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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
David Bellos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
384 pp., 27.00

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Sarah Ruden

A Translator on Translation

Does it lead to world peace?

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.

Clichés about language circulate endlessly. To name a few that Bellos deals with: there are the hundred Eskimo words for snow that are supposed to freeze Eskimo thought in a "primitive" environment and culture; the English steamrolling of all other world languages, which leaves the indigenous ones mere microns thin, or obliterated; the necessary inferiority of translations to originals; and the poverty and oppression of translators (this last one being a cliché mainly among translators themselves). Bellos repeatedly counters the prejudice or despair behind these assertions with the facts supporting a characterization of human communication that is both logical and intuitive: we are language animals, and whatever our other failures, we adapt and thrive in talking to each other.

Suppose a visitor from another planet were to mock us as stuck in Starbucks because of our many terms for coffee, Bellos writes. And what about English as a dynamic "pivot" or "interlanguage," as Latin used to be? As such, our language, regularly scorned as "imperialist," has often failed to behave that way. English-speaking missionaries have been the most active students, preservers, and adapters of isolated languages, and though the main purpose may be the propagation of an alien religion, the translation methodology of dynamic equivalence (the use of whatever expressions will have deep practical and symbolic resonance in the target language, instead of imposing the source language's culture as a standard) is deeply respectful and not basically different from the most esteemed, successful literary translation between developed-world languages of equal or near-equal prestige.

English as a nurturing language allows for phenomena that may seem nearly impossible to people at English's center points. Translation in marginal languages fits English documents creatively into local needs and may defy our rigid notions of quality, "faithfulness," and propriety. In Japan, translators can be celebrities instead of hacks. Now that's mind-boggling: gossip columns, storms of flashbulbs, and professional translation in the same life.

If I find any fault in Bellos' book, it's his almost gee-whiz optimism—which seems possible only because his many vignettes are very loosely connected and skimp on conclusions. If you really seek through translation the "meaning of everything" touted in the book's subtitle, then the big picture you can assemble is hardly one of language interaction conducing to world peace, economic equality, and intercultural understanding.

The globalization of language and the globalization of conflict both happened over the past century, and it would be a challenge to argue that, on the whole, the first has mitigated the second. The first probably worsened the second. How, if not with the help of words, could large, distant groups (and multi-ethnic groupings) manage to exploit, manipulate, infiltrate, threaten, propagandize, and subdue one another so effectively?

Furthermore—in defiance of the politically correct blandishments about "communication" that pour over us from the media—nothing could be more natural or more open to empirical demonstration than that the more we find out about each other, the less we like each other: witness, for example, current Christian-Muslim relations, in which good-hearted grassroots interfaith overtures always seem to have the long-term effect of picking at sores.

Bellos does not face these likelihoods straight on, and arguably isn't obligated to. But there is some strain between the book's general entertaining wonkiness and its occasional spurts of philosophical ambition, as when he finally states that "[t]ranslation is another name for the human condition." So …? The typical reader will look for the solution, the good news, or at least the prescription, and there isn't any apparent.

I was especially disappointed in finding hardly anything about beauty and deep meaning, those mysterious elements in which there is always hope. It is odd that Bellos has so little to say—and so close to nothing personal to say—about adventurous literary translation, of which he is a notable practitioner. With great compunction and a great deal of scholarly help, he translated Albanian books not from the originals but from French versions; a Man Booker International Prize vindicated the effort.

In the past, literary translation—Tyndale's English Bible and Luther's German New Testament, for example—changed the world for the better. It seems to me that, unless translators are forthrightly committed to imitating these heroes, the weight of business, political, military, and technical needs, and the natural preference for Hollywood exports that are crudely simple (like Baywatch), and therefore hardly need translation, will drag language interaction on a continual downslope.

For instance: now that English is mandatory in more education systems, fewer ambitious foreigners need actual translation in order to publish for the international readership that in academic science (at least) is indispensable. An obscure army of part-time editorial flunkies (in which I've marched), many of them living abroad but most of them functionally monolingual in English (that's our education system), consults with authors (in English, of course) and fixes whatever is awkward, incomprehensible, or comical. English and Afrikaans, English and Korean, and even English and German don't necessarily have to meet face-to-face any more but can have a sort of phone sex—and I know, because I've been on the English end of the line.

These aren't notably fertile encounters. Perhaps translation per se is flourishing in the arcane realms of diplomacy, espionage, and bureaucracy, but how much is this contributing to the world's linguistic culture, let alone to everything else language interactions could conceivably do for the world?

All this leaves a crucial role for modern literary translators like Bellos, who have a high-minded drive to bring significant thought, no matter how distant, out of obscurity. The main thing wrong with this book is that Bellos didn't give himself and his colleagues enough credit.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Wesleyan University, where she has been translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. Her book Paul Among the People was recently released in paperback, and her translation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius was just published by Yale University Press.

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