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. Usually we get our sense of foreignness from the locations or the different cultural settings of the work and its best to translate straightforwardly rather than attempting to capture the nature of a foreign language by altered spellings and phonetic attempts to capture an accent.
Bellos is fairly liberal on his views on literalness of translation. Its the meaning of the work that matters not the precision of word-for-word translation. "It is not possible to reproduce the symptomatic meaning of the use of a given language in a language other than the one being used". The translator has many ways of transferring meaning from one language to another but this rarely depends on the equivalence of words for this leads to a stilted and disjointed text.
He argues that the idea that language is a list of the names of things is a false one. It has led to lengthy books and dictionaries which provide the history and derivation of words - none of which explain what any ordinary user of English just knows instinctively. It is what is understood by the word that matters, not whether it is used in accordance with some official definition of it.
Bellos is not a great fan of dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary or the Dictionnaire de l'Academie. All they do is codify what native speakers already know and they possess a built in obsolescence because language never stays the same (of course this makes for regular press-releases whenever a new edition is published containing outrageous new words).
Further chapters cover more specialised fields like international law, language parity in the European Union, translating literary texts and automated translation. Even in these chapters Bellos is never less than interesting and I found constant enlightenment throughout the whole book.
Bellos has lightness of touch (as is shown in the title of the book) which makes this a stimulating read which presents many novel ideas and makes them relevant not only to the work of translation but to the way we speak and the multi-lingual world in which we live. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in how our words get to us from abroad whether in daily television news reports or in the books we read.
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.
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.
on 15 June 2012
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.
David Bellos' new book is all about translation, but this isn't a guidebook for translators, it is about translation in itself. If you already speak another language you have probably translated pieces of writing between the two tongues as exercises. We read books that have been translated, we watch films with subtitles, we at times resort to translated texts on numerous subjects, including brochures, guidelines, and in some cases legal work.
This book takes in all of that, the problems that can be faced, and how others have sought to overcome these. The European Court of Justice for instance has to have all legal rules written in all languages of the EU, all of these works also carry the wording that say that they are not translations and are enforcable in all member states, thus meaning that you don't have a normal translator as such, but numerous lawyers who speak and can translate between different languages. This book also explains how the translation works at such things as the UN. Taking in all these things and others, including how Google Translation works, poetry, humour, and literary fiction, there is quite a lot to take in here.
As it covers so much ground there is more than language here, as philosophy, semantics, anthropology and many other topics are included. Why we need to translate and how it is done are obviously covered, but also the fact that publishing houses need to churn out new translations of old classic works as former translations reach the end of their copyright. Trying to say what translation is Bellos uses anecdotes and graphs along with examples of the same thing translated different ways into English.
You don't have to be seriously into the subject of translating to read this book, as you are drawn in and held with Bellos' writing, which brings to life something that we take for granted, but isn't that necessarily an easy task. If you read this you will probably never look at the world of the translator in the same light again, and perhaps that is why in other languages the translator is as famous as the authors he/she translates.
Make no bones about it, this is a wordy book. It is not one of these ghost written, large font & low content publications that promise much on the cover and let you down within the first few pages. David Bellos is a translator, a word smith, an alchemist who changes one language to another with the fluidity of a salmon swimming upstream. He details the histories and differences between languages, explains the way they converge and stand apart and what goes into and is left from translation.
The book is liberally interspersed with anecdotes and humorous examples of words apart from their native tongue, which can be a minefield when trying to preserve the tone & intent of the original language.
I understand some people will not get the book (even I found some parts hard going), but as a history of intercultural communication it is an invaluable read.
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.
We all know what translation is...or do we? In this thorough exploration of the subject, David Bellos points out that what we think we all know about the nature of translation, language and even meaning isn't all there is to the story. How should translators deal with poetry, humour and writing style? How does anyone manage the amazing feat of simultaneous interpretation required at the UN? How does the EU, with all its member languages, manage to uphold a universal set of laws of regulations? All these issues and more are addressed within the pages of this book.
Given its light-hearted title, I was expecting something along the lines of the usual popular science book; perhaps not the most technical piece, but packed with interesting facts and anecdotes. But while it's true that there's certainly plenty of interest about the different aspects of translation in here, the writing style turned out to be unexpectedly dense.
