Bilingual Books

When you’ve finished a textbook, you’re often at a strange stage where other textbooks are too easy but real materials (books and TV shows intended for native speakers) are too difficult. At that stage, I’d sometimes use easy readers, but the stories rarely manage hold my interest. A better solution I discovered are bilingual books, which allow me to read interesting texts intended for native speakers while skipping past many of the difficulties.

Bilingual books have the same text in your target language and in your native language. There are several ways this can work, roughly from worst to best:

  • Text in target language first, text in native language second. This is hard to use because you have to keep turning the pages in order to compare the two versions.
  • Parallel texts (non-aligned). These have the text in your target language on the left side and the text in your native language on the right side. With this setup, it is already possible to compare texts more easily, but if the paragraphs don’t line up, it’s still not convenient to glance over if you need to know the translation of a word. You’ll probably just look at the English if you don’t understand several words in a single paragraph.
  • Parallel texts (aligned). Same as above, but with paragraphs aligned, it often takes me less than a second in order to find the translation of the word I didn’t understand, so this is quite convenient to use. Various indie publishing houses offer parallel books and I have sometimes even created such parallel books myself (electronic versions only), either by hand or by using the handy software Hunalign. My friend Pete explains how to do it but you have to be a bit technical.
  • Sentence in your target language followed by the same sentence in your native language. This concept, which was popularized by Franklang in Russia, also allows relatively quick comparisons once you’re used to it. I personally find it more disruptive than parallel texts though, because I cannot read only the target language, even when I’m in the flow.
  • Interlinear translations. Here, the translation of each word is underneath the word itself, so that you can absorb new vocabulary and its meaning without having to glance anywhere else at all. This is clearly the best method if you want to learn a lot of new vocabulary while reading. It’s a lot of work to prepare texts in such a way, so they used to be quite short and rare, but now Interlinear Books has started to publish entire books treated this way. I recently had a chance to read the collection of Modern Greek short stories “The Clockmaster” by Roubina Gouyoumtzian, published by Interlinear Books, and I must say that they did a really good job. You can also read my review of this book.

So, which one do I recommend? All of them except the first. The thing is, while texts with interlinear translations are clearly the best, there are still very few of them out there. Parallel texts / books are easier to find, but still not exactly common. So don’t wait until you find the ideal method coupled with the ideal book that you always wanted to read; you’ll probably be waiting forever. Just go with what’s out there, create your own if you’re particularly tenacious, and otherwise focus on leaving behind that annoying intermediate stage as soon as possible. The real fun lies beyond, when you don’t need translations and you can simply pick up any book and read it with pleasure. And that’s what bilingual books help you achieve.