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


bios ‘life’ + -graphia ‘writing’

I’ve been thinking about the last two books I finished. Usually I would hardly consider a fiction and a non-fiction book together but they had something in common – aside from being featured in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust To Go that is. The fiction: Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination and the non-fiction: Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.

The City of Your Final Destination is set in Uruguay, although it won’t satisfy the armchair traveler as it is mostly takes place within a big house in Uruguay

“Here I am in Uruguay, but I could be anywhere. I could be in Kansas. Although the air smelled different: there was some sort of warm, dusty scent that seemed vaguely exotic.”

That’s Omar thinking out loud. He’s a scholar trying to get authorisation to write a biography about the writer Jules Gund. Omar’s kind of a strange one, or at least his girlfriend Deirdre makes him out to be a strange one. He doesn’t seem to really push himself to do things, instead she does the pushing – she tells him to go to Uruguay to get the authorisation. And he does.

The story didn’t quite jell with me for a while, until Omar meets Caroline, Jules’ wife (who lives in the same estate as Jules’ mistress and brother – yeah it is complicated):

“She turned away from the window. ‘Of who I would seem to be if a biography were written of Jules. If, let us say, you were to write a biography of Jules. Who would I be? A mad Frenchwoman, who had been married to Jules Gund, painting in an attic.'”

And then I realised what this book was about. This biography of a man who is no longer alive would change them all, perhaps especially Omar:

“Suddenly it seemed exhausting, impossible: How do you write a biography? he wondered, when there is so much, when there is everything, an infinity, to know. It seemed impossible. It was like compiling a telephone book from scratch.”

And that then is my reason for connecting this review with that of Gertrude Bell’s biography. For indeed, how do you begin a biography? Especially with a woman who has lived such a life? A woman who once used to be more famous than T.E. Lawrence (who was a good friend actually), who travelled the Middle East, at a time when women rode side saddle (she had an apron sort of garment made to cover her pants), who climbed mountains (taking off her skirt to do so!), who was daring and brave and adventurous – at a time when women tended to keep to the home.

“Constrained and compartmentalised at home, in the East Gertrude became her own person.”

Howell does a great job piecing together her life, from letters, from other accounts of her, from the many works Bell wrote, essentially to figure out:

“By what evolution did a female descendent of Cumbrian sheep farmers become, in her time, the most influential figure in the Middle East?”

A gung-ho spirit, a fierce determination, wit and charm helps. As does knowing the right people! If you’re in the mood for a biography, may I suggest this one. Gertrude Bell, she astounds me.

Alright, to finish off this post, here’s a little music to think of biographies by (or to listen to with your favourite biography?). Richard Julian‘s A Short Biography

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I thought this was a book about Henrietta Lacks, about biology, about science. But it is also a story about a family struggling to understand what happened to the mother they never really knew, whose death they never quite understood. It is also about the writer herself, as she places herself very firmly into the story, including her own difficulties in researching and writing this book (she spent over a decade on it!). This is a book that fills you up – it makes you angry, sad, disgusted, happy. It doesn’t matter if you’re into science, or if you, like me, never took biology after secondary school (I went into the arts stream at junior college*, which meant that I took Literature, Economics, Mathematics, Chinese and General Paper, having dropped History after my first year). The science part is there of course but it isn’t too in your face, nor is it zzzz…boring. Instead, this was a truly amazing read, non-fiction or otherwise. It’s been on many best books of 2010 lists. And it’s soon to be a movie, although I wonder how exactly a film can convey the many many layers to this book.

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot (author’s website)
Published in: 2010
Pages: 369

* In Singapore, after four years of secondary school (aged 13 to 16), you have a choice of polytechnic (diploma) or junior college (A levels).

The Ice Museum

“Some said ‘Toolay’, some said ‘Thoolay’, a very few said ‘Thool’. Poets rhymed Thule with newly, truly and unruly, but never, it seemed with drool.”

The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule was far better in theory than in execution. Former journalist Joanna Kavenna (yes the same one whose book, The Birth of Love, is on this year’s Orange Prize longlist) has a fascination with Thule, which was first described by Greek explorer Pytheas, who claimed to have reached it in 4th century BC. Thule is supposed to be a “land near a frozen ocean, draped in the mist. Thule was seen once, described in opaque prose, and never identified with any certainty again. It became a mystery land, standing by a cold sea. A land at the edge of the maps.”

