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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything

3.74  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,515 Ratings  ·  240 Reviews
A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year

People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighbors' languages—as did many ordinary Europeans in times past (Christopher Columbus knew
ebook, 384 pages
Published October 11th 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published January 1st 2011)
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Feb 21, 2015 Warwick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language, translation
In chapter fifty-two of Perec's La vie, mode d'emploi, a young man finds himself staring into the window of a printer's shop in Paris. The display is filled with examples of the printer's wares – fake letterheads and joke business cards. One of them reads:


A fourreur is a furrier; the joke, of course, is that it sounds like the German word Führer. As Bellos says, the gag is ‘a metalinguistic and self-referring one, provided you know who and what Hitler was, know in addition
MJ Nicholls
David Bellos, famous for translating Life: A User’s Manual and his compendious Georges Perec bio, writes a comprehensive, semi-scholarly and semi-accessible book exploring translation in its multifarious forms. Covering the complexities of literary translation—from verbatim likenesses to humour to style—into wider world areas such as legal and political translation (less captivating material for laymen), Bellos is a witty and super-smart writer who makes a convincing case for the importance of t ...more
Apr 22, 2013 Nikki rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This review sums up my problem with this book. For what it is, it's a well-written, informative and interesting book about the art of translation, its difficulties and the assumptions you have to make to translate. It reminded me of my experience in trying to translate Wulf and Eadwacer. To translate it, you have to decide what it means, to ensure that you translate it consistently. And there's four or five different readings of it, at least -- and ultimately I was left with the feeling that to ...more
Meg - A Bookish Affair
4.5. How do I know when a book is really interesting? If a book is really interesting, I will be compelled to read it aloud to whoever has the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your point of view) of being around at the time. Usually it's my poor, dear husband who is the witness to these readings. Let's just say with this book, he got a lot of it read to him.

Guys, I'm a word nerd. What does that mean? I love the written word, I love the spoken word, I love languages among other things. I thi
Jan 03, 2012 Filip rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book ended up on several Best Books of 2011 lists, yet I wonder if every reviewer read past the sexy title and consumed it from end to end. David Bellos is a professional translater (French to English) and has some very interesting and enlightening views on communication and translation. In this book, he doesn't shy away from radical overstatement (such as when he says that nowadays English is the only lingua franca that the various Belgian linguistic communities can still use to communicat ...more
Thomas Hübner
Mar 25, 2015 Thomas Hübner rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

When I have a bit free time, I love to browse blog posts of my fellow book bloggers. It is always interesting to see what the colleagues and friends are doing, which books I missed but should read soon, what they think about books I reviewed recently – and sometimes what they are thinking about other book-related topics.

As I have said several times before, I am much more aware now that translations matter and are extremely important. Even when you can speak an
Guillaume Jay
Mar 29, 2012 Guillaume Jay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ce livre est un essai sur l'acte et l'art de la traduction.
Très documenté, et basé sur de nombreux exemples, c'est passionnant, pour qui aime les mots, la sémantique, et le langage.
J'ai eu un peu de mal à rentrer dedans, mais assez vite, je suis passé(a travers de court chapitres) de découverte en révélation :
- dire que les esquimaux ont 100 mots pour décrire la neige, mais aucun qui indique la neige générique, c'est non seulement faux, mais aussi une sorte de mépris ("ces sauvages ne peuvent pa
There is a great moment in the third season of The West Wing when Joey Lucas is brought in to a secret meeting in the basement of the White House and President Bartlett asks if anyone knows her interpreter's last name. Translation is ubiquitous in our society and we rarely give it a second thought.

Bellos calls attention to a number of fascinating points in this book. If you give a hundred professional translators the same document, you will receive a hundred distinct translations. Literal trans
Nov 01, 2012 jeremy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
the variability of translations is incontrovertible evidence of the limitless flexibility of human minds

is that a fish in your ear? is an accessible, yet remarkably erudite examination of translation's many facets. david bellos, acclaimed translator (perec, kadare, et al.), biographer, and professor, has composed a magnificent work likely to appeal to both academics focusing on translation studies as well as the general reader interested in language, context, and meaning. bellos considers transl
Bellos' book is interesting and enjoyable. However, much of what he talked about was still a little too educated-linguist for me (a layperson). Additionally, he seemed too often to spend a chapter talking about all the confusing points of a particular aspect of what translation is or isn't, purposefully playing up the confusion, then pull a pat answer or glib remark out in the last few paragraphs that tied the chapter up in a bow.

