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

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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 historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices of Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron's Avatar.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across human experience to describe why translation sits deep within us all, and why we need it in so many situations, from the spread of religion to our appreciation of literature; indeed, Bellos claims that all writers are by definition translators. Written with joie de vivre, reveling both in misunderstanding and communication, littered with wonderful asides, it promises any reader new eyes through which to understand the world. In the words of Bellos: "The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition."

390 pages, Hardcover

First published October 25, 2011

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About the author

David Bellos

65 books76 followers
David Bellos 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 Life in Words.

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Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews14.5k followers
February 21, 2015
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 that a furrier and a dictator are different things, and are able to subvocalize the French word as if it were a German sound and vice versa’.

Now consider how you'd translate this into English – which is what David Bellos had to do. It's worth spending a moment thinking about what a suitable equivalent might be. His solution is under the cut:

Impressive work! The exercise calls for extreme measures, but I like it because it highlights a key fact about translation: its goal is not to translate words, but to translate feelings, concepts, ideas, information. This seems obvious, but it often gets overlooked by people who want to pick holes in existing translations on the grounds that individual words have not reappeared in a new language with identical meanings. The success of the dreaded Pevear and Volokhonsky, for instance, has been built on their trumpeting about having ‘corrected’ the failures of previous Russian translators, who missed the subtle details that they have now restored, albeit in English prose that is to my ear decidedly unsatisfactory.

Alarmingly, P&V have said that the greatest translation of all time is Nabokov's famously tin-eared version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. And it was deliberately tin-eared: Nabokov believed that an assiduous translator should render the precise meanings of every word at the expense of English style, coherence and grammar. This misses what is, to me, the essential principle: that the basic unit of lexical information is not the word, but the sentence. Words gain their full set of connotations from the context they are placed into, and from the other words that appear either side of them. The conclusion must be that considerable freedom from the original is needed, paradoxically, to make the same effects pop in the reader's brain. Or as Bellos puts it: a close translation isn't one.

Translation presupposes not the loss of the ineffable in any given act of interlingual mediation such as the translation of poetry, but the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication.

If you know a foreign language at all well, this is a hard lesson to take on. Once you understand the vast range of connotations held by even the simplest word in a given language, the idea of rendering it any other way seems unthinkable. ‘But that doesn't mean the same thing at all!’, one wants to yell. ‘So much subtlety has been lost!’ But take a step back and consider the whole paragraph, then think again. Good translators will convince you that they understand connotation and subtlety perfectly well, and have redistributed it accordingly, or allowed for new subtexts that fulfill similar communicative goals.

This book really helped me get a handle on some of the ideas about translation that I'd had for years and had been unable properly to articulate. I was never a professional translator, exactly, although when I worked in France, translating news scripts was a part of my job. (Incidentally, I think all translators should work in broadcasting at some point – your version of a source text may look reasonable on the page, but having to say it out loud on television really brings its defects into focus.) The more I did it and the better I got, the further I found myself moving from the original on a word-for-word basis: eventually, whole paragraphs started changing places, and trains of thought would reorganise themselves entirely. In fact in my head, I visualise the ideal form of translation as one whereby you read a text, let its effects percolate on your mind, and then write a kind of independent piece that does the same thing to native speakers of your target language.

That sounds extreme, and obviously it's realistically undesirable and/or unachievable. But the principle is there somewhere. Even really good translators tend to look first and foremost at glossing the words on the page; it's an effort to think constantly in terms of idiomatic expressions in the target language for conveying the same emotional ideas. This is something that comes up in all kinds of large and small ways.

For instance, French has a feature called ‘left dislocation’ whereby the personal pronoun is put at the front of the sentence in a different case, and repeated, for emphasis. If a kid in England would insist, ‘But I want an ice-cream’ – using tone and stress to make the point – his French counterpart would typically say, Moi, je veux une glace, achieving the same thing with sentence structure. Bellos shows that left-dislocation occurs only half as often in translated novels as it does in native French-language ones. And half the uses in native novels occur in third-person narration, whereas all of the translated examples are in direct speech. Why? Because French people learn in school that left-dislocation is typical of oral language, and translators have obviously found it hard to unlearn the lesson. It's one illustration of a general truth: that translators tend to conform to a ‘normalised’ form of their language, and are more sensitive to ideas of stylistic standard and ‘correctness’ than native writers are.

In important ways, translators are the guardians and, to a surprising degree, the creators of the standard form of the language they use.

There are so many other wonderful treats in this book, depending on where your interests lie. Diplomatic translation, the economics of translated fiction, twelve ways of translating a Chinese shunkouliu – this book is crammed with delights and Bellos knows what he's talking about. Foreign scripts are faithfully reproduced, and there are frequent irrepressible tangents and diversions into obscure corners of lexicography. Anyone interested in foreign languages or thoughtful writing should be as enchanted and stimulated as I was.

