The German book review

Beyond specific linguistic and terminological problems that arise in the translation process – the usual fodder for this blog – I have also written previously about meta-level differences that complicate the translation process, such as the triadic-heading problem. Structural differences can emerge in a wide range of areas and are one reason why translation is so much more difficult than it may first appear. Clearly, the academic cultures in Germany and the English-speaking world are informed by divergent traditions and practices that can generate significant problems for the translator. Such structural problems are occasionally so significant they can completely sabotage the translation project. The differences between the German and English book review furnishes an interesting example in this regard.

In the English-speaking world, the academic book review aims first and foremost to critically evaluate the book’s ideas, and may also discuss issues like style, relevance, or related works. The organizational structure of the book is an ancillary issue that is at most addressed in passing. In the German-book review, however, a key aim is to provide an overview of the book’s organizational structure. The German book review typically proceeds by systematically recounting each section of work, critiquing the book within a step-by-step summary of its contents. This “systematic synopsis” approach is wholly foreign to English-speaking readers, and makes translating the German book review an impossible task insofar as publication is sought in an English-language journal that has massively different expectations concerning the form that a book review should take.

This is an extreme example of a structural problem, as there is literally no way to finesse the problem as a translator. The best approach is to inform the customer at the earliest possible point that different expectations may prevail at the journal where submission is sought. Yet the problem is interesting, for it is illustrative of how academic cultures may entertain expectations that are universally accepted as a priori truths, and, as such, are rendered nearly invisible. The constructed and consensual nature of cultural practice is perhaps never more evident than during the translation process.