Ilya's Reviews > Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos
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's review
Dec 09, 11

really liked it
bookshelves: linguistics

David Bellos is a professor of comparative literature and an accomplished translator who translated Romain Gary, Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare into English (the latter using French as a pivot language), among others. With so much experience under his belt, he decided to write a book on the theory and practice of translation. Poor translation is easy because human languages mostly have words for similar things. Yet improving its quality means realizing that the boundaries between concepts denoted by words are not the same between languages. In French, "head" is "tête" except that the head of an organization is "chef" or "patron", a head of beer is "mousse", and the head of a promontory is "cap". Words also have different connotations and pronunciation in different languages. A character of Georges Perec's looks at a joke business card that says, "Adolf Hitler, Fourreur". The French word "fourreur" means "furrier" and sounds like "führer". The English word "furrier" does not sound like "führer", so Bellos made the joke business card say, "Adolf Hitler, German Lieder". A translation from a more prestigious language to a less prestigious one tends to leave more of the source's foreign qualities because they carry prestige, compared to a translation that goes the other way, the readers of which are not expected to know much about the culture that produced the source. In the early Soviet Union, Russian translations of poems by the Kazakh folk singer Jambyl Jabayev praising Stalin, the Revolution and the Socialist Motherland were published widely; there were rumors that these were actually not translations from the Kazakh but original poems written in Russian. Translations of the Bible have some characteristics of both: on the one hand, English owes "salt of the Earth", "the skin of one's teeth", "feet of clay" and much more to the King James Bible, which carried the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic idioms unchanged; on the other, in a translation of Matthew 7 into a Papuan language spoken by swamp dwellers who build houses on stilts, the wise builder builds his house on stilts of iron wood, and the foolish builder builds his house on stilts of easily-rotting wood. If a translation is popular, it can leave a mark on the target language: combining a quotative verb with a modifier is possible but much less usual in Swedish than in English, where Tom Swift novels are famous for it; this construction was popularized by Swedish translations of American crime fiction, and lived on in Swedish crime fiction. Translation usually reduces the stylistic and linguistic diversity of the original: in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug", a black slave character speaks an English-based creole language; Charles Baudelaire's translation makes him speak normative French. There is also a chapter on simultaneous interpreting, which was invented for the Nuremberg Trials, one on machine translation, which was curiously anticipated by Vladimir Nabokov, one on translation in the bureaucracy of the European Union, and one on the international translations of literature.

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