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

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865478763
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/16/2012
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 810,161
Product dimensions: 5.62(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.99(d)

About 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?


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

Table of Contents

Prologue 3

1 What Is a Translation? 7

2 Is Translation Avoidable? 11

3 Why Do We Call It "Translation"? 24

4 Things People Say About Translation 37

5 Fictions of the Foreign: The Paradox of "Foreign-Soundingness" 44

6 Native Command: Is Your Language Really Yours? 60

7 Meaning Is No Simple Thing 69

8 Words Are Even Worse 82

9 Understanding Dictionaries 94

10 The Myth of Literal Translation 102

11 The Issue of Trust: The Long Shadow of Oral Translation 117

12 Custom Cuts: Making Forms Fit 131

13 What Can't Be Said Can't Be Translated: The Axiom of Effability 146

14 How Many Words Do We Have for Coffee? 157

15 Bibles and Bananas: The Vertical Axis of Translation Relations 167

16 Translation Impacts 182

17 The Third Code: Translation as a Dialect 190

18 No Language Is an Island: The Awkward Issue of L3 196

19 Global Flows: Center and Periphery in the Translation of Books 202

20 A Question of Human Rights: Translation and the Spread of International Law 217

21 Ceci n'est pas une traduction: Language Parity in the European Union 229

22 Translating News 241

23 The Adventure of Automated Language-Translation Machines 247

24 A Fish in Your Ear: The Short History of Simultaneous Interpreting 259

25 Match Me If You Can: Translating Humor 273

26 Style and Translation 281

27 Translating Literary Texts 291

28 What Translators Do 300

29 Beating the Bounds: What Translation Is Not 310

30 Under Fire: Sniping at Translation 315

31 Sameness, Likeness, and Match: Truths About Translation 319

32 Avatar. A Parable of Translation 323

Afterbabble: In Lieu of an Epilogue 325

Notes 339

Caveats and Thanks 355

Index 357

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