Still, it was enjoyable. Just not four-stars enjoyable.
Apr 06, 2012 Oscar rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
David Bellos begins his book by contemplating the deceptively simple question of asking what exactly is translation? He finds it difficult that while he is a professional translator, he cannot fully describe what constitutes translation, and neither can his colleagues in his department. Bellos, then, seeks out to describe the process of translation, while looking at a wide array of theories, philosophical issues, cultural concerns, and practical problems that come into play while attempting to ‘ ...more
Oct 30, 2012 Seth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Although I do freelance translation, I learned a great deal from David Bellos' wide-ranging collection of essays on translation. For example, he introduced me to the concept of translating UP vs. DOWN. Translating UP is to a language that occupies a higher position in the hierarchy of languages. Currently, English occupies the dominant position. When I translate business German into English, I am translating UP to the international language of business. Another way of putting this is that Englis
This is a decent book about translation, but not, alas for the subtitle, much of a book about meaning.

Does that sound harsh? It's not a bad book. It talks interestingly and illuminatingly about the art of translation. It just refuses to go beyond the art and its technicalities into its politics and implications.

I wouldn't normally belabour the point, but it's really the elephant in the room. He talks about the difficulty and pitfalls of making a translation "sound foreign"; he talks about how, h
Patrick Neylan
Nov 06, 2011 Patrick Neylan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, language
Bellos starts with a provocative question: what exactly is translation? The answer is more elusive than you might think, but in trying to answer it he takes us on a fascinating journey that is partly academic and partly anecdotal, with a light enough touch to make a fun read. Of course he is an advocate for the unsung, underpaid translator, but he makes a convincing case that translation is often just as creative and original creation itself.

But he's not just talking about novels: the problems
Chad Post
Aug 29, 2011 Chad Post rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely fantastic. We're going to run part of this on Read This Next ( and I'll write a full review at that time. But for now, I just want to urge any and everyone interested in translation to preorder a copy. You won't be disappointed--I swear! Bellos is a translation genius, and the way he flits from topic to topic--from translating news to translating humor to the myth of literal translation--is incredibly impressive. Definitely using this in my spring class . . ...more
Jan 18, 2013 Lee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
At the start of Mother Tongue , Bill Bryson gives some examples of poorly translated text seen in other countries. My favourite is the following warning to motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigour.” That's either comedic genius or more likely what happens if you grab a bilingual dictionary and try to translate word-by-word. A more modern trap is to r ...more
Aug 13, 2012 Bill rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book will change the way you think about language, translation, communication and maybe even the entire process of thinking. Bellos asks "what is translation?" and in the process of answering it conveys how my (our?) notion of translation is so specific to this time and place. He looks at how people communicated historically and across cultures and how even our concept of separate languages is itself a modern construct. Imagine thinking that the way the people in the next valley speak is ju ...more
Mar 07, 2012 Sharlene rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, library, 2012
“Give a hundred competent translators a page to translate, and the chances of any two versions being identical are close to zero. This fact about interlingual communication has persuaded many people that translation is not an interesting topic – because it is always approximate, it is just a second-rate kind of thing.”

Indeed, I have never thought much about translation. Even while reading all these translated works this past month, I’ve never thought about the actual act of translating, and how
Feb 25, 2015 Joanne-in-Canada rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in languages
Shelves: language
Another wonderful book for people interested in languages. In this case, you'll learn more than you thought possible about how translation works--its history, theory and criticisms. The author covers all sorts of fascinating topics: the challenges and effects of translation on international law, literature and the Bible. He discusses how multiple languages are handled in documents for the European Union and how simultaneous interpretation works in the United Nations. You even find out how Google ...more
the gift
i only read in english, so i am so very glad there are people out there who translate. or my range of reading would be much less. perhaps i could translate french with time, patience, and a good dictionary. but japanese..?

