Is that a fish in your ear?

david bellos Is that a fish in your ear? : Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by David Bellos

David Bellos has not only written a biography of George Perec, he has also translated the French author’s work. This in itself is an impressive feat considering the bizarre writing contraints and linguistic games which Perec likes to include in his texts, the most famous perhaps being the construction of an entire novel devoid of the letter ‘e’ (La Disparition). As such, I feel that he is more than qualified to write a book about translation, and, to apply the kind of compliments which he highly criticises, the results are both witty and stylish.

For the somewhat confused among you, the title ‘Is that a fish in your ear?’ is a reference to the Babel Fish translation device from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by which a slippery little creature would be inserted into your ear allowing you to immediately understand all the languages of the galaxy. As no such device has yet been discovered outside the realms of science fiction, we have to contend with the imperfection of human translation, and this, as well as its paramount importance to our species, is the topic Bellos addresses.

If you have ever so much as read a foreign novel in translation, then the question of how much of an authentic experience you are getting has probably crossed your mind. To what extend have the original rhythms of the text, its structure, sound patterns and cultural references been accurately rendered in the foreign version, and is this even always desirable? How about poetry? Or legal translation? How can we even be sure that what that conference interpreter is whispering in our ear is not only an approximation of what the speaker is saying, and how come only the Russians in the room are laughing?

Bellos seeks to shed some light on these questions, to discuss what is and isn’t possible, desirable and necessary in the realms of translation. He also gives interesting historical and contemporary insights into simultaneous interpreting – how it came about, who can do it and how it is done. He shows us the benefits and limits of automated and machine-assisted translation, and all of it to reaffirm the importance of the human in any form of communication, and certainly in translation, a complex technique which bridges cultural gaps and strengthens civilisations.


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