"Is That a Fish in your Ear" by David Bellos

Review by Rafa Lombardino

Title: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ― Translation and the meaning of everything
Author: David Bellos
Published in: 2011
Language: English

Much has already been written about it (read Adam Thirlwell in The New York Times, as well as Nicholas Clee and Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian for great reviews), but here's my take on Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos.

Besides doing a wonderful job raising awareness of languages and translation, especially when talking about the process that takes place at the United Nations, I was fascinated by the wealth of information on literary translations he presented in this book. Bellos is a translator himself, most prominently of Georges Perec's "Life: A User's Manual" and Ismail Kadare's works, including The Siege, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, and The Successor. For his into-English translation of Ismail's books, using French as a bridge language instead of the original Albanian, Bellos won the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005.

An interesting point that he makes is about the role of translators as the ultimate readers of the book they are translating: Nobody knows the meaning of all the French words in Les Misérables, but that's never stopped anyone from enjoying [Victor] Hugo's novel. However, translators are not granted the right to skip. That's a serious constraint [Page 105]. On that same note, he says that literary translation is paid at piece rates equivalent to a babysitter's hourly charge. (...) There are few exceptions, but literary translation into English is for the most part done by amateurs [Page 291].

"The only 'client' of a literary translation
is an imaginary reader
―the reader that each translator
invents in his head."

Bellos also brilliantly summarizes a protection mechanism translators in general use―perhaps most often as unconsciously as a knee jerk―when they don't want to become visible for all the wrong reasons: (...) translators shy away from giving the uncouth truly uncouth forms of language in the target text. The reason is obvious―grammatical mistakes, malapropisms, and other kinds of "substandard" language must not be seen to be the translator's fault. It's actually easier to translate the ravings of a certified lunatic than the intentionally rude and vulgar language of many modern novels [Page 195].

On the controversy regarding the low percentage of books published in English that are translations from another language, in contrast with the large number of books originally written in English and that are translated into other languages, Bellos disregards the "Imperial Hypothesis" because it fails to explain why French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, the languages of equally far-flung and densely populated empires between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, are nowhere near the top of today's global translation tree [Page 204]. On the other hand, he also points to the fact that many serious books in English about history, science, literature, and the arts cannot be commercially translated into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, or Dutch because interested readers in these communities read them in English already [Page 205].

Finally, one of the truly most fascinating parts of the book for me was his explanation of a cultural phenomenon involving language translation and movies: Stringent formal constraints in film translation are believed to have had important retroactive effects on original work. Filmmakers dependent on foreign-language markets are well aware of how little spoken language can actually be represented in on-screen writing. Sometimes they choose to limit the volubility of their characters to make it easier for foreign-language versions to fit all the dialogue on the screen. Ingmar Bergman made two quite different kinds of films―jolly comedies with lots of words for Swedish consumption, and tight-lipped, moody dramas for the rest of the world. Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman's success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films. It's called the "Bergman effect," and it can be seen in the early films of István Szabó and Roman Polanski, too. [Page 137]

Here's a great interview with David Bellos on NPR and, below, a very entertaining book trailer.