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In the guise of a book about translation this is a richly original cultural history ... A book for anyone interested in words, language and cultural anthropology. Mr Bellos's fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating The Economist For anyone with a passing interest in language this work is enthralling ... A wonderful celebration of the sheer diversity of language and the place it occupies in human endeavour. Conducted by a man who clearly knows his stuff, it is a whirlwind tour round the highways and byways of translation in all its glorious forms, from literary fiction to car repair manuals, from the Nuremberg trials to decoding at Bletchley Park The Scotsman Bellos has numerous paradoxes, anecdotes and witty solutions ... his insights are thought provoking, paradoxical and a brilliant exposition of mankind's attempts to deal with the Babel of global communication -- Michael Binyon The Times [A] witty, erudite exploration...[Bellos] delights in [translation's] chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity...He would like us to do more of it. With the encouragement of this book, we might even begin to enjoy it -- Maureen Freely Sunday Telegraph Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious...[it is a] scintillating bouillabaisse -- Frederic Raphael Literary Review Is That A Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos (father of Alex of Numberland fame) is a fascinating book on the world of translation that might well be this year's Just My Type -- Jonathan Ruppin, Foyles Booskhop Selected by The Times' 'Daily Universal Register' as a 'Try This' Book The Times A fascinating...very readable study of the mysterious art and business of translation...Bellos asks big questions...and comes up with often surprising answers...sparky, thought-provoking Nigeness Forget the fish-it's David Bellos you want in your ear when the talk is about translation. Bellos dispels many of the gloomy truisms of the trade and reminds us what an infinitely flexible instrument the English language (or any language) is. Sparkling, independent-minded analysis of everything from Nabokov's insecurities to Google Translate's felicities fuels a tender-even romantic-account of our relationship with words. -- -NATASHA WIMMER, translator of Roberto Bolano's Savage Detectives and 2666 Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers a lively survey of translating puns and poetry, cartoons and legislation, subtitles, news bulletins and the Bible -- Matthew Reisz Times Higher Education Supplement Please read David Bellos's brilliant book -- Michael Hofmann Guardian A clear and lively survey...This book fulfils a real need; there is nothing quite like it. -- Robert Chandler Spectator In his marvellous study of the nature of translation...[David Bellos] has set out to make it fun...Essential reading for anyone with even a vague interest in language and translation - in short, it is a triumph -- Shaun Whiteside Independent A dazzyingly inventive book -- Adam Thirlwell New York Times Witty and perceptive...stimulating, lucid, ultimately cheering -- Theo Dorgan Irish Times Superbly smart, supremely shrewd -- Carlin Romano The Chronicle Review Selected as a National Book Critics' Circle Award Criticism Finalist 2011 NBCC

About the Author

David Bellos is Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also Professor of French and Comparative Literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare and others, including the Man Booker Translator Award, and received the Prix Goncourt de la biographie for his book on Perec.

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Amazon.com: 47 reviews
67 of 70 people found the following review helpful
Best book on translation I have read Oct. 20 2011
By John - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
This is the best book on translation I have read. I am a professional translator (American who does German to English, and I live in Germany). The book is not bogged down in the typical pedantic "linguist-speak" that you usually find in books about translation. The author ranges far and wide, from oral interpreting, to Biblical translation, to Google Translate and machine translation. I particularly liked his exploding of myths (the "Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax", and the myth that because Spanish and Chinese have a lot of speakers, that makes them big translation languages). The author shows that only 5 % of books from 2000-2009 were translated into Chinese (into Arabic is even more dismal). Only 10% of books were translated into English in that period, which shocked me as an "into English" translator. The author cites a figure that 78% of books in that period were into just two languages: French and German, which is truly amazing. This means that English, German, and French are by far the most important languages for translation, particularly for literature and books. It also shows that Americans and Brits don't read foreign books (!).

A good portion of this book is about what translation is. The notion of translating "sense for sense", not "word for word" is of course good advice, and very old advice. The author handles things like, what do we mean by "literal translation", and why it is harder to translate Asterix than Proust.

I loved the discussion of "UP translation" and "DOWN translation". (I won't tell you what that is, you have to read the book).

All-in-all, probably the best book I have ever read about translation, and very accessible to anyone, translators and people just interested in language. I can't recommend this book more.

A must read for translators.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Everything you always wanted to know about translation... in an odd nutshell Dec 27 2011
By S. B. Garcia - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As someone who comes from a family of translators and who has worked in translation himself, I am utterly glad that someone has come up with a book like this, an honest and passionate attempt to unveil the world of translation to the average person and spark the debate among the more knowledgeable ones.

