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

Tokyo Fiancee (Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam)

“It went without saying that a foreigner could enjoy such Japanese refinement, whereas he had already had his fill of all things Japanese.”

I was in two minds about picking this book up. Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling was a rather weird read for me. An interesting look into the life of an employee in an international company in Tokyo, sure, but not exactly something that would pull me towards her other books.

But with Tokyo Fiancee, I was taken, I was swept up in this little book about a Belgian woman in Japan, rather autobiographical, as was Fear and Trembling. She meets Rinri when she advertises her French lessons. Rinri is a university student, son of a wealthy businessman. She converses in Japanese, he in French, although his French is so atrocious that “If I had not known that Rinri was speaking to me in French, I would have thought I was dealing with a very weak beginning student in Japanese”.

So here we have a Belgian speaking Japanese and a Japanese speaking French. This is the first translated book that I’ve read – this month? ever? – in which language has come into play. For instance, as they discuss Mishima’s popularity among Europeans, Rinri askes: “His sentences are music. How can you translate that?”

And indeed, there are so many times when I wish that I could read these works in their original language. However, while I may have taken French classes in university, I probably wouldn’t be able to get through the first paragraph – nay, the first sentence – of this book in French. I might fare slightly better in Chinese, but really, the only language I feel comfortable in is English. Sad but true.

Nothomb, who was born in Japan to her Belgian diplomat parents and left at the age of five, has such a love for Japan. Yet it is an observant, honest view of this rather unique country.

When they travel to Hiroshima (largely to buy more plum sauce for okonomiyaki), she remarks that “it was as if people were living more intensely here than anywhere else. Living in a city whose very name symbolised death to the entire planet had exalted their living fibre; this in turn led to an expression of optimism, which recreated the atmosphere of an era where people still believed in the future.”

Or when she and Rinri scale Mt Fuji, along with children, the elderly and pregnant women (I too visited Mt Fuji. It wasn’t to climb, as we were not equipped for that, and neither did we know what we were doing, we just hopped onto the bus and when everyone got out, so did we. I just remember a group of weathered old women who got off the bus at its first stop, backpacks, walking sticks at the ready for the long climb to the top. And it is no easy feat, for a lot of it is volcanic soil),

“I joined the group. We stood watching for the star in the deepest of silences. My heart began to pound. Not a cloud in the summer sky. Behind us, the abyss of the dead volcano.

Suddenly, a red fragment appeared on the horizon. A shiver ran through the silent assembly. And then, with a speed that did not preclude the majesty, the entire disc rose from nothingness and overlooked the plain.”

This reminded me of the sunrises I have seen. From a mountain top in Hawaii where my mum and I shivered in the cold as we waited and waited for what seemed like ages. From a hot air balloon somewhere above Melbourne, the fire above melting our heads, the promise of a champagne breakfast coaxing our appetites, another hot air balloon in the distance. And the early early mornings when I used to work the morning shift as an online content producer and work started at 530am – the hush of the lamp-lit streets and the darkened office – and the very welcome breakfast break a couple of hours later.

Unfortunately the breakfast was not as amazing as these persimmons on Sado Island:

“The pulp of the fruit, exalted by frost, had the flavour of a sorbet of precious gems. Snow possesses extraordinary gastronomic powers: it concentrates sapid juices and sharpens taste. It acts like a miraculously delicate form of cooking.”

Now one of the problems I have with this book is its title – well and its cover too, both of them (I believe that is Nothomb up there, but really? Couldn’t something more interesting be on the cover instead?). Tokyo Fiancee doesn’t quite work as well as its French title Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, or ‘not of Eve or of Adam’, which according to this review by the Quarterly Conversation is a shortened version of the French proverb “Ne connaitre ni d’Adam, ni d’Eve” which means, “didn’t know him from Adam (or Eve)”. And I have to agree, this title is so much better. Because theirs is a strange relationship. Odd, awkward at times, but also kind of cute. However, and this is a big However, the narrator is not all that easy to like. She’s rather self-centred and the ending won’t please everyone.

