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David Bellos on translation

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Published a few months ago, David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Particular Books, 2011) has received what must be considerable attention for a book on translation, and what’s more, the attention has, to the best of my knowledge, been overwhelmingly positive.

In this book, Bellos – the translator of Georges Perec and Romain Gary among others, and a professor of literature at Princeton – sets out, neither to tell readers how to translate or how he translates nor to tell us what translation is, but to understand “what translation does“. His is a bold attempt to paint a big picture, he says, by exploring “the role of translation in cultural, social and human issues of many kinds”.

It is indeed, as the subtitle suggests somewhat vaguely, an ambitious book. Bellos discusses and occasionally quotes from a wide range of languages, so wide a range, in fact, that one wonders how many of these languages Bellos actually really knows and how in turn he can write about them and their translations if he does not: from French to Finnish, from Chinese to Hebrew, from German to Turkish, from Latin to Tok Pisin which, you’ll be happy to learn, is the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. I, for one, would not feel comfortable discussing them second-hand.

Besides the vast range of languages, Bellos also covers a wide range of topics touching on translation, but also on language and communication more generally: from comic strips to film subtitles, from computer-aided translation to the translation of legalese, from literary translation to the translation of humour, from the translation of news to that of the Bible. And the list does not stop there.

The book has 32 chapters spread out over some 340 pages, which gives little room to develop any of these topics in any detail. And that’s very much part of the problem: by choosing to cover so much, Bellos ultimately fails to cover anything satisfactorily. Hence the feeling also that the book is generally anecdotal, and that Bellos is more concerned with telling little anecdotes or stories. And this in turn is a pity since many of the topics he touches on are interesting in themselves, but dealt with too superficially. And it’s also a pity because he has translated many books by Perec and Gary as well as Fred Vargas and Ismail Kadare (yes, from French, and not Albanian, into English – he has an interesting piece on what he calls the “Englishing of Kadare” at the Complete Review), and so surely something drawing on his own experience would have been more enlightening about translation as a whole.

Lastly, about the title: I kept thinking it must be some vague attempt at humour, a deliberately poor English translation of one or other expression in another language, although it couldn’t have been French (but that in turn was bizarre since he translates from French, so why would he choose another language?…). As it turns out, it’s an inside joke for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, in which a “Babel fish” is apparently an artificial device put in one’s ear to provide instantaneous translations. So there you have it – although I don’t really see the point of choosing a device that practices interpretation for the title of a book on translation… Soit, as they say.

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Written by Patrick Lennon

November 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm