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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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People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighborsâ languagesâas did many ordinary Europeans in times past (Christopher Columbus knew Italian, Portuguese, and Castilian Spanish as well as the classical languages). But today, we all use translation to cope with the diversity of languages. Without translation there would be no world news, not much of a reading list in any subject at college, no repair manuals for cars or planes; we wouldnât even be able to put together flat-pack furniture.
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are. Among many other things, David Bellos asks: Whatâs the difference between translating unprepared natural speech and translating Madame Bovary? How do you translate a joke? Whatâs the difference between a native tongue and a learned one? Can you translate between any pair of languages, or only between some? What really goes on when world leaders speak at the UN? Can machines ever replace human translators, and if not, why?
But the biggest question Bellos asks is this: How do we ever really know that weâve understood what anybody else saysâin our own language or in another? Surprising, witty, and written with great joie de vivre, this book is all about how we comprehend other people and shows us how, ultimately, translation is another name for the human condition.
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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.
I do so agree with the blurb from Michael Hofmann of the UK Guardian who simply says "Please do read David Bellos's brilliant book."