I am writing this in English, just because of a lot of incalculable contingencies that made English the language I grew up with. There have been thousands of languages, and of the current ones, there are plenty that have literature or consumer goods that I might be interested in. I'm bad at languages anyway, but unless I were a language genius, it would be folly to expect me to know all those languages well enough to, say, enjoy a novel in each. So I rely on translators. All of us rely on translators, not just for novels but for instructions on how to put that bookshelf together, or how our governments will relate to other governments. And everybody knows that things are lost in translation, that a literal translation is the most faithful, that the translator is inherently a traitor, and plenty of other commonplaces about translation, which are commonplaces because translation is so very important to us. David Bellos is eager to remove such clichéd thinking about translations and translators. He directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, and he is a professor of French, and he has done many literary translations himself. His book _Is That a Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything_ (Faber and Faber, Inc.) is a series of essays about his work and the world of languages, and what translation is and is not. It is obvious that Bellos has had a lot of intelligent fun writing about his work and that of other translators in specialties most of us never think about. He takes particular enjoyment in killing clichés about translation, and his book is a witty tour of the way humans get around the eternal language problem.
So, is anything lost in translation? Bellos dislikes the idea. There are good translations and bad ones, but it will not do for anyone to say something is lost in translation unless that person is an expert in the language of the original and of the translation, and unless the person can specify what it is that is lost. Here's another of Bellos's targets: Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," writes Bellos, "was demolished many years ago, but its place in popular wisdom about language and translation remains untouched." Bellos points out that those who repeat the Eskimo story are participating in a particular 19th-century colonialist view of linguists, merchants, and philosophers that English and French and the other "sophisticated" languages of conquerors are the more advanced languages. Sure, says the argument, Eskimos have a hundred words for the concrete item "snow," and another tribe will have a hundred specific words for particular birds, or particular trees, but no general term for "snow," "bird," or "tree." The argument was that only advanced languages have such a capacity for abstraction, and it has been thoroughly debunked. Being able to abstract to a larger group is no big deal, and might be a source of confusion; try, Bellos says, going into a Starbucks and saying, "I'd like a coffee, please." Here's another target, and you have surely heard it before: "A translation is no substitute for the original." You might have uttered the phrase yourself, and been credited with a degree of profundity from your auditors. I had not thought about this one carefully before, but it is so patently untrue I am surprised anyone can spout it. Translations are substitutes for the original. D'oh! That's the whole point! There is a chapter here on simultaneous translation, one of the most exhausting things you can make your brain do. Translating comic books is an art form to itself. The cartoons are not re-drawn for the new language, so every bit of dialogue has to fit inside its original balloon, and the translator has little freedom (as opposed to the translator of a short story) to move any meaning to a different part of the page. "If you thought translating Proust might be difficult," says Bellos, "just try Astérix." In a chapter on machine translation, Bellos quite rightly says that a big reason computers cannot translate well is that while we can imbue in them plenty of words and word relationships, "nobody has figured out how to get a computer to know what a sentence is _about_." But surprisingly, he has praise for the outputs of Google Translate, which does translations in a new way. GT figures that a sentence for translation is probably a sentence that has been used before, and translated before, so it looks for that sort of match. Bellos reminds us, however, that this is a clever computer-engineering solution that is based on _human_ translations. There is much here, also, about the obstacles translators must confront, such as what to do when a character in a novel speaks substandard or low-class diction. "Translators shy away from giving the uncouth truly uncouth forms of language in the target text." The reason? Translators don't want readers to think that the uncouth language is the translator's fault. And here you will learn why Swedish detectives have adverbs after a verb to explain how they say things ("It doesn't matter," he said calmly." It's an imprint from English translations, and is a hallmark of Swedish detective fiction, not showing up so frequently in other Swedish works.
Bellos's sharp, amiable, and wide-ranging book isn't just about translation, it's about language and meaning and even what it is to be human. It is very literate, and light or provocative by turns. Anyone who uses language uses translations, and anyone who uses translations will learn plenty here.