After Fear and Trembling I wasn’t sure if I would read more of Nothomb’s books, but after Tokyo Fiancee, I’m going to have to see what else she’s done – and she’s written a lot although not all of them have been translated.

Title: Tokyo Fiancee
By: Amelie Nothomb
Translated by Alison Anderson
First published in 2007
Published in English in 2008

Best Translated Book Award 2012

25 translated works, 14 countries, 12 languages. What a list! (Here’s the official announcement). Unfortunately, I’ve never read any of them. Have you?

Leeches, by David Albahari, tr. from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
My Two Worlds, by Sergio Chejfec, tr. from the Spanish by Margaret B. Costa
Demolish Nisard, by Eric Chevillard, tr. from the French by Jordan Stump
Private Property, by Paule Constant, tr. from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
Lightning, by Jean Echenoz, tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale
Zone, by Mathias Énard, tr. from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, by Johan Harstad, tr. from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
Upstaged, by Jacques Jouet, tr. from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
Fiasco, by Imre Kertész, tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
Montecore, by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, tr. from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Kornél Esti, by Dezsö Kosztolányi, tr. from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
I Am a Japanese Writer, by Dany Laferrière, tr. from the French by David Hormel
Suicide, by Edouard Levé, tr. from the French by Jan Steyn
New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, tr. from the Italian by Judith Landry
Purgatory, by Tomás Eloy Martínez, tr. from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
Stone Upon Stone, by Wieslaw Mysliwski, tr. from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Scenes from Village Life, by Amos Oz, tr. from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
The Shadow-Boxing Woman, by Inka Parei, tr. from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger, tr. from the German by Ross Benjamin
Scars, by Juan José Saer, tr. from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
Kafka’s Leopards, by Moacyr Scliar, tr. from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
Seven Years, by Peter Stamm, tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann
The Truth About Mary, by Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, tr. from the French by Matthew B. Smith
In Red, by Magdelena Tulli, tr. from the French by Matthew B. Smith
Never Any End to Paris, tr. from the Enrique Vila-Matas

February in translation

I’ve been looking back on my list of books read last year. And while I keep track via a spreadsheet of details like page numbers, setting etc, I did not pay any attention to whether these books have been translated. In an attempt to better this, 2012’s list does include a column ‘translated from’. However it has been empty so far. Sad but true. So I think I’m going to put my February to good use and read books in translation!

Among my targets are the books longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). Unfortunately my library doesn’t have a lot of them so when these actual titles aren’t available, I’ve looked up the authors instead. Many of these authors have been on my to-read-ar for a while but there are plenty of new faces to meet. And I’m looking forward to my February in Translation!

Here’s a (rather long) list of potential books:

Via BTBA (Longlisted titles)
Hygiene and the Assassin – Amelie Nothomb
I curse the River of Time – Per Petterson
The Black Minutes – Martin Solares
Agaat – Marlene Van Niekerk
News from the Empire – Fernando del Paso
The Tanners – Robert Walser
Voice Over – Celine Curiol
The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano
Missing Soluch – Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Via the BBC World Book Club podcast
To the End of the Land – David Grossman
Woman at point zero – Nawal El Saadawi
The winter queen: a novel – Boris Akunin

Other books off my TBR list
The Accordionist’s Son – Bernardo Atxaga
Brothers – Yu Hua
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant – Yu Hua
Someone to Run With – David Grossman
The Confessions of Noa Weber – Gail Hareven
In the Sea there are Crocodiles: Based on The True Story Of Enaiatollah Akbari – Fabio Geda
The Lake – Banana Yoshimoto
Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa
The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
Shifu, you’ll do anything for a laugh – Mo Yan
he song of everlasting sorrow: a novel of Shanghai – Wang Anyi
The gardens of light: a novel – Amin Maalouf
The Changeling – Kenzaburo Oe
The Boat to Redemption – Su Tong

What’s your favourite translated book?