Books : reviews

David Bellos.
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: the amazing adventure of translation.
Penguin. 2011

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 29 December 2013

How do we really make ourselves understood to other people? This question is at the heart of David Bellos’s funny, wise and life-affirming book, which shows how, from puns to poetry, news bulletins to the Bible, Astérix to Swedish films, translation is at the heart of everything we do – and makes us who we are.

Selected by The New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011 and as a National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist.

David Bellos explains the many complexities of translating between languages. What is translation? What does it mean to be a good translation? How does translation differ in different domains: spoken versus written; technical text versus novels; poetry versus prose; from versus to the higher status language. As is always the case, there is much more to a subject than is initially visible from outside, and Bellos picks apart many subtle issues.

One thing he points out early on is that much of our day to day communication is non-verbal.

p20. My father once took a trip to Portugal. On unpacking his suitcase he realized he had forgotten to pack his bedroom slippers. He went out, found a shoe shop, selected the footwear he was lacking, got the assistant to find the right size (39 E), paid for his purchase, checked the change, expressed his thanks and gestured farewell, and went back to his hotel – all without uttering a word, in any language.

(Maybe it’s something about Portugal? My similar, though less impressive, tale is that I managed, in a Lisbon deli that made sandwiches freshly to order, to request and buy one ham and two cheese rolls, also without speaking a word.)

Given this non-verbal component, we can miss much be concentrating on the words alone. But even in written work, there is something strnage going on. Some people claim that a translation is no substitute for the original, and yet, given a piece of text:

p40. there is no reliable way of distinguishing a translation from an original by internal criteria alone

Next Bellos goes into an historical account of translation. There has been a long discussion of whether a translation should be literal, ‘word for word’, or should be freer, just preserving the meaning. Amusingly, one of the key discussions about this, from Jerome who first translated the bible into Latin, contains the word mysterium, which no-one can translate. And so:

p105. At the root of Western arguments about how best to translate lies a mystery-word that nobody is quite sure how to translate.

Although Bellos’ style is rather dry, his work is peppered with little anecdotes like this, which enliven the discussion.

Some translations have very strict constraints. Graphic novels and comics require the translated text to just fill the provided speech bubble. Film subtitling has to cope with screen space, and the speed of reading. I’ve seen badly subtitled films. What I hadn’t realised, however, is that some film-makers adapt their style in order to facilitate later subtitling.

p139. Film-makers dependent on foreign-language markets are well aware of how little spoken language can actually be represented in writing on screen. Sometimes they choose to limit the volubility of their characters to make it easier for foreign-language versions to fit all the dialogue on the screen. Ingmar Bergman made two quite different kinds of films – jolly comedies with lots of words for Swedish consumption, and tight-lipped, moody dramas for the rest of the world. Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman’s success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films.

Context is essential for translation, as it provides such a large part of the meaning. Many examples of why translation is difficult exist only because this context has been artificially removed. Often such example involve translation between languages that split the world up in different ways. Bellos discusses an example of Hopi, a language that has ‘evidentials’, and why it is not such a problem to translate into such a language as some might make out; or, at least, it is no harder than any other form of translation.

p164. For each noun-phrase, the grammar of Hopi marks … whether or not the thing or person referred to is within the field of vision of the speaker. ‘The farmer I can see’ has a different form from ‘the farmer I saw yesterday’, which is different again from the form of ‘the farmer you told me about’. As a result, the English sentence ‘The farmer killed the duck’ is quite untranslatable into Hopi without a heap of information the English sentence doesn’t give you – notably, whether or not the farmer in question is present to the speaker as he speaks and whether or not the duck is still lying around. If you speak Hopi, of course, and are speaking it to other Hopi-speakers in an environment where the duck and the farmer are either with you or not, you know the answers to these questions and can express your meaning grammatically. What you can’t translate in a meaningful way is the sentence ‘The farmer killed the duck’ out of context. But as we have seen in earlier chapters, this kind of untranslatability holds for any decontextualized sentence in any language.

There’s much here: issues of simultaneous translation of speeches; how translation can change the target language; translating jokes; how the displacements of WWII resulted in many translators being available, and the issues with training the next generation; European legislation simultaneously drafted in all the members’ languages, all of which are definitive; why machine translation foundered and the new approach by Google; translating style; and more.

Interesting, informative, and entertaining.