Translation 32. David Bellos’s Revealing Book on Translation and the Meaning of Everything. (Reposted)
(Originally posted on 10 November 2011, and clumsily deleted. Reposted 27 December)
It took a group of fifty scholars from twenty countries to produce the academic tome Translators Through History in 1995 (edited by Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth and co-published by John Benjamins and UNESCO. See this review by Alex Gross, with a list of eight other recommended works on translation history). That erudite and expensive collection of 345 pages now languishes on University library shelves, for the convenience of research use by a select minority of researchers.
Sixteen years later, an academic (Professor David Bellos) has distilled a distinguished career as university teacher, researcher and award-winning literary translator into 390 pages of multi-faceted views of “Translation” (and translators), whose title clearly indicates a desire to address a broad swathe of the educated public: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.
Within a few weeks of its publication on both sides of the Atlantic (Faber in USA and Penguin in UK), the general appeal of Bellos’s very original work has been convincingly demonstrated by a unanimously favourable number of independent reviewers (mostly from widely-circulated culturally prestigious newspapers). Here is the list of eleven reviews (plus a strategic intervention by David Bellos), in order of appearance, with some selected points of view which present flavours of the book:
8 September 2011: The Times Higher Educational Supplement. Matthew Reisz, ‘Derrida had a word for it.’
“At a graduate ceremony at Princeton University, where he is professor of French and Italian and comparative literature, David Bellos recalls “a rather plump, pink-faced parent who came up and started chatting. When I told him I was a translator, he said: ‘But a translation is never a substitute for the original, is it?’ Trotting out a piece of folk wisdom as if it were an important new truth! I was so annoyed that I went home and started writing a diatribe. That’s how the book started.”
“More generally, Bellos is keen to challenge academic as well as popular misconceptions about translation.”
10 September: The Economist. Loftily anonymous, as is their habit; also hurried, superficial and with errors but very favourable. A good review for the author and publisher to have in the bag.
13 September: The Independent. David Bellos, ‘How Google Translate Works’.
David Bellos posts a book extract about Machine Translation and high praise for Google Translate (with many critical and other comments from readers).
14 September, The Sunday Telegraph. Maureen Freely, ‘A Witty Look at the Dark Art of Translation’.
“Bellos seems to have no anger in him whatsoever. Even as he demolishes the myths of translation, he delights in its chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity.”
22 September: The Guardian. Michael Hofmann, ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos – review. An inquiry into the finer points of translation’.
He implores a section of his readers: “anyone with no interest in translation, please read David Bellos’s brilliant book.”
23 September: The Independent. Shaun Whiteside, ‘No word for fig? Have a banana’.
He refers to Edith Grossman’s recent “stout defence of the translator’s art, Why Translation Matters, to richly deserved acclaim” and confesses to envy for Bellos’s ability to
“entertain while getting difficult linguistic ideas across to the general reader.”
The September issue of The Literary Review, pp. 46-47.
Frederick Raphael, ‘Speaking in Tongues’. A short piece by the eminent novelist and screenwriter’.
1 October: The Spectator. Robert Chandler, ‘Art of Translation’
Chandler makes this distinction:
“This book fulfils a real need; there is nothing quite like it. Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman, is equally well written, but it is limited to the field of literary translation. Steven Pinker’s books about language have been highly praised, but they leave me wondering how closely the author has ever wrestled with any language other than English. And ‘Translation Studies’ as taught in universities is a highly theoretical discipline that is beyond the understanding of most practising translators — let alone of the general public.”
8 October: The Irish Times, Theo Dorgan, ‘Mind Your Language’.
“Bellos is a witty and perceptive writer, a provocateur in the best sense of the word. He is particularly enlightening on the linguistic protocols of the European Union – I had not known of what he calls the Basic Rule, originally laid down as article 248 of the Treaty of Rome, which stipulates that the treaty (now encompassing 24 languages for 27 member states) is “a single original” in each of those 24 languages.”
24 October: From the blt [Bible, Literature, Translation] group blog: JD Gayle,‘A Book Review: Is That A Fish In Your Ear?.
An interesting and very favourable review by a an academic and translator. Gayle adds a lengthy lobbying comment on Bellos’s “short shrift” for women, perhaps in deference to the recommendation of the adage “A review, to be worthwhile, must add something.” Gayle also gives us the information (from Bellos) that the paperback is due next year and will include corrections and amendments and that a French translation is in preparation.
