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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging but not light
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...
Published on 27 Aug 2011 by William Cohen

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting facts but quite heavy going
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...
Published on 17 Jun 2012 by Karura


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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging but not light, 27 Aug 2011
By 
William Cohen (London) - See all my reviews
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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
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A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting facts but quite heavy going, 17 Jun 2012
By 
Karura (London) - See all my reviews
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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.
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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
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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
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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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Heavier going than the title and cover would suggest, 21 Mar 2013
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Is That a Fish in Your Ear is a book I was really looking forward to reading as I would love to know more about the subject. I sadly found this book far too heavy going for me. The title, cover image and review quotes made me think this was going to be an entertaining guide for the lay person. I expected it to be like the many QI- inspired books that are on the market. Unfortunately I just found it quite a slog getting through this book and I did find some parts quite hard to understand. Whilst I am interested in languages I am not very good at them. I feel that someone who has some practical familiarity with the subject will get far more from this book. I really did struggle with some sections. I don't think this is a terrible book, I just think it needs to find it's audience. Unfortunately I think the way it has been marketed may mean other people make the same assumptions that I did.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating subject, good book., 18 Oct 2012
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This is a fascinating subject and I was excited to start this book. It does contain some great insights and content but somehow wasn't as satisfying for me as I'd hoped. I found the author took a long time to make his points and was quite repetitive. If you are interested in translation it's definitely worth getting, but for the causal reader it may not be quite as engaging as the promise suggests. I hope someone else (or the same author in the future) can produce a slightly more readable, punchy text on the same subject.

Also when the author discusses the most appropriate translation of the film title "It's Complicated" into French, surely reference should be made to the Facebook relationship status that popularised the term. Whatever is used by Facebook in that language would seem to make most sense for the translation?
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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
By 
E. L. Wisty "World Domination League" (Devon, UK) - See all my reviews
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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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and interesting, 26 Oct 2011
By 
Warleybear (UK) - See all my reviews
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I've spent the last few Sundays watching Fry's Planet Word on Television, so reading this interesting book that explored translation at the same time was a wonderful coincidence. I'd never really thought about literal approximations rather than exact comparisons in translations - but we've all seen on TV how translations from say Japanese directly to English can go terribly wrong. I enjoyed Bellos's book - yes there were sections I had to go back and re-read - but there were many areas where I stopped and said "wow" I hadn't thought about that. The story on translating the bible and the sections on translating in large organisations like the EEC and UN were well written and interesting. This book is a well worth investment in time reading on something that happens everywhere - Institutions, TV, written media etc. etc.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing look at translation, 20 Oct 2011
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This is a wide-ranging examination of translation, which looks at the theories about the best ways of rendering one language into another and also looks at those theories in practice. It's an erudite and clever book, but not pretentious and certainly accessible. It's a witty study of what is by definition an approximate art, and Bellos does a good job of trying to lay to rest some of the myths about translation (as well as language and language ability) that commonly circulate.
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