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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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.
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. He is the author of the book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.
Read an Excerpt
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
By David Bellos
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2011 David Bellos
All rights reserved.
What Is a Translation?
Douglas Hofstadter took a great liking to this short poem by the sixteenth-century French wit Clément Marot:
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Et qu'on sorte
Le vous mande.
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
Si tu dures
Dieu te doint
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.
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.
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Heard that you're
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;In the rough:
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Down your moan,
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;And fling wide
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Your door; glide
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;From your oy-
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;ster bed, coy
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;See, blue girl,
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;by's your hue.
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;For your aches,
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Are the cure.
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Eat no few'r
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Silv'ry queen —
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;But no more
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;How you'll gleam!
&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;&nsbp;Trust old Clem,
Is Translation Avoidable?
Translation is everywhere — at the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and many other international bodies that regulate fundamental aspects of modern life. Translation is part and parcel of modern business, and there's hardly a major industry that doesn't use and produce translations for its own operations. We find translations on the bookshelves of our homes, on the reading lists for every course in every discipline taught at college; we find them on processed-food labels and on flat-pack furniture instructions. How could we do without translation? It seems pointless to wonder what world we would live in if translation didn't happen all the time at every level, from bilingual messages on ATM screens to confidential discussions between heads of state, from the guarantee slip on a new watch we've just bought to the classics of world literature.
But we could do without it, all the same. Instead of using translation, we could learn the languages of all the different communities we wish to engage with; or we could decide to speak the same language or else adopt a single common language for communicating with other communities. But if we balk at adopting a common tongue and decline to learn the other languages we need, we could simply ignore people who don't speak the way we do.
These three options seem fairly radical, and it's likely that none of them figures among the aspirations of the readers of this book. However, they are not imaginary solutions to the many paradoxes of intercultural communication. All three paths away from translation are historically attested. More than that: the refusal of translation, by one or more of the means described, is probably closer to the historical norm on this planet than the culture of translation that seems natural and unavoidable around the world today. One big truth about translation that is often kept under wraps is that many societies did just fine by doing without.
The Indian subcontinent has long been the home of many different groups speaking a great variety of languages. However, there is no tradition of translation in India. Until very recently, nothing was ever translated directly between Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, and so on. Yet these communities have lived cheek by jowl on a crowded continent for centuries. How did they manage? They learned other languages! Few inhabitants of the subcontinent have ever been monoglot; citizens of India have traditionally spoken three, four, or five tongues.
In the late Middle Ages, the situation was quite similar in many parts of Europe. Traders and poets, sailors and adventurers moved overland and around the inland seas picking up and often mixing more or less distantly related languages as they went, and only the most thoughtful of them even wondered whether they were speaking different "languages" or just adapting to local peculiarities. The great explorer Christopher Columbus provides an unusually well-documented case of the intercomprehensibility and interchangeability of European tongues in the late Middle Ages. He wrote notes in the margins of his copy of Pliny in what we now recognize as an early form of Italian, but he used typically Portuguese place-names — such as Cuba — to label his discoveries in the New World. He wrote his official correspondence in Castilian Spanish but used Latin for the precious journal he kept of his voyages. He made a "secret" copy of the journal in Greek, however, and he also must have known enough Hebrew to use the astronomical tables of Abraham Zacuto, which allowed him to predict a lunar eclipse and impress the indigenous people he encountered in the Caribbean. He must have been familiar with lingua franca — a "contact language" made of simplified Arabic syntax and a vocabulary taken mostly from Italian and Spanish, used by Mediterranean sailors and traders from the Middle Ages to the dawn of the nineteenth century — because he borrowed a few characteristic words from it when writing in Castilian and Italian. How many languages did Columbus know when he sailed the ocean in 1492? As in today's India, where a degree of intercomprehensibility exists among several of its languages, the answer would be somewhat arbitrary. It's unlikely Columbus even conceptualized Italian, Castilian, or Portuguese as distinct languages, for they did not yet have any grammar books. He was a learned man in being able to read and write the three ancient tongues. But beyond that, he was just a Mediterranean sailor, speaking whatever variety of language that he needed to do his job.
There are perhaps as many as seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, and no individual could learn them all. Five to ten languages seem to represent the effective limit in all cultures, however multilingual they may be. Some obsessive individuals have clocked up twenty; a few champion linguists, who spend all their time learning languages, have claimed knowledge of fifty, or even more. But even these brainiacs master only a tiny fraction of all the tongues that there are.
