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REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“The infinite flexibility of language and our experience of shared emotion in reading novels and poems and at the movies must also cast doubt on whether there are any human experiences that cannot in principle be shared.  On the other side of this thorny tangle is the intuitive knowledge that what we feel is unique to us and can never be fully identified with anything felt by anyone else.  That inexpressible residue of the individual is ineffable — and the ineffable is precisely what cannot be translated”  

(From “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” p. 151)

David Bellos is a Princeton professor with a lot to say about translation.  Now you may be like me and think that there is, indeed, something to be said about translation, but not 338 pages worth.  Which means that you — like me — would be wrong.

From the start I could tell that this is a writer who is as much philosopher as translator, and historian as much as linguist.  There is no statement about what translation is (or what it is not) that does not — it turns out — deserve the author’s clarifying attention.  I was tempted to be bored with the entire thing, and kept waiting for the moment when I was finally going to say “enough!” and put the book down.

But that moment never came.

For it turns out that there is, indeed, much to say about translation.  And, as the title suggests, when you start to talk about translation you end up having to talk about the meaning of, well, everything.

Bellos is a sneakily delightful writer.  And even as each chapter feels like falling anew down a rabbit hole chasing after wild hares of translation babble, he always brings us back with a single clarifying sentence that perfectly sets up the next chapter’s wild ride.

But how do I tell you what this book is actually about?  It is about the history, practice and future of translation from one language into another.  This seems a fairly straightforward topic.  But it turns out that as soon as you start dissecting just what makes a “good” or a “bad” translation, you are immediately thrown upon the reality that language is not the fixed target we tend to think it is.  After all, not a one of us uses our native language in just the same way, and this is bound to have implications for the poor sod that then tries to carry our thoughts, ideas, stories and jokes into another human’s language.

If you have any interest in ideas and how ideas are expressed or the myths and realities about the differences between languages, and you have a moderate tolerance for complexity mixed with a taste for precise thinking, you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Yes, there is a lot to say about translation, and this book says it in a clear, concise and highly entertaining way.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!