January 24, 2020
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 socialism,” and “safe investment.” These aren’t outright fictions but illusions licensed and created by the lexicon. In Ogden’s view, Word Magic is what makes us lazy. It stops us from questioning the assumptions that are hidden in words and leads us to allow words to manipulate our minds. (c)
Etymologies obscure essential truths about the way we use language and, among them, truths about translation. (c)
How many genres are there? Uncountably many. How do you know what genre a given written sentence is in? Well, you don’t, and that’s the point. No sentence contains all the information you need to translate it. One of the key levels of information that is always missing from a sentence taken simply as a grammatically well-formed string of lexically acceptable words is knowledge of its genre. You can get that only from the context of utterance. Of course, you know what that is in the case of a spoken sentence—you have to be there, in the context, to hear it spoken. You usually know quite a lot in the case of written texts, too. Translators do not usually agree to work on a text without being told first of all whether it is a railway timetable or a poem, a speech at the UN or a fragment of a novel (and few people read such things in their original languages either without being told by the cover sheet, dust jacket, or other peritextual material what kind of thing they are reading). To do their jobs, translators have to know what job they are doing. (c)
It’s an indisputable fact about languages that the sets of words that each possesses divide up the features of the world in slightly and sometimes radically different ways. Color terms never match up completely, and it’s always a problem for a French speaker to know what an English speaker
means by “brown shoes,” since the footwear in question may be marron, bordeaux, even rouge foncé. The names of fishes and birds often come in nonmatching sets of labyrinthine complexity; similarly, fixed formulae for signing-off letters come in graded levels of politeness and servility that have no possible application outside of the culture in which they exist.
These well-known examples of the “imperfect matching,” or anisomorphism, of languages do not really support the conclusion that translation is impossible. If the translator can see the sky that’s being called blue—either the real one or a representation of it in a painting, for example—then it’s
perfectly obvious which Russian color term is appropriate; similarly, if the cheese being bought at the shop is not cottage cheese, the choice of the Russian term is not an issue. If, on the other hand, what’s being translated is a sentence in a novel, then it really doesn’t matter which kind of Russian blue is used to qualify a dress that exists only in the reader’s mental image of it. If the specific shade of blue becomes relevant to some part or level of the story later on, the translator can always go back and adjust the term to fit the later development. The lack of exactly matching terms is not as big a problem for translation as many people think it is. (c)
One well-known reason so many people believe words to be the names of things is because that’s what they’ve been told by the Hebrew Bible:
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. (Genesis 2:19)
This short verse has had long-lasting effects on the way language has been imagined in Western cultures. It says that language was, to begin with, and in principle still is, a list of words; and that words are the names of things (more particularly, the names of living things). Also, it says very succinctly that language is not among the things that God created but an arbitrary invention of humankind, sanctioned by divine assent.
Nomenclaturism—the notion that words are essentially names—has thus had a long history; surreptitiously it still pervades much of the discourse about the nature of translation between languages, which have words that “name” different things or that name the same things in different ways. The problem, however, doesn’t really lie in translation but in nomenclaturism itself, for it provides a very unsatisfactory account of how a language works. A simple term such as head, for example, can’t be counted as the “name” of any particular thing. (c)
Translation is the enemy of the ineffable. One causes the other to cease to exist. (c)
Sapir showed that there is nothing “simple” about the languages of “simple” societies—and nothing especially “complex” about the languages of economically advanced ones. In his writings on language he showed like no one before him just how immensely varied the forms of language are and how their distribution among societies of very different kinds corresponds to no overarching pattern. But he did not reject every part of the inheritance of von Humboldt’s study of Basque. Different languages, because they are structured in different ways, make their speakers pay attention to different aspects of the world. Having to mark presence or absence in languages that have evidentials (see here and here), or being obliged to mark time in languages of the Western European type, lays down what he called mind grooves—habitual patterns of thought. The question for translation (and for anthropology) is this: Can we jump the grooves and move more or less satisfactorily from one “habitual pattern” to another? (c)
One difficulty arises from what is called the “class presumption” in American law. If a contract says that one of its clauses applies to “any house, apartment, cottage, or other building” on some piece of land, for example, that “other building” means, by the force of the class presumption, only
another building of the class constituted by “house, apartment, cottage”—that is to say, a residential building. This construction of the sentence is contrary to English usage in a nonlegal context, where “other building” may plausibly refer to a factory, a space station, or a folly.
Chinese does not have a term for “class presumption,” and its legal culture does not allow for it, either. If the restriction expressed in English is translated without additional modification, the Chinese characters for other building refer equally plausibly to a factory or a workshop as to a residential building, a meaning that the “class presumption” of American legal English specifically excludes. You could, of course, insert additional Chinese characters to say “or any other similar building,” “or any other building of the same class,” “or any other residential construction.” But if it came to a dispute in court, a smart lawyer might be able to claim that the two versions of the contract were not exactly equivalent, since the English contains no words that correspond to the added characters.
The solution proposed by Torbert is to draft the English in such a way that its Chinese translation is not a problem—that is to say, to modify the source-language text to make it better suited to translation into the target language. Moreover, such a change would make American legalese less arcane, which is of benefit to everybody. The solution is so simple that it makes you wonder why American contracts have not always said “house, apartment, cottage, or other similar building.” Torbert’s answer is that it is because legal drafters have not had Chinese to help them until now. Chinese can teach English-language lawyers how to say what they mean.
Translation impacts such as these are obviously tiny. French, English, Swedish, and Chinese have not been altered by them, just lightly massaged at the edges—at least, so far. (c)
Bosavi is one of the many languages that possess evidentials, grammatical forms that indicate how something is known—by sight, by hearsay, or by deduction... (c)
Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Some teachers of the law who were sitting there thought to themselves, “How does he dare talk like this? This is blasphemy!” God is the only one who can forgive sins. At once Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he said to them, “Why do you think such things? Is it easier to say this to a paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up, pick up your mat, and walk’? I will prove to you then, that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, pick up your mat, and go home!”
Tok Pisin uses na long bel belong, literally “in belly of them,” to express “in their hearts” or “in their minds,” and in the Nupela Testamen this phrase stands together with tingting, “think,” to express the fact that the teachers of the law “thought” something without saying so. The Bosavi oral translators couldn’t say anything quite so ungrounded in evidence. (c)
Chinese is spoken by about a quarter of the world’s population, and in a well-balanced and reciprocating global society you would expect it to be the receiver of about a quarter of the translations done in the world. The truth is nothing like that at all.
Taking seven world languages of different kinds for the ten years from 2000 to 2009, Chinese is the receiving language of just over 5 percent of all the translations done in all directions among these tongues—barely more than Swedish, whose speakers number less than 1 percent of the speakers of Chinese. But the picture in the reverse direction is even worse. Only 863 books were translated from Chinese into Swedish, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, and English combined, whereas more than twice that number of books written in Swedish were published in Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, and English combined....
Nearly 80 percent of all translations done in all directions between these seven languages over a decade—104,000 out of 133,000—are translations from English. Conversely, barely more than 8 percent of all translations done in the same set are translations into English—whereas French and German between them are the receiving languages of 78 percent of all translations.
The asymmetry is striking and, in some senses, quite alarming. Granted, published books do not provide the only channel of intercultural communication; in addition, the data stored by UNESCO may not be complete, and its search engine may have its own quirks. But the overall picture—which is confirmed by what any traveler can see in any airport bookstore in the world today—must be broadly true. Translations from English are all over the place; translations into English are as rare as hen’s teeth. (c)
From the 1960s it became fashionable to think, in a manner attributed to Michel Foucault, that language is power and that all power is language. (c)
A code, or cipher, is a way of representing a piece of information in a way that is receivable only if the (secret) key to the code is available. However sophisticated the key, however complicated the algorithm that turns the “source” into “code,” there is always a discoverable relationship
between the expression in code and the encoded expression. If a language itself is a code of that kind, what does it encode? (c)
Profile Image for Paul Sánchez Keighley.
149 reviews92 followers
October 10, 2020
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 translation as this highly specific action when it’s actually a much larger and nebulous field. This book does a very good job showcasing that. I should know, I run a translation company. (Hire us! We’re very good!)

And if you’re less interested in semantic and metalinguistic gymnastics, at the very least it is a grand compilation of fun facts about language and translation: Did you know France once declared war on Prussia because of a poor translation choice?, Did you know there is no single word for “blue” in Russian?, etc.

