This author presents many fascinating ideas in this small volume dense with insights into language and communication. And best of all, he delivers this information with humor, verve, and style.
Bellos tells us that although there are perhaps as many as 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, most are spoken by very small groups. To engage with the outside world, “vehicular languages” are needed; that is, languages learned by non-native speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. Some eighty languages are considered vehicular, but knowing just nine of them would permit effective conversation with around 90 percent of the world’s population. The language with the largest number of non-native users is English, but English is not the language with the largest number of native speakers, which currently is Mandarin Chinese.
Perhaps I have thus far given the impression that this book is just a compendium of fun language facts. It is, but that’s not the point of the book at all. Rather, the author sets out to define translation, and then determine what makes a good translation, and finally to consider why we need translation at all. Why don’t we all just learn to speak a common language?
In characterizing translation, Bellos explains that “meaning” is not the only component of an utterance; there is also tone of voice, context, layout, intention, culture, form (such as poem, play, legal document), the identities of the communicants together with the relationship between them, etc. In fact, as Bellos observes, what matters the most is not a word-to-word congruence. On the contrary, it is more important for the translator to preserve the force of the utterance in another language. Thus the translator must take into account such factors as levels of formality in conversation, as well as customs and rules about how men and women and people of different social classes may relate to each other. Importantly, he adds, “[n]o sentence contains all the information you need to translate it.”
One of my favorite examples in the book is this anecdote:
“In many parts of Africa… casting branches in the path of a chief expresses contempt, whereas in the Gospels it is done to mark Jesus’s return to Jerusalem as a triumph… Revision of the Gospel’s account of Palm Sunday is both absolutely necessary to avoid giving the wrong message to African readers and at the same time impossible without profoundly altering the story being told.”
Another great example given by Bellows concerns a statement released by the office of Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, in 1870. The statement referred to a communication made to the French by “the adjutant of the day.” In German, this is a high-ranking courtier, but in French, this is a mere warrant officer. The French took the meaning of this word-for-word translation as a sign of grievous disrespect, and an international incident ensued, culminating in a declaration of war by the French six days later.
Translating humorous utterances is a particular challenge; meaning must almost always be changed to get the particular point across in a different culture that the original is trying to make.
Moreover, translators try to get across the style of an author or what makes him or her distinct:
“The question is: at what level is the Dickensianity of any text by Dickens located? In the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the digressions, the anecdotes, the construction of character, or the plot?”
All of these considerations (and many more delineated by Bellos) mean that just knowing the words of another language is insufficient to be a good translator.
At the end of the book, Bellos asks if one day we might just be able to have the equivalent of a translation fish in our ears, like the device used in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, and then we would all be able to understand one another totally. He suggests this is unlikely, since linguistic diversity serves other functions besides the conveyance of meaning in different formats: it also serves to establish lines of in-groups and out-groups, and helps form part of the identity of an individual as a member of a specific community. “Every language,” he notes, “tells your listener who you are, where you come from, where you belong.” It is not just poetry that is lost in translation, he avers, it is community. But translation can accomplish almost everything else to enable human beings to communicate thought. He concludes “We should do more of it.”
Evaluation: This is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking treatise on what comprises communication and the surprisingly small but important role that language plays in the process. I loved this book.
Note: Bellos is the prize-winning translator of the works of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare. He teaches French and Comparative literature at Princeton University
Published by Faber And Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011