And somehow, ‘Thule’ became a word used to stand in for anything. e.e.cummings writes of the ‘Ultima Thule of plumbing’. A Thule society was set up in Munich, members included Hitler and Rudolf Hess. A US airbase in Greenland still retains the name of Thule.

Kavenna gives up her cushy job in London and travels through Shetland, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland and Spitsbergen. What a journey, eh? But the book is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps not entirely her fault, for how many ways can one describe lands of ice, snow and fjords?

I wasn’t expecting to read about Nazis and the World War when I came across this book. But Kavenna is quite determined to explore more about the Thule Society, interviewing Krigsbarn (children born to Norwegian mother, Nazi father) who were thought to be mentally ill, or who were simply shunned and hidden away in children’s homes or mental institutions after the war. She travels to Greenland, desperate to step foot on the US airbase of Thule, and is finally given a few hours to wander around. But it doesn’t make for anything interesting or insightful really. In the end, I had more interest in her shipmates onboard the Aurora Borealis, travelling around Greenland in this former icebreaker, stopping at settlements along the way, like the six German scientists who shared her table:

“Soon they just wanted everyone else to vanish; they said they disliked queuing behind the for food, and passing them life-jackets and waiting while they fumbled for change at the bar. But they kept it up, toasting each other, greeting each other in the mornings like long-lost friends, treading on each other’s toes in the queues and then pretending it was all an accident.”

Or the two employees at the deserted, opulent Villa Ammende in Estonia, where Kavenna is the only guest. And as she leaves, she wonders if the guy who runs the reception and the waitress live it up during this low season:

“The bacchanalia only stopped when the bell tolled through the corridors; then they put on their uniforms and became solemn and monosyllabic. As I drove off I imagined the man on the desk whipping off his grey suit and donning a red velvet smoking jacket, slinking into the billiard room to pot a few balls, before his first whisky of the day.”

Something tells me that Kavenna’s works of fiction might be a better read.

So The Ice Museum summed up: An intriguing endeavour, but in the end, not really a journey that interested me very much, although it did inspire a little bit of wanderlust (I do have a soft spot for tales of arctic exploration).

Title: The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule
Author: Joanna Kavenna (author’s website)
Year: 2005
Acquired from: The Library

Ultima Thule: Dedication to G. W. G.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

With favoring winds, o’er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

Bury Me Standing

Even after finishing this book, I’m not entirely sure why it is titled Bury Me Standing. I don’t recall a mention of this phrase in the book, nor about funerals. Maybe it was something I skipped over or misread? (If you know what the title refers to, please let me know.)

Isabel Fonseca (otherwise known as Martin Amis’ wife) opens this journey into the lives of Gypsies with the story of  Papusza, who was the most famous Romany poet, but whose death in 1987 went unnoticed. Already this beginning prepares the reader for a slightly different kind of non-fiction book. It’s not exactly scholarly, not entirely anthropological, neither is it really a travelogue. Perhaps it is best described as an exploration, a journey for both the writer and the reader into a culture that is often misunderstood, sometimes scorned and hated.

Fonseca spends a summer with Gypsies, a family called the Dukas, in Albania, where she observes daily life and their many superstitions and oddities (at least they are oddities to us). As a gadje (foreigner), Fonseca wasn’t allowed to wash herself. The boria (brides/daughters-in-law) have the task of scrubbing and washing her down (!). The boria do almost all the hard work at home – building fires, handwashing clothes (this in the 1990s). And there are some other horrifying things to learn, such as a woman who tells Fonseca that she has had 28 abortions, which she performed herself.

In Romania, she confronts a harsher topic – ethnic conflict. Romanians destroy Gypsy homes, trying to force them out of the towns and villages, sometimes even killing or maiming Gypsies. A villager, probably echoing most of the other villagers, calls them “vermin”.

