Bellos, David. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

NY: Faber & Faber, 2011.

When I was in college in the 1960s, all history majors who expected to make a career in the field had to be competent in French and/or German (plus Latin if medieval studies was your thing). And, of course, I had taken a couple years of French as a high school graduation requirement. Even though I lived in Europe for much of the 1950s, learning foreign languages in the classroom has always been difficult for me, and I struggled.

These days, though, it has become very uncommon for American students to be required to take another language even as undergraduates — a much to be regretted result of the worldwide prevalence of English since World War II.

In fact, life on this planet would have been a lot more peaceful if all humans had always spoken the same language. Until relatively recently, people dealt with the problem of Babel by simply learning more languages, those of their neighbors or trading partners, or of their conquerors. And certain languages — Greek, then Latin, French, German, Russian to a certain extent, and now English — have become dominant in science and in international affairs, so that anyone who wanted to succeed outside his immediate milieu knew which additional language he had to acquire. But, surprisingly, the notion of a professional bilingualist who would act as an intermediary between two people without a common language has only been around for a couple hundred years.

Bellos was not raised bilingual — he only learned French in school, like everyone else. But he has a knack for translating English books into French (translators hardly ever work from a “foreign” language back to their native tongue) and has been teaching the theory and practice, and indeed the art, of translation for some time, most recently at Princeton. This book is his attempt to get the reader to consider the issues behind the conversion of thoughts and ideas from one language to another, and he’s quite successful most of the time. Which should one go for, a literal translation, or preferring the sense over the exact words? Is it even possible to translate something “literally”? How does oral translation (as in tribal societies or at the UN) differ from written, literary translation? (There’s a great deal of difference, as it turns out.) How does difference in social and cultural context affect translated meaning? (Is a Chinese-speaker going to understand the same thing by “democracy” as a European?) How does translation affect such international matters as the law? Is it possible to really translate a joke? The author is an excellent explainer, using original examples to get his point across and to make the reader pause and consider. (He even sees the film Avatar as “a parable about translation.”)

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who ever has dealings with native speakers of other languages, or who must learn another language himself, or who reads literature that has been translated from a different original language. In short, almost any educated person in modern America — and almost any ordinary, self-aware person outside the isolated and parochial sections of the United States.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I
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    • No, go right ahead. I have no objection whatever to being quoted and linked to. (It’s only the blatant spammish advertising I object to, and which I discard without comment.)

  2. Can I ask on what basis you say “translators hardly ever work from a “foreign” language back to their native tongue”? I’ve been doing quite a bit of translating recently — and my main selling point is that I’m a native speaker, so my text will be better than from any non-native speaker!

    • This sounded a little odd to me, too, but Belos is the professional so I took his word for it. I don’t remember what his explanation was in detail, but you ought to be able to locate the book easily enough. Assuming you’re in the U.S., try Inter-Library Loan through your local library. They can find very nearly anything.


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