If there ever was a book that qualified for inclusion on the website Awful Library Books, this is it. Translating by Ian F. Finlay has long outlived its relevance and does not belong on the shelves of any library. It was written in 1971 and likely went out of date less than fifteen years after publication. Aside from its age, the book, obviously rebound, was missing four pages. From my inspection the missing pages could not have come loose from the new binding; thus I can only wonder who sent this book to bindery if it was missing pages. This book should have been discarded. The only reason I ended up reading it is that I wanted to see what the British translation industry was like forty years ago and at a mere 179 pages it wouldn’t take me long to find out.

Finlay himself is a translator and writes from his own experience. He fills the book with personal anecdotes which enhance the points he makes although they detract from the scholarly tone by the profusion of exclamation marks. While I have no problem with Finlay using the gender-neutral pronoun “he” throughout the text, whenever he refers to the typist who will prepare the final translation manuscript, he always used “she”. The days of strictly female office staff have long disappeared.

In spite of all the technological anachronisms (such as “advanced” typewriters with balls instead of keys), and translator libraries, where:

“Information on the translators is contained on punched feature cards”

there are some timeless universal themes in the field of translation. I liked the advice Finlay gives to those who are seeking a translator, especially the final two sentences in the passage below:

“The printed word bristles with examples of what can happen when people translate out of their mother tongue, ranging from the merely quaint or amusing to the grotesque, obscene and even damaging and fatal. Beware, therefore, of those translators who claim that they can or will translate from and into several languages on virtually any subject. Look rather for the translator who undertakes to translate from various foreign languages into his mother tongue or language of adoption within a fairly closely circumscribed sphere of subjects. It is only fair to point out here that translating into a foreign language can be and is an excellent exercise for testing one’s understanding of the structure of that foreign language. It is, however, as such that it should be indulged in, not as a professional activity.”

Finlay stresses this point further:

“…the importance of our statement about not translating out of one’s language of habitual use will be evident, since it is unlikely that the non-native-speaker will be able to acquire just that sense of what the Germans call Sprachgefühl or feeling for what is correct in a language, particularly in the psychologically subtle world of advertising and hidden persuading.”

Finlay raises the constant translation debate, namely whether to translate for verbal exactitude rather than the preservation of an aesthetic effect. He argues for both cases based on intent: translations for informational purposes only do not need to be elegant, provided the content of the original is conveyed in the translation. These translations are ephemeral and disappear once the information in them has been disseminated. On the other hand, translations that are intended for publication have to be so well written that the reader cannot tell that the document is in fact a translation. This entails far more work, as the translation must be corrected, proofread, and even left for a few days so that the translator can return to the job with a clear head.

Pitfalls of translation work are outlined as Finlay describes some aspects from his personal practice. He covers such themes as faux amis, regional differences, and lacunae, or “words that cannot be translated”. The chapter on computerized or machine translations was useful only to see what the state of the industry was like forty years ago when automation was in its infancy. Your eyes will roll out of their sockets when you read the introduction to the chapter entitled “The Translator and Computerized Techniques”:

“During the past twenty years or so, there have been outstanding advances in electronics and in techniques relying for their operation on the use of minute electrical components. These have resulted, amongst other things, in equipment referred to as computers which are, in many cases, capable of performing highly complicated operations and calculations which previously took human beings several hundred times as long.”

Translating had relevance perhaps forty-one years ago when it first came out–and in England only, as Finlay made reference to accountant salaries being paid in guineas. It is only a historical document or a curiosity now.

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