- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (6 Sept. 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0241954304
- ISBN-13: 978-0241954300
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 2.5 x 19.7 cm
- Average Customer Review: 115 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 136,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything Paperback – 6 Sep 2012
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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)
About the Author
David Bellos is Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French Literature at Princeton University, where he also teaches Comparative Literature. He is the author of many books and articles on nineteenth-century fiction, alongside biographies of three icons of French culture in the twentieth century: Georges Perec, Jacques Tati and Romain Gary. He is also a well-known translator and the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation. David Bellos was recently awarded the rank of officier in the Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres for his services to French culture.
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I make my living as a translator and I used to teach English at university level. So this book ought to have appealed to me, especially if the fulsome reviews are to be believed. But I found it just dull. Bellos writes like an academic and that is not a compliment. There are places - many places - where my brain just clouded over, either from information overload (as in the details of systems at the ECJ and UN), or from what I found the plodding nature of the prose.
There are many things known to all translators but not to the general public that pass unmentioned. For instance, Bellos notes that most translation is done into the translator's "mother tongue". But he doesn't say why - and any commercial translator will tell you that the problem is rarely understanding the original (what else are dictionaries and contacts for?) but working out how to express it naturally in the target language (for which Google comes in useful). And he never mentions that the most important factor in whether a text is hard or easy to translate is not the content but the quality of writing in the original (grammaticality, sentence structure, word usage, etc.). Difficult stuff written well just requires work. Easy stuff written badly is always a headache, because written badly almost invariably means ambiguity. Bellos is presumably luckier than the rest of us in getting good texts to translate.
He also gets literary texts, and talks a lot about them. This may be interesting for the general reader but it has very little to do with how most of us make our living.
There's also some very curious stuff presented, almost, as established fact. For instance, while Bellos is right to point to the way that language is a very significant factor in establishing social identity, it is surely going way beyond justification claiming, as he does, that this is the main function of language and the main driver of its origins.
There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of the ranks of critics and reviewers. If they enjoyed this book, then that's great. But plainly I didn't. And that comes from someone from within the trade. There's no reason why someone shouldn't be able to produce a good book about translation for the general reader, but this one didn't do it for me.
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.
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