Anyway, it was great, it was interesting, it was fun. But I cannot end this review without mentioning what has to be the worst blurb ever to be printed in big obnoxious letters on a back cover. After much humming and hawing, the good people over at Literary Review decided that the best way to describe the book was “a scintillating bouillabaisse”. What does that even mean? Bouillabaisse doesn’t scintillate. I mean, look at it:


It doesn’t even look that appetising. Why would you use it to describe a book? I get what they're angling for, the idea of a mixed bag of varied content, but why not go with “salad”? A freshly washed lettuce leaf might arguably “scintillate” more than a soggy shrimp. And that way you even win an alliteration! “A scintillating salad.” Rolls off the tongue better. Hell, if you insist on having the bouillabaisse, why not make it a “bountiful bouillabaisse”?

You might think I’m making a bit too much out of this, but you know those sleepless nights when a sentence or earworm will play over and over again in your mind driving you to the point of insanity? I have spent many a night since starting this book trying to get off to the land of Nod while the last late-working cogs of my mind churned out the words “scintillating bouillabaisse” over and over ad nauseum. I wanted to die.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,022 reviews4,067 followers
April 12, 2013
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 translation and its unsung participants. For those among you (that means Manny) still convinced a literary work loses too much in translation to bother reading—if this marvellous book doesn’t persuade you, nothing will. Last word from David:

“A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek or miss out the grey hairs in the sideburns—and still give us a good likeness. It’s hard to say just what it is that allows viewers to agree a portrait captures the important things—the overall shape as that special look in the eye. The mysterious abilities we have for recognizing good matches in the visual sphere lie near to what it takes to judge that a translation is good. But the users of a translation, unlike the friends of the portraitist’s sitter, don’t have full access to the model (they would barely need the translation if they did). That’s probably why translation raises such passionate responses. There’s no choice but to trust the translator. When it comes to speech and writing, people are an untrusting lot.” (p331)
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,120 reviews1,199 followers
June 17, 2022
This book is a combination of interesting anecdotes, factoids and insights with a lot of pedantic nitpicking that put me in mind of someone complaining with their colleagues about how people misunderstand their work. An interesting read if you’re especially interested in how translation works and the contexts in which it comes up, but also one I struggled with: I nearly abandoned it after 50 pages, but decided instead to skip ahead to those chapters which most interested me, and did wind up reading it all. Fortunately, although often pedantic in content it’s quite readable in style, made up of relatively short essays that allow for disconnected reading.

Some interesting bits:

- Hierarchies among languages not only determine what gets translated, but how it is translated. There’s a reason we English speakers often praise something for “not reading like a translation,” and it’s because people speaking more powerful languages in general are uninterested in translated work and would prefer writing to sound like it originated in their own language. Translations into lower-prestige languages, on the other hand, often deliberately preserve indications of translation, because the fact itself conveys prestige—and translators get public recognition in other countries that they don’t in the English-speaking world. (Now I get to be embarrassed by my own unconscious privilege in having praised many translated works for not reading like one!) There’s a lot about this in the book; I disagree with the criticisms claiming Bellos doesn’t deal with political aspects of translation.

- To get noticed globally, an author needs to get their work published in English—or, along the way, a “pivot language”: usually French or German, from which works are regularly translated into English. I had previously wondered why so many of my world books challenge books come from other European languages, even if they originate a long way from Europe (Galsan Tschinag, a Mongolian shaman who writes his novels in German, is actually mentioned in the book). The answer is that just because two languages exist doesn’t mean they have “translation relations,” and authors aim for the language that will get them the widest exposure.

- Of the book translations published globally as of the first decade of the 21st century, 65% were from English into other languages, and 10% from other languages into English. Only 25% did not involve English, and these are largely books being translated into (or between) French and German.

- If the idea of a “pivot language” and the same text being translated and retranslated doesn’t sound like a great practice—well, it’s nonetheless done all the time. Plans to translate Chinese classics into a large number of major languages involve translating them into English, and then from the English translation into everything else. The same is done at the UN, where interpreters render Chinese into English, and other interpreters then translate the English into other languages.

- The EU is so committed to language parity that it has 24 official languages, and written material needs to be published in all of them simultaneously: officially, nothing is a translation of anything else and everything is original. This is not just a legal fiction, as lawyer-linguists work together to craft documents in all the languages, but creates interesting court cases comparing all the versions of a law to each other to determine the intended meaning when they diverge. There have been some unintended consequences: brain drain from the countries speaking lesser-known languages, and very short court decisions in the interest of sparing staff time.

- “Literal” translations apparently aren’t really a thing (though we’re getting into the pedantry here), but there are some interesting stories about the bounds being stretched unusually far. Bible translation projects have taken enormous license, from translating “fig tree” as “banana tree” in tropical climates, to actually removing elements like fasting and throwing tree branches in someone’s path because you respect them—both of which say something very different in some other cultures. There is of course enormous condescension in this: people aren’t getting the original meaning because someone else has decided they can’t handle it.

- Other stretches have been arguably justified in reproducing the force of the original statement, even if turning it into something very different. The Ottoman government’s translators routinely turned the correspondence of European monarchs and statements from their representatives into the very servile language their own rulers expected, even though the original speakers would never have said such a thing. This seems to have been in part legitimate diplomacy, although also self-preservation on the translators’ part.

- There’s a long history of original works passing themselves off as translations (for greater prestige or appearance of antiquity, to evade censorship or retaliation, etc.), as well as translations passing themselves off as originals. Naturally, there is also a long history of works being substantially changed in translation to fit the mores of their own society or avoid political retaliation.

- Translators have their own understanding of how a language should work, and translation can actually “regularize” a language, often leading to greater formality, as they avoid what they see as colloquialisms. Along similar lines, when translating speech patterns, it’s easy to translate the highfalutin ones into their equivalent in the receiving language, but doing the same with lower-class or regional speech just sounds wrong to modern audiences, so it tends to just get translated into the “standard.” Texts are also written differently if the intention is to translate them: for instance, because movie subtitles can only be so long, there’s an incentive to keep dialogue brief.

Obviously, plenty here that interested me, but that’s at most half the book. The other half largely consists of essays making extremely pedantic points: that people shouldn’t say “translations can’t substitute for the original” because substitution is in fact the purpose of a translation, you wouldn’t need it if you could easily read the original; that people comparing translation to adapting a story from one medium to another are wrong; that people are wrong to say words are “names for things” because . . . I’m still not sure I follow this one, but the sticking point appears to be that words often have more than one meaning! There’s a lot of time caught up in what seem like really obvious or nitpicky points that very few readers would care about. Bellos also goes off after some weird hares (the argument that the purpose of language is social rather than communicative, because people could just communicate through gestures like animals do. Travel in a country where you don’t know the language and you’ll soon find the limits of that).