At the start of the book, Bellos spends some time pondering exactly what we even mean by the concepts of translation and meaning, and right from the get-go, it becomes apparent that this is going to be no light read. Indeed, so much time is spent pondering semantics in quite dense language that, for the first hundred pages or so, you feel like you're still reading the introduction and that the book has yet to really attack the meat of its remit. Later on, this feeling gradually dissipates, but although there is plenty of good content, you're left unsure as to where the author is intending to go with it. The facts themselves are interesting, but the surrounding discussion seems a bit laboured and unclear (contrary to the author's own stated belief on the flyleaf that everything can be explained in "plain and comprehensible prose"); often I was left unclear as to what the thrust of his argument was meant to be, or whether the ordering of the chapters was meant to develop some greater narrative that I just wasn't understanding. Even something as simple as splitting the chapters into sections would have definitely helped with this point.
Ultimately, if you've a keen interest in translation, there is certainly good material to be got out of this book, but given the style in which it has been written, it's probably not one to plough through from cover to cover. Instead, it's best just to pick out the chapters that sound most appealing to you and just dip into those.
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 speech they hear or read. In many foreign films they will often be reflecting on the amount of time it takes the speaker to say apparently not very much. If they have even a basic grasp of the language being spoken they will know there are some words that are not mentioned in subtitles, and will be puzzled by the content of the translation itself, to the point of vehement disagreement.
Sometimes the source text, for example the original Hebrew bible, is in a form wide open to interpretation, with no lower case letters, word spacing or punctuation: whole wars have been fought over the positioning of a comma in the Old Testament. Sometimes the original meaning of a word, despite the supposed handing down of meaning orally by clerics, is completely lost: David Bellos here tells us that nobody actually knows the meaning of "cherubim", for example, and it has therefore had to be inferred.
These and many other themes related to translation are addressed by Bellos in this informative and entertaining volume. He examines the history of translation, in the process tracing the word back to its roots over 5000 years ago, and its politics, including the issues surrounding translation at international bodies such as the UN and EU, and the way a whole, powerful caste of translators emerged in Ottoman Venice. He looks at the way in which machines have been harnessed in various ways to act as translators, including Google's algorithm to use existing online translations, often using English as a pivot language, to enable new ones. He analyses the thorny issues of translated humour and, a particular bugbear of this reviewer, poetry or song, where often whole stanzas are rethought in order to preserve rhyme, but at the loss of meaning. He confirms the suspicion that advanced learners of a non-native language eventually cease to translate as they read, having reached an understanding that transcends translation. And he shows, using measures of their volumes, where the main efforts are in translation, giving a feel for where economic, political and cultural power lie internationally.
To his credit, Bellos does not compromise the seriousness of the subject. There is no attempt at gratuitous lightheartedness, although there is plenty of humour, or at dumbing down. As well as the mechanics of translation he addresses the more philosophical aspects, particularly the ethics of translation. That may have cost him some readers, but the book is stronger and more valuable for it.
I'm going to be honest - I was disappointed with Is That a Fish in Your Ear. Not because it lacks research, or for failing to deliver... but because it's (in my opinion) overly dense.
To be fair, Is That a Fish? is a great idea - and I'll admit I did learn a lot, and it made me think about the nature of language; or more to the point, how we connect finality of meaning to words -- but, honestly, this book could have been several shades lighter and serviced so many more readers. It starts well, engages, but then seems to become increasingly more dense until, I have to be honest, I gave up forty or so pages in. Like an ever-decreasing spiral, it seemed to converge into a terminal mass of its own argument. Of all which left me a disappointed, rather alienated reader.
Okay, my criticism is subjective, but this is a book that's smart, possesses a great polemic, has been well advertised -- and even comes in a fantastically designed sleeve -- but is just so darn unfriendly to read. Maybe it's me, but it didn't seem to have much concern for the reader, was too bogged down in its own thought-pattern.
Yes, I'm sure there are academics out there, students of language, etc, who'll probably lap this book up. But for something that was advertised as of mainstream interest, it's just too dense. I'm not saying dumb it down; just that a more accessible read would have taken this into a far broader, just as deserving audience.
There's a better populist book out there on language begging to be written - but unless you're closer to Stephen Fry than I, this (for its density alone) is not it.