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Review of Is that a fish in your ear?

posted May 23rd, 2012

Is that a fish in your ear?: Translation and the meaning of everything. By David Bellos. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc, 2011. Pp. viii, 373. ISBN 9780865478572. $27 (Hb).

Reviewed by Michael Cahill, SIL International

This book represents a popular look at translation, written by David Bellos, who is a professional translator and teacher. A recurring theme is the difficulty in defining translation. Obviously, consistency of meaning must be maintained, but attempts at specific definition of translation lead to complications, such as whether good translation involves maintaining sound symbolism, poetic form, humor, and impact.

In Ch. 7, B tackles meaning, which is not universally connected to language (i.e. the smell of coffee is meaningful), and which is highly context-dependent. The translator must know the context of what he is translating. Ch. 8 speaks of the mismatch between individual words across languages and addresses the idea that translation is just substituting one word for another. ‘Salt’ is not merely NaCl, but has a host of meanings, which do not match across languages. B notes the possibility of using distinctive features to distinguish meanings but shows that doing so bogs down the translation process.

B addresses the myth that culture has a determinative effect on language (e.g. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). Another thorny issue is how literal translations should be. B asserts that strictly literal translations do not exist and that ‘few commentators on translation have ever come out in favor of a literal or word-for-word style’ (103). Ch. 11 gives a fascinating historical account of translation practice during the time of the Ottoman Empire. B describes an instance when Sultan Murad II wrote in Turkish to Queen Elizabeth regarding her ‘having demonstrated her subservience and devotion and declared her servitude and attachment’ to him, which was translated for her in many fewer words into Italian.

In Ch. 15, B introduces the useful UP/DOWN terminology. Translation UP is toward a language of greater prestige than the source; DOWN refers to translation into a language with lower prestige. UP translations are more thoroughly adapted to the prestige language, while DOWN translations retain more traces of the source language. In Bible translation into minority languages, one would expect DOWN translation, but this does not happen. B notes the influence of Eugene Nida, who insisted that spiritual truth be accessible in all languages and respected local cultures. Nida-influenced translations tend to use the more adaptive UP approach.

Chs. 20–21 discuss legalities and human rights. Laws are inherently challenges to translate, because ‘legalese’ uses terms in ways that do not reflect normal usage. The result is the rise of ‘lawyer-linguists’ who are legally trained but also are translators. B gives an intriguing look at how this applies in the European Union. B also includes interesting discussion of simultaneous interpretation (originating in the Nuremberg trials), dictionaries, machine translation, and more briefly, humor, style, and literary texts.

B’s audience is not professional translators and linguists but rather the general public. B deserves credit for his accessible style, entertaining examples, and breadth of topics covered. The layman will find a much less mechanical view of what translation is and a debunking of some popular ideas.