Overall, there are definitely some informative and interesting bits here, along with a substantial share of tedium. Picking and choosing which parts you read is definitely a good choice.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
April 22, 2013
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 translate it with any one of those meanings would be to translate it wrongly. I think the beauty of reading it in Anglo-Saxon, even if you need a glossary and ample help, is that all the meanings are there at once.

But as the review I linked says, it doesn't talk about the implications of translation -- the politics and force of it. That in its turn reminds me of a scene in Kate Roberts' Feet in Chains, a Welsh book (which, not coincidentally, I was only able to read in translation), in which a mother is informed of the death of her son in WWI via a letter in English, which she cannot understand.

There was a time, really not that long ago, where Welsh speakers were considered uneducated because they did not speak the language of their rulers, the English. Consider the Welsh Not or Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treason of the Blue Books) -- all of that is the reason that I, raised by two Welsh people, of a family that has been Welsh for generations (with the occasional addition of Romani and Irish blood, and probably some English, but we're ashamed of that one), do not speak my own language.

There's a certain arrogance to English. Take the Welsh word hiraeth: there is no English translation. The minute I say that, half a dozen English people pop up to tell me there must be. Oh, there are approximations, but they aren't as succinct, as specific. English doesn't hold all the answers.

Unfortunately, this book is that bit Anglo-centric, and it isn't the book I wanted to read -- I wanted to read a book which considered the above issues, the political meaning and applications of translation. It's not a bad book for what it is, but it's not what I was looking for.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,138 reviews695 followers
March 15, 2023
Iris Murdoch described the act of translation as similar to ‘opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge.’

I had complicated feelings with this one. An issue I’ve had with David Bellos’s writing in our previous encounters is that he often doesn’t fully explore the ideas he posits, i.e., he starts off strong, but then either tapers off or falls into an unrelated digression. This was moderately amusing (and admittedly apt) when reading his work on Victor Hugo, but doesn’t lend itself well to a book on translation studies. As Suzy Kassem said, ‘Never trust the translation or interpretation of something without first trusting its interpreter.’

Bellos, himself a professional translator of French to English, occupies a very privileged position within the loose-knit community. He does not delve into the political nature of translation, and in fact fails to discuss the implications of translation any further than the cool linguistic quirks that may pose problems for an individual translator. Translating a text is political, and not translating a text is as well. One pertinent example would be safety brochures that are only in British English and not native Indian languages; English was the sole language used for administrative purposes as well as in higher education until India’s independence from Britain in 1947, at which point Indian legislators faced the challenge of choosing a language or languages for official communication as well as communication between different linguistic regions within the country, which has the world’s fourth-highest number of distinct languages. The current official languages of the United Nations are Arabic, (Mandarin) Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish; official UN documents are made available in all of the above. There are currently 193 member countries of the United Nations. Do you see the problem?

To translate a text the translator must first decide what it means and its intention, in order to ensure that the text is translated consistently and appropriately. Any hint of non-literal phrasing complicates the situation tenfold. As an example, take this line, from ‘The Lion King’:
Our teeth and ambitions are bared—be prepared!
This is a zeugma; ‘bared’ can refer to the idiom ‘to bare one’s teeth,’ i.e., to display an angry, violent, or threatening reaction to or against something or someone, as an animal would when threatened—it could also refer to the phrase, ‘to lay bare,’ i.e., to reveal or uncover private information or feelings. The ambitions are ‘laid bare,’ i.e., revealed; the teeth are ‘bared,’ i.e., exposed: there is both a literal and metaphorical meaning. How could you translate this? What about into a language that doesn’t have that same idiom? Umberto Eco posed a similar example: how do you translate the idiom ‘I smell a rat’ from English into Italian, when the latter doesn’t have a similar rodentine euphemism for a traitorous person?

There are multiple ‘correct’ options, of course; in an instance which uses non-literal language, to translate indirectly—as would be necessary—would be to translate incorrectly; or, perhaps, incompletely. There are other, simpler, examples: the French word for ‘stranger’ and ‘foreigner’ are the same (‘étranger’); English doesn’t distinguish between visiting a place and visiting a person; Chinese doesn’t have clear conjugation or pluralisation; Russian doesn’t have direct articles; and so on. Author and translator Michael Coulson described translation as a difficult and thankless task, noting that ‘in the end there are no degrees of success, only degrees of failure,’ and I’m inclined to agree. An exact translation is possible only within the context of mathematics and the like, i.e., ‘two and two make four,’ ‘deux et deux font quatre’; outside of this, everything is an approximation at best. There is no such thing as a truly perfect, ideal, or even ‘correct’ translation.

Other minor quibbles I had with Bellos’s approach include his tendency towards overstatement and generalisation (i.e., he says that English is the only lingua franca used for intercommunity communication within various Belgian linguistic groups, which is not true; he says ‘Chinese’ in every context, instead of differentiating between the different Chinese languages—even specifying Mandarin or Cantonese would be an improvement) and his lack of attention to detail to second- and third-world countries, specifically South African countries and indigenous communities worldwide (he also glossed over Canada, which seems odd, particularly coming from a French-English translator!).
Nonsense can be made to make sense by supposing some alternative context for it. At the start of his revolutionary work Syntactic Structures (1957), Noam Chomsky cooked up a nonsense sentence in order to explain what he saw as the fundamental difference between a meaningful sentence and a grammatical one. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” was proposed as a fully grammatical sentence that had no possible meaning at all. [...] Within a few months, witty students devised ways of proving Chomsky wrong, and at Stanford they were soon running competitions for texts in which “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” would be not just a grammatical sentence, but a meaningful expression as well. Here’s one of the prize-winning entries:
It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
A part I did enjoy was when Bellos discussed how machine translation works. It’s considered gauche in real-life translation to use a pivot language (i.e., a lingua franca, such as translating from Igbo to Mongolian by translating Igbo to English to Mongolian), but that’s unfortunately how machine learning works: the neural network will search through established translated documents for a fragment of the given text (i.e., ‘Two houses, both alike in dignity...’); it would be more likely to find an example of English–Igbo translation as well as English–Mongolian, therefore an equivalent can be found for Igbo–Mongolian. Popular fiction and legal documentation are common suspects; ‘two houses’ could be drawn from a real estate deed, for example. As anyone who’s messed around with online machine translators is well aware, this method doesn’t work perfectly, because machines are no substitute for human brains! Machines don’t understand context. One humourous anecdote from my own experience was when one of my French students clearly used Google Translate on a homework assignment: the sentence was supposed to say, ‘I was wearing shorts’ (the article of clothing), but the machine translator grabbed the translation of ‘shorts’ (as in, short films) instead.

