Is that a fish in your ear?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos

Penguin Books, 2011. ASIN: B005GET42K (Kindle Edition). 5.49 GBP. 400 pages.

This book review was published in EMWA's Medical Writing Journal in 2013.

To start with, the title of this book is astonishing and needs to be explained. If you stick one of the Babel fish featured in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – a science fiction comedy series created by Douglas Adams – in your ear, you will be able to instantly understand anything said to you in any language in the world. This Babel fish, which inspires the title of the book, feeds on brain wave energy and absorbs unconscious frequencies, excreting a matrix formed from conscious frequencies and nerve signals from the speech centres in the brain. In fact, ‘translation’ is such a complex process that it is often thought not to be explainable at all. This book by prize-winning translator David Bellos tries to analyse this process in all its facets and presents complex translation issues to both specialist and non-specialist readers.

So, what is translation? One of the earliest descriptions of a ‘translator’ is given as a ‘turner’ in the ancient Sumerian language. Other languages have defined translation as ‘to bear across or bring over’ (English), ‘to put across’ (German), ‘to lead across’ (Russian), or ‘to turn’ (Latin). Translation involves many concepts that do not fit common definitions of translation, and Bellos’s meditation on the various concepts that individual cultures have developed is illuminating.

Bellos asks the reader whether we really need translation. Indeed, in the introduction he takes us through the most important question concerning translation: What do we need it for? Or, posing the question the other way round, how could we do without translation? Instead of using translation we could learn the languages of all different peoples; we could all decide to speak the same tongue; or we could adopt a common language and simply ignore people who do not speak it. Fairly radical options… Nevertheless, the author gives examples of how these ideas have proved valid in practice and why they have not survived over time. India, for example, is a country where there is no tradition of translation. Indeed, until very recently, nothing had been translated between Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, or Marathi. The communities speaking these languages simply learned the other languages! But, as the author points out, we live in a world of worldwide communication in which as many as 7000 languages are spoken and no one could learn them all. Some may argue that we could also opt to have a language-free intercultural communication… But I guess that would also be too radical an option!

When discussing whether translation may be avoidable, Bellos points out that one result of the spread of English is that most of the English now spoken and written in the world comes from people who do not speak it natively, making native English speakers a minority. According to the author, many native speakers of a language tend to think that they are able to understand every word ever written in their own language. However, much of the English in scientific publications written by scientists whose native language is not English is almost impenetrable to non-scientist native users. That is to say, non-native speakers can write good scientific English, but many nativespeaking non-scientists cannot understand it. Bellos concludes by stating that as an international language used in many forms around the world, English ‘serves an important purpose – and it would barely exist if it did not serve well enough the purposes for which it is used. It is, in a sense, an escape from translation (even if in many of its uses it is already translated from the writer’s native tongue)’.

In part, this book is the author’s means of demolishing some received ideas about translation. I guess we have all assented that a translation is no substitute for the original – what Bellos calls an example of ‘folk wisdom’. However, he points our attention to the fact that this is exactly what a translation is ‘translations are substitutes for original texts’. We use them in place of a book, an article, or a text written in a language we cannot read. If it were not for translations, we would have no knowledge of the Bible and many other world masterpieces. He further points out that the ability to understand both a translation and the original text on which it is based is ‘a basic requirement for anyone who wants to claim that one of them is not the same as, equivalent to, or as good as the other’.

He continues with more folk wisdom and provocation when discussing the ‘paradox of foreignsoundingness’. ‘Where’s the bonus in having a French detective novel for bedtime reading unless there is something French about it?’ he asks. How best should the foreignness of the foreign be represented in the receiving language? Each foreign text has a degree of ‘foreign-soundingness’ to someone who perhaps speaks the language perfectly but does not inhabit it. For example, in German, Kafka does not sound ‘German’, he sounds like Kafka. Nevertheless, to a foreigner who has learned the language but does not inhabit it, Kafka sounds German to some extent, precisely because German is not the reader’s mother tongue. Is it the translator’s task to transmit to the reader their own experience of reading the original as a non-native, i.e. the feeling of foreignness? Only when working from a language with which the receiving tongue and culture have an established relationship is this a real option for the translator.

Then we arrive at a crucial question: What is a mother tongue? Is your language really your own? Considering that your native language is the language of the region you were born in, but not necessarily the region you have inhabited all your life, to speak of a ‘native’ command of a language is just as approximate and, to a degree, misleading as speaking of having a ‘mother tongue’ (i.e. the language spoken by your parents at home).

Bellos gets quite polemic when asking his readers what a monolingual dictionary is for. The implication of the necessity for such a dictionary is that speakers of the language do not know their own language well enough. As if the English – to take an example – were to some degree foreign to their language. Why else would they need a dictionary to explain the words of their own language for them?

The author tackles many questions about translation: What is translation and what can we learn from it? What do we actually know about translation? Do we still need to find out something about it? What do people mean when they offer opinions and precepts about the best way to translate? Are all translations the same kind of thing, or are different operations involved in different kinds of translating? Is translating fundamentally different from writing and speaking, or is it just another aspect of the unsolved mystery of how we come to know what someone else means? As well as addressing these questions, he discusses a number of other interesting topics, including literal translation, formal equivalence, damage caused by translation to other languages, and the impact of translation, meaning, and automated translation machines.

Finding out what translation has done in the past and does today, finding out what people have said about it and why, finding out whether it is one thing or many – these inquiries take us far and wide. ‘Is That a Fish in your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything’ will not give answers to all these unanswerable questions, but it certainly introduces us to the most interesting translation questions of present times. It is an exhilarating meditation on translation as a process, spiced with great and provocative dissertations on common translation concepts. A book to be read by all linguaphiles!

David Bellos is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princetown University, where he also has a joint appointment in French and Comparative Literature. He was awarded the 1988 French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize and the 1994 Prix Goncourt de la Biographie, and won the 2005 Man Booker International Translator’s Award for his translations of works by the Albanian author Ismail Kadare. In 2011 he published ‘Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything’, which has sold numerous copies worldwide and has been translated into French, Spanish, and German.