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

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

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by David Bellos
     
 

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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year

People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighbors' languages—as did many ordinary Europeans in

Overview

A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year

People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighbors' languages—as did many ordinary Europeans in times past (Christopher Columbus knew Italian, Portuguese, and Castilian Spanish as well as the classical languages). But today, we all use translation to cope with the diversity of languages. Without translation there would be no world news, not much of a reading list in any subject at college, no repair manuals for cars or planes; we wouldn't even be able to put together flat-pack furniture.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are. Among many other things, David Bellos asks: What's the difference between translating unprepared natural speech and translating Madame Bovary? How do you translate a joke? What's the difference between a native tongue and a learned one? Can you translate between any pair of languages, or only between some? What really goes on when world leaders speak at the UN? Can machines ever replace human translators, and if not, why?

But the biggest question Bellos asks is this: How do we ever really know that we've understood what anybody else says—in our own language or in another? Surprising, witty, and written with great joie de vivre, this book is all about how we comprehend other people and shows us how, ultimately, translation is another name for the human condition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Written by an award-winning translator and professor of comparative literature, this book is informed by considerable culture and an original, probing intelligence with a mostly light touch—the title riffs off of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose babel fish, when inserted in one’s ear, could translate any imaginable language. If only it were that easy. Bellos gets readers to think in new ways about the implications of moving a series of words from one language and society to another. Of the 7,000 tongues currently used by humankind, works are translated between roughly 50. The preponderance of translation is into English, which explains why translating is a well-paying profession in Japan, Germany, and France but not here. Whether translating Astérix comics or caustic Chinese doggerel, puns and wordplay or even legalities at the groundbreaking Nuremberg Tribunal, translators are far more than a kind of literary middleman. It is a breeze to get lost in translation, and for this reason Bellos cannily exclaims, “We should do more of it.” (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“[Bellos] offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is onto something new . . . Dazzlingly inventive.” —Adam Thirlwell, The New York Times

“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

“This informed book props open the door to the idea of translation with pop culture . . . This broad-ranging book reads like a survey course in translation, providing a look at its history, detractors, challenges, future--if computers are the future--and current practice, both spoken and written . . . The result is arresting.” —Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

“David Bellos writes like a person who chooses his words not only carefully but also confidently and pragmatically. Translation is a challenging enterprise, but one he embraces vigorously and without the gloomy pessimism that leads some to declare that it's impossible . . . Rich, often playful chapters.” —Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“[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

“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

“A disquisition of remarkable freshness on language, speech and translation. In short, punchy, instructive chapters that take in such things as linguistics, philosophy, dictionaries, machine translation, Bible translations, international law, the Nuremberg trials, the European Union and the rise of simultaneous interpreting . . . I could say anyone with an interest in translation should read Is That a Fish, but there wouldn't be very much point; instead, anyone with no interest in translation, please read David Bellos's brilliant book” —Michael Hofmann, The Guardian

“Bellos has adopted a radically different approach: as his Hitchhikery title suggests, he has set out to make it fun . . . Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is essential reading for anyone with even a vague interest in language and translation--in short, it is a triumph.” —Shaun Whiteside, The Independent

“Erudite . . . ultimately illuminating, even transformative.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Written by an award-winning translator and professor of comparative literature, this book is informed by considerable culture and an original, probing intelligence with a mostly light touch--the title riffs off of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, whose babel fish, when inserted in one's ear, could translate any imaginable language. If only it were that easy . . . It is a breeze to get lost in translation, and for this reason Bellos cannily exclaims, ‘We should do more of it.'” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Library Journal
What would happen if someone in each community used a Babel fish, a device imagined by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that translates from any received language when placed in the ear? Starting with this allusion, as per his title, Bellos (director, program in translation & intercultural communication, Princeton Univ.) employs familiar topics to explore the function and nature of translation. Thirty-three brief chapters focus on historic and current translation, including translation of classic literature, subtitles in movies, and language parity in the European Union. While occasionally presenting examples of differing translations of the same text, Bellos does not instruct how to translate. Instead, he highlights translation's role outside of family relationships, such as in religion, education, economics, and politics. Both anecdotes and scholarly references support the narrative. The author's casual tone and emphasis on translation's function distinguish the work from such new books as Susan Bassnett's essay collection Reflections on Translation. VERDICT An entertaining yet still scholarly introduction for interested readers, undergraduates, and language professionals.—Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Adam Thirlwell
[Bellos] offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is on to something new…[in] this dazzlingly inventive book…
—The New York Times Book Review
Michael Dirda
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? strikes me as the best sort of nonfiction, an exhilarating work that takes up a subject we thought we understood—or knew we didn't—and then makes us see it afresh. Such high-order scholarly popularizations, accomplished with the grace and authority of a David Bellos, are themselves an irreplaceable kind of translation.
—The Washington Post
translator of Roberto Bolaño's Savage Dete NATASHA WIMMER

