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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An NBCC Award and Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist
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

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An NBCC Award and Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist
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.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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.)
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

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Faber and Faber
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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?


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

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