Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Both fans of science fiction and translation buffs may quickly twig to the “fish” reference in the title of David Bellos’ recent book on translation, which has made it to the lists of both The New York Times Notable Books for 2011 and The Economist’s 2011 Books of the Year. The uninitiated may have to read through to Chapter 24 to understand the title. But not to worry — any reader who enjoys language, linguistics, history, politics or philosophy written in accessible language, illustrated by real-world examples and anecdotes, and enlivened by flights of fancy, will find that getting to Chapter 24 and beyond, clear to the end of the book, a pure joy. Indeed, readers might well feel the same twinge of regret with those last pages that attends the final chapter of a wonderful novel or the last scene of a great film.

Bellos, who has translated work by French author Georges Perec, retranslated into English the French translations of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, written biographies of Jacques Tati and Romain Gary, and is a professor at Princeton, could easily lose his readers in a blizzard of intellectual blah-blah-blah, but he doesn’t. He sets out to describe, not what translation is or how it’s done, but what translation does. To that end, he illuminates the often “invisible” and inexplicit processes involved in translating and, along the way, debunks some time-honored myths about translation. “If you’re looking for the ineffable, stop here,” he writes. “It’s blindingly obvious. It’s not poetry but community that is lost in translation. The community-building role of actual language use is simply not part of what translation does. But translation does almost everything else” (p. 338).

Bellos provides readers who are not translators a privileged peek into the world of translation. By restating in novel ways what might seem obvious to translators, the book helps language professionals rethink received notions about the practice of translation.

The first myth that falls under Bellos’ axe, and suffers multiple whacks from different angles throughout the book, is that an original is superior to a translation, that somehow a translation is by definition second-rate. Bellos points out that readers of a translation, unless they are translators themselves, of course, are rarely able to judge the quality of a translation unless it is rife with blatant grammatical or factual errors.

Other myths that crumble under the well-tempered scimitar of Bellos’ pen include the notion that some languages are innately “primitive” or “civilized” or in other words more suitable for deep thoughts than others. He debunks the myths that current dominance of English is a solely economic phenomenon, that the debate between “literal” and “free” translation is important, that Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow, that poetry and humor get lost in translation, and that the notion of multiple originals is oxymoronic. Related to these other myths, the superiority of “mother” or “native” tongue competence takes some hits. Ineffability, translational fidelity and purity also come under careful scrutiny.

Seemingly undaunted by complexity, Bellos renders difficult notions developed by linguistic megaminds such as Saussure, Sapir, Whorf and Weaver comprehensible to lay readers and translators alike. Bellos goes on to explore the desirability and, if desirable, the difficulty of retaining “foreignness” in a translation. He also describes the “verticality” of translation. Translating from a dominant language into less dominant languages, he writes, is translating down and usually carries source elements into the target. Translating toward a dominant language (up) tends to erase source elements.

On another complex subject, Bellos describes the translational relationships between world languages, or in other words, what languages get translated into other languages and why. Presenting compelling publishing data, he stresses the importance of a book culture to any discussion of language dominance. 

Turning the monolithic notions of “source” and “target” on their heads, he explains the politics of language parity, how parity is achieved in the European Union and at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and the resultant internationalization of law and legalese and the emergence of Eurospeak. To illustrate the homogenization of legal language in the rigorously multilingual context, Bellos offers an example in which the placement of a comma rendered the interpretation of a trucking regulation ambiguous. After careful consideration, the Dutch “original” was deemed to be truest to the intent of the regulation and the decision was based on that original. Bellos posits that the use of the comma in Dutch comes from English practice. Hence, he writes, the work of a lawyer-linguist is much more than translation; it is the manipulation of the law as language and language as law (p. 236).

Literary prose, polymorphous and layered with meaning, provides the most fertile ground for any book on translation. Not surprisingly, Bellos relies heavily on such texts to illustrate his hypotheses. He frequently cites Perec and Kandare, whose works he has translated, but also Nabokov, Borges, Dickens, Twain and Hugo. He also, however, explores other forms and genres: poetry, comic strips, cinematic subtitling, dubbing, legal documents and speeches.

Bellos devotes entire chapters to two genres in which translation plays a key role. In Chapter 12, “Custom Cuts: Making Forms,” Bellos reveals a fascinating world of translational complexity that moviegoers and even educated foreign cinephiles might never have imagined.

Chapter 22 is devoted to how journalists integrate translation into their professional tasks, much as translators at the ECJ are, by necessity, lawyers. The report of the latest speech by the Iranian president, for example, could perfectly well be attributed to a named journalist’s adaptation of a Reuters English-language wire originating in Kuwait, based on a report in Arabic from Al Jazeera that had provided the information from listening to a radio broadcast in Farsi from Tehran (p. 246).

Translation and interpretation technology does not play a major role in the book; however, Bellos recognizes its importance. He seems rather tickled by Google Translate and predicts that, in the near future, voice-recognition technology will radically change the way interpretation is handled.

A theme that runs through the book is the play between constraints — formal, stylistic, physical, political, social and cultural — and freedom in the search for true translation of the meaning and force of a text, the elusive match that is all translations can hope to achieve.

What makes the book a joy to read, but difficult to review, is its sheer scope. Bellos’ grasp of his vast subject allows him to take readers time-tripping through the centuries, from biblical Babel to the here and now of New York. He blithely spans wide, seemingly insurmountable geographic and cultural differences, then zooms in to a granular level to demystify parts of speech and grammar, giving clear examples in languages as varied as French, Spanish, Italian, English and Chinese. His ability to travel quickly and agilely from the general to the specific and back again, drawing on his own experience as a translator and his knowledge of other writers’ and translators’ work and experiences, without losing the reader or getting the bends, is truly breathtaking.

The last chapter probably best illustrates Bellos’ essentially irreverent and simultaneously deeply reverent take on translation. He returns to the story of Babel and asserts that we’ve had it all wrong. First, it is highly unlikely that humans ever all spoke one language. Diversity is not a fall from grace; it is the ideal. More than identifying us as being part of a community, he writes, language allows us to say “I am not you but me.” Bellos writes, “[Translation] comes when some human group has the bright idea that the kids on the next block or the people on the other side of the hill might be worth talking to. Translation is a first step toward civilization” (p. 337).

As odd as it may seem, for me, the ultimate measure of a worthwhile book is whether it stimulates a reader to delve further into a subject introduced in the book. Reading Bellos’ book, I frequently noted down the names of authors, films and organizations, and flipped to the endnotes to find other valuable sources. Looking at my notes now, I have my work cut out for me. Thank you, David Bellos.

Whatever your training, your reasons for reading the book or how familiar you are with the translation profession, I can almost guarantee that you will discover new worlds, and new ways of thinking about your own world, in the pages of Bellos’ book.