Most of the world's languages are spoken by very small groups, which is the main reason why a great number of them are near the point of collapse. However, outside the handful of countries speaking one of the half-dozen "major" world languages, few people on this planet have only one tongue. Within the Russian Federation, for example, hundreds of languages are spoken — belonging to the Slavic, Turkic, Caucasian, Altaic, and other language families. But hardly a member of any of the communities speaking these very diverse tongues does not also speak Russian. Similarly, in India, there aren't many people who don't also have either Hindi or Urdu or Bengali or English or one of the half-dozen other interlanguages of the subcontinent. To engage with all but a tiny fraction of people in the world, you definitely do not need to learn all their first languages. You need to learn all their vehicular languages — languages learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. There are about eighty languages used in this way in some part of the world. But because vehicular languages are also native to some (usually very large) groups, and because many people speak more than one vehicular language (of which one may or may not be native to them), you do not need to learn all eighty vehicular languages to communicate with most people on the planet. Knowing just nine of them — Chinese (with 1.3 billion users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million), and English (somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion) — would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotiation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 percent of the world's population. (The startlingly wide range of estimates of the number of people who "speak English" reflects the difficulty we have in saying what "speaking English" means.) Add Indonesian (250 million), German (185 million), Turkish (63 million), and Swahili (50 million) to make a baker's dozen, and you have at your feet the entire American landmass, most of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, the great crescent of Islam from Morocco to Pakistan, a good part of India, a swath of Africa, and most of the densely populated parts of East Asia, too. What more could you want? Exeunt translators! Enter the language trainers! The cast would be more or less identical, so the net loss of jobs worldwide would most likely be nil.
If thirteen languages seem too hard to handle, why not have everyone learn the same one? The plan seemed obvious to the Romans, who made little attempt to learn the languages of the many peoples they conquered, with the sole but major exception of the Greeks. Barely a trace of interest has been found among ancient Romans in learning Etruscan, Umbrian, the Celtic languages of what is now France and Britain, the Germanic languages of the tribes on the northeastern borders of the empire, or the Semitic languages of the Carthage they deleted from the map and the colonies in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea area. If you got taken over by Rome, you learned Latin and that was that. The long-term result of the linguistic unification of the empire was that the written version of the Romans' language remained the main vehicle of intercultural communication in Europe for more than a thousand years after the end of the empire. Imperial blindness to the difference of others did a huge favor to Europe.
Linguistic unification of the same order of magnitude has taken place in the last fifty years in most branches of science. Many languages have served at different times as vehicles of scientific advance: Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Arabic from ancient times to the Middle Ages; then Italian and French in the European Renaissance and early modern period. Between 1760 and 1840, the writings of the two "fathers of organic chemistry," Torbern Olof Bergman and Jöns Jacob Berzelius, made Swedish a language of science, and for about a hundred years it kept a respected place. English and French continued to be used for numerous disciplines, but German burst onto the scene in the nineteenth century with the new chemistry invented by Liebig and others; and Dmitri Mendeleyev, who created the periodic table of elements, helped to put Russian among the international languages of science before the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1900 and 1940, new scientific research continued to be published, often in intense rivalry, in Russian, French, German, and English (Swedish having dropped off the map by then). But the Nazis' abuse of science between 1933 and 1945 discredited the language they used. German began to lose its status as a world science language with the fall of Berlin in 1945 — and many leading German scientists were of course whisked off to America and Britain in short order and functioned thereafter as English speakers. French entered a slow decline, and Russian, which expanded in use after the Second World War and continued to be cultivated for political reasons during the remaining years of the U.S.S.R., dropped out of the science scene in 1989. So we are left with English. English is the language of science worldwide; learned journals published in Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, Berlin, and Paris are now either entirely in English or else carry English translations alongside foreign-language texts. Academic advancement everywhere is dependent on publication in English. Indeed, in Israel it is said that God himself would not get promotion in any science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Why not? Because he has only one publication — and it was not written in English. (I do not really believe this story. The fact that the publication in question has been translated into English and is even available in paperback would surely overrule the promotion committee's misgivings.)
Despite this, efforts are being made to allow some languages to serve once again as local science dialects. A U.S.-government-sponsored Web service, for example, WorldWideScience.org, now offers searches of non-English-language databases in China, Russia, France, and some South American countries together with automatic retranslation of the results into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. The asymmetry of sources and targets in this new arrangement gives an interesting map of where science is now done.