Overall I found this to be an interesting and fairly decent introduction into the field of translation studies, particularly for a non-specialist, although the lack of acknowledgement of the political nuance inherent in translation was a huge letdown. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Bellos’s background as an anglophone and Western (white British native) man negatively influenced this book, but it certainly didn’t help the apparent lack of self-awareness.
Profile Image for Meg - A Bookish Affair.
2,445 reviews191 followers
August 12, 2012
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 think the way that we communicate with each other is fascinating. David Bellos has an extensive background in translation. He takes us through what translation is and what translation isn't. Translations are really substitutes for reading something in another, more accessible to you language than it was originally written in. There are so many books that I would never have access to if it weren't for some really good translations (where would I be without my love, Murakami???).

I learned so much from this book. There's not one way to translate and a lot of times, it seems to be an iterative process to get to a true understanding of the original text. Who knew so much had to go into it?

I think this book is good for anyone who has ever read a translation of a book and wondered about if the book was really getting to the original author's true meaning? How do we know that Murakami or Tolstoy sound the same way that they do in Japanese and Russian as they do in English? It's truly awesome to think about.

Bottom line: This book is for my fellow word nerds.
Profile Image for Cheryl .
9,250 reviews398 followers
November 22, 2019
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, instead of acknowledging that there are actually many Chinese languages... the least he could have done is say "Standard Chinese."

There is a somewhat interesting bit about films & subtitles & voice-overs. For example, "Meryl Streep's German voice is that of Dagmar Dempe, for *all* her films."

The chapter about "Language Parity in the European Union" includes interesting bits**

I liked learning how Google Translate does (did? the book is several years old) its thing. It looks through established translated documents for the the given text, often finding a "pivot" language between the two. Popular fiction, for example John Grisham, Harry Potter, is a good source of say, English->Farsi and English->Icelandic... giving a user the possibility of finding a match for Farsi->Icelandic. We all know it doesn't yet work wonderfully, but as of Bellos' writing it is the best available machine translation, at least in his opinion.

Good clue to whether a person is reciting a prepared lie or speaking extemporaneously - are they gesticulating? Most ppl can't help but use their hands to help their brain organize their thoughts and come up with words. Bellos gives interesting evidence.

I also noticed a distinct absence of So. African, Canadian & Australian mentions. I forgot to mark it, but to paraphrase from memory: "If you want your kid to be a highly sought-after and well-compensated translator [for the UN or EU, eg], don't raise him in Britain or the US. " Of course Bellos *meant* to say "don't raise him with English as his L1."

I dunno. Others may certainly get more out of the book than I. Probably not readers who already have studied translation, or readers who struggle with the writing of academics, but surely there's somebody who actually would enjoy, and learn from, this.

I'm going to try Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages next.

*Howard Rheingold's book was also a disappointment.

** I use the word 'bit' because Bellos doesn't explore ideas fully... he starts them out and then either digresses or truncates....
Profile Image for Kamila Kunda.
266 reviews210 followers
April 22, 2019
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, through various means: language, gestures, facial expressions, and what betrays some of our identities. This book is as much about cultures, identities, philosophy, values and societies as it is about, among other issues, simultaneous interpreting, translation of poetry, other literary texts and jokes, translation in business and law, the importance of contextualisation, and the traps of, e.g. thinking that native speakers know their own language better than those for whom it is not a mother tongue. I liked the global approach (with, however, most space devoted to English and French) with which Bellos tackled the subjects. Translation is, and has always been, the core of our cultures and our existence, and therefore I believe “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” is a book for everyone who is at least slightly interested in the history of humanity and human communication.
Profile Image for Filip.
229 reviews31 followers
January 3, 2012
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 communicate with each other). But he is easily forgiven, because he really provides new insight on what a translation is or should be. Unavoidably, this leads to meta-meta-paragraphs about language which can be quite dense at first glance. Other parts are seriously theoretical (such as the Axiom of Ineffability), which make this book's position on the Best Books list rather surprising, as I doubt that many people are interested in this level of theoretical analysis (I am, so I enjoyed it).
Profile Image for Jeroen.
219 reviews35 followers
October 3, 2019
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 translation while attacking the widespread notion that translation is inherently flawed, that to read a book in translation is to read another book entirely, and that the relation between the original and the translation is spurious at best. Bellos does this while admitting all the same that translation is in fact inherently flawed, yet with a firm belief that the sense (he propagates "sense for the sense" translation as opposed to "word for the word") of the original can be transmitted.

Bellos is funny and astute, if a little on-the nose, on literal translation:
Literal is an adjective formed from the noun littera, meaning "letter" in Latin. A letter in this sense is a written sign that belongs to a set of signs, some subsets of which can be used to communicate meanings. Speech communicates meaning, writing communicates meaning - but letters on their own do not have any meaning. That's what a letter is - a sign that is meaningless except when used as part of a string. The expression "literal meaning," taken literally, is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, and a nonsense.
It is telling that Bellos hedges this quote with phrases like "in this sense". He knows, I think, that he is guilty of the etymological fallacy, but in this case that is entirely the point: he uses etymological fallacy to attack that selfsame fallacy.

The meaning and sense of a word can never be isolated in a dictionary definition, let alone taken apart in the original millennia old meaning of its constituent syllables. It is alive in the inhale and exhale of the language, and undergoes a chemical reaction with the other words spoken around it, bounces off them, until we come to a meaning which in many cases everyone involved (who speaks the language) understands, yet nobody can quite fit into a different tongue, into different words. As the poet David Berman has it, "the meaning of the world lies outside the world." Capturing the meaning of language within itself, within language, is -at least when you desire a scientific kind of accuracy- quite simply impossible.

It is this kind of impossible -one which Nabokov, when discussing the pointlessness of translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, calls "mathematically impossible"- that Bellos attacks as a self-defeating stance. Of Nabokov he says that his "mathematically impossible" should be freely translated as "I'm not going to give it a go." Bellos argues:
Just as it would be silly to claim that high-quality tailoring is "mathematically impossible" because we've never had a suit that was an absolutely perfect fit, it would be unwise to deny the possibility of translating form just because we've not yet done so in a way that is utterly impeccable in every respect.

Enticing as this analogy is, I am not sure it holds that well upon further consideration. The trouble with translation is that thought runs so deep, through so many channels and layers, and that missing one layer due to a translation/transmission can transform all other layers and the totality of the thing. Whereas a suit that is imperfect is just a suit that is imperfect, a translation that is imperfect might really morph into a different thing altogether.

