Year of a Hundred books – #99 Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of EverythingDavid Bellos


I’ve read a lot of books that have been translated into English this year, and some of them have really made me think about the mechanics of translation as it were. How accurately can you render true meaning, both linguistic and cultural in a different language? How can someone who only speaks English really understand the works of a Japanese, or Russian author, even when reading in translation? Is that a Fish in Your Ear? is an in-depth story of the history of inter-lingual communication, both written and spoken.

Despite the fact it’s rather technical at some points, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is a really engaging read. David Bellos is a working translator, translating the works of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare from French into English, so has a first hand knowledge of the challenges that translation entails, as well as a passion that really comes across in the book, though he is, at times, despairing of the future. The book has a rather broad scope, so I’m not going to go through it point by point, instead I’m just going to touch on some of the more interesting cases, which interestingly were not the ones I’d originally hoped to discover. Bellos’ answer to the “can translations be as good as the original?” is a resounding “of course,” and he makes a big deal of the fact that although language is an incredibly fluid and that a hundred different translators can create a hundred different  translations of the same text, it’s still essentially the same text. Honestly, the answer disappointed me, and his failure to elaborate further is a flaw with the book. However, it’s strengths were the ones that I didn’t necessarily go in looking for.

The most interesting chapters were the ones focusing on the political applications of translation. There is a very in depth study of the way that the European Union utilises language. Every law, or legal judgement, or any other kind of document that the EU produces must be translated in to each of its 24 official languages. This is produces a lot of challenges and problems, in the very least because it’s causing a brain drain towards Brussels and Strasbourg, away from national governments and private sectors. This isn’t so much a problem in the old EU nations, but for the 2004 and 2007 expansion countries, it raises bigger problems. However, Bellos also draws attention to the idiosyncrasies of language and translation in case study that demonstrates how an Anglo-centric interpretation of Dutch sentence structure helped solve a bitter legal dispute.

Similarly there is a whole chapter explaining the linguistic concept of Human Rights, which was originally formulated in French as “droits de l’homme”, which has a lot of political connotations unique to 18th Century France that weren’t appropriated when translated in English. This means that the French relationship with Human Rights has been subtly different from that of the rest of the world, and as a result has created quite a lot of pressure on what is probably the most rigidly policed of all natural languages.

Other high points of the book included the chapter on automated translation, which provided a history of the technology and the way that Google Translate is pushing boundaries. As I mentioned on my Tumblr a few days ago, GT’s method of collating versions of the same text in different languages to facilitate their translations means that “the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese”. We also have a chapter on instantaneous translation, such as that pioneered at the Nuremberg Trials and continued in the ICJ. It might just be the historian in me, but this was one of the most compelling chapters to read.

If you’re not already interested in the ideas of language and translation, then you probably won’t find too much to keep you interested. Similarly, if you come to the book looking for a discussion of the methods of the translation process, then you might be disappointed, but as a history, and a study of the importance and the ramifications of translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is a wonderful read.


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