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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book on translation I have read
This is the best book on translation I have read. I am a professional translator (American who does German to English, and I live in Germany). The book is not bogged down in the typical pedantic "linguist-speak" that you usually find in books about translation. The author ranges far and wide, from oral interpreting, to Biblical translation, to Google Translate and machine...
Published on October 20, 2011 by John

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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Everything you always wanted to know about translation... in an odd nutshell
As someone who comes from a family of translators and who has worked in translation himself, I am utterly glad that someone has come up with a book like this, an honest and passionate attempt to unveil the world of translation to the average person and spark the debate among the more knowledgeable ones.

In attempting to write a book that covers, well, pretty...
Published on December 27, 2011 by S. B. Garcia


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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book on translation I have read, October 20, 2011
This is the best book on translation I have read. I am a professional translator (American who does German to English, and I live in Germany). The book is not bogged down in the typical pedantic "linguist-speak" that you usually find in books about translation. The author ranges far and wide, from oral interpreting, to Biblical translation, to Google Translate and machine translation. I particularly liked his exploding of myths (the "Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax", and the myth that because Spanish and Chinese have a lot of speakers, that makes them big translation languages). The author shows that only 5 % of books from 2000-2009 were translated into Chinese (into Arabic is even more dismal). Only 10% of books were translated into English in that period, which shocked me as an "into English" translator. The author cites a figure that 78% of books in that period were into just two languages: French and German, which is truly amazing. This means that English, German, and French are by far the most important languages for translation, particularly for literature and books. It also shows that Americans and Brits don't read foreign books (!).

A good portion of this book is about what translation is. The notion of translating "sense for sense", not "word for word" is of course good advice, and very old advice. The author handles things like, what do we mean by "literal translation", and why it is harder to translate Asterix than Proust.

I loved the discussion of "UP translation" and "DOWN translation". (I won't tell you what that is, you have to read the book).

All-in-all, probably the best book I have ever read about translation, and very accessible to anyone, translators and people just interested in language. I can't recommend this book more.

A must read for translators.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Everything you always wanted to know about translation... in an odd nutshell, December 27, 2011
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S. B. Garcia (Mexico City, Mexico) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
As someone who comes from a family of translators and who has worked in translation himself, I am utterly glad that someone has come up with a book like this, an honest and passionate attempt to unveil the world of translation to the average person and spark the debate among the more knowledgeable ones.

In attempting to write a book that covers, well, pretty much everything about translation, David Bellos has produced a comprehensive and badly needed primer full of insight, yet a not-so coherent and cohesive unity. The book is divided into 32 small sections (yes, 32), each dealing with a different aspect of translation, from the meaning of "meaning", to the alleged "myth" of literal translation, with newswires and the ridiculous sophistication of coffee-shop language somewhere in-between. Some of these sections are delightful and concisely written, others are riddled with analogies and humorous attempts that distract from the main topic, yet others are frankly repetitive or well under-developed. The result is less a piece that seems to flow from chapter to chapter, but rather something that feels at times like a collection of disparate short essays that rumble from bananas to bibles to eskimos and back to translation. While some chapters indeed perform liaisons to previous or following ones, sadly that is not the overall feeling that one gets when tackling the text.

I guess this is the unavoidable result of attempting to put together so many different topics under a single umbrella, while trying to give equal importance to each and every single one. But my other assumption is that the book could have greatly benefited from a better editing job, which in turn would have resulted in a more 'natural' feeling to the final product.

On the other hand, I do not necessarily agree with everything that Mr. Bellos asserts and the way he does it (but that is a whole different story). I believe he gives too much credence to his own opinions and parades them as axioms, without even considering or giving some space to alternative or critical views. The issue of 'literal translation' is a good -but no the only one- example of this. According to the author's Manichean vision, a literal translation is 'not really' a translation and is such a daunting and fictitious task that is almost not worth trying. This whole argument is sustained in a verbal and semantic pirouette, given that he later on acknowledges that it really all depends on what 'literal' and, yes, 'translation' means to you. However, he does not even bother in considering the opinion of someone who believes that a literal translation (or something close to it) is possible. It simply can not happen, period. One wonders whether he is representing the entire translation community or just speaking for himself which, based on reading his text, is quite hard to tell.