about 33% (now 35%) of what fiction i read are from other languages. i decided some years ago that i would just read translations rather than start reading again learning simple books for children, gradually building up to adult books… because i thought of how many languages i
Blake Brownrigg
Mostly for the layreader, as it tends to give very shallow, or even useless, descriptions of problems and phenomenon in the history of translation. At times Bellos is uselessly argumentative about something that is fairly obvious or even moot, and other times he is a little too obscure in the nonchalant way that people who want to sound deep or knowledgable usually are. There are some better essays in the bunch, the ones on humour and style in translation, but there are other sources that are de ...more
Mar 12, 2013 Truehobbit rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Occasionally a bit wordier than it needed to be, this is still a very entertaining look at the many things translation does and does not do and the many uses mankind makes of it. Directed mainly at an anglophone readership, ie one that is not only predominantly monoglot but moreover one that has become used to the idea that translation is somehow a bad thing, it speaks up for translation as something that is at the basis of human communication. Not all his points are convincing, but for the most ...more
Laura (ローラ)
May 29, 2016 Laura (ローラ) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 4-star, read-2012
He starts off the book by defining translation, the other solutions to dealing with language barriers, and whether translation actually exists (just because we've given it a name). Brilliant! It reminded me of my "Modern Art" history class at university -- I put it off for several years because I took the stance that everything has been done before -- it's just a rehash. and what were the first words out of my prof's mouth? "I'm going to take this semester to explain to you that Modern Art Does ...more
Mar 20, 2016 E rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is truly a superb piece of work. It discusses the art and science of translation from seemingly every possible angle. The 32 chapters read more like essays, so you can tackle them at any pace and enjoy any chapter independently of the others if so desired. He discusses the goals of translation, the search for meaning in the original text, the definitions of words, literal vs. dynamic translations, oral translation, translation of great literature and poetry, which language affect translatio ...more
Jun 02, 2015 Antonis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I just happened to walk into a colleague’s office the other day and I noticed on her desk a book with an intriguing title: “Is that a fish in your ear?” Well, any book that contrives to combine references to Douglas Adams and May West in its title has my curiosity picked: I immediately run to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy. I was not disappointed. David Bellos is a professional translator (he translated Perec’s “Life, an owner’s manual”, no less) so he knows whereof he speaks. His writi ...more
Apr 01, 2015 Ann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language-books
This is one of those books that makes you stop and consider everyday things you never think about. Reading translated books or other materials is something we take for granted. But what goes on behind the scenes? David Bellos, who has translated Georges Perec (which, in my view, automatically means that he must have an excellent grasp of the French language), reflects on what translation is, its limitations and powers, its triumphs and pitfalls. Along the way, he corrects some long-standing misu ...more
Oct 21, 2015 Rob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2015
Beyond the rather ungainly and unsuccessful Hitchhiker's Guide-related title (possibly inspired by the success of the Freakonomics team in those years), this 2011 book on translation by acclaimed translator and lecturer David Bellos is a sometimes-excellent, sometimes-convoluted rundown of some of the main issues revolving around the world of translators.

He is very good in his discussions - in which he blends wit and wisdom - of the rise of translation in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials, the ad
Feb 14, 2016 Danny rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It probably shouldn't come as too big of a surprise that a book written by a translator about the art of translation was going to be a book that attempts to elevate the profession from its current status of anonymity and being taken completely for granted in our daily lives. But it sure as heck is necessary.

Bellos looks at translation in all its different facets with the underlying question of what translation is. As we reach the final page of the book (including a great afterword section), we d
Jun 27, 2012 Louis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's funny/ironic that the amount of page space dedicated to different words for 'translation' in Japanese, formed by adding a prefix to 訳, is roughly the same as the amount of page space dedicated to debunking the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, on the grounds that Inuit language qualifies words by adding prefixes and suffixes. On a side note, I'm going to call my post-rock band of linguistic pedants "Eskimo Word For Snow"
May 06, 2014 Max rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was about the art/science or translation and some of the theories on the subject. If there was a main thesis, it was that translation is a very subjective exercise. There were also interesting chapters on the history of translation and polyglotism (word of the day!). Christopher Columbus corresponded and kept journals in like six different languages! The author also made a couple of interesting points about the hierarchy of translation; if you translate from a less commonly used langua ...more
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David Bellos (born 1945) is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, and others, including the Man Booker International Translator’s Award. He also received the Prix Goncourt for George Perec: A Li ...more
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“in Israel it is said that God himself would not get promotion in any science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Why not? Because he has only one publication—​and it was not written in English.” 1 likes
“It is translation, more than speech itself, which provides incontrovertible evidence of the human capacity to think and to communicate thought.
We should do more of it.”
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