I’ve just finished Boris Vian‘s J’irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes [I Spit On Your Graves], and while reading I was intrigued to learn that it was originally published as a pseudo-translation*, that is to say Boris Vian presented himself as being the translator, the original being written by a certain Vernon Sullivan, when in fact Vian wrote it himself and Sullivan is just a pseudonym.

Boris Vian was a writer, poet, jazz musician, translator, critic actor, inventor and engineer (yes, all that!). Early in the summer of 1946 he met a young publisher, Jean d’Halluin, who for a bet asked him to write a book like Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer. Vian wrote J’irai cracher … in two weeks from August 5th-23rd, plagiarising the style of American romans noirs. Set in the U.S. South, it deals with heated racial and sexual conflict; Vian’s intention was to denounce the racism and precariousness that African-Americans suffered from. It went on to sell more than half a million copies, but its erotic content led to it being banned in 1949 for immorality. (In 1959 Vian, aged 39, died of cardiac arrest during the first projection of the film based on the novel – a version of which highly disapproved). This experience as a pseudo-translator led to Vian becoming the real translator of noir writers such as Chandler, Cheyney and Cain.


Boris Vian

But what is the point of a pseudo-translation? In his Brave New Words blog BJ Epstein has the following to say:

In his book Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond Gideon Toury defines pseudo-translations as “texts which have been presented as translation with no corresponding source texts in other languages ever having existed – hence no factual ‘transfer operations’ and translation relationships”. In other words, it is a fake translation. Mr. Toury suggests that this is a “a convenient way of introducing novelties into a culture” and is especially useful “in cultures reluctant to deviate from sanctioned models and norms.” He also mentions that there may be times when either translation itself or else a particular type of literature has prestige, so authors try to get in on the action, as it were, by creating pretend translations.

In Is That A Fish in Your Ear David Bellos mentions pseudo-translation in his discussion of the indistinction that can exist between original and translated texts. Some of the examples he mentions are: Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books (1762) by James McPherson, Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto (1764, regarded as the first gothic novel), Emmanuel Lifshitz’ twenty-three poems written as ‘James Clifford’, Andreï Makine‘s first three novels, and The Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1669) by Guilleragues, the latter not being unmasked as a hoax until 1954!

While Makine’s and McPherson’s pseudo-translations were purely aimed at getting their books printed, the reason for most pseudo-translations is to put distance between the real author and what they want(ed) to say. Many authors, especially in the 18th century, were criticising their governments in a disguised fashion; our more tolerant societies today might explain why pseudo-translations are less common now. Another advantage of a pseudo-translation is to make the language, and not the author, the most important element of a book.

Some other examples of pseudo-translations:

Frontispiece of Voltaire’s Candide (Wikipedia)

  • Clara Gazul plays (1825; ‘Spanish’ to French) and Guzla (1827; ‘Serbian’ to French) by Prosper Merimée
  • Le Livre de Jade (1867; ‘Chinese’ to French) by Judith Gautier
  • Les Chansons de Bilitis [The Songs of Bilitis] (1894; ‘Ancient Greek’ to French) by Pierre Louÿs
  • Di Koningin fan Skeba (1898; Afrikaans) by SJ Du Toit
  • Three novels written by Raymond Queneau as pseudo-translations of Sally Mara, an Irishwoman, translated from English by ‘Michel Presle’.
  • O Novo Gulliver (1961; possible pseudo-translation from Spanish to Portuguese) by ‘Tingusa Gelany’
  • White Poems (1965) and Dream Masters (1989) (poems; ‘Greek’ to English) by David Solway
  • The Beijing of Possibilities (2009; Chinese to English) by Jonathan Tel

Many more ‘translations’ probably exist that have never been unmasked as originals – and vice versa. All this goes to prove that in the absence of a giveaway, readers are generally unable to tell whether a text is an original or a translation. Makine only revealed the truth in order to be eligible to win the Goncourt Prize, and Walpole only when he would have had to produce the Italian original.

Do you know of any other pseudo-translations? Have you ever read one, before or after knowing it was a pseudo-translation?

*pseudo-translation – not to be confused with pseudo-localisation (sometimes called pseudo-translation) which is a software testing method that is used to test internationalization aspects of software. 

Suggested links:

Books about Reunion and worldwide literature

[Updated January 2023]

A recent exchange with Ann Morgan, who’s currently reading her way round the world, got me thinking about Reunion Island books in English. As far as I’m aware, with the exception of ‘Bourbon Island 1730’, the list I came up with contains only books that I have been written directly in English and not translated. In fact as far as I know there are no English translations of books by well-known Reunionese authors like Daniel Vaxelaire or Axel Gauvin, although the latter’s books have been translated into German.

