Review of “Is That a Fish In Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

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

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24 Responses to Review of “Is That a Fish In Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos

  1. I love your enthusiasm for this book and the content. I think I may have a hard time getting into it, but I should read more works like this and maybe my vocabulary would be more extensive 😀

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    Sounds interesting. I’m wondering what my language says about me.

  3. JoAnn says:

    I love languages, and translation has always fascinated me – sounds like a book I’d enjoy. Off to check my library’s website…

  4. I love language books so much, and this one sounds great! I’m also off to the library…

    (Have you read Mark Abley’s books? I really, really like those ones.)

  5. zibilee says:

    I tried one book about language and it almost broke my brain! I think the idea behind books that deal with this subject are so interesting, but I am afraid that the actual reading and comprehending of them is very difficult for me. I would be interested to page through this one and see what I think of it, but I have a feeling that it might be a little too complex for me. I think that I enjoy the written word a lot, but not the linguistics behind it! Very nice review today!

  6. Margot says:

    As someone who is trying to re-learn Spanish, I get it. I’m terrified of speaking my “new” Spanish out loud because I know I’m going to offend someone. What I think is a humors comment in English probably doesn’t play the same in another language. Interesting subject for those of us who spend a lot of our time in words and language.

  7. Edgar says:

    For the best translation, should it be a love affair between the translator and book or language?
    It sounds like a very interesting book.

  8. Jenny says:

    Which nine? Which nine languages? English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, classical Arabic, ummm, Hindi, Urdu, Russian, French, and….German? Am I anywhere close? Should Portuguese or Italian have been on the list?

    (This book sounds really, really good, but now I am more focused on which eight languages I need to learn.)

    • Pretty good guessing, there. Here is the list of nine: Chinese (1.3 billion users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million) and English (somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion).

  9. This sounds interesting. I can speak 2 languages, and sometimes I don’t really like reading translated books because it reads too “forced”. I think the translator was translating the work literally, instead of adapting the cultural elements in the other languages. What makes perfect sense in one language makes no sense in another sometimes.

  10. Jenners says:

    This sounds like one of those books where you learn and think about things you never thought you’d be fascinated and interested in but totally are!

  11. Jenny says:

    Sounds fascinating… I love language stuff. My sister has a degree in linguistics and the stuff she used to tell us about languages was definitely interesting.

  12. This sounds like a really interesting book, but not necessarily one I’d read, tbqh, so thanks for reading it for me! 😉

  13. Just added this to my Amazon wishlist…Thank you!

  14. stacybuckeye says:

    I think your review amde me think anough on the subject for now. It is an interesting topic. What would the world be like if every person communicated in the same language? Discuss.

  15. softdrink says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this, since I read a few translated books this year and ended up wondering just how different they were from the original, and how that whole translation gig is supposed to work.

  16. Julie P. says:

    Sounds very interesting. I’m not sure I would have been drawn to this book, though, without reading your review.

  17. Stephanie says:

    I want this book! It sounds right up my alley. 🙂 The title alone is hard to resist.

  18. Care says:

    Nifty! I do enjoy the subject of language even if English is the only one I know.
    and AHA! so now I know why (or can suspect) why the huge translation website is called BabelFISH… I really need to read Hitchhikers…

  19. Care says:

    and, THANK YOU.

  20. Trish says:

    I find linguistics and language and translation all to be fascinating subjects but have never read a book on this subject “for fun.” This sounds like a great and accessible way to learn more.

    I’m really fascinated by idioms and translated humor–always get a kick of out Ziva’s wacky idiom mistakes on NCIS!

  21. Richard says:

    Very interesting–just as you had suggested a while back! That example of the casting of the branches in a path is a doozy all right. P.S. Is Bellos’ hair anything like Perec’s? 😀

  22. cbjamess says:

    Anyone who can translate Perec deserves to be taken seriously on this subject. I read a lot of books in translation these days. This looks like something that would interest me.

    I wonder if we’ll end up with essentailly a Bablefish as more and more of the smaller language groups die out. I’ve a feeling the nine needed now may be down to seven or eight by the middle of the 21st century.

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