In attempting to write a book that covers, well, pretty much everything about translation, David Bellos has produced a comprehensive and badly needed primer full of insight, yet a not-so coherent and cohesive unity. The book is divided into 32 small sections (yes, 32), each dealing with a different aspect of translation, from the meaning of "meaning", to the alleged "myth" of literal translation, with newswires and the ridiculous sophistication of coffee-shop language somewhere in-between. Some of these sections are delightful and concisely written, others are riddled with analogies and humorous attempts that distract from the main topic, yet others are frankly repetitive or well under-developed. The result is less a piece that seems to flow from chapter to chapter, but rather something that feels at times like a collection of disparate short essays that rumble from bananas to bibles to eskimos and back to translation. While some chapters indeed perform liaisons to previous or following ones, sadly that is not the overall feeling that one gets when tackling the text.

I guess this is the unavoidable result of attempting to put together so many different topics under a single umbrella, while trying to give equal importance to each and every single one. But my other assumption is that the book could have greatly benefited from a better editing job, which in turn would have resulted in a more 'natural' feeling to the final product.

On the other hand, I do not necessarily agree with everything that Mr. Bellos asserts and the way he does it (but that is a whole different story). I believe he gives too much credence to his own opinions and parades them as axioms, without even considering or giving some space to alternative or critical views. The issue of 'literal translation' is a good -but no the only one- example of this. According to the author's Manichean vision, a literal translation is 'not really' a translation and is such a daunting and fictitious task that is almost not worth trying. This whole argument is sustained in a verbal and semantic pirouette, given that he later on acknowledges that it really all depends on what 'literal' and, yes, 'translation' means to you. However, he does not even bother in considering the opinion of someone who believes that a literal translation (or something close to it) is possible. It simply can not happen, period. One wonders whether he is representing the entire translation community or just speaking for himself which, based on reading his text, is quite hard to tell.

Now, on the positive side, the book is full of pearls of wisdom and clever insights into the world of translating. I really hope that this work contributes to spreading the word on the invaluable contribution of translators all over the world, and I hope as well that next time Mr. Bellos will find a better editor.
57 of 64 people found the following review helpful
What Translators Do, and Translators Don't Do Oct. 11 2011
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
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.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
important to read for anyone trying to learn a new language Nov. 8 2011
By wordbox - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I learned Spanish at a very early age, and still remember some of it, thought the adage "use it or lose it" definitely applied. I can still read it, but falter at speaking it. The section in this book about "mother" vs. "native" vs. "educational" tongue hit me upside the head like a baseball bat.

I have been studying Russian, and it has been difficult - I am in my 40's and my neural circuits are pretty much hard wired at this point. This book reinforces what I have been suspecting: that direct translation is what is tripping me up. I was not thinking of concepts, I was thinking about "what the hell does that mean in English again?".

A very, VERY good book to read for people that are embarking on a learning course, especially involving a language so foreign to English.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
answers questions you didn't think to ask Nov. 28 2011
By algo41 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Bellos does a wonderful job in answering the questions you never thought to ask about translation, and greatly increases your respect for good translators (translators are already held in much higher esteem outside of the English speaking world). There are also all kinds of delightful nuggets of information. My only complaint is that Bellos spends too much time answering some of the "big" questions, probably because historically they have been controversial or answered incorrectly; fortunately, while Bellos is occasionally too wordy for my taste, he recognizes good examples are the best way to make a point.

The purpose of translation is to convey the thought, not the exact words, and for this context is very important. Often there are not one to one equivalences in words; for example Russian has two different words for light blue and dark blue, but not one word for blue. Japanese has many words for translations, depending on type of subject matter or form being translated, such as poetry, but not one word which simply means translation.

Translation gets particularly tricky when a thought relies on a well known cultural proverb, which would be meaningless in another language. A translation need not "sound" foreign. If well translated, the cultural differences should come across without that crutch. On the other hand, if there are some nouns like kinds of government officials with no equivalent, it may be best to use the foreign word, thereby perhaps enhancing the target language. If a speaker is using a local dialect, do you translate by using a local dialect in the target language? Not so clear.

Subtitles in movies are constrained by length, so dubbing may actually be the superior way to enjoy a foreign movie; however, Americans are less tolerant of the mismatch in dubbing between lip movement and words than many other cultures.

Repair manuals these days are often written in a subset of language expression, just to facilitate translations. Google translates by finding expressions already translated and uses statistical methods for choosing between the translations it finds. Like in other fields, human aided computer intelligence may be the future of much of translation.

I would skip the final "afterbabble" chapter. In developing a theory for the origin of speech, Bellos neglects the fact that speech provides several advantages over gesture , like being useful when the speaker cannot be seen due to darkness or forest.


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