Bury Me Standing is an interesting look into a people that is stereotyped, persecuted and barely understood (their origins can be traced to India but their history is still kind of foggy). But it is a rather depressing read. At the end of it all, one can’t help wondering: Will their lives ever improve? Do they hope for improvement in the first place? Or will they continue living in these rather shoddy houses, their children barely educated, still considered outcasts?

Title: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey
Author: Isabel Fonseca
Genre: Non-fiction
Year: 1995
Acquired: The Library

Every Patient Tells A Story

House is one of my favorite shows on tv today so you can imagine how tickled I was to pick up Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis at the library. Lisa Sanders is a consultant for the show and apparently an inspiration ? as well. Sanders was a former tv reporter covering medical news who then went back to school to get her medical degree and she became interested in diagnostics, which is very much like playing detective:

“…what captured my imagination were the stories doctors told about their remarkable diagnoses – mysterious symptoms that were puzzled out and solved”.

In this book, Sanders shares the stories she has come across, whther personally or secondhand. Some of them are rather intriguing, and would definitely fit into an episode of House. She advocates the return of the physical exam, which was once the centre of a diagnosis, but has now been replaced with lab work or diagnostic imaging. She argues that medical students and practicing physicians have lost some skills as a result: learning to listen, learning to feel, learning how to see.

Sanders isn’t the most evocative of writers. While the cases are fascinating, a few days after reading this book, I couldn’t quite remember them anymore. Perhaps I had other things on my mind. Finishing my work for instance, the little one moving around inside of me (one month to go!). I obviously wouldn’t make it as a doctor – in one ear out the other is not a skill one would appreciate in a doctor. At any rate, this was an enjoyable read, which is perhaps odd to say, as this is a book full of sick and dying people. It’s obviously not a comforting read either, as this book makes it all too clear that doctors are human, that they make mistakes, plenty of mistakes, mistakes that could’ve been caught early on.

A good read if you’re interested in how a doctor thinks, and how diagnosis works. Or if you’re just a fan of House!

Invisible China

This book had such potential! Just look at the synopsis:

Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson, two Americans fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Uyghur, throw away the guidebook and bring a hitherto unexplored side of China to light. They journey over 14,000 miles by bus and train to the farthest reaches of the country to meet the minority peoples who dwell there, talking to farmers in their fields, monks in their monasteries, fishermen on their skiffs, and herders on the steppe.

Doesn’t that make you imagine the possibilities? The wonderful conversations they must have had? The sights they must have seen?

Well we do get a sense of that. But the authors tend to spread themselves a little too thin here, covering way too much ground and not going as much in-depth as I’d like. I wasn’t expecting a scholarly thesis on ethnicity, but there was something that was a little too general, a little… perhaps less insightful might be the right phrase for it. It did pique my interest in the many ethnicities of China though, and the bibliography they provide at the end might be a good way to start.

Perhaps I should’ve started this post with some of the good bits. I don’t want to put you off this book, as it does provide a very readable overview of this different – and less recognisable – part of China. I did learn quite a few things. For instance, did you know that there are 2 million Koreans living in China? Most of them live in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture where they speak Korean, retain their own culture, and attend their own schools. The North Korean government even owns and operates expensive North Korean restaurants there, to promote their culture and create an influx of foreign cash.

And the Mosuo people, who live on the shores of Lugu Lake, belong to a matrilineal society. The women choose a male partner to visit her quarters, solely at night, for as long as she likes. The resulting children are raised by his mother and uncles. The men however, continue to be in charge of business outside of the home. Fascinating!

You know how that synopsis talked about the authors, Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson? Well I finished the book with absolutely no inkling about these two men. They could’ve been cardboard characters for all I knew. They seemed to be relatively fluent in languages, enough to converse with all kinds of people, but the reader end up having a better idea of the characters they meet than the two of them. It was kind of intriguing. Was this intentional or were they really that colourless? I thought back to one of my favourite travel books, Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, which was full of fascinating facts on Antarctica, but Wheeler’s personality shone through – her great sense of humour, her gungho-ness, her passion for Antarctica. I didn’t get any sense of Legerton-Rawson (the two are quite indistinguishable) at all, and had to turn to the backflap where those short passages about the two authors told me more than they revealed about themselves throughout the whole book. Pity, that.