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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
384 pp., $27.00
A Translator on Translation
Inevitably, not only great sins but even prejudices, laziness, and indifference catch up with a person somewhere; they catch up not always with punishment, but sometimes with ironic grace. The latter is my experience in meeting the biographer, comparative literature professor, and cutting-edge translator David Bellos through his latest book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.
I am a translator of Latin and Greek and a math and science wash-out from a scientific family. I embraced languages as emotional and intuitive interactions, the fruit of magical prospective memory, and I proudly flubbed objective evaluations of them. I groused and stumbled through the single linguistics course required by my PhD program and cringed through the very little "translation theory" the field of Classics subjected me to, such as Walter Benjamin's famous essay "The Task of the Translator." (I can't tell you what he or any of his colleagues wrote, except that it had something to do with transferring meaning from one language to another; had I ever had to explain more on an exam, my words would still be bouncing around the world's email along with children's cute mistaken versions of Bible stories).
But Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (the title coming from the Babel fish, the universal translator featured in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) could win over to translation scholarship any touchy-feely language flake like me, let alone anyone with any interest in world literature and world society. The 33 chapters discuss what translation is and isn't, can and can't do; the Assyro-Babylonians' adoption of Sumerian, though it was the language of a conquered people, in the third millennium BC; the conventions of film subtitles and dubbing; the "language parity" with which the European Union bureaucracy has undertaken to replace translation of regulatory documents; automated translation; and the film Avatar as a parable of translation.