28 October: The New York Times. Adam Thirlwell, ‘The Joyful Side of translation’.
5 November: The Australian. Weekend Review. Miriam Cosaic, ‘It’s not all Greek to the Translators’.
I also learned of the following three reviews through the excellent Omnivore (Criticism Digested) books and reviews website but unfortunately the links are broken by News Limited’s paywall in two cases and for unknown reasons for The Scotsman reference, so I cannot report on them.
10 September: The Times. Michael Binyon.
18 September: The Sunday Times. Robert Rowland Smith.
11 September: Jennie Erdal, The Scotsman on Sunday. Not only a broken link but this review was not even accessible through a direct search on The Scotsman website.
There is a common thread of strong approval running through this rich batch of early reviews: the very broad range of the coverage (variegated facets of Translation, many illuminated for the first time), the author’s engaging style and sense of humour, and his original and sometimes challenging views and questions about what Translation is. (Longer more specialised reviews will, as is customary, take more time to appear but they will undoubtedly provide further food for thought and discussion for translators and others with a close interest in Bellos’s stimulating research and conclusions on the nature and varieties of Translation activities.)
So Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is already well on the way to bestseller status (including Kindle and other e-book versions). Dr Bellos is to be warmly congratulated for significantly raising public awareness of this vital but often misunderstood activity, or group of activities (including Interpreting) and of its hierarchy of practitioners, from the foot soldiers and pedagogues to the élites engaged in international geopolitics and literary translation.
STOP PRESS: Bellos’s success with younger readers is now guaranteed: He has sensibly joined Twitter as D.Bellos@Cinoc123.
In conclusion I add my own very enthusiastic endorsement and gratitude for Davis Bellos’s excellent work and append a few personal comments from a translator’s point of view.
Bellos’s views on translation (the whole book).
His highlighting of Translators as a motley group and his attention to many of their roles.
The author’s agreeably light touch and humour, passim. He even plays with the Font styles of Chapter headings as well as the title of the book.
His emphasis on both practical and theoretical questions.
The welcome absence of detailed discussion of eminent academic theoretical linguists of the distant or very distant past such as de Saussure (p. 326), Whorf (remember the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?), Bloomfield, Chomsky and George Steiner. Although perhaps provocative, it is also deliberate, as Bellos himself makes clear at the end of the book:
“Readers familiar with translation studies may notice other omissions. Some of them are intentional. George Steiner’s After Babel is still in print, and my reasons for not commenting on Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, can be found in Cambridge Literary review 3 (June 2010), pp. 194-206.” (I was unable to locate this.)
Elsewhere (page reference missing) Roman Jakobson is equally quickly passed over.
My favourite chapters:
Chapter 10. ‘ Global flows. Centre and Periphery in the Translation of Books’ (pp. 208-223)
Do not be put off by the title! The chapter deals in fascinating depth with the world translation publishing industry. You may be surprised at the revelations.
Chapter 21. ‘Ceci n’est pas une traduction: Language Parity in the European Union’ (pp. 237-249)
An inside view of one of the European Union’s key institutions. (Especially topical in the context of the current EU financial crisis.)
Perhaps Bellos’s conclusion to the chapter has a wider significance too in relation to the historic European Union venture: “The laudable aim of treating all languages of Europe as equal produces the unwanted but perhaps inevitable result that ECJ [the European Court of Justice] rulings are sometimes so pithy as to defy comprehension in any of them” (p. 249)
Chapter 23. ‘ The Adventures of Automated Language Translation Machines’ (pp. 256-267)
Bellos accords very high praise to the “ Google Translate” venture and makes a confidently optimistic forecast of its future trajectory.
(Still to be taken into account: Google’s undoubted high performance with some highly trafficked languages with huge corpora of data should be contrasted with its inevitably much less satisfactory results so far with less trafficked – but very important – languages like Chinese, Hindi and Arabic.)
Chapter 24. ‘A Fish in Your Ear? The Short History of Simultaneous Interpreting’ (pp. 268-282)
A fascinating in-depth portrait of this very specialised élite (crème de la crème) of the translating profession, for whose almost superhuman members Bellos has nothing but praise. More alarmingly, he also foreshadows a possible shortage of such specially equipped persons in the future, as you will find out if you buy the book.
On page 354, David Bellos admits to the following conscious omissions:
“the uses and pitfalls of translations in the military, in war zones and in hospitals. I plead ignorance. There is surely a lot to be learned from the courageous language mediators who work in those fields.”
I am sure that for future editions he will find collaborators to contribute material on these important themes, especially from the health and forensic fields. In Canada, Australia and USA, a significant body of expertise has been developed over recent decades.
I hope I have added something.
Postscript: For a note on Edith Grossman, see here.