Bill'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
Aug 13, 2012

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bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in August, 2012

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 just their local "custom" instead of trying to study it as a separate grammatical pattern with different vocabulary. He also looks at language hierarchies due to power and gets across how this can differ from dominance due to use as a "vehicular language," i.e., a common second language that people from different places use to communicate with one another. Each chapter reads like an intriguing essay in which he ranges from the notebooks of Christopher Columbus to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (Yes, Bello's title comes from the "babel fish" in Hitchhiker's Guide when he discusses simultaneous translation which was invented right after World War II at the Nuremberg Trials due to a special confluence of political, technological, and demographic factors. Are you intrigued yet?).

My only quibble with this book is that Bello's approach is to begin each chapter by establishing some common view which he then sets about showing to be false. This argument by negative made it hard to come away with the positive theory which is embedded in the book and which hit me like a brick in the last three paragraphs of the epilogue. Now that he's worked his way into and out of these different arguments, I'd like to see him start with the last three paragraphs and write a New Yorker essay that - instead of showing us that what we think we know is wrong - explicates how he understands the genesis of language, communication, meaning and translation. Because the subtitle is correct - it's all there!

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