the DOM-TOMs Rosie made with her husband and four young children to film a documentary series for the Travel Channel (“Croissants in the Jungle”). Its final chapter covers Réunion (briefly); see my review here.

In the introduction I mentioned Ann Morgan who is currently reading her way around as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as she can, sampling one book from every nation. (She’s also recently included a Rest of The World wildcard section, hence our exchange about Reunion Island). However as she asked herself: what counts as a story? Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state? While in some respects she’s still answering that question she had to lay down her terms and so decided to limit herself to all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own e.g. memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage, but not non-narrative poetry and plays.

It got me wondering about which countries I’d already read literature from, and after a quick tour of my bookshelves (and my memory!) this is the (non-exhaustive) list I came up with, in English and French:

Cover of

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

  • Brazil – Rouge Brésil [Brazil Red] – Jean-Christophe Rufin [Setting; Author is French] (added March 2014)
  • Burma – The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason [Setting; Author is British]
  • Cameroon – La saison de l’ombre – Léonora Miano [Author/Setting] (added November 2013)
  • CanadaWhere White Horses Gallop – Beatrice McNeil [Author/Setting]
  • Central African Republic – Princesse aux Pieds Nu – Evelyne Durieux [Author/Setting]
  • Chile – Ten Women by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) [Author/Setting]

Ten Women

Cover of

Island Beneath the Sea




  • I’ve arbitrarily excluded the UK, France and the USA as I’ve read so many books from these countries I’d have trouble choosing just one!
  • If I’ve read several books from a country I’ve generally just listed my favourite.
  • I’ve also taken liberties by listing some non-independent regions (e.g. Rodrigues, Hawaii, Kerguelen, Tibet, Tromelin).
  • I excluded some books (such as Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, or William Boyd’s African novels) that take place in unidentified countries.
  • I also excluded books (such as Elie Wiesel’s Night) whose action takes place in several countries.
  • If I’ve read a book in French but an English translation exists I’ve added the English title in brackets [].
  • I’ve included books not written by natives of the country in question.

My conclusions:

  • I have vast swathes of the planet where I haven’t read any literature from, for example South America or the Pacific! Places like South East Asia or Central Asia are patchy too. Although I list Paul Coelho and Isabel Allende the books of theirs that I read were not set in their native countries. And despite living and travelling for three years in Asia I’ve mainly read Korean books (North and South) but very little from the many other countries we travelled to in the region. I need to broaden my horizons even more.

What about you? Do you enjoy reading books from other countries? Do you have any books to recommend? Is literature from your native (or adopted) country easy to find in English?

P.S. Here’s the link to Ann Morgan’s blog: A Year Of Reading The World. Other reading around the world blogs I’ve come across are: Reading the WorldWorld Lit Up and Around the World in 180 books (specialised in children’s literature).

You might also like: A few books with linguists as characters.

Novels with language professionals as characters

[Updated October 2021]

I love reading and I thought I’d share a few novels in English or French that have translators or interpreters as characters. Some I’ve already read, and some I’m looking forward to reading soon.

Books in French I have read

  • Je l’aimais by Anna Gavalda was published in 2002, and has been translated into English by Catherine Evans as Someone I Loved. Two men have an affair. One leaves his wife and children, the other stays. Which one was right? Gavalda explores this dilemma from the unusual point of view of a relationship between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law. One of the mistresses, Mathilde, was an interpreter (annoyingly called a translator throughout the book), however she remains a secondary character and the story is never really explored from her point of view.
  • La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre, a lawyer. Published in 2017. Patience Portefeux is a sworn Arabic-French translator and interpreter in Paris who starts having criminal dealings. While this prize-winning novel shines a spotlight on those who work for the French justice system it doesn’t do so in a very flattering way; while Patience’s work is undoubtedly professional, her welfare situation isn’t (this is ultimately what makes her turn to crime), and the profession is portrayed as being peopled by those who don’t pay social security contributions. For more details about this see the SFT press release (in French). Made into a film in 2020.
  • Les amandes amères by Laurence Cossé, was published in September 2011. A translator and occasional interpreter, Edith, wants to teach her Moroccan home-help, Fadila, how to read and write. Edith realises how complicated and humiliating life is for somebody who is illiterate. But Fadila is not young and Edith is not trained to teach literacy. It turns out to be harder than Edith thought – what she thought Fadila had learnt is forgotten by the following week. This is a novel, but is based on the author’s real experience of trying to teach a Moroccan woman in her 60s to read and write. While the overall themes of immigration and illiteracy could have been interesting, I didn’t like the book very much as I found the multiple descriptions of teaching far too detailed and rather uninteresting. The faithful transcription of Fadila’s way of speaking is also rather difficult to read, and occasionally confusing. There are occasional references to Edith’s work, but they are few and far between. We only learn that Edith is a translator one-third of the way through the book.

  • Reparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal, was published in January 2014. When a 19-year-old is brain dead after an accident his parents consent to organ donation. His heart is given to Claire Méjan, a 51-year old translator suffering from myocarditis who, after three years of her condition gradually worsening, is in dire need of a heart transplant. An English translation was published in 2016 as Mend the Living in the UK and The Heart in the US, and there’s also a 2016 film.

Books in French I haven’t read yet

I haven’t had the chance to read any of these books yet. Let me know your opinion if you have!

  • Mensonges by Valérie Zenatti. Published May 2011. The translator of Aharon Appelfeld pretends to be him. A book where the fate of the writer and his translator are intertwined.

Aharon Appelfeld, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Assommons les pauvres ! by Shumona Sinha. Published August 2011. Sinha is an interpreter who worked for the OFPRA (French office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons). This (autobiographical?) novel is about an interpreter who works with asylum seekers. You can see a video on ARTE about it here.
  • La traduction est une histoire d’amour by Jacques Poulin. Published in 2006. Set in Quebec. Originally from Ireland, Marine is a translator working on a novel written by Jack Waterman. She ends up meeting him, they become friends, and he finds her somewhere to live: a chalet on l’Île d’Orléans. One day they discover a black cat, and together they start looking for the cat’s owner, who might need help.

Books I’ve read in English

  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. In an unnamed South American country a group of terrorists hold some VIPs hostage; one of the hostages, Gen, is the multilingual interpreter of the Japanese guest of honour. The book explores how the terrorists and hostages cope with living in a house together for several months. Bel Canto won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize in 2002, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named the Book Sense Book of the Year. It sold more than a million copies in the United States and has been translated into thirty languages. I enjoyed this book, although it was rather annoying that Gen was consistently referred to as a translator and not as an interpreter.
  • The Mission Song by John Le Carre. Interpreter Bruno Salvador is fluent in numerous African languages in London. Sent to a mysterious island in the North Sea to interpret during a secret conference between Central African warlords, Bruno thinks he is helping Britain bring peace to a bloody corner of the world. But then he hears something he should not have … . I read this in Mongolia two years ago, and while the story as a whole was interesting enough, from a professional point of view there were a number of inconsistencies concerning Bruno and his work. Conference interpreter Tiina wrote a good review covering these inconsistencies here.
  • House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti. An Italian translator becomes obsessed by a German novel he is translating. I read this a while back but it didn’t leave much of an impression.
  • The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones. Lucy Fly from Yorkshire is a Japanese to English technical translator who’s been living in Tokyo for ten years. She becomes the principal suspect in a murder case when her friend Lily is killed. During the novel you gradually discover how Lucy and Lily became friends, and whether or not Lucy is guilty. Talking about her work Lucy says: “[she] spent her days putting Japanese sentences into English, twisting the words so that the end went at the beginning, articles and plurals appeared, vagaries became specifics”. Lucy’s work, and the Japanese setting are merely backdrops in this mystery, but they add to the strong narrative. A good read.
  • The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster. New England professor and translator David Zimmer lost his family in a plane crash and spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity.  One night his interest is piqued by a clip from a lost film by silent comedian Hector Mann, and he embarks on a journey around the world to research a book on Mann, who vanished in 1929 and has been presumed dead for sixty years. When the book is published the following year, a letter invites him to meet Hector … . Zimmer is the central character but his translation activity is not really an important part of the story. I read this book a few months ago for a book club and enjoyed it – it reconciled me with Auster as I’d read one of his books 15 years ago (The Music of Chance) and it hadn’t made me want to read any of his others.
Paul Auster

Paul Auster

  • The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy. A romantic mistake at the American college where he used to teach has cost Harry Ricks his job and marriage, and he flees to Paris where he ends up having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. He meets beautiful and mysterious Margit, a Hungarian translator, but soon their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events. Margit is not all she seems to be, and Harry finds himself in a nightmare from which there is no easy escape. This is an easy and compelling read, but you might have to suspend your belief in reality. By the way, it’s much better than the film.
  • Bad Girl: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. Book originally in Spanish (Peru), translated by Edith Grossman. Young Peruvian Ricardo has only two ambitions in life: loving bad girls and living in Paris. He moves to the capital of France, where he becomes a translator and interpreter at UNESCO. His muse will come in the shape of the same woman who takes different forms: an amateur revolutionary in 1960s Paris and Havana, the wife of a British millionaire in 1970s London, and the lover of a Japanese mob boss. The book has several interesting reflections on the profession:
    • “So what were you Ricardito? Maybe … nothing but an interpreter, somebody, as my colleague Salomón Toledano liked to define us, who is only when he isn’t, a hominid who exists when he stops being what he is so that what other people think and say can pass through him more easily”.

