So, for the past 11 months or so, I have been self-studying for CATTI – China Accreditation Test For Translators And Interpreters. I want to take on Mandarin-English translation work eventually, so I need some sort of certification for that. Plus, it would be a good way to brush up on my Mandarin skills, which have gone somewhat rusty over the years.
I studied mainly with books – some I found helpful; others not so much. In this article, I will list down every single book I used in the past 11 months and whether or not I think they’re worth the money, and why.
Keep in mind that none of these books were written by native speakers of English, so you’re going to find some awkward, slightly unnatural English sentences even in the best of them. But since I was mainly concerned with improving my Mandarin writing skills and spent most of my time looking at the English > Mandarin translations than the Mandarin > English ones, it didn’t really bother me.
The links will take you to the Taobao stores that I got these books from, but I’m sure you can find some of them on other platforms, like Amazon.
There are 2 books in this series – one for English > Mandarin translation and another for Mandarin > English translation. Personally, I think they are perfect for beginners. A lot of these books set out to highlight the key differences between the English language and the Chinese language, but I have not found one that does it as well as this series. While it is by no means exhaustive, it did cover some of the most distinctive features of these two languages – or rather, the ones that make the biggest difference when it comes to harmonising them. The books are aimed at those who are just starting out, so the language is fairly plain, but it makes sense because style is usually the least of your concerns as a beginner.
My only regret is not buying these books earlier. I had been studying for 3 months on my own when I found them. I had just finished 十二天突破英汉翻译 by 武峰 (which I’ll talk about later), which left me feeling more confused and lost than I’d been at the start of my journey, so discovering this series was really a turning point for me. I wish they’d been my first books, and I would recommend them to any beginners looking for a place to start.
Another gem by the same author of the aforementioned series. I wasn’t looking to learn interpretation at all so I didn’t pick up this book until I found out that they would be combining translation and interpretation into one test for CATTI International. By then, I had only 2 months left to learn interpretation from scratch, so I picked up this book in hopes that it would be as good as the translation series, and sure enough, it was. As a beginner with zero basics, I can safely say that this book was the perfect crash course – it covered a wide variety of topics, from business and politics to tourism, and taught me the fundamentals of effective note-taking, an essential skill for all interpreters.
This is more of a book for lower-intermediate learners, as it is built around actual excerpts from the previous CATTI exams. Personally, I think it made for a fairly good sequel to the beginner series I mentioned above. The language is a lot more flowery and you can see that the author put a lot of thought into balancing substance and style. While I found the English translations a bit awkward in some places, they helped open my eyes to just how creative one can get with Mandarin-English translation and inspired me to be a bit bolder with mine. The Mandarin translations on the other hand were great for the most part. I saw a lot of improvement in my Mandarin writing skills after studying with the book for close to 4 months.
This bundle contains 2 books. The first one is basically a compilation of 900 sentences that are all somewhat challenging to translate. Each comes with a suggested translation, so you can see how it’s meant to be done. It’s probably best used as supplemental material to a more instructive book since there are no instructions of any kind. You’re meant to read through these translations yourself and analyse them so as to glean some sort of pattern that you can then apply to your own translation. I think it can probably be useful to an upper-intermediate learner looking to improve their style, but you need to be at a certain level and have something else to use it with in order to make the most out of it.
The other aims to help readers prepare for the CATTI interpretation exam. I didn’t really use this book because I was not planning to take the interpretation exam, so I can’t comment on how effective the book is, but I did take a look at its format. Like most other books in this article, it’s built around actual questions from the previous exams. After every excerpt, you have a section that offers suggestions on how you can translate some of the more complex sentences, and that’s pretty much it.
As for the quality of the translations, it’s not that different from that of the 90天攻克CATTI三级 book – slightly awkward in some places, but for the most part okay. Just don’t rely on it completely for improving your English writing/translation skills. Read more native content instead.
I actually really enjoyed the format of this bundle. It has 3 books: a compilation of actual CATTI questions from 2010 to 2019, which covered all the years that 90天攻克CATTI三级笔译 didn’t; a collection of texts complete with translations and covering a wide range of topics, from social issues to arts and space exploration; and English grammar and vocabulary exercises, to help you ace that particular section in the exam. I didn’t really use the third book, but I did practice a lot with the first two. My only complaint is that the translation is a bit awkward in some places – even the Mandarin Chinese ones, which bothered me a lot because natural-sounding Mandarin input is really all I’m asking for. I do like the way the books were designed, though. They would have been perfect if the translation was of better quality.
I was really tempted to put this book in the ‘bad’ category, because I genuinely regret the time I spent reading it. I bought it because it was recommended in nearly every article about which books to read to get started on preparing for the CATTI exam.
To be fair, I’m not really the target audience of the book. I know that. It spends a lot of time teaching its readers how to comprehend English sentences rather than how to translate them, so it’s probably aimed at aspiring Chinese translators who urgently need to improve their reading comprehension skills in English. I said ‘urgently’ because I think comprehension is the first step – in order to translate something correctly, you need to first understand it correctly. If you’re constantly struggling to understand things in that language, then you’re probably not ready to translate from it, much less into it.
You can tell the author set out to offer real, practical instructions on how to actually translate from English to Mandarin and vice versa by highlighting where the two languages differ. That in itself is an admirable goal. But personally, I think he failed to consolidate those differences into something more holistic – a big picture that makes sense, a new way of understanding how English and Mandarin relate to one another that will stay with me long after I’ve finished the book.
Instead, I felt like I just read a really long list of all these little instances in which English and Mandarin could sometimes operate differently, some of which actually felt like over- generalisations (I’m not going to go into that because that’s not my main problem with the book). They were interesting to read about, but ultimately useless because there was no real way to apply them to my translations. In other words, whatever this book was trying to do, Field Translation did it way better.
My biggest problem with the book, however, was the quality of the translations. I can tolerate awkward English translations from a native Chinese author, but bad Mandarin translations? As I mentioned at the start of this article, when I set out to prepare for the exam, all I wanted was to improve my Mandarin writing skills. I had no problem understanding things, regardless of whether they were in English or Mandarin. But I often struggled to reword things in Mandarin in a way that was not only accurate but natural. So what I needed to do was expose myself, regularly, to lots and lots of good-quality English > Mandarin translations.
That was what I set out to find in these books, and this one just happened to have too few of them. And it seems that I’m not the only one who feels like this, either. After finishing the book and feeling thoroughly disappointed, I went online to try and find a negative review. I found a couple. I wish I’d done my research a bit better. It would have saved me a month’s worth of time and headache.
Here‘s a fellow reader attempting to fix the weird translations in the book.
I read all these books over the course of 10-11 months. Most of them come with exercises, and I made sure to do those as well. Some helped, some didn’t.
I hope this article helped you decide on what books to start with and I wish you all the best in your journey.