What I can appreciate is C.K. Williams' notion (as quoted here by Bellos) that "you don't translate French poetry into 'English' but into poetry". While Bellos (perhaps rightly so) makes fun of those who claim to be able to tell whether they are reading a translation or an original work, I nevertheless believe that it is ethically just to inform the reader at every point what she or he is indeed reading, if only because I believe that the original author is not responsible for the effect of the translation, and should be disassociated with it. (You can even wonder if the original author is responsible for the effect of the original text upon the same-language reader, but that is a very different discussion..)

Anyway, much food for thought, and I think this book is not just worthwhile for anyone interested in the topic of translation, but furthermore anyone who ever read or will read a book in translation, or watch a film in translation, or read a contract in translation. That is, pretty much everyone alive.
Profile Image for Seth.
111 reviews
August 30, 2020
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 English is the vehicular language for transacting business around the world. Unfortunately, it is more remunerative to translate DOWN from English because of English's cultural influence. This partially explains why translators abound in Europe but not in the United States.

Bellos recalls an old friend from literature, the bumbling aristocrat Pierre Bezhukov in War and Peace. Pierre was so accustomed to speaking in French that he found it hard to express abstract ideas in Russian. French was the language of diplomacy and society in Russia in the early 1800s, so French conversation plays an important role in War and Peace. In fact, the first words of the novel are in French. Bellos points out that in translations of Tolstoy's masterpiece, French is neither L1 (the source language) nor L2 (the target language), but L3 (a third language). Translators face a decision to retain the original colloquial French or to render it in English. He recommends the former in order to emphasize this linguistic nuance.

Unlike Edith Grossman in Why does Translation Matter? Bellos has plenty to say about non-literary translation, although they both seem to agree about Vladimir Nabokov's failure to translate Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into English properly. Nabokov insisted on being excessively literal. Among many non-literary topics, Bellos explains about diplomatic interpretation and the technology behind Google Translate.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in translation. It is worth the effort.
Profile Image for Emre Sevinç.
143 reviews282 followers
April 2, 2017
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 conversation that always keeps a sense of humor on how we're surrounded by the activity we call translation. As the author tackles famous myths about translation, you'll get to admire this human faculty, and learn more about the obscure corners of this intricate world, a world where silent victories of human intellect are celebrated by thankless readers.

The book will take you from building a perspective on the excruciating debate of poetry translation to how translators deal with the maddening constraints of comic books. But it will not stop there, and take you on a journey of international publishing and how politics and dominant forces shape the book market as we know it. As if that's not enough, you'll learn about unique linguistic state of European Union, and how it affects laws and funny things about legislation. You will smile and scratch your head in confusion. Sometimes at the some time.

In the end, will this book succeed in translating the beauty of such a uniquely human activity into a neural encoding for you indirectly? Well, it did, for me, to an extent. And I tried to translate some of my experience into signs on a computer screen. Consider this a brief "thank you" note.

Profile Image for Turkey Hash.
174 reviews38 followers
April 2, 2017
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 liked how much effort and historical knowledge he put into arguing that any assumptions about translation are largely wrong, and should be no obstacle to reading. This is why his chapters often end with a single line that amounts to ‘I told you so!’ but he reaches that point with such a critical mass of evidence that it's not annoying. The book liberated me - next time I read in translation I hopefully won't get stuck in that odd dissatisfied limbo where I wonder what I'm missing out on.

The book is as wide-ranging as you might expect from someone with Bellos' experience – going over the history of the European Union; the translatability of poetry; the problematic notion of a 'native speaker', early practices in translation; the concept of 'foreign-soundedness'; 'Dragomania'; Google Translate; the Soviet Union's fake poets, and the hierarchy between languages in translation, as reflected by the dominance of English, as both a ‘pivot’ language and a 'target' language.

He makes a convincing case for how common presumptions about translators have been tied with their shifting, vital role in historical exchange, with the many gendered truisms about translation reflecting the distrust and suspicion of their activities. On the way, there are so many great analyses from explaining how the English translation of Freud scientises Freud’s quite peculiar non-scientific German to revealing how in most cases a book must be translated into one vehicular language to reach another.

Good knowledge:

'Many now common words of English – ego, id, superego, empathy and displacement, for example – were all first invented in James Strachey’s translation of Freud, to replace the equally technical but less recondite neologisms of the original – Ich, Es, Überich, Einfühlung and Verschiebung.'

'Japanese literary translators have much the same status as authors do in Britain and America. Many author-translators are household names, and there’s even a celebrity-gossip book about them: Honyakuka Retsuden 101, ‘The Lives of the Translators 101’.

Another fascinating argument he makes is for the ‘third language’ of translation, where translators – keen to prove that they know the language – formalise it more than in 'the original'. But then such formalisations and Anglicisations (if in English) make it back into the first language (he gives the example of Swedish-language detective novels which have taken on the constructions of English sentences common in English-language translations of Swedish novels).

Anyway, here are a few quotes that stuck in my head, and perhaps convey Bellos' free-roaming, open-ended vision:

'We may all be born with the potential to acquire a language and a need to do so – with what some linguists have called a ‘language-acquisition device’, hard-wired in our brains. But in practice, we are not born into any particular language at all: all babies are languageless at the start of life. Yet we use the term ‘native speaker’ as if the contrary were true – as if the form of language acquired by natural but fairly strenuous effort from our infant environment were a birthright, an inheritance and the definitive, unalterable location of our linguistic identity. '

'The truth of literary translation is that translated works are incommensurable with their source, just as literary works are incommensurable with each other, just as individual readings of novels and poems and plays can only be ‘measured’ in discussion with other readers.'

'...the practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same – that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings and so forth'.
Profile Image for Guillaume.
242 reviews2 followers
March 29, 2012
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 pas concevoir l'abstraction"=
- une devise du XVIIeme siècle, quand a la cour du Roi soleil, certains se sont mis ) à faire des traductions des classiques respectant la morale du jour : "les traductions, c'est comme les femmes, si elles sont belles, elles ne sont pas fidèles, si elles sont fidèles, c'est qu'elles ne sont pas belles", qui est plus une manifestations de misogynie qu'une vérité.
- la difficulté de faire des traductions en simultané (dire la traduction ce qu'on entend en temps réel), et de trouver des individus capable de cet exploit)
- le fonctionnement de l'Europe (l’entité politique) : chaque lois et textes existe dans les 24 langues officielles, mais tous sont considérés étant des documents originaux, et non une traduction.
- et d'autres considérations tel que comment faire confiance a un traducteur dans le cadre de négociation entre états, comment traduire l'humour, etc..
Au final, un livre érudit mais lisible, et interessant.
Profile Image for jeremy.
1,123 reviews278 followers
November 2, 2012
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 translation's role in a variety of intercultural functions including international law, biblical scholarship, journalism, commerce, cinema, and, of course, literature, amongst others. is that a fish in your ear? often veers into the philosophical, questioning the very definition of translation itself and exploring the nature of what it means to communicate and understand another. bellos's book is informative, analytical, thought-provoking, and engrossing- an important title in a field often misunderstood, maligned, or dismissed altogether.
the solo contribution i feel confident of making is to say that assimilating all uses of language to translation on the grounds that all speech is a mental translation of thought seriously diminishes our capacity to understand what the practice of translation between languages is about.
Profile Image for Patrick Neylan.
Author 21 books22 followers
January 15, 2020
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 problems of translation in international diplomacy are given a thorough airing, and he finishes with a fascinating discussion of how language evolved in the first place, not (as we usually presume) as a way of communicating but as a way of defining primitive groups. In other words, language was a way of restricting communication by excluding outsiders, so it was intended to limit communication rather than broaden it.
Profile Image for Charlotte.
20 reviews2 followers
December 7, 2012
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, historically, conquerors have imposed their language on subject peoples. Except he doesn't talk about it. He mentions it and then veers off into technicalities, the how without the why. It's really very frustrating.