Now, on the positive side, the book is full of pearls of wisdom and clever insights into the world of translating. I really hope that this work contributes to spreading the word on the invaluable contribution of translators all over the world, and I hope as well that next time Mr. Bellos will find a better editor.
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57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What Translators Do, and Translators Don't Do, October 11, 2011
This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
I am writing this in English, just because of a lot of incalculable contingencies that made English the language I grew up with. There have been thousands of languages, and of the current ones, there are plenty that have literature or consumer goods that I might be interested in. I'm bad at languages anyway, but unless I were a language genius, it would be folly to expect me to know all those languages well enough to, say, enjoy a novel in each. So I rely on translators. All of us rely on translators, not just for novels but for instructions on how to put that bookshelf together, or how our governments will relate to other governments. And everybody knows that things are lost in translation, that a literal translation is the most faithful, that the translator is inherently a traitor, and plenty of other commonplaces about translation, which are commonplaces because translation is so very important to us. David Bellos is eager to remove such clichéd thinking about translations and translators. He directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, and he is a professor of French, and he has done many literary translations himself. His book _Is That a Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything_ (Faber and Faber, Inc.) is a series of essays about his work and the world of languages, and what translation is and is not. It is obvious that Bellos has had a lot of intelligent fun writing about his work and that of other translators in specialties most of us never think about. He takes particular enjoyment in killing clichés about translation, and his book is a witty tour of the way humans get around the eternal language problem.

So, is anything lost in translation? Bellos dislikes the idea. There are good translations and bad ones, but it will not do for anyone to say something is lost in translation unless that person is an expert in the language of the original and of the translation, and unless the person can specify what it is that is lost. Here's another of Bellos's targets: Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," writes Bellos, "was demolished many years ago, but its place in popular wisdom about language and translation remains untouched." Bellos points out that those who repeat the Eskimo story are participating in a particular 19th-century colonialist view of linguists, merchants, and philosophers that English and French and the other "sophisticated" languages of conquerors are the more advanced languages. Sure, says the argument, Eskimos have a hundred words for the concrete item "snow," and another tribe will have a hundred specific words for particular birds, or particular trees, but no general term for "snow," "bird," or "tree." The argument was that only advanced languages have such a capacity for abstraction, and it has been thoroughly debunked. Being able to abstract to a larger group is no big deal, and might be a source of confusion; try, Bellos says, going into a Starbucks and saying, "I'd like a coffee, please." Here's another target, and you have surely heard it before: "A translation is no substitute for the original." You might have uttered the phrase yourself, and been credited with a degree of profundity from your auditors. I had not thought about this one carefully before, but it is so patently untrue I am surprised anyone can spout it. Translations are substitutes for the original. D'oh! That's the whole point! There is a chapter here on simultaneous translation, one of the most exhausting things you can make your brain do. Translating comic books is an art form to itself. The cartoons are not re-drawn for the new language, so every bit of dialogue has to fit inside its original balloon, and the translator has little freedom (as opposed to the translator of a short story) to move any meaning to a different part of the page. "If you thought translating Proust might be difficult," says Bellos, "just try Astérix." In a chapter on machine translation, Bellos quite rightly says that a big reason computers cannot translate well is that while we can imbue in them plenty of words and word relationships, "nobody has figured out how to get a computer to know what a sentence is _about_." But surprisingly, he has praise for the outputs of Google Translate, which does translations in a new way. GT figures that a sentence for translation is probably a sentence that has been used before, and translated before, so it looks for that sort of match. Bellos reminds us, however, that this is a clever computer-engineering solution that is based on _human_ translations. There is much here, also, about the obstacles translators must confront, such as what to do when a character in a novel speaks substandard or low-class diction. "Translators shy away from giving the uncouth truly uncouth forms of language in the target text." The reason? Translators don't want readers to think that the uncouth language is the translator's fault. And here you will learn why Swedish detectives have adverbs after a verb to explain how they say things ("It doesn't matter," he said calmly." It's an imprint from English translations, and is a hallmark of Swedish detective fiction, not showing up so frequently in other Swedish works.

Bellos's sharp, amiable, and wide-ranging book isn't just about translation, it's about language and meaning and even what it is to be human. It is very literate, and light or provocative by turns. Anyone who uses language uses translations, and anyone who uses translations will learn plenty here.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars important to read for anyone trying to learn a new language, November 8, 2011
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This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
I learned Spanish at a very early age, and still remember some of it, thought the adage "use it or lose it" definitely applied. I can still read it, but falter at speaking it. The section in this book about "mother" vs. "native" vs. "educational" tongue hit me upside the head like a baseball bat.

I have been studying Russian, and it has been difficult - I am in my 40's and my neural circuits are pretty much hard wired at this point. This book reinforces what I have been suspecting: that direct translation is what is tripping me up. I was not thinking of concepts, I was thinking about "what the hell does that mean in English again?".

