Is that a Fish in your Ear?

“Give a hundred competent translators a page to translate, and the chances of any two versions being identical are close to zero. This fact about interlingual communication has persuaded many people that translation is not an interesting topic – because it is always approximate, it is just a second-rate kind of thing.”

Indeed, I have never thought much about translation. Even while reading all these translated works this past month, I’ve never thought about the actual act of translating, and how incredibly difficult it must be.

And Bellos’ book makes me respect this job, this science, this art of translation.

And David Bellos knows what he is talking about. For he is a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, and also the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. In this book, he sets out to investigate:

“What is it that translators really do? How many different kinds of translating are there? What do the uses of this mysterious ability tell us about human societies, past and present? How do the facts of translation relate to language use in general – and to what we think a language is?”

One of the biggest eye openers was the seemingly simple Asterix comics. In the book, Bellos reproduces a single cell from the strip, where Asterix meets ‘Anticlimax’, who is in the original French called ‘Jolitorax’, a pun on “fair chest”, “pretty thorax” which doesn’t mean anything to English-speakers, but would to someone who speaks French. Translator Anthea Bell substitutes ‘Anticlimax’ for ‘Jolithorax’, and Bellos quips: “If you thought translating Proust might be difficult, just try Asterix”. For cartoon translators have to make it fit the picture, and the speech bubble, among other issues.

Of course translation of graphic novels is just a teeny weeny part of this book. Bellos discusses all aspects of translation, from dictionaries to oral translation to translating humour.

Quite a lot of this is out of my league, way over my head, or just too much information. And it all got too much towards the end of the book – I skipped the chapter on Language Parity in the European Union (seems to belong more in a textbook), and skimmed most of some other chapters like the one on automated language-translation machines.

But Bellos did make me think more about translation, translators, and their effect on language and the world.

An interesting example is that of a junior trader in the Dutch East India Company who translated the Gospel of Matthew from Dutch into Malay, using words from Arabic, Portuguese and Sanskrit when he knew no corresponding term. However, when the Dutch version talks of a fig tree, the translator used the Malay word ‘pisang’ or banana tree, which he justified by the fact that there are no fig trees on Sumatra. So it makes one wonder about the translations that we read, how much of it is interpreted in a different way for us, for those who may not understand that culture, that society, that style of humour, for instance. It goes to show much translators put of themselves into what they translate. As with the first quote right at the start of this post, no two translations will be identical. It is quite fascinating!

I could continue with many more examples from the book. I found myself sticking post-its all over this library book (of course I’ll remove them before I return it).

“English, for instance, doesn’t possess a designated term for the half-eaten pita bread placed in perilous balance on the top of a garden fence by an overfed squirrel that I can see right now out of my study window, but this deficiency in my vocabulary doesn’t prevent me from observing, describing, or referring to it.”

Is that a Fish in Your Ear? is incredibly informative, and far more humorous than I expected it to be, and the parts that I didn’t skip over were great reads, peppered with great examples. But while this book started out so strong and made me so interested in the act of translation, it’s a bit disappointing how  it ended – a little too tedious for the everyday reader. However, as David Bellos says at the end of the book about translation, “We should do more of it.”

And as readers, we should read more of it.

Title: Is that a Fish in your Ear?
By David Bellos
Published in 2011


  1. Sorry this didn’t hold your attention all the way through, though it sounds like you still got a lot out of it! I find translating fascinating and always love reading translators’ forewards/notes in their books, explaining their approach and the reasoning behind some of their decisions. They have to deal with all sorts of complexities I’d never otherwise have considered and I love knowing all the thought and effort that went into the final product I get to read!


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