Books about Reunion I haven’t read myself (but which are all on my Bookmooch wish list!):

  • Reunion: An Island in Search of an Identity by Laurent Medea
  • Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage by Françoise Verges
  • Island Born Of Fire: Volcano Piton de la Fournaise by Dr Robert B. Trombley
Cover of

Bourbon Island 1730

Books I’ve read myself:

I’ve written reviews of all of the books above.

Also: Bonnes Vacances!: A Crazy Family Adventure in the French Territories by Rosie Millard which is about a 4-month tour of the DOM-TOMs Rosie made with her husband and four young children to film a documentary series for the Travel Channel (“Croissants in the Jungle”). Its final chapter covers Réunion (briefly); see my review here.

In the introduction I mentioned Ann Morgan who is currently reading her way around as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as she can, sampling one book from every nation. (She’s also recently included a Rest of The World wildcard section, hence our exchange about Reunion Island). However as she asked herself: what counts as a story? Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state? While in some respects she’s still answering that question she had to lay down her terms and so decided to limit herself to all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own e.g. memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage, but not non-narrative poetry and plays.

It got me wondering about which countries I’d already read literature from, and after a quick tour of my bookshelves (and my memory!) this is the (non-exhaustive) list I came up with, in English and French:

Cover of

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

  • Brazil – Rouge Brésil [Brazil Red] – Jean-Christophe Rufin [Setting; Author is French] (added March 2014)
  • Burma – The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason [Setting; Author is British]
  • Cameroon – La saison de l’ombre – Léonora Miano [Author/Setting] (added November 2013)
  • CanadaWhere White Horses Gallop – Beatrice McNeil [Author/Setting]
  • Central African Republic – Princesse aux Pieds Nu – Evelyne Durieux [Author/Setting]
  • Chile – Ten Women by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) [Author/Setting]

Ten Women

Cover of

Island Beneath the Sea




  • I’ve arbitrarily excluded the UK, France and the USA as I’ve read so many books from these countries I’d have trouble choosing just one!
  • If I’ve read several books from a country I’ve generally just listed my favourite.
  • I’ve also taken liberties by listing some non-independent regions (e.g. Rodrigues, Hawaii, Kerguelen, Tibet, Tromelin).
  • I excluded some books (such as Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, or William Boyd’s African novels) that take place in unidentified countries.
  • I also excluded books (such as Elie Wiesel’s Night) whose action takes place in several countries.
  • If I’ve read a book in French but an English translation exists I’ve added the English title in brackets [].
  • I’ve included books not written by natives of the country in question.

My conclusions:

  • I have vast swathes of the planet where I haven’t read any literature from, for example South America or the Pacific! Places like South East Asia or Central Asia are patchy too. Although I list Paul Coelho and Isabel Allende the books of theirs that I read were not set in their native countries. And despite living and travelling for three years in Asia I’ve mainly read Korean books (North and South) but very little from the many other countries we travelled to in the region. I need to broaden my horizons even more.

What about you? Do you enjoy reading books from other countries? Do you have any books to recommend? Is literature from your native (or adopted) country easy to find in English?

P.S. Here’s the link to Ann Morgan’s blog: A Year Of Reading The World. Other reading around the world blogs I’ve come across are: Reading the WorldWorld Lit Up and Around the World in 180 books (specialised in children’s literature).

You might also like: A few books with linguists as characters.

Novels with language professionals as characters

[Updated October 2021]

I love reading and I thought I’d share a few novels in English or French that have translators or interpreters as characters. Some I’ve already read, and some I’m looking forward to reading soon.

Books in French I have read

  • Je l’aimais by Anna Gavalda was published in 2002, and has been translated into English by Catherine Evans as Someone I Loved. Two men have an affair. One leaves his wife and children, the other stays. Which one was right? Gavalda explores this dilemma from the unusual point of view of a relationship between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law. One of the mistresses, Mathilde, was an interpreter (annoyingly called a translator throughout the book), however she remains a secondary character and the story is never really explored from her point of view.
  • La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre, a lawyer. Published in 2017. Patience Portefeux is a sworn Arabic-French translator and interpreter in Paris who starts having criminal dealings. While this prize-winning novel shines a spotlight on those who work for the French justice system it doesn’t do so in a very flattering way; while Patience’s work is undoubtedly professional, her welfare situation isn’t (this is ultimately what makes her turn to crime), and the profession is portrayed as being peopled by those who don’t pay social security contributions. For more details about this see the SFT press release (in French). Made into a film in 2020.
  • Les amandes amères by Laurence Cossé, was published in September 2011. A translator and occasional interpreter, Edith, wants to teach her Moroccan home-help, Fadila, how to read and write. Edith realises how complicated and humiliating life is for somebody who is illiterate. But Fadila is not young and Edith is not trained to teach literacy. It turns out to be harder than Edith thought – what she thought Fadila had learnt is forgotten by the following week. This is a novel, but is based on the author’s real experience of trying to teach a Moroccan woman in her 60s to read and write. While the overall themes of immigration and illiteracy could have been interesting, I didn’t like the book very much as I found the multiple descriptions of teaching far too detailed and rather uninteresting. The faithful transcription of Fadila’s way of speaking is also rather difficult to read, and occasionally confusing. There are occasional references to Edith’s work, but they are few and far between. We only learn that Edith is a translator one-third of the way through the book.

  • Reparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal, was published in January 2014. When a 19-year-old is brain dead after an accident his parents consent to organ donation. His heart is given to Claire Méjan, a 51-year old translator suffering from myocarditis who, after three years of her condition gradually worsening, is in dire need of a heart transplant. An English translation was published in 2016 as Mend the Living in the UK and The Heart in the US, and there’s also a 2016 film.

Books in French I haven’t read yet

I haven’t had the chance to read any of these books yet. Let me know your opinion if you have!

  • Mensonges by Valérie Zenatti. Published May 2011. The translator of Aharon Appelfeld pretends to be him. A book where the fate of the writer and his translator are intertwined.

Aharon Appelfeld, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Assommons les pauvres ! by Shumona Sinha. Published August 2011. Sinha is an interpreter who worked for the OFPRA (French office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons). This (autobiographical?) novel is about an interpreter who works with asylum seekers. You can see a video on ARTE about it here.
  • La traduction est une histoire d’amour by Jacques Poulin. Published in 2006. Set in Quebec. Originally from Ireland, Marine is a translator working on a novel written by Jack Waterman. She ends up meeting him, they become friends, and he finds her somewhere to live: a chalet on l’Île d’Orléans. One day they discover a black cat, and together they start looking for the cat’s owner, who might need help.

Books I’ve read in English

  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. In an unnamed South American country a group of terrorists hold some VIPs hostage; one of the hostages, Gen, is the multilingual interpreter of the Japanese guest of honour. The book explores how the terrorists and hostages cope with living in a house together for several months. Bel Canto won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize in 2002, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named the Book Sense Book of the Year. It sold more than a million copies in the United States and has been translated into thirty languages. I enjoyed this book, although it was rather annoying that Gen was consistently referred to as a translator and not as an interpreter.
  • The Mission Song by John Le Carre. Interpreter Bruno Salvador is fluent in numerous African languages in London. Sent to a mysterious island in the North Sea to interpret during a secret conference between Central African warlords, Bruno thinks he is helping Britain bring peace to a bloody corner of the world. But then he hears something he should not have … . I read this in Mongolia two years ago, and while the story as a whole was interesting enough, from a professional point of view there were a number of inconsistencies concerning Bruno and his work. Conference interpreter Tiina wrote a good review covering these inconsistencies here.
  • House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti. An Italian translator becomes obsessed by a German novel he is translating. I read this a while back but it didn’t leave much of an impression.
  • The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones. Lucy Fly from Yorkshire is a Japanese to English technical translator who’s been living in Tokyo for ten years. She becomes the principal suspect in a murder case when her friend Lily is killed. During the novel you gradually discover how Lucy and Lily became friends, and whether or not Lucy is guilty. Talking about her work Lucy says: “[she] spent her days putting Japanese sentences into English, twisting the words so that the end went at the beginning, articles and plurals appeared, vagaries became specifics”. Lucy’s work, and the Japanese setting are merely backdrops in this mystery, but they add to the strong narrative. A good read.
  • The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster. New England professor and translator David Zimmer lost his family in a plane crash and spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity.  One night his interest is piqued by a clip from a lost film by silent comedian Hector Mann, and he embarks on a journey around the world to research a book on Mann, who vanished in 1929 and has been presumed dead for sixty years. When the book is published the following year, a letter invites him to meet Hector … . Zimmer is the central character but his translation activity is not really an important part of the story. I read this book a few months ago for a book club and enjoyed it – it reconciled me with Auster as I’d read one of his books 15 years ago (The Music of Chance) and it hadn’t made me want to read any of his others.
Paul Auster