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780865478572
Publisher:
Faber and Faber
Publication date:
10/11/2011
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
1,241,912
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

ONE

What Is a Translation?

Douglas Hofstadter took a great liking to this short poem by the sixteenth-century French wit Clément Marot:

Ma mignonne, Je vous donne Le bon jour; Le séjour C'est prison. Guérison Recouvrez, Puis ouvrez Votre porte Et qu'on sorte Vitement, Car Clément Le vous mande. Va, friande De ta bouche, Qui se couche En danger Pour manger Confitures;Si tu dures Trop malade, Couleur fade Tu prendras, Et perdras L'embonpoint. Dieu te doint Santé bonne, Ma mignonne.

He sent a copy of it to a great number of his friends and acquaintances and asked them to translate it into English, respecting as well as they could the formal properties that he identified in it:

(1) 28 lines (2) of 3 syllables each (3) in rhyming couplets (4) with the last line being the same as the first; (5) midway the poem changes from formal (vous) to informal (tu) and (6) the poet puts his own name directly into the poem.1

Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University, got many dozens of responses over the following months and years. Each one of them was different, yet each one of them was without doubt a translation of Marot's little poem. By this simple device he demonstrated one of the most awkward and wonderful truths about translation. It is this: any utterance of more than trivial length has no one translation; all utterances have innumerably many acceptable translations.

You get the same result with ordinary prose as you do with a poem. Give a hundred competent translators a page to translate, and the chances of any two versions being identical are close to zero. This fact about interlingual communication has persuaded many people that translation is not an interesting topic—because it is always approximate, it is just a second-rate kind of thing. That's why "translation" isn't the name of a long-established academic discipline, even though its practitioners have often been academics in some other field. How can you have theories and principles about a process that comes up with no determinate results?

Like Hofstadter, I take the opposite view. The variability of translations is incontrovertible evidence of the limitless flexibility of human minds. There can hardly be a more interesting subject than that.

What is it that translators really do? How many different kinds of translating are there? What do the uses of this mysterious ability tell us about human societies, past and present? How do the facts of translation relate to language use in general—and to what we think a language is?

Those are the kinds of questions I explore in this book. Definitions, theories, and principles can be left aside until we have a better idea of what we are talking about. We shouldn't use them prematurely to decide whether the following version of Clément Marot's poem (one of many by Hofstadter himself) is good, bad, or indifferent. It's the other way around. Until we can explain why the following version counts as a translation, we don't really know what we're saying when we utter the word.

Gentle gem, Diadem, Ciao! Bonjour! Heard that you're In the rough: Glum, sub-snuff. Precious, tone Down your moan, And fling wideYour door; glide From your oy- ster bed, coy Little pearl. See, blue girl, Beet-red ru- by's your hue. For your aches, Carat cakes Are the cure. Eat no few'r Than fourteen, Silv'ry queen—But no more 'n twenty-four, Golden dream. How you'll gleam! Trust old Clem Gentle gem.

Copyright © 2011 by David Bellos

Meet the Author

David Bellos is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, and others, including the Man Booker International Translator's Award. He also received the Prix Goncourt for George Perec: A Life in Words.

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Is That a Fish in Your Ear? 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would rate it 4 stars. Bellos does a good job discussing the major issues encountered and entailed in translating. Nicely written, although somewhat dense at times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From the title and a review I read in a newspaper, I thought this would be a lighthearted approach to the subject of (mis)translation, so I was rather surprised by the approach taken by the author, from my initial somewhat supervicial overview of it. I had purchased the book as a gift for my husband. He has started it and seems to be enjoying it, but reads it in small doses and never right before bedtime.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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