A very, VERY good book to read for people that are embarking on a learning course, especially involving a language so foreign to English.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Difficult read, April 6, 2013
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I found this book a difficult read. I'm not a someone who reads a lot about translations, but I do enjoy languages. This book bogged down on the first pages and never did loosen up. I'll admit I only got half-way through before putting it down, but I doubt there was enough left in the second half to save it.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Excruciatingly dull, May 16, 2012
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This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
I am an amateur linguist and love reading about languages, especially obscure, little known languages, so what could be more interesting than a book about the vagaries of language translation? Unfortunately, there are a only a few interesting tidbits scattered throughout the pages of dull, repetitive, overly technical ruminations. Why, exactly, did the author write this book? Who is his intended audience? Professional translators would want something more practical, and the general public, something at least a tad interesting.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and enlightening, March 7, 2012
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This book ended up on several Best Books of 2011 lists, yet I wonder if every reviewer read past the sexy title and consumed it from end to end. David Bellos is a professional translater (French to English) and has some very interesting and enlightening views on communication and translation. In this book, he doesn't shy away from radical overstatement (such as when he says that nowadays English is the only lingua franca that the various Belgian linguistic communities can still use to communicate with each other). But he is easily forgiven, because he really provides new insight on what a translation is or should be. Unavoidably, this leads to meta-meta-paragraphs about language which can be quite dense at first glance. Other parts are seriously theoretical (such as the Axiom of Ineffability), which make this book's position on the Best Books list rather surprising, as I doubt that many people are interested in this level of theoretical analysis (I am, so I enjoyed it).
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars answers questions you didn't think to ask, November 28, 2011
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algo41 "algo41" (philadelphia, pa United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
Bellos does a wonderful job in answering the questions you never thought to ask about translation, and greatly increases your respect for good translators (translators are already held in much higher esteem outside of the English speaking world). There are also all kinds of delightful nuggets of information. My only complaint is that Bellos spends too much time answering some of the "big" questions, probably because historically they have been controversial or answered incorrectly; fortunately, while Bellos is occasionally too wordy for my taste, he recognizes good examples are the best way to make a point.

The purpose of translation is to convey the thought, not the exact words, and for this context is very important. Often there are not one to one equivalences in words; for example Russian has two different words for light blue and dark blue, but not one word for blue. Japanese has many words for translations, depending on type of subject matter or form being translated, such as poetry, but not one word which simply means translation.

Translation gets particularly tricky when a thought relies on a well known cultural proverb, which would be meaningless in another language. A translation need not "sound" foreign. If well translated, the cultural differences should come across without that crutch. On the other hand, if there are some nouns like kinds of government officials with no equivalent, it may be best to use the foreign word, thereby perhaps enhancing the target language. If a speaker is using a local dialect, do you translate by using a local dialect in the target language? Not so clear.

Subtitles in movies are constrained by length, so dubbing may actually be the superior way to enjoy a foreign movie; however, Americans are less tolerant of the mismatch in dubbing between lip movement and words than many other cultures.

Repair manuals these days are often written in a subset of language expression, just to facilitate translations. Google translates by finding expressions already translated and uses statistical methods for choosing between the translations it finds. Like in other fields, human aided computer intelligence may be the future of much of translation.

I would skip the final "afterbabble" chapter. In developing a theory for the origin of speech, Bellos neglects the fact that speech provides several advantages over gesture , like being useful when the speaker cannot be seen due to darkness or forest.
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18 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, December 21, 2011
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This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
Having spent twenty-five years as a professional translator (Russian-English), I was excited when this book was recommended to me, but I was very disappointed by it. The book is long-winded, poorly organized, and the author's views are bizarre and unconvincing. I'll cite a couple of examples.

Have you ever repeated the old canard "The Eskimo have a hundred words for snow"? What did you mean by that? "Well, see, Eskimos know way more than we do about snow, so their language would reflect ..." NO! You lie! This book will tell you what you "actually" meant:

"The 'concrete' languages of the non-Western world were not just the reflection of the lower degree of civilization of the peoples who spoke then but the root cause of their backward state. By the dawn of the twentieth century, 'too many concrete nouns' and 'not enough abstractions' became the conventional qualities of 'primitive' tongues.
That's what people actually mean when they repeat the story about Eskimo words for snow..."

So, you are "actually" the conscious agent of a long-discredited, patronizing, century-old linguistic theory. You are a dupe of the evil "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax"... I'd tell you more, but my eyes glazed over at this point. This might have been meaningful fifty or sixty years ago. (And, in fact, Inuit being a polysynthetic language, one could well argue that the number of "Eskimo words for snow" is practically infinite).

This book also makes light of the often insurmountable problems of translating poetry. It is reported that Vladimir Nabokov struggled for years with the possibility of translating Pushkin's "Onegin" into English, finally concluding that a real translation was not possible. Bellos opines that this means only that "Nabokov didn't want to try" (as if any "try" counts as a translation). So, David Bellos presumes to straighten out Vladimir Nabokov regarding translation of Pushkin? I'm sorry, David. No.

You can read the book if this sort of stuff strikes you as funny. I was not amused.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat....., January 10, 2012
By 
Grey Wolffe "Zeb Kantrowitz" (North Waltham, MA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Hardcover)
OK, somewhat pompous, somewhat academic, somewhat interesting, somewhat informative, somewhat overblown, somewhat confusion, somewhat over-the-top, somewhat self-serving, somewhat useful, somewhat endearing, somewhat elusive, somewhat meaningful, but always stimulating.

Zeb Kantrowitz
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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos (Hardcover - October 11, 2011)
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