Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. Faber & Faber. $27.00, 384 pages.
As director of Princeton’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication and a brilliant translator from the French, David Bellos has shaped and inspired a generation of literary translators. With his new book on translation, he now opens class to the nonspecialists. Grounded in a lifetime of teaching, thinking about, and creating translations, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything is that marvelous rarity, a book by a specialist that can be enjoyed by general readers. We live in an unapologetically monolingual culture, and, as Bellos notes, “translation is much less easy to see and understand when you are based in the English-speaking world.” His sprightly book reveals the invisible, demonstrating how translation permeates and shapes every aspect of our existence.
Approximately 7,000 languages are spoken in the world today. Of those, knowledge of nine—Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Urdu, French, Japanese, and English—would, theoretically at least, allow one to communicate with ninety percent of the world’s population. Although Mandarin currently has the largest number of native speakers, English has the most nonnative users and is the foremost “vehicular” language, not only used by natives but learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with speakers of a third tongue. (Those for whom English is the all-terrain method of linguistic transport may have an advantage, but not necessarily the upper hand: in these exchanges native speakers are in fact the less sophisticated users, since they have only one language with which to think.)
When it comes to publishing, English has a special use. Like French and German, it is not only a vehicular language but also a “pivot language” that can serve as an intermediary between original and target language. That gives English a special place in the international book trade, where translation into English is crucial to selling rights in other languages. (Bellos himself uses French as a pivot language for his translations of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare.) Given that, as Bellos explains, translation requires knowledge of both language and culture, some pairs of languages defy easy exchange, making these go-betweens are crucial. (This also explains why J. K. Rowling has facilitated translation between Hebrew and Chinese.) Translation exchanges–imports and exports—occur between only about fifty languages, with an enormous trade deficit between English and everything else: fully 75% of translations involve English as either source or target.
Bellos explores the role of translation in law, journalism, history, politics, linguistics, science, and religion. He has a gift for making the arcane accessible and a flair for the obvious. The book is full of striking observations. “To know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words—all words are translations of others”; “dictionaries exist thanks to translators, not the other way around”; “translation is the opposite of empire.” Along the way he lines up and knocks off various clichés and platitudes plaguing the field. Eskimos do not have a hundred words for snow; Frost did not say that poetry is what’s lost in translation, and even if he had, it’s not true; humor is not untranslatable. As proof of the last, Bellos offers a page from his dazzling version of Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. In a Paris print shop, a character inspects a display of dummy calling cards, one of which is “Adolf Hitler: Fourreur.” “Fourreur” means “furrier,” but sounds like the German “führer.” Faced with translating the pun—a task analogous to rendering a crossword’s clues and answers in another language without disrupting the grid–Bellos considers the relationships between languages, sound, and meaning, then triumphantly produces “Adolf Hitler, German Lieder.” (Bellos cites another marvel from his Perec oeuvre in the chapter “What Translators Do.” ) Elsewhere Bellos praises Anthea Bell’s inventive versions of the Asterix comics for not only capturing the original’s humor but also improving upon its jokes, all within the restricted space of the dialogue bubble. Bellos also debunks more pernicious assumptions, including the false dichotomy of literal and “free” translation, and the notion that translation requires perfect equivalency. Bellos argues, rather, that a translation cannot be simply right or wrong, and that successful translation does not replicate or equal, but match.
Elsewhere Bellos talks of how the invention of simultaneous translation in the Nuremberg Trials shaped the structure of interpreting practices at the UN (illustrated by an alarming flowchart of the personnel and languages required for seamless interpretation); why Nabokov, whose mastery of English allowed him to seed Lolita with smutty puns, produced such leaden versions of Pushkin; and whether Freud wrote social science or literature. His analysis of Google Translate and other translation engines acknowledges their contributions, but points out that their results are predicated not on automation but on human effort. And, not surprisingly, Bellos’s sections on literary translation present the elements at play in fascinating, and revelatory, detail.
As opposed to the tone of most writing on translation, which ranges from funereal to bellicose, Is That a Fish In Your Ear? positively radiates cheer and good will. Even the deplorable pay rates for literary translation compared to legal, medical, and technical work do not disturb the author’s sunny view: Bellos notes breezily that, after all, rewriting novels is more fun, which may be true, but surely no justification.
But: no matter. “Translation,” Bellos remarks, “is another word for the human condition.” This beguiling book demonstrates that translation is a crucial part of how, and why, we live. Of course everyone interested in translation should read this book. But so should everyone else.
Susan Harris is the editorial director of Words without Borders and the co-editor, with Ilya Kaminsky, of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry.
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