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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything Hardcover – October 11, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“[Bellos] offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is onto something new . . . Dazzlingly inventive.” ―Adam Thirlwell, The New York Times

“In the guise of a book about translation this is a richly original cultural history . . . A book for anyone interested in words, language and cultural anthropology. Mr Bellos's fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating.” ―The Economist

“For anyone with a passing interest in language this work is enthralling . . . A wonderful celebration of the sheer diversity of language and the place it occupies in human endeavour. Conducted by a man who clearly knows his stuff, it is a whirlwind tour round the highways and byways of translation in all its glorious forms, from literary fiction to car repair manuals, from the Nuremberg trials to decoding at Bletchley Park.” ―The Scotsman

“Bellos has numerous paradoxes, anecdotes and witty solutions . . . his insights are thought provoking, paradoxical and a brilliant exposition of mankind's attempts to deal with the Babel of global communication.” ―Michael Binyon, The Times

“This informed book props open the door to the idea of translation with pop culture . . . This broad-ranging book reads like a survey course in translation, providing a look at its history, detractors, challenges, future--if computers are the future--and current practice, both spoken and written . . . The result is arresting.” ―Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

“David Bellos writes like a person who chooses his words not only carefully but also confidently and pragmatically. Translation is a challenging enterprise, but one he embraces vigorously and without the gloomy pessimism that leads some to declare that it's impossible . . . Rich, often playful chapters.” ―Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“[A] witty, erudite exploration . . . [Bellos] delights in [translation’s] chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity . . . He would like us to do more of it. With the encouragement of this book, we might even begin to enjoy it.” ―Maureen Freely, Sunday Telegraph

Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious . . . [it is a] scintillating bouillabaisse.” ―Frederic Raphael, Literary Review

“Forget the fish--it's David Bellos you want in your ear when the talk is about translation. Bellos dispels many of the gloomy truisms of the trade and reminds us what an infinitely flexible instrument the English language (or any language) is. Sparkling, independent-minded analysis of everything from Nabokov's insecurities to Google Translate's felicities fuels a tender--even romantic--account of our relationship with words.” ―NATASHA WIMMER, translator of Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives and 2666

“A disquisition of remarkable freshness on language, speech and translation. In short, punchy, instructive chapters that take in such things as linguistics, philosophy, dictionaries, machine translation, Bible translations, international law, the Nuremberg trials, the European Union and the rise of simultaneous interpreting . . . I could say anyone with an interest in translation should read Is That a Fish, but there wouldn't be very much point; instead, anyone with no interest in translation, please read David Bellos's brilliant book” ―Michael Hofmann, The Guardian

“Bellos has adopted a radically different approach: as his Hitchhikery title suggests, he has set out to make it fun . . . Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is essential reading for anyone with even a vague interest in language and translation--in short, it is a triumph.” ―Shaun Whiteside, The Independent

“Erudite . . . ultimately illuminating, even transformative.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“Written by an award-winning translator and professor of comparative literature, this book is informed by considerable culture and an original, probing intelligence with a mostly light touch--the title riffs off of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, whose babel fish, when inserted in one's ear, could translate any imaginable language. If only it were that easy . . . It is a breeze to get lost in translation, and for this reason Bellos cannily exclaims, ‘We should do more of it.'” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

About the Author

David Bellos is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, and others, including the Man Booker International Translator's Award. He also received the Prix Goncourt for George Perec: A Life in Words.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 36376th edition (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865478570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865478572
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #127,619 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: 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.
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