e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

The Babel fish and all that

Cover artI’ve just finished reading Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the meaning of everything by David Bellos, and I’ll never look at my multi-language instruction booklets in the same way again.

I suspect most of us have had the experience of producing short translations as a way of practicing a foreign language. This is only a tiny part of what Mr Bellos writes about. It was a surprise to me that translation is such a wide field.

I’ve learned how the news services deal with reports in dozens of languages – and I’ll be even more sceptical of the accuracy of their content from now on.

I’ve shuddered at the difficulties of legalese.

Now I better understand the EU attitude to it’s members’ languages – all are equal and this is why the sets of instructions in my manuals and booklets are more rewrites than exact translations.

And although I always knew that translating prose was different from translating poetry, before reading this book I would have found it difficult to describe in what ways.

Mr Bellos ranges through history from ancient Sumeria to modern software, taking long, hard and critical looks at the various myths about translation on the way. Translation no substitute for the original? Actually, that’s exactly what it is. Jokes cannot be translated? Yes, they can if you know enough about the culture of the target language. Once upon a time everyone spoke the same language? About as likely as once upon a time there were seven-league boots and mermaids.

Not only does the author cover what translation is, but also what it is not. It is not, he claims, any old sort of before and after action. As he says:

… to say that by putting on a tuxedo I have translated myself into a toff – but users of English … know that such statements have no relevance to translation itself.

There are numerous other fascinating facts and interesting snippets of opinion. No doubt I’ll forget many of them, but I shall probably read this book again to revisit them.

Cover art from The Guardian review.


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