Bellow also talks without apparent self-awareness about "Chinese speakers": one hopes he isn't actually under the impression everyone in China speaks the same language? It's a small thing but does undermine my impression of the book as a whole.
Profile Image for Thomas Hübner.
145 reviews32 followers
March 25, 2015

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 and read five or six languages it will still widen your horizon beyond imagination when you have access to translated books. The availability and also the quality of translations are therefore one of the most important defining elements of an existing book market.

In an older blog post https://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpres... which I have just recently discovered, one of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat https://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpres..., was writing about an interesting book by David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? - Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Among other authors Bellos has translated the Albanian author Ismail Kadare into English – from the French, not the Albanian language. This is called “indirect translation”, contrary to the direct translation from the source to the target language. Depending on the question if the translator translates into his or her native language, or from his native language into the target language, direct translations are differentiated into so-called “L1” or “L2” translations. Many experts view L2 translations with skepticism or reject them completely, while some consider indirect translations as acceptable when there are no translators available for this particular combination of languages.

I think what counts at the end of the day is the quality of the translation, no matter if it is L1, L2, or indirect. Of course, chances that the translation is excellent are much higher with direct translations. When writers are sometimes using a language that is not their native one, why shouldn't some translators be able to do the same? (Since Nabokov grew up bilingual, I wouldn't include him in this list of writers, but there are plenty of them and not the worst) –

An indirect translation might be a kind of second-best solution in cases when there are really no translators available for this particular combination. For Kadare it shouldn't be a problem to be translated directly into English, since there is not one, but plenty of literary translators for that combination.

But Kadare is a special case: he revised and rewrote all his books that were originally published in the time of communism in Albania when he prepared them for publication in France. That means that a translation of the same book from French to English contains a sometimes very different text than when you would make a direct translation from the Albanian version. And for the novels originally published before 1990 Kadare considers the French and not the Albanian version as the “real”, uncensored text. The revised editions of the pre-1990 novels of Kadare in Albanian language were published after the French versions, if I am not mistaken. For the past-1990 novels, the situation is different: as far as I see they are translated directly from Albanian to English because there is no need for a text revision.

There are also other authors we know mainly from indirect translations. The works of Israel Bashevis Singer are usually translated from English – there are even a lot of people that think Singer was an English-language author. Especially in the case of the translations of Singer to German that is a real pity: Yiddish is so close to German, so why not translate the books directly? (The result would be a very different text, much more close to the original, as I can say from practical experience when I made a sample translation of one of his stories once from the original text to German, comparing the result with the “official” translation from English)

Why do publishers choose to publish indirect translations instead of direct ones? One reason may indeed be a shortage of available translators for the respective combination – although this case may be much rarer as some publishers make us believe. But the problem exists: when I investigated for the possibilities to translate a book from Indonesian to Bulgarian, I realized that there is only one person who can do the job – now imagine if he would be not available for some reason: the only option remaining would be to work with an indirect translation. Otherwise the book would be never available for the potential readers whose native language is Bulgarian and who don’t read in other languages. Although an indirect translation might not be perfect, in the best case it could be a reasonable approximation of the original text. And that would be still far superior then the virtual non-existence of a book in that particular language.

Another reason for indirect translations may be that in some cases publishers can save money – it is cheaper to translate from languages where you can find plenty of competing translators than from languages where there are only a very few translators, or where possibly the translation rights might be cheaper to acquire (depending on the contractual relationships between the involved publishers, the author and the literary agency).

Also literary agents can play a role in this process. Agents try to increase the income of their clients (and by that their own income), so they try to redistribute money from other stages of the book value chain – mainly the publishing houses, but obviously to a growing extent also from translators – into the pockets of their writing clientele, by auctioning off book and translation rights, increasing the royalties for the author, etc., and by that forcing everybody else in the book value chain to decrease their income. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as professional and ethical standards are respected, which is not always the case.

A particular vicious example is a recent case in which Egyptian bestselling author Alaa al Aswany and his agent Andrew Wiley (together with Knopf Doubleday publishers) are involved and that was made public by the Threepercent website of the University of Rochester: http://www.rochester.edu/College/tran...

A completely unacceptable treatment of a literary translator – and hard to believe but obviously true: a world famous author, the Godfather of all literary agents and a renowned publishing house use their combined power and leverage to cheat on a hard working professional, for reasons that are as it seems of exclusively pecuniary nature.

By the way, I find it very interesting to see the approach of different writers to the question of translations of their works. While some authors take a great interest and discuss details of the translations with their translators, or even organize like Günter Grass (on their own costs) workshops for their translators to ensure a high quality of the translations, others like Thomas Bernhard show the extreme opposite approach. From an interview with Werner Wögerbauer, conducted 1986 in Vienna:

"W.: Does the fate of your books interest you?

B.: No, not really.

W.: What about translations for example?

B.: I'm hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

W.: What happens to your books in other countries.

B.: Doesn't interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don't. If they have awful covers then they're just annoying. And you flip through and that's it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!"

And for those of you who are familiar with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s books with the untranslatable titles Quand Freud voit la mer and Quand Freud attend le verbe, it may be not surprising that I am very sympathetic to Bernhard’s opinion. A translation is indeed always a different book, and sometimes – as is the case with the terms created by Freud in the framework of psychoanalysis, the meaning and specific connotation of central words and expressions are so inseparably linked to the particular language in which they were created (in the case of psychoanalysis: German) that each translation is already an interpretation, over-simplification, reduction of ambiguity, and even falsification of the original text. – But I guess I am digressing a bit. The highly interesting books by Goldschmidt would deserve a more detailed review as is possible here.

Translations are a wide field – I have the feeling that I will return to the issue again sooner or later.

