A Fish In My Ear?

I’ve just finished reading David Bellos‘ book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything“. It’s an interesting book that I would recommend to anybody interested in translation and language. (Trailer for “Is that a Fish In Your Ear?”)

I have no pretension to write a review of the book, there are already several reviews out there and probably many more to come, however I wanted to share with you a few excerpts from the book – quotes, or passages that I found particularly interesting, noteworthy or surprising. I’ve avoided reading reviews myself, as I didn’t want them to influence me before I read the book.

“… many people [are persuaded] that translation is not an interesting topic – because it is always approximate, it is just a second-rate kind of thing … I [David Bellos] take the opposite view. The variability of translations is incontrovertible evidence of the limitless flexibility of human minds.” Chapter 1, What is a Translation, page 5.

what are word for?

What are words for? (Photo credit: Darwin Bell)

“Knowing just nine [languages] – Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Urdu, French, Japanese and English – would permit everyday effective conversation… with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 per cent of the world’s population” Chapter 2, Is Translation Avoidable, page 10.


Talking of the domination of English, particularly in the sciences: “What we seem to have experienced is not a process of language-imposition, but of language-elimination [German, Swedish, Russian] … The survivor language, English, is not necessarily the best suited to the job: it’s just that nothing has yet happened to knock it out” Chapter 2, Is Translation Avoidable, page 13.

Talking about people “who declare translations to be no substitute for the original”: “in the absence of … giveaways are readers in fact able to distinguish, by the taste on their linguistic and literary tongues, whether a text is ‘original’ or ‘translated’? Absolutely not.” Chapter 4, Things People Say About Translation, page 36. How true!

“Just two or three thousand items account for the vast majority of word occurrences in all utterances in any language”. Chapter 8, Words are Even Worse, page 83. And in the notes (p. 360) we learn that “just 135 words account for half of all the word occurrences in an English-lanugage corpus of about 1 million words.” (Zipf’s Law).

“Roget’s wonderful Thesaurus reminds [translators] that in one language as well as between any two, all words are translations of others.” Chapter 9, Understanding Dictionaries, page 102.

Check out the Thesaurus' sibling, Dictionary.

Thesaurus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Talking about the now ungrounded fears and mistrust that people had of linguistic intermediaries: “people go on saying traduttore/traditore* believing they are saying something meaningful about translation.”Chapter 11, The Issue of Trust: The Long Shadow of Oral Translation, page 129 (* “Translator/Traitor” in Italian). In the notes for this chapter will also learn that “writing has been invented four times: by the Maya, in pre-Columbian America; in China; in Ancient Egypt; and in Mesopotamia. All writing systems derive from just two of these inventions, and all alphabetic scripts from just one” (Roy Harris, The Origin of Writing, Duckworth, 1968, p. 177).

Shows changes in Mesopotamian writing of the w...

Changes in Mesopotamian writing of the word bird. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Translation is the enemy of the ineffable. It causes it to cease to exist”. Chapter 13, What Can’t be Said Can’t be Translated: the Axiom of Effability, page 159.

“Since there are approximately 7000 known languages in the world, there are 24 2496 500 pairs of languages between which translation could in principle take place in either direction, giving rise to nearly 49 million  potentially separate translation practices…” Chapter 15, Bibles and Bananas: The Vertical Axis of Translation Relations, page 171.

Bellos talks about the existence of the ‘third code’: “the language of translations seen as a dialect that can be distinguished from the regular features of the target language.” (page 197). This has arisen from “the suspicion that the language of translated works is not quite the same as the language the translations purport to be in”, and has been confirmed by “scholarly work based … on the automated analysis of quite large bodies of translated texts in machine readable form.” He also says there is a “general tendency of all translations to adhere more strongly than any original to a normalised idea of what the target language should be.” Chapter 17, The Third Code: Translation as a Dialect, page 201.

“There are only about fifty languages between which imports and exports of translated books occur with any regularity”. Chapter 19, Global Flows: Centre and Periphery in the Translation of Books, page 208.

He mentions the use of English as a pivot language: “English-speakers are obviously not responsible for the use of English a a pivot, because the only folk for whom English is never a pivot language are the speakers of English themselves… English is made into a pivot by speakers of other tongues.”Chapter 19, Global Flows: Centre and Periphery in the Translation of Books, page 222-3.

We learn that in the European Union “there are no translations. Everything is the original, already”. This language parity rule has for consequence “no official EU text can be faulted or dismissed or even queried on the grounds of it having been incorrectly translated from the original, since every language version is in the original”. Chapter 21, Language Parity in the European Union, page 238-9.

Did you know a daily thirty-minute news bulletin is broadcast in Latin from Helsinki? Neither did I! (Chapter 22, Translation News, page 251).

Nuremberg Trials at courtroom 600, November 1945

Nuremberg Trials at courtroom 600, November 1945 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Concerning interpreting we find out that the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals  in 1945 was “an unprecedented event in the history of translation” as it was the first time simultaneous translation methods were used during a trial. Today “between one half and three quarters of all students admitted to interpreter training courses fail to enter the profession”. And “only sixty-seven organizations in the world employ members of the AIIC as full-time staff, and only four employ more than ten.” Chapter 24, A Fish in Your Ear: The Short History of Simultaneous Interpreting, page 268-280.

Talking about the fact that translation commentary in Western languages often contains anger and hurt Bellos says: “It seems implausible that anyone would ever make such a statement about any other human skill or trade”. While he states that not all translation commentary is negative “when book reviews pay any attention at all to the translation of a translated work under review … they recycle one of a small set of standard words of praise: fluent, witty, racy, accurate, brilliant, competent and stylish”. And he concludes with “a translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement”. Chapter 30, Under Fire: Sniping at Translation, page 328-331.

I also learnt a new word: anisomorphism (used on page 82), which roughly speaking means “asymmetry”, is “the differences between two languages that create mismatches in a translation dictionary”. In fact it’s a phenomenon you come across every day as a translator, but until now I didn’t know the term for!

Although I’ve tried to situate these quotes please bear in mind they are of course taken somewhat out of context. There are also many other interesting items in the book – I have only touched on those that personally struck me the most, but I’m sure that while everyone reading the book will not necessarily find out “the meaning of everything” they will have gone some way to understanding translation better.

Words have a power all their own

Words have a power all their own (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)