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

David Bellos
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (104 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Sep 2011

People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighbours' languages - as did many ordinary Europeans in times past. But today, we all use translation to cope with the diversity of languages. Without translation there would be no world news, not much of a reading list in any subject at college, no repair manuals for cars or planes, and we wouldn't even be able to put together flat pack furniture.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are. What's the difference between translating unprepared natural speech, and translating Madame Bovary? How do you translate a joke? What's the difference between a native tongue and a learned one? Can you translate between any pair of languages, or only between some? What really goes on when world leaders speak at the UN? Can machines ever replace human translators, and if not, why? The biggest question is how do we ever really know that we've grasped what anybody else says - in our own language or in another? Surprising, witty and written with great joie de vivre, this book is all about us, and how we understand each other.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Particular Books (1 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846144647
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846144646
  • Product Dimensions: 14.7 x 22.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (104 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 70,852 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


In the guise of a book about translation this is a richly original cultural history ... A book for anyone interested in words, language and cultural anthropology. Mr Bellos's fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating (The Economist)

For anyone with a passing interest in language this work is enthralling ... A wonderful celebration of the sheer diversity of language and the place it occupies in human endeavour. Conducted by a man who clearly knows his stuff, it is a whirlwind tour round the highways and byways of translation in all its glorious forms, from literary fiction to car repair manuals, from the Nuremberg trials to decoding at Bletchley Park (The Scotsman)

Bellos has numerous paradoxes, anecdotes and witty solutions ... his insights are thought provoking, paradoxical and a brilliant exposition of mankind's attempts to deal with the Babel of global communication (Michael Binyon The Times)

[A] witty, erudite exploration...[Bellos] delights in [translation's] chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity...He would like us to do more of it. With the encouragement of this book, we might even begin to enjoy it (Maureen Freely Sunday Telegraph)

Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious...[it is a] scintillating bouillabaisse (Frederic Raphael Literary Review)

Is That A Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos (father of Alex of Numberland fame) is a fascinating book on the world of translation that might well be this year's Just My Type (Jonathan Ruppin, Foyles Booskhop)

Selected by The Times' 'Daily Universal Register' as a 'Try This' Book (The Times)

A fascinating...very readable study of the mysterious art and business of translation...Bellos asks big questions...and comes up with often surprising answers...sparky, thought-provoking (Nigeness)

Forget the fish-it's David Bellos you want in your ear when the talk is about translation. Bellos dispels many of the gloomy truisms of the trade and reminds us what an infinitely flexible instrument the English language (or any language) is. Sparkling, independent-minded analysis of everything from Nabokov's insecurities to Google Translate's felicities fuels a tender-even romantic-account of our relationship with words. (—natasha Wimmer, Translator Of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives And 2666)

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers a lively survey of translating puns and poetry, cartoons and legislation, subtitles, news bulletins and the Bible (Matthew Reisz Times Higher Education Supplement)

Please read David Bellos's brilliant book (Michael Hofmann Guardian)

A clear and lively survey...This book fulfils a real need; there is nothing quite like it. (Robert Chandler Spectator)

In his marvellous study of the nature of translation...[David Bellos] has set out to make it fun...Essential reading for anyone with even a vague interest in language and translation - in short, it is a triumph (Shaun Whiteside Independent)

A dazzyingly inventive book (Adam Thirlwell New York Times)

Witty and perceptive...stimulating, lucid, ultimately cheering (Theo Dorgan Irish Times)

Superbly smart, supremely shrewd (Carlin Romano The Chronicle Review)

A wonderful, witty book about words, language and cultural anthropology by a scholar whose fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating (The Economist Books of the Year 2011)

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? strikes me as the best sort of nonfiction, an exhilarating work that takes up a subject we thought we understood - or knew we didn't - and then makes us see it afresh. Such high-order scholarly popularizations, accomplished with the grace and authority of a David Bellos, are themselves an irreplaceable kind of translation (Michael Dirda Washington Post)

Selected as a National Book Critics' Circle Award Criticism Finalist 2011 (NBCC)

Selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011 (New York Times)

About the Author

David Bellos is Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also 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 Translator Award, and received the Prix Goncourt de la biographie for his book on Perec.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging but not light 27 Aug 2011
By William Cohen VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I set out to read this book from cover to cover, but it's a bit too heavy for me to do that. I studied French and German at university so it was up my street. Also I work as a speechwriter which is a form of translation.

I'm enjoying dipping in and reading chapters which range from how the ECJ manages translation, to observations on the number of books translated in and out of different languages to the problems of defining the genre of Freud's work which has implications for translators. The author shows how Asterix can be funnier in English than in the original, how poems can be rendered in a foreign tongue and the problems arising. A cerebral book for people who love words and languages.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Far more than a book about translation 22 Nov 2011
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I have just read Is That a Fish in Your Ear by David Bellos, a book which covers every possible aspect of the work of translation and tackles all the doubts and criticisms of the concept head on. It moves far beyond "translation" however and provides many interesting insights into language and meaning.

The book is so comprehensive it is almost impossible to summarise it adequately and I got the impression that Bellos has missed no aspect of the work of translation.

Bellos opens his book by discussing the meaning of translation and explains right at the start that there is no one definition - it is a totally different thing to translate the instructions for a washing machine to transferring the meaning and style of a poem from one language to another. If you translate a nursery rhyme you need to produce something which has a sing-song quality which children can grasp onto, but when translating the work of a philosopher like Perec a far more subtle approach is required in order to move complex concepts from one language to another.