Paul Auster

  • The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy. A romantic mistake at the American college where he used to teach has cost Harry Ricks his job and marriage, and he flees to Paris where he ends up having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. He meets beautiful and mysterious Margit, a Hungarian translator, but soon their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events. Margit is not all she seems to be, and Harry finds himself in a nightmare from which there is no easy escape. This is an easy and compelling read, but you might have to suspend your belief in reality. By the way, it’s much better than the film.
  • Bad Girl: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. Book originally in Spanish (Peru), translated by Edith Grossman. Young Peruvian Ricardo has only two ambitions in life: loving bad girls and living in Paris. He moves to the capital of France, where he becomes a translator and interpreter at UNESCO. His muse will come in the shape of the same woman who takes different forms: an amateur revolutionary in 1960s Paris and Havana, the wife of a British millionaire in 1970s London, and the lover of a Japanese mob boss. The book has several interesting reflections on the profession:
    • “So what were you Ricardito? Maybe … nothing but an interpreter, somebody, as my colleague Salomón Toledano liked to define us, who is only when he isn’t, a hominid who exists when he stops being what he is so that what other people think and say can pass through him more easily”.

    • “I had acquired the skill of the good interpreter, which consists in knowing the equivalents of words without necessarily understanding their contents (according to [my colleague], understanding them was a hindrance),”

    • [My colleague] never accepted a permanent position because as a freelancer he felt more liberated and earned more money. Not only was he the best interpreter I had met in all the years I earned a living practicing the “profession of phantoms”—that’s what he called it—but he was also the most original.”

    • [My colleague] asked, “If we suddenly felt ourselves dying and asked ourselves, “What trace of our passage through this dog’s life of drudgery will we leave behind?,’ the honest answer would be: ‘None, we haven’t done anything except speak for other people.’ Otherwise, what does it mean to have translated millions of words and not remember a single one of them, because not a single one deserved to be remembered?”

    • “I felt less ghostlike as a literary translator than I did as an interpreter.”
  • The Literary Conference by César Aira.  Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Katherine Silver. This somewhat surreal novella first published in 1997 follows the adventures of Aira as he attends a literary conference in Merida, Venezuela, while attempting to clone Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. He has to contend with unintended consequences of his cloning experiment, which starts having disastrous results. The English translation was published in 2006.
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors. A Danish book translated by Misha Hoekstra, short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, it tells the story of Sonja who translates Swedish crime fiction for a living. The first words are “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. Book originally in Dutch, translated by David Colmer. Winner of the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel follows Emilie, a translation professor and Emily Dickinson scholar, who retreats from her life in the Netherlands to an isolated farmhouse in Wales following an affair with a student.

Gerbrand Bakker (left) and his translator David Colmer (right).

Books in English I haven’t read yet

  • The Missing Shade Of Blue by Jennie Erdal. Lonely Parisian-raised translator Edgar Logan arrives in Edinburgh to study the Enlightenment sage David Hume; once there his life becomes entangled with those of Harry and Carrie, a self-destructive philosopher and his artist wife.
  • The Past by Alan Pauls. Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Nick Caistor. This is about a translator who works on movie subtitles and as a conference interpreter. His 12-year relationship with his girlfriend comes to an end and, after some time and a few important events in his life, he starts to suffer from amnesia and language issues: he ends up forgetting the languages he used to work with, which is the nightmare of all translators. In 2007 it also became a film, starring Gael García Bernal, and directed by Hector Babenco.
  • Kornél Esti by Dezso Kosztolányi. Book originally in Hungarian, translated by Bernard Adams. In 1933, Kosztolányi released a series of short stories whose protagonist is his most famous character, Kornél Esti―sort of the author’s alter ego. Some of this stories gave shape to the “The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti,” a celebrated Hungarian movie from the mid-1990s. Different editions of the book received different names, depending on the short story editors decided to highlight. In Brazil for example it became O tradutor cleptomaníaco (“The Kleptomaniac Translator”), based on the fact that the translator is stealing elements from the original text, such as jewelry, money, chandelier…. It’s a metaphor for the fact that there always seems to be something lost or “stolen” in translation―even though the vast majority of translators do not suffer from kleptomania.
  • The Translator: A Novel by Nina Schuyler. “When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work. Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.
  • The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass. At the end of a demanding day of translating speeches at an international medical conference in Manhattan, Dominique Green accidentally overhears something she is bound by her interpreter’s contract never to reveal. But she can’t forget it.
  • The Interpreter by Suki Kim. Suzy Park is a twenty-nine-year-old Korean American interpreter for the New York City court system. Young, attractive, and achingly alone, she makes a startling and ominous discovery during one court case that forever alters her family’s history.
  • Pinball,1973 by Haruki Murakami, translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum. This novel published in 1980 is the second book of the author’s ‘Trilogy of the Rat’ series. The plot centres on the nameless first-person narrator’s brief but intense obsession with pinball, his life as a freelance translator, and his later efforts to reunite with the old pinball machine that he used to play.

Cover of the English translation of ‘Pinball, 1973’

Lists of books with linguists as characters

Happy reading! Let me know of any I may have missed in the comments!

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)