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A MATTER OF INTERPRETATiON,
This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)David Bellos' "Is That A Fish In Your Ear?" (the title derives from "A Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy") is an intellectually stimulating romp through the world of translation. It reminded me - though it is much more multi-dimensional - of some of the ruminations on books and reading by such writers as Alberto Manguel and Gabriel Zaid (which, of course, I enjoyed in translation).
Bellos is both an academic expert (Princeton) on the subject of translation and a professional translator (of, for example, the works of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare) himself. His book raises fundamental questions on whether it is ever truly possible to translate a work from one language to another. Thus we have chapter headings such as "The Myth of Literal Translation."
"Fish" is rich in anecdotes. We learn that some cultures "carry across" (lit.: translate) meanings whereas others "turn" them; that there is close etymological association between translator and traitor; that the Russian word for cheese excludes cottage cheese (so does it really "mean" cheese then?); that the Scandinavian reputation for laconicism is in part the result of the "Bergman Effect," the efforts by the famous director to compress his dialogue to accommodate English subtitles. We learn of the slightly sinister power of the hereditary Ottoman interpreters, the Turcoman or dragoman. Asterix The Gaul rubs shoulders with Ferdinand de Saussure and Edward Sapir. Then there is translating up versus down and the skewed statistics of translation - even today 80% of translation from is out of English and 80% of translation to is into German or French. We learn about the career prospects of EU interpreters, and about quirks in languages such as Hungarian and Finnish. The Arabs use the one word, ghani (I think), to cover both sheep and goats - why bother separating them?
As for the larger question of whether it is really possible to translate at all, Bellos is not so fussed. For all its shortcomings, translation, he concludes, is a critical part of "the human capacity to think and to communicate."
By coincidence, I read "Fish" in close juxtaposition to Jorge Luis Borges' essay on " The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights." This is included in the recently published selection of his writings in the Penguin "great ideas" series entitled "The perpetual Race of Achilles And The Tortoise." I found the two works to be very complementary and other readers might wish to follow suit.