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Customer Review

on 8 September 2012
David Bellos directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton. In this book, he describes how translation makes international bodies like the European Union and the United Nations possible at all. He describes the unequal status of languages: translation UP is towards a language of greater prestige, and translation DOWN is towards the smaller vernacular group. The global book world is a solar structure:

"With its all powerful English sun, major planets called French and German, outer elliptical rings where Russian occasionally crosses the path of Spanish and Italian, and its myriad distant satellites no weightier than stardust..."

Yet, the author dispels the myth that languages can contain thoughts so subtle that they cannot be translated into other languages. On the contrary, all human languages are equivalent, just with different emphases. That worry dealt with, the field of translation is probed in detail. For example: how to approach the translation of humour and poetry, translating speech versus literary texts, and more.

More profoundly, consider that if you want to check you really understand something, that translation is a key test. Can you see through to the meaning and express the same point appropriately well in another language? I can think of no better way to prove that you really get something. Thus, we cut through the obfuscation of linguistics. For one thing there is no Universal Grammar. Neither is language a code: Google Translate, which scavenges the flotsam and jetsam of the web to find the most likely translation, works; Artificial Intelligence, with it's disembodied parsing, doesn't work.

Going back to the crux of meaning in human discourse, the author hopes that we apply the gears of thought more mindfully before we open our big mouths (or blogs, I suppose).
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