Sunday 28 August 2011

Is That A Fish In Your Ear?

A kindly publisher, trusting in the mighty power of Nigeness to spread the good word, has sent me a pre-publication copy of a snappily titled book by David Bellos - Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation And The Meaning Of Everything. This is a fascinating, mostly very readable study of the mysterious art and business of translation. And mysterious it is - one of those things that we take for granted but which becomes stranger and stranger the closer we look at it.
I can say airily, without a thought, that I've read this or that by Tolstoy or Kafka or Homer, when in fact I've done no such thing - I've only read them in translation, and translation, as we all know, is 'no substitute for the real thing'. Actually, Bellos points out, that's exactly wrong: translation is a substitute for the real thing. And then, as we all know, 'poetry is what gets lost in translation' - Robert Frost said that, didn't he? Well no actually, as Bellos points out. Despite some 15,000 citations on the Web, there's no record of Frost writing or saying any such thing. It seems that most of what we think we know about translation is either wrong or but partly true.
Bellos asks big basic questions about translation and comes up with often surprising answers. What Is A Translation? Is Translation Avoidable? Is Your Language Really Yours? How Many Words Do We Have For Coffee? An interesting one, that - as Bellos points out, 'if you go into a Starbucks and ask for 'coffee' the barista most likely will give you a blank stare'. In a chapter headed Meaning Is No Simple Thing, Bellos concludes that 'the only way of being sure that an utterance has any meaning at all is to get someone to translate it for you'. And Meaning Is No Simple Thing is followed by Words Are Even Worse...
A chapter on simultaneous interpreting makes you wonder that it is possible at all. Indeed it had never been seriously attempted until the Nuremberg Trials, which would have been all but impossible without it. There are very few people in the world capable of the advanced mental gymnastics involved in translating while listening, and it can only be achieved in complex multilingual bodies like the United Nations by a complex system of 'relays' and 'retour' (there's a helpful diagram). As for literary translation, that's really the easy end of the work - get it wrong and you won't start a war or make an appliance blow up in someone's face. And, as Bellos points out, in the English-speaking world, it's 'paid at piece rates equivalent to a babysitter's hourly charge'. (It's a different matter in Japan, where superstar translators get equal billing with the author, and there's even a gossip magazine about the translators' glamorous lives.)
Having covered such subjects as The Myth Of Literal Translation, Translating Humour and What Translation Is Not, Bellos ends his book ends with Afterbabble: In Lieu Of An Epilogue, in which he takes a characteristically refreshing look at the origins of language. Here he unveils his 'blindingly obvious' conclusion that 'It is not poetry, but community, that's lost in translation. The community-building role of actual language use is simply not part of what translation does.' But it does 'almost everything else'...
Well, Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is published on the 1st of September. Though the going occasionally gets a little tough for the general reader, I'd recommend this sparky, thought-provoking book to anyone with even a passing interest in translation.


  1. "I like to say, guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: It is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation"--Robert Frost, in an interview:

    1. Thanks! I was never able to find the source.

  2. Thanks Dave - I knew I could rely on you!

  3. Thanks Nige, I'll share this with my French translator friend - hopefully it's available here too!

  4. For my part one and all have to go through this.