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

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  2,349 ratings  ·  337 reviews
Funny and surprising on every page, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers readers new insight into the mystery of how we come to know what someone else means—whether we wish to understand Astérix cartoons or a foreign head of state. Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the histor ...more
Hardcover, 390 pages
Published October 25th 2011 by Particular Books
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Dec 20, 2012 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 additio
☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
Beyond multilingualism and language unification, the third path that leads away from translation is to stop fussing about what other cultures have to say and to stick to one’s own. (c)
C.K. Ogden, the famously eccentric co-author of The Meaning of Meaning, believed that much of the world’s troubles could be ascribed to the illusion that a thing exists just because we have a word for it. He called this phenomenon “Word Magic.” Candidates for the label include “levitation,” “real existing socia
MJ Nicholls
Apr 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Paul Sánchez Keighley
This book is the author’s quest to define what translation is and how it works. He does that by cross-examining a series of tropes and clichés that are often thrown about on the subject of translation to weed out the untruths and zero in on something approximating a definition. And David Bellos is the best guy to go on this journey with. I mean, we’re talking a guy who read Perec’s La Vie mode d'emploi and thought “You know what? I want to translate that.” Madman.

We often think of translatio
Apr 22, 2013 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
Aug 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012, non-fiction
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
Jun 03, 2016 rated it it was ok
From the title, I expected this to be friendlier, to be a good introduction to issues of translation. Instead, I found much of it to be nearly impenetrable nitpicking, and much of the rest to be obvious to any student of human nature, any auto-didact of modern psychology. I wanted examples, anecdotes, something a bit like They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases promises to be.*


Author is guilty of saying "Chinese" language in every context, ins
Oct 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Kamila Kunda
Apr 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, non-fiction
There are a lot of things I liked about David Bellos’s “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything”. He succeeded in reminding me of what I have always found so fascinating in the art of translation and been amazed by while studying applied linguistics and anthropological linguistics, learning various languages, living in seven countries around the world and (mis)communicating with others. Namely, this realisation that translation is what we all do all the time, throug ...more
Oct 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
It is not surprising that of all translators it is the translator of Georges Perec who is inclined to write a book about the art of translation. While I am sure that every translator loves language, and loves the puzzle of fitting one language into another, the one who has to deal with the endless wordplay of Perec might just be a little bit more devoted than average.

Bellos here talks about a lot of interesting aspects and gives interesting examples, and in general defends the value of translati
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Emre Sevinç
Apr 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you're like me, that is, someone fascinated with the topic of translation for so many years, as well as this topic's connection to many other fields of human activities, you'll devour this book. After all, is it even possible not to fall in love with a book that starts to tell its story by referring to Hofstadter's "Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language"? Love at first sight, indeed!

Prepare your favorite drink, find a silent place, and get ready for an intelligent conversat
Possibly in Michigan, London
David Bellos, the translator of Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, has a point to prove, and he makes it several times over. Translation is a substitute for the original, because most of us will never what the original is like. For those of us that can read something ‘in the original’ (a phrase I’ll never use again after reading this), we can only explain what’s untranslatable about it in one language. And that has to be translated in order to explain why it’s not translatable.

I sort of lik
Oct 30, 2012 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
Patrick Neylan
Sep 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 as creation itself.

But he's not just talking about novels: the proble
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
Thomas Hübner
Mar 25, 2015 rated it really liked it

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
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I believe that everyone is interested in translation of one sort or another, so my interest and enthusiasm must have existed for some time. With wit and panache, David Bellos covers all the types of translation one can think of, from literary translation, which we are most familiar with, to international law, simultaneous interpreting, biblical translation, and even to translation machines. He discusses its pitfalls and problems, the interpretations, contradictions and controversies that face tr ...more
Tim Friese
Feb 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Bellos set out for himself the very high-minded task of writing a book about "translation and the meaning of everything" and mistakenly believed that he needs to include everything in it. There is not much of an argument or thesis, but instead the book consists of an older erudite professor talking about stuff he finds interesting: language equality within the EU, the history of simultaneous interpreting, how machine translation works, translating humor, the literary translation market, and so o ...more
Chad Post
Aug 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
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.
Aug 13, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Feb 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Jan 09, 2013 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 ...more
Romany Arrowsmith
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Does it sound as bad as I think it does to call a book on the philosophy of translation thrilling? Bellos is a gorgeous writer, careful, clear, and original.

Here are two examples: "English speech—like any other—is a highly pixelated way of telling people who you are", or "Paid derisory sums at piece rates, the tiny band of English-language subtitlers are among the least-loved and least-understood language athletes of the modern media world."

Look at these sentences, prickling with dense meaning
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012, non-fiction, library
“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 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Professional Translators
Shelves: finished-in-2017
This book is a very in-depth and technical discussion of what language is and it contrasts a variety of translation philosophies. Honestly, I was hoping for more of an overview of practical translation for living cross-culturally, but this book is focused much more toward professional translators.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes (emphases mine):

"...all utterances have innumerably many acceptable translations." @location 118

"To expand our minds and to become more fully civilized members of th
Nov 18, 2019 rated it liked it
David Bellos is an English translator who has gained fame for his translations of French-language literature, such as Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare. His involvement of many decades in literary translation has led him to think long and hard on matters of translation, and in this book he aims to share all these musings with a general audience.

Thus, Bellos talks about what “translation” is exactly – some languages, such as Japanese, have no one single term that corresponds to the English word, bu
I ended up quitting this book after already being half way through it.
I picked it up thinking it would be an interesting bit of non fiction.
Now it was actually very dull, it was too much like a textbook for uni.
Also if it wasn't for uni and the fact that I've studied language, I would have had no idea what the guy was on about half the time.

So first off, don't read the book is you've not had any training in things like language acquisition. Basically if you've not studied some part of the la
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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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“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.”
“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.” 6 likes
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