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.