'Is That a Fish in Your Ear?' Is Not Exactly Light Reading, but It's Engaging, Nonetheless

by David Maine

28 May 2012

David Bellos playfully includes examples from poetry, from comics, from movie subtitles and the United Nations to illustrate the diversity of translation in everyday life.
cover art

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything

David Bellos

(Faber and Faber)
US: Oct 2011

Translation is a fascinating topic, or it ought to be. In the hands of an expert like David Bellos, whose book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? explores numerous facets of this underappreciated field of endeavor, the possibility exists that one’s perception of translation might change radically. Does it?

Hmm—not exactly.

It’s tough to say why not. Maybe it’s because Bellos is still enough of an academic (he teaches Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton) that his prose, although informative, never quite sparkles or excites. Or it might be that the overall structure of the book, which is comprised of 32 short sections plus a prologue and epilogue, seems to rattle along from one topic to another without a clear overarching structure. Or it might be that his conclusions, although interesting and well though out and expressed, are sometimes not altogether convincing. (More on that in a moment.)

Let’s start with the good, of which there is plenty. Bellos certainly doesn’t shy away from the big picture, as his subtitle Translation and the Meaning of Everything suggests. His many brief chapters cover a wide array topics ranging from poems to jokes, from politics to comic books and many other areas besides. He playfully includes examples from poetry, from comics, from movie subtitles and the United Nations to illustrate the diversity of translation in everyday life.

Moreover, he makes a compelling case that translation is more or less indispensible to ordinary human interaction, and has been for a very long time. The alternatives to translation, as he points out, are to either a) interact solely with people who speak your own langauge, or else b) learn someone else’s language as well as they know it. Put in these stark terms, it’s striking how common translation has become—striking, because many of us give little thought to its existence in our day-to-day lives (at least here in the United States).

Bellos is also provocative and entertaining when discussing common perceptions—and misconceptions—about translation. He has much to say about “the issue of trust”, given that this element is crucial to the acceptance (or not) of a translator’s work, all the more so in pre-literate days, when the translator’s fleeting words could not easily be checked against another version. He also has thought-provoking things to say about automated translation software such as Google Translate, and the tricky notion of translating humor (something often considered to be impossible).

However, he is less convincing when discussing whether a translation can be an effective substitute for the original text, especially in the case of literature. One of the goals that Bellos seems to have set for himself is the demolition of certain widely-held beliefs that he feels are unwarranted, and he takes it upon himself, as an expert, to reveal the error of our ways. This is fine sometimes, but in the case of literature he is out of his depth.

In response to the widely held view that “translation is no substitute for the original” he argues that “People who declare that translation is no substitute for the original imply that they possess the means to recognize and appreciate the real thing, that is to say, original composition as opposed to tranlsation.” Well, yes: that’s exactly what they imply. So? In other words, only a person fluent in two languages is fit to make the judgment that a story or a poem is untranslatable. Bellos seems himself to imply that such people are scarce. In fact, there are plenty such folks walking this earth. I am married to one of them.

There are countless examples of Urdu poetry that my multilingual wife assures me are not translatable into English, and vice versa—even a literal translation (and Bellos naturally has much to say about “literal translation”) will leave out much associative meaning. This is to say nothing of the musicality of the words themselves, the effect of the rhythmic patterns of consonants and vowels upon the ears of the audience.

Bellos rather glibly dismisses such concerns. Even an approximate translation of a poem, he argues, will still be a poem in the new language; it will function as such within the frame of reference of the second language. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that a poem can’t be translated. Myself, I’m not convinced.

Bellos isn’t worried about my reaction, though—he’s busy plowing ahead into his next chapter. As likely as not, that chapter will be perfectly diverting, but reader lethargy sets in somewhere around the midway point. There’s plenty to say about this topic, but the organization on display sometimes feels as if Bellos is just ticking off items on a list of things he’s always wanted to get off his chest.

This is not a book that brings the subject alive for the reader—the reader will have to go through Bellos to get to it. He’s obviously a knowledgeable and thoughtful guide, but the barrage of opinion and information can be wearing. This is an engaging book, yes, but it’s also an exhausting one.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything


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