The reasons for English having made a clean sweep of the sciences are not straightforward. Among them we cannot possibly include the unfortunate but widespread idea that English is simpler than other languages.
Excerpted from Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. Copyright © 2011 David Bellos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. What Is a Translation?,
2. Is Translation Avoidable?,
3. Why Do We Call It "Translation"?,
4. Things People Say About Translation,
5. Fictions of the Foreign: The Paradox of "Foreign-Soundingness",
6. Native Command: Is Your Language Really Yours?,
7. Meaning Is No Simple Thing,
8. Words Are Even Worse,
9. Understanding Dictionaries,
10. The Myth of Literal Translation,
11. The Issue of Trust: The Long Shadow of Oral Translation,
12. Custom Cuts: Making Forms Fit,
13. What Can't Be Said Can't Be Translated: The Axiom of Effability,
14. How Many Words Do We Have for Coffee?,
15. Bibles and Bananas: The Vertical Axis of Translation Relations,
16. Translation Impacts,
17. The Third Code: Translation as a Dialect,
18. No Language Is an Island: The Awkward Issue of L3,
19. Global Flows: Center and Periphery in the Translation of Books,
20. A Question of Human Rights: Translation and the Spread of International Law,
21. Ceci n'est pas une traduction: Language Parity in the European Union,
22. Translating News,
23. The Adventure of Automated Language-Translation Machines,
24. A Fish in Your Ear: The Short History of Simultaneous Interpreting,
25. Match Me If You Can: Translating Humor,
26. Style and Translation,
27. Translating Literary Texts,
28. What Translators Do,
29. Beating the Bounds: What Translation Is Not,
30. Under Fire: Sniping at Translation,
31. Sameness, Likeness, and Match: Truths About Translation,
32. Avatar: A Parable of Translation,
Afterbabble: In Lieu of an Epilogue,
Caveats and Thanks,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
David Bellos, an award-winning translator and biographer, here gives us a discourse on what a translation is, to you and me, academics and the 'word smiths' themselves.The cover and subtitle evoke Douglas Adams's Babel Fish and 'the meaning of life, the universe and everything'. Describing the book as 'witty, and with surprising joie de vivre' in its blurb, I expected just that: namely, a light-hearted approach to the complexity of translating one language into another. Unfortunately, I was wrong. For large parts of the book I was reminded of an ongoing academical debate between linguists, scholars of translation studies and philosophers, arguing about semantics and the merits of free against literal translation, with terms of academese to match. I found it very hard going at times, the material, such as 'Meaning is no simple thing' and 'What can't be said can't be translated: The Axiom of Effability', as dry as tinder. The subject is more accessible when he touches on the practical issues of translation, like the challenges of translating the Bible into obscure languages or translating comic strips; language equality in the EU and the way the European Court of Justice operates; automated translation devices; and the emergence of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal. It is also fascinating to read about the examples from history about the use of translation or its avoidance that he gives, such as the use of slaves as translators during the Ottoman Empire and Albania's self-imposed half-century of isolation during the 20th century. There are times when the author's sparkling sense of humour shines through, but a lot of the time I found his style a bit too clever for its own good, heavy-handed and trying to hammer home the point a little too often that translators are an undervalued and mostly underpaid bunch of word smiths. There is no denying that David Bellos is a very knowledgeable man with a passion for translating, or that this book is very well researched, it's just that I can't really appreciate the finer points of 'necessary concomitants to the successful performance of the action of a performative verb'. But he also has some valid and insightful viewpoints to offer: as someone for whom English is not their first language, I did feel like he was addressing me personally when he states that 'it does not automatically follow that the language of our earliest memories has any special importance as a language for what we may go on to become, or for what we take to be our personal identity.' He goes on to say, 'But the language that is acquired in those early stages of development [i.e. infancy] may or may not turn out to be the one in which as adults we feel most at home.'If you're interested in this topic, I suggest you watch Stephen Fry's excellent BBC series Fry's Planet Word where he deals with the complex idea of language and translation in a fascinating, yet light-hearted way - does anyone know if he's written a book on the subject?(This review was originally written for Amazon's Vine programme.)
This book ended up on several Best Books of 2011 lists, yet I wonder if every reviewer read past the sexy title and consumed it from end to end. David Bellos is a professional translater (French to English) and has some very interesting and enlightening views on communication and translation. In this book, he doesn't shy away from radical overstatement (such as when he says that nowadays English is the only lingua franca that the various Belgian linguistic communities can still use to communicate with eachother). But he is easily forgiven, because he really provides new insight on what a translation is or should be. Unavoidably, this leads to meta-meta-paragraphs about language than can be quite dense at first glance. Other parts are seriously theoretical (such as the Axiom of Ineffability), which make this book's position on the Best Books list rather surprising, as I doubt that many people are interested in this level of theoretical analysis (I am, so I enjoyed it).
Thrillingly interesting, shows language as putty, the relativeness of cultures, the flow of a language, not bound, also the interpenetration of languages and speech in general, and much more. To be read fairly slowly, savoured, thought about. But it's not overly academic.
After having worked as a translator for almost 20 years, I find it interesting as a summary of the things that go through the mind of a translator, but it doesn't add much. I'm quite sure it would be very interesting for non-translators or presumptive translators wanting to find out what goes into a translation, what a translators considerations are, and what it really means to be a translator.
This author presents many fascinating ideas in this small volume dense with insights into language and communication. And best of all, he delivers this information with humor, verve, and style.Bellos tells us that although there are perhaps as many as 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, most are spoken by very small groups. To engage with the outside world, ¿vehicular languages¿ are needed; that is, languages learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. Some eighty languages are considered vehicular, but knowing just nine of them would permit effective conversation with around 90 percent of the world¿s population. The language with the largest number of nonnative users is English, but English is not the language with the largest number of native speakers, which currently is Mandarin Chinese.Perhaps I have thus far given the impression that this book is just a compendium of fun language facts. It is, but that¿s not the point of the book at all. Rather, the author sets out to define translation, and then determine what makes a good translation, and finally to consider why we need translation at all? Why don¿t we all just learn to speak a common language? In characterizing translation, Bellos explains that ¿meaning¿ is not the only component of an utterance; there is also tone of voice, context, layout, intention, culture, form (such as poem, play, legal document), the identities of the communicants together with the relationship between them, etc. In fact, as Bellos observes, what matters the most is not a word-to-word congruence. On the contrary, it is more important for the translator to preserve the force of the utterance in another language. Thus the translator must take into account such factors as levels of formality in conversation, as well as customs and rules about how men and women and people of different social classes may relate to each other. Importantly, he adds, ¿No sentence contains all the information you need to translate it.¿One of my favorite examples in the book is this anecdote:"In many parts of Africa¿ casting branches in the path of a chief expresses contempt, whereas in the Gospels it is done to mark Jesus¿s return to Jerusalem as a triumph¿ Revision of the Gospel¿s account of Palm Sunday is both absolutely necessary to avoid giving the wrong message to African readers and at the same time impossible without profoundly altering the story being told.¿Another great example given by Bellows concerns a statement released by the office of Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, in 1870. The statement referred to a communication made to the French by ¿the adjutant of the day.¿ In German, this is a high-ranking courtier, but in French, this is a mere warrant officer. The French took the meaning of this word-for-word translation as a sign of grievous disrespect, and an international incident ensued, culminating in a declaration of war by the French six days later.Translating humor is a particular challenge; meaning must almost always be changed to get the particular point across the original is trying to make. Moreover, translators try to get across the style of an author or what makes him or her distinct:"The question is: At what level is the Dickensianity of any text by Dickens located? In the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the digressions, the anecdotes, the construction of character, or the plot?"All of these considerations (and many more delineated by Bellos) mean that just knowing the words of another language is insufficient to be a good translator.At the end of the book, Bellos asks if one day we might just be able to have the equivalent of a translation fish in our ears, as was the device used in The Hitchhiker¿s Guide to the Universe, and then we would all be able to understand one another totally. He suggests this is unlikely, since linguistic diversity se
I have no complaints regarding the book itself. However, I'm not trusting now to use my debit card to buy anything at B&N online; because -after a series of purchases- recently (3/28/12) I've been charged US$13.00 from B&N without buying anything. Which means no purchased was carried out and I have been discredited US$13.00 dollars out of my account. I don't like the fact that my debit card number remains on the site. It is not safe! I will talk to my bank about it. However, my trust on the site is very much destroyed after this. Sincerely