Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything

Throughout the history of the world, the transmission of knowledge — from the tenets of Buddhism to the secret of making pasta — has depended on crossing the borders between languages, notes David Bellos in his witty, far-reaching, and charmingly geeky new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. At first glance, this may seem obvious, and translation may seem simple — the conveyance of sense or meaning from one language to another.

But try taking a poem by Baudelaire and rendering it in English. The task immediately reveals complexities. Do we privilege Baudelaire’s rhyme or his meter or his alliteration? Do we craft something that contains our own sense of Baudelairean or Baudelaire-ish feeling? Do we render the poem word-for-word or sound-for-sound, at the risk of creating nonsense? These are problems that most translators — even amateurs — know well. It’s not clear which methods lead to the best interlingual poetic experience. But Bellos, the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, doesn’t want to clear this up — rather, he favors our confusion and indecision. He revels in nuance.

Drawing from sociology, linguistics, and histories of trade and politics, Bellos gives us a boggling and beguiling array of ways to think about the problems involved in translation. What about the nineteenth-century practice of leaving little French phrases like Mon Dieu! or Sacrebleu! within an English translation to give the English a little French flavor? Then there’s the fact that native speakers themselves make mistakes all the time and fill complex words in by inference — thus translating the unknown word of their own language into a vague but passable idea of meaning. Not to mention the notion that as vocabularies shift over centuries, meaning itself is totally dependent on context, time, and place — not necessarily on the order of words. As Bellos dapperly puts it: “What an utterance means to its utterer and to the addressee of the utterance does not depend exclusively on the meaning of the words uttered.” (Mais oui, but try translating that into common speech.) All of these problems help us to notice that translation is muddier than we thought.

And yet, miraculously, things are translated all the time, by all kinds of means — from dialects into trading languages into speeches on the UN floor. Texts we love have been translated from Hebrew to Greek to English and back, though not without gaining and losing and shifting in the process.

Bellos wants to draw even the most landlocked English speaker into the space of this cultural exchange. We swim between languages, and the way we think about our experience of translation also reflects how we understand our own relation to others. It is fitting that this book is directed toward English speakers, especially Americans, who are horrendously under-schooled in other languages and often lack awareness of how much translation is going on around them all the time.
The fish in Bellos’s title refers to the mythical Babel fish from Douglas Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In that book, the magic fish, which lodges in the ears of galactic creatures, offers that utopia of perfect and instant trans-species communication. It’s a far-out reference, to be sure, but Bellos has a way of making what happens daily on this planet to facilitate contact between speakers of diverse languages seem no less miraculous. He moves gracefully from Dryden to Nabokov, from Japanese literature to Hungarian TV. Bellos takes translation far beyond the rote exercises most of us remember from high school or college language classes. Instead, he reveals the experience of translation in all its dazzling diversity — an everyday occurrence, but one fully deserving of our awe.