David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? - Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Particular Books, 2012

see also Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud attend le verbe, Buchet Chastel, 2006

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud voit la mer, Buchet Castel, 2006

Chad W. Post: A Cautionary Tale, www.rochester.edu/College/translation...

Chad W. Post: The Three Percent Problem, Open Letter, e-book, 2011

The interview with Thomas Bernhard was originally published in the autumn issue 2006 of Kultur & Gespenster, the English translation by Nicholas Grindell was published here: www.signandsight.com/features/1090.html.
Profile Image for Sylvie.
181 reviews8 followers
June 28, 2017
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 translators, and the curiosities and theories behind language. It is so packed full of interesting facts and ideas that it is impossible to do it justice. He maintains that it is not correct to say everything is translation, which I must confess to, though he does qualify this later on with the conclusion that “translation is another name for the human condition”. There is a bit of a rant about how underrated translators are, which may be due to the fact that it is only when a translation is poor that it gets noticed - a good translation leaves the reader unaware of the fact. The book was published in 2011, and since then, translated works have been flooding the bookshops. More is now made of the International Man Booker prize for translated works. The fact remains that in many other countries, translators have more kudos and are better paid.

I have long been puzzled by how something as untranslatable as humour can be tackled. The chapter on this is the shortest. However Bellos does give good examples from his own books. You get over the difficulty, it appears, as best you can, by approximation and substitution, especially in the case of puns. It’s a sound game. In a short talk Daniel Hahn, the translator of "A General Theory of Oblivion" a novel by Jose Eduardo Agualuso said: “I have only changed the words”. Of course he was joking - or was he? His words made some sort of sense of the puzzle - how do you convert jokes in another language, from a different culture? He explained how one had to convey the feeling, the sound and the resonance of a novel; in short, what makes it a pleasure to read.

Capturing the inherent differences of a language in a translation is the subject of another discussion. It raises all sorts of questions about the way culture informs language itself, the way the milieu influences the way we use words. How do you transfer the feel of a place with its special language rhythms? Bellos offers a few examples, which reinforce my view that it’s simplistic, and tedious to put down the way the individual words are pronounced and leave it at that. It only succeeds in excluding many readers.

Translation is therefore at the core of our language world. In fact, when there are two texts in languages I recognize or know, the meaning becomes much clearer. Here is what David Bellos writes:

“written and spoken expressions in any language don’t have meaning just like that, on their own, by themselves, translation represents the meaning an utterance has, and in that sense translation is a pretty good way of finding out what an expression used in it may mean, in fact, the only way of being sure whether an utterance has any meaning at all is to get someone to translate it for you.”

He raises interesting philosophical and psychological questions to do with thought, meaning, culture, and about the beliefs that inform people and nation. And then there is the matter of what words are. They are not merely stand-ins for things, as the Bible has long instructed us to think. A single word holds different meanings, and yet it may not do so in other cultures. The translator has to decide what to substitute in its place.

Poetry poses problems of form and rhythm of its own. The different ways translators deal with this are revealing. I don’t think I’ll ever read a translated poem without wondering how wildly it differs from the original. Still, in some cases I will never know, so I might just as well appreciate it as it is. He quotes film in one chapter, as being a good example of “translation”. After all, it may be a visual dramatisation of a novel, but it is a separate form and can never be an exact parallel. A translated poem is like a film. It does not reproduce the original poem exactly, literally. You would not want it to, unless you were studying a language with the help of a crib.

I already knew that the job was a difficult one. I wonder, now, why anyone undertakes it at all. It must be a labour of love. The works of Georges Perec, you would think, would defy translation, and yet Bellos provides us with a few examples. He has also translated works from the French translations of the Albanian writer Ishmail Kadare.

There are shortcuts, though, and even light relief in the life of a translator. In case you were wondering, this is how simultaneous interpreters get round a shaggy dog’s tale in the middle of a speech:
”The Soviet delegate has just made a joke “
Profile Image for Tim Friese.
9 reviews1 follower
February 8, 2018
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 on. He has plenty to say, but his digressions and pot-shots lead him to try to make some questionable points:

There is no such thing as 'literal translation', just a 'one-for-one substitution of the separated written words'. Well, Professor Bellos, that is exactly what people use that term to mean.

His peeving about cliches like 'les belles infidèles', 'lost in translation', and 'traduttore traditore' left me cold, with only an aftertaste of a more scholarly Andy Rooney.

He devotes a long passage to Ottoman Turkish 'tercüman' and seems to imply that the word was then borrowed into Arabic and Hebrew, while the latter certainly had this word before Ottoman Turkish even existed, all of which borrowed it from Aramaic.

Overall, the peeving tone, occasional misstatements, meandering style, and lack of an argument mean that this book does not merit a higher rating.
Profile Image for Chad Post.
242 reviews243 followers
August 29, 2011
Absolutely fantastic. We're going to run part of this on Read This Next (http://www.readthisnext.org) 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 . . .
Profile Image for Julia.
203 reviews
October 24, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Ashling.
22 reviews217 followers
April 12, 2023
i dont know what’s up with this book but i almost fell asleep reading it, and i *like* the topic of translation😭
Profile Image for Est.
60 reviews4 followers
November 18, 2021
Witty and informative, a great book on what translation does. Just not that much into translation.
Profile Image for Bill.
55 reviews2 followers
August 13, 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!

Profile Image for Oscar.
84 reviews11 followers
April 6, 2012
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 ‘translate’ a text.

What makes Bellos’s book stand out is that while it draws from much of contemporary linguistic scholarship, Bellos everything, but the kitchen sink approach works largely in how he ties the theoretical with the practical concerns that translators face. The book, then, provides not only to discuss the process of translation, but to also how it’s a fine if messy art that requires ongoing fine tuning by translators.

I really enjoyed the book largely as a result from what it taught me, particularly, just how challenging translation is and indebted to much language scholarship , but also since the discussion was lead by Bellos, whose experience and love for translation comes across well, making me appreciate the often faceless roles of translators.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,812 reviews33 followers
April 29, 2012
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 translation is a myth. This is why the EU drafts a law in multiple languages initially, giving the full force of law to each version. Eddie Izzard might call this the cutting edge of government in a spectacularly boring way, but Bellos manages to present genuinely interesting examples of what happens when the contradictions between these languages cause problems.

Beyond literature and law, this is a book about understanding and communication between cultures. You might be surprised by what is actually lost in translation.
Profile Image for Amanda.
88 reviews
February 11, 2012
I learned some interesting things about language from this book, but reading it was a slog. It is not nearly as accessible as the title would seem to suggest, and I frequently got the impression that the author is someone who knows so much about his field at such a cerebral level that he's lost the ability to explain it clearly at a more basic level.
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