He then moves on to exploding our illusion that we can have some innate ability to tell when a work has been translated. He reminds us that "countless writers have packaged originals as translations and translations as originals and got away with it for weeks, months, years, even centuries".

For many years, translators tried to keep some "foreignness" in their translations. This led to some hilarious attempts to replicate a foreign accent into English (film makers have often tried the same approach). Bellos concludes that "the natural way to represent the foreignness of foreign utterances is to leave them in the original, in whole or in part.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Far too dry for the general reader. 22 April 2012
By Kindle Customer VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book is not really for the general reader with only a passing interest in the subject. It is far too dry and in depth to be included in the "popular science" genre. I found some of the explanations and some of the sentences long winded and was very soon skimming through this book, which disappointed me as I was looking forward to reading it.

A sentence on the back fly leaf surprised me. About David Bellos it said "He clings to the view that even the most difficult and complicated things can be spoken of in plain and comprehensible prose." I totally agree with the statement, but it certainly does not apply to this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and engaging 15 Jun 2012
By S
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am really fascinated by languages and linguistics, and since I've studied languages for many years I've done my fair share of (admittedly rather amateurish) translations, and no doubt many more await me in the future. So I bought this book hoping to learn a bit more about professional translation, and it did not disappoint.

Importantly, this isn't a book about how to do translations, not a manual per se. It's more an analysis of the innumerable difficulties faced by professional translators and interpreters, such as how to translate humour, how to translate poetry and what, most importantly, translation actually is, and what it does.

Some of these questions are fairly straight forward (well, kind of) but some are admittedly very philosophical, and Bellos understandingly cannot give a concrete answer to "What is translation?" but he does give it his best shot, and the result makes for fascinating reading. The book is very well written, easy to read and full of fascinating nuggets of information. Bellos does get a little involved sometimes, and does occasionally include passages in foreign languages that are not then translated (oddly), which occasionally left me baffled when he later referred to what they had said, nut this was only a minor headache.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in foreign languages, and even people who have spent their whole lives surrounded by translations and interpretation might learn a new thing or two, and failing that, they might think about things that might not have occurred to them before.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How do we understand each other? 17 Jan 2012
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
In the end, according to David Bellos, the question "what is translation?" amounts to something much more fundamental between all of us, irrespective of language - "how do we understand each other?" He takes us on a varied tour via this book of what is essentially a series of essays, visiting numerous aspects of the nature and practice of translation.

Bellos is knowledgeable and erudite, and possesses some wry humour and wit, but he is not on the other hand the sort of person to say "the sky is blue" when instead he could say that "the prevailing daytime atmospheric luminescence is of a pronounced bluish colouration". His verbosity can therefore be a little hard going, and I thought it odd that the back flap notes that Bellos "clings to the view that even the most difficult and complicated things can be spoken of in plain and comprehensible prose".

There are a few factual niggles which detract - for example: the Romans did not make everyone speak Latin; the Baltic states were invaded by the Soviets in 1940 not 1941; British traffic lights do not have a "yellow (sic) and green" combination (perhaps forgiveable if Bellos were American but he is British born and bred, albeit now based at Princeton - and why did a proof reader not correct this?), nor is the reason for red and amber anything to do with the type of gearshift used in cars.

A qualified recommendation.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Translator or not, you should read this book.
Translation and the Meaning of Everything might seem to be a somewhat ambitious, if not arrogant, subtitle for a book about translation. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Leitir
5.0 out of 5 stars How we understand each other! Should be on every bookshelf.
A fascinating, in depth and exhaustive study that covers every aspect of translation between different peoples and cultures. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Marion Athorne
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply brilliant
A book that opens my mind a little more every time I turn the page. Genius. You could almost call the discussion on translation an insidious way to present perspectives on language... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Frode Alexander Hegland
5.0 out of 5 stars Very well reasoned, and presented, examination of the trials of...
Somewhat more academic than I was initially expecting, but an excellent exploration of the many different approaches to translation, and the pitfalls of each.
Published 10 months ago by David Stirrup
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, inspiring
David Bellos is full of inspiration and wisdom in this fantastic book on translation. As a professional translator myself and lecturer on translation I found it invaluable and... Read more
Published 11 months ago by cgtipper
1.0 out of 5 stars Completely lacked of interrest and not even an pleasant read
My wife bought me this book based on The Economist`s review. Unfortunately that's the worst choice she ever made, and the only book I haven't been able to finish in the past 5... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Parisian Londoner
2.0 out of 5 stars Floppy
I gave up on this about a third the way through. Bellos, as far as I'm concerned, lacks that vital ingredient X (a reflection of the soul, dare one say? Read more
Published 12 months ago by Martin Davies
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining
Those of us with a suspicious, cynical or just plain realistic view of the world will undoubtedly have pondered the veracity of the translated texts they read and the translated... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Steve Keen
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Book, Full of Delights
The 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide' reference in the title suggests a jocular approach to the science and art of inter-Language translation, and Bellos maintains this light-hearted style as... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Clifford
5.0 out of 5 stars A success
It was a present for my Dad who masters a number of languages and has translated a number of publications & he loved it!!
Published 14 months ago by Loose
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