Professor and translator, David Bellos celebrates the enlightening task of translation in his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.
Jorge Luis Borges claimed that the complex questions surrounding the translation of a work of literature from one language to another are the same questions that are at the heart of the concept of literature itself. David Bellos would undoubtedly agree with that sentiment, although he would almost certainly also insist that the questions surrounding translation are not only at the core of any literary act, but at the core of language itself.
Bellos, a professor of literature and director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton, has given us a rich and informative diatribe on all aspects of linguistic translation in his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. In a cogent and energetic response to the popular adage that “a translation is no substitute for an original,” Bellos travels far and wide to deliver an exhaustive portrait of how language and its slippery relationship to “meaning” has been viewed throughout history. He presents the reader with a dizzying variety of examples from dozens of cultural and linguistic histories to support why he feels this concept is not only wrong, but deeply misconceived.
Although the book is framed as a treatise against misleading axioms relating to the translator’s enterprise, the book is also significant as a history of translation. Although the book generally retains its focus on its central thesis, the greatest pleasure in this book is found in consistently illuminating depictions of the wonder of language itself, its gnomic structures and almost unending versatility. We are treated to anecdotes and reflections on translation from virtually every corner of the world: from how a French news agency’s mistranslation of a letter by Otto von Bismarck may have triggered the start of a war, to the grammar systems of the Hopi language and their relationship to the abstract structures of Platonic philosophy, to the impact that the production of ancient holy texts had in the development and spread of modern languages, to simultaneous-interpretation at the UN, to the origins of dictionaries and thesauri, and even to an amusing description of the film subtitling industry.
Considering this enormous variety of what a translation even is, Bellos chastises critics and writers for being so glib in their disparagement of translations and translators. He argues that critiques like that of Vladimir Nabokov who said that “One of the main troubles with would-be translators is their ignorance,” or of José Ortega y Gasset who suggested that “Almost all translations done until now are bad ones,” are so extreme as to be ridiculous. He points out how bizarre it would be for people to use such an extreme adjudication regarding other human activities, and expresses his dismay that translation has found its way so far into the doghouse of our cultural conscience.
Ultimately for Bellos, the question of whether a translation is capable of being a substitute for an original is simply a poorly framed question. And he offers up several etymological deconstructions for how this perspective on translation first came about. Among his many compelling illustrations is his recounting of how our now-common description of a translation as being “faithful to its original” has its roots in the habit of equating translations with female infidelity in France in the courts of Louis XIV. He also goes after the Italian maxim traduttore-traditore, (translation = treason) suggesting that the origin of such an idea does not have its roots in―or even relating to―modern conceptions of translation, but rather to those of ancient times when translators were often the only voice of communication between enemy states, and that a translator was literally taking his life into his own hands every day he went to work.
The complexity that surrounds the act of translation probably finds its apogee in a discussion of literary translation, where the notion that an author’s inimitable voice is a core aspect of a “work of art,” a voice that can only be found in the words the author wrote―not in the words of his or her translator. This issue gets into the equally thicket-like theories of authorship, an area that has preoccupied literary scholars for the last half-century or more. Bellos side-steps this quandary somewhat, leaving the recondite theories of “what constitutes a work of art” aside, and more or less points out that if a work of literature cannot be translated, how is it that we have been able to build such an international, inter-linguistic discourse about literary works? He also points out somewhat more wryly that if a reader cannot read the original, then he or she has no recourse in deciding whether a translation is an adequate rendering of the source text. But Bellos ultimately positions himself on this issue somewhere between a translator’s pragmatism and a postmodernist’s Rubik’s Cube: no work of literature is anything outside of its context. You cannot translate context because context is not linguistic; it is cultural and individualistic. But this doesn’t undermine the possibility for translation, it simply shifts the definition and responsibilities of translation away from the one easily dismissed by academic folklore and into one based more on common-sense.
Bellos is a conscientious author. With a scholar’s depth of knowledge delivered with a novelist’s touch, his book mixes steep erudition with colloquial charm. But it is his passion for the art of translation and a triumphant belief in its mission that impresses the reader the most. His candor and wit permeate the text, and he often seems to have his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek when delivering his sternest critiques to those who look down on translation for trying to be something that it isn’t. For Bellos, it simply doesn’t make sense to expect perfect equivalency from a translation; such an idea is not only practically impossible, it is conceptually absurd. As he writes in one of his many withering ripostes to such misguided idealism: “If you want the same thing, that’s quite alright. You can read the original.”