    • “I had acquired the skill of the good interpreter, which consists in knowing the equivalents of words without necessarily understanding their contents (according to [my colleague], understanding them was a hindrance),”

    • [My colleague] never accepted a permanent position because as a freelancer he felt more liberated and earned more money. Not only was he the best interpreter I had met in all the years I earned a living practicing the “profession of phantoms”—that’s what he called it—but he was also the most original.”

    • [My colleague] asked, “If we suddenly felt ourselves dying and asked ourselves, “What trace of our passage through this dog’s life of drudgery will we leave behind?,’ the honest answer would be: ‘None, we haven’t done anything except speak for other people.’ Otherwise, what does it mean to have translated millions of words and not remember a single one of them, because not a single one deserved to be remembered?”

    • “I felt less ghostlike as a literary translator than I did as an interpreter.”
  • The Literary Conference by César Aira.  Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Katherine Silver. This somewhat surreal novella first published in 1997 follows the adventures of Aira as he attends a literary conference in Merida, Venezuela, while attempting to clone Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. He has to contend with unintended consequences of his cloning experiment, which starts having disastrous results. The English translation was published in 2006.
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors. A Danish book translated by Misha Hoekstra, short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, it tells the story of Sonja who translates Swedish crime fiction for a living. The first words are “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. Book originally in Dutch, translated by David Colmer. Winner of the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel follows Emilie, a translation professor and Emily Dickinson scholar, who retreats from her life in the Netherlands to an isolated farmhouse in Wales following an affair with a student.

Gerbrand Bakker (left) and his translator David Colmer (right).

Books in English I haven’t read yet

  • The Missing Shade Of Blue by Jennie Erdal. Lonely Parisian-raised translator Edgar Logan arrives in Edinburgh to study the Enlightenment sage David Hume; once there his life becomes entangled with those of Harry and Carrie, a self-destructive philosopher and his artist wife.
  • The Past by Alan Pauls. Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Nick Caistor. This is about a translator who works on movie subtitles and as a conference interpreter. His 12-year relationship with his girlfriend comes to an end and, after some time and a few important events in his life, he starts to suffer from amnesia and language issues: he ends up forgetting the languages he used to work with, which is the nightmare of all translators. In 2007 it also became a film, starring Gael García Bernal, and directed by Hector Babenco.
  • Kornél Esti by Dezso Kosztolányi. Book originally in Hungarian, translated by Bernard Adams. In 1933, Kosztolányi released a series of short stories whose protagonist is his most famous character, Kornél Esti―sort of the author’s alter ego. Some of this stories gave shape to the “The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti,” a celebrated Hungarian movie from the mid-1990s. Different editions of the book received different names, depending on the short story editors decided to highlight. In Brazil for example it became O tradutor cleptomaníaco (“The Kleptomaniac Translator”), based on the fact that the translator is stealing elements from the original text, such as jewelry, money, chandelier…. It’s a metaphor for the fact that there always seems to be something lost or “stolen” in translation―even though the vast majority of translators do not suffer from kleptomania.
  • The Translator: A Novel by Nina Schuyler. “When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work. Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.
  • The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass. At the end of a demanding day of translating speeches at an international medical conference in Manhattan, Dominique Green accidentally overhears something she is bound by her interpreter’s contract never to reveal. But she can’t forget it.
  • The Interpreter by Suki Kim. Suzy Park is a twenty-nine-year-old Korean American interpreter for the New York City court system. Young, attractive, and achingly alone, she makes a startling and ominous discovery during one court case that forever alters her family’s history.
  • Pinball,1973 by Haruki Murakami, translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum. This novel published in 1980 is the second book of the author’s ‘Trilogy of the Rat’ series. The plot centres on the nameless first-person narrator’s brief but intense obsession with pinball, his life as a freelance translator, and his later efforts to reunite with the old pinball machine that he used to play.

Cover of the English translation of ‘Pinball, 1973’

Lists of books with linguists as characters

Happy reading! Let me know of any I may have missed in the comments!