Found in Translation: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011)

FishinEarTranslation between languages is an enterprise that has variously been seen as impossible, unreliable, unnecessary, or not cost-effective enough. In our English-dominated culture, it’s something of an endangered species. Princeton professor David Bellos, on the other hand, believes that far from being a sort of awkward linguistic appendage we might better do without, translation is central to how we think and experience the world as human beings. And after reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? you’ll most likely agree.

Don’t worry about the topic being too dry or erudite. Bellos is clearly no literary snob (his title is a quotation from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, after all) and the book’s 32 short chapters are witty, playful, and endlessly thought-provoking. Did you know that in Russian there is no word for “blue”? (If you’re going to translate that word, you first have to decide whether it’s dark or light blue.) Did you realize that the work of simultaneous interpreters at the UN is as stressful as that of air traffic controllers? Have you wondered how the Bible can be translated into languages that have no way to express the concept of a person’s thoughts being different from his outer actions? Do you understand how Google Translate actually works, or why legalese really is a separate language?

All of these fascinating questions and many others are explored, with the overarching aim of illuminating what translation does. Even if you were never to read or listen to a word of a translation from another language, this would be relevant to you, because translation is part of what makes us human. As Bellos puts it in his conclusion:

…[T]he practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different — we speak different tongues and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same — that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, informations, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist.

Nor could anything we would like to call social life.

Translation is another name for the human condition.

Far from deploring the different ways we have of expressing ourselves and finding them a source of confusion, Bellos encourages us to celebrate them, and to embrace the activity of bridging them through translation. As Bellos argues, “The diversity of language is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.” So, I would say, is this book. It’s certainly one I’ll treasure and return to, as a deeply enjoyable and stimulating read.


18 thoughts on “Found in Translation: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

  1. I find this to be a fascinating topic.

    Sometimes when I read translated literature I ask myself if I am really reading the work. This is such a complex question that has no really good answer.

    Lately when I read translated work, when there are multiple translations available, I have been careful and done some research into which version is best.

    There is so much to this subject!


  2. Nonfiction reviews are the only ones I read before reading a book. In this case, I now want to read the book!

    When I’m reading in translation, I often wonder if that sense of oddness is because of the translation or because of the from-another-language-and-culture aspect. Given the highly professional skills of most working translators, I am pretty sure it is the author’s phrasing, pacing, cadences, etc. that are so distinctive compared to what I usually read. This is part of what is so fascinating about reading books written in other languages! But then I wonder–if I didn’t know it was translated from another language, would I notice, or am I just seeing what I expect to see?


  3. I read this book a few years ago and found it fascinating. My background is in classics, and Greek and Latin are so different from English, more concise, with a different structure, and as a result Latin literature is often underestimated by English readers. It makes me appreciate what translators do, even if a translation doesn’t quite match. One of my profs said, “You can’t do serious work in translation.” Well, I’m not trying to do “serious work” when I read Russian or French in translation, but my life would be less rich without translators’ work!


    1. Yes, I am grateful to have the opportunity to experience authors that would otherwise be closed to me — Tove Jansson and Leo Tolstoy are just two recent examples. I would be so sad to miss out on them!


  4. Oh gosh, this sounds really neat. I think translation is fascinating — I’ve been reading some stuff lately about biblical translations and how hard it is to capture some of the connotations of words, given that we have a whole different set of cultural assumptions than those held by the biblical authors. It would be very cool to read a whole book about this (and I’m sure many other!) translation issues.


  5. I love that the title references Hitchhiker’s Guide! At first I thought that this was more of a book about how we learn language, which I think would be really helpful for me right now, but this also sounds fascinating. Definitely something I can pick up one day for a quick, thought-provoking read!


    1. I found the first few chapters a bit on the dense side (maybe because I was trying to read them at the beach), but after that it did go quickly. I love how he makes the point that translation is another name for the human condition — he really does make it seem central to all kinds of experiences.


  6. I enjoyed this title when it came out a few years ago. Some chapters were better than others, but in general, I liked all the questions he asked, his theories, and the talk about language and grammar, etc.


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