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Review: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation, David Bellos

is that a fish in your earTranslating, often assumed to be a fairly standard process, is in reality anything but. Text is one language is not directly transferable to another language. Just try translating an idiom from one language to another; finding a needle in a haystack or having your mouth water is not something that can be directly translated. And what is translation, anyway? To what extent do you change the text to make it fit in, and to what extent do you change it further to give a text an “atmosphere”? In this book, David Bellos, a translator himself, deconstructs the process and examines why we do what we do when we convert something from one language into another.

My interest in this particular topic has been prompted by the fact that the company I work for in real life specializes in multilingual and multinational search. We have a translation agency in our company, and I’ve personally been involved in many projects where translation is involved and is really important to the project in question. Plus, with such an international workforce, it’s fun to get into debates about how different languages are and how it’s much more difficult to translate between some than others. We always focus on local and local knowledge as much as we possibly can, but there has to be the ability to translate somewhere, and that’s why I was quite curious about the actual process – plus, an ongoing interest in linguistics that I’ve abandoned since university is always a factor.

That said, I’d expected something a lot lighter than this book actually was. Bellos is an academic and his book reads like one that was written by an academic. Some parts are fascinating and full of facts, while others are a bit dry. He has one particular chapter that’s about meaning and how it’s expressed, which isn’t a light read for anyone. It’s all fascinating, in my view at least, but it took me longer and more brain power to get through than your average non-fiction read.

I did feel as I was reading that I was really learning something, though; I don’t speak anything but English fluently, so a lot of the book was new to me since I don’t know what goes through a translator’s head. I loved particular little tidbits which really made me feel I was genuinely learning, such as:

For the ancient Greeks, the sound of the foreign was the unarticulated, open-mouthed blabber of va-va-va-, which is why they called all non-Greek-speakers varvaros, that is to say, barbarians, “blah-blah-ers”.

I already knew about what he says directly after – that the Russian word for German means, basically, deaf – but that about the origin of the word “barbarian” just made me smile.

Bellos wraps up the book with more thoughts on meaning, and how we can express meaning without language at all. It’s a thoughtful look back at the whole book and the way people actually understand each other. I really liked Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, but I don’t think it’s for everyone; if you do enjoy languages and translation, though, it’s certainly a book that you should try.

I purchased this book.

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