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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Is That a Fish in Your Ear ?

David Bellos

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To purchase Is That a Fish in Your Ear ?

Title: Is That a Fish in Your Ear ?
Author: David Bellos
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011
Length: 338 pages
Availability: Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? - US
Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? - UK
Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? - Canada
Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? - India
Le poisson et le bananier - France
  • Translation and the Meaning of Everything

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wide-ranging look at language and translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian A 5/11/2011 Miriam Cosic
The Economist . 10/9/2011 .
The Guardian A 22/9/2011 Michael Hofmann
The Guardian . 11/9/2012 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 23/9/2011 Shaun Whiteside
Literary Review . 9/2011 Frederic Raphael
The LA Times . 16/10/2011 Carolyn Kellogg
Nature . 28/9/2011 Ellen Bialystok
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/10/2011 Adam Thirlwell
The Observer . 15/9/2012 Nicholas Clee
The Scotsman . 11/9/2011 Jennie Erdal
The Spectator . 1/10/2011 Robert Chandler
The Telegraph . 14/9/2011 Maureen Freely
Wall Street Journal . 27/10/2011 Lee Sandlin

  Review Consensus:

  Recommend it highly

  From the Reviews:
  • "(H)e has assimilated it all into a single, handily sized, masterfully written, lively and thoroughly absorbing volume, which rather testifies to his own superior skills in literary translation." - Miriam Cosic, The Australian

  • "All of this is conducted in an appealingly jaunty style. (...) This is a book for anyone interested in words, language and cultural anthropology. Mr Bellosís fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating." - The Economist

  • "I could say anyone with an interest in translation should read Is That a Fish, but there wouldn't be very much point; instead, anyone with no interest in translation, please read David Bellos's brilliant book." - Michael Hofmann, The Guardian

  • "Bellos has used this book, in part, as a means of demolishing received ideas about translation. (...) It is also engagingly written, not to mention fascinating throughout, and any initial misgivings I might have had about the viability of a popular, almost 400-page work about translation are completely vanquished." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Chapters on topics such as the hazards of conference interpreting (...) and legal translation (...) are fine as far as they go, but it's the chapters on literary translation that really take wing. (...) What you gradually realise as you read on is that while being thoroughly entertained, you are being introduced almost without noticing it to a series of quite recondite topics (.....) Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? is essential reading for anyone with even a vague interest in language and translation -- in short, it is a triumph." - Shaun Whiteside, The Independent

  • "Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious, Bellos saves his best trick for last, when he concludes that language is not necessary for communication, as theorists insist (other species communicate without it)." - Frederic Raphael, Literary Review

  • "The breadth of the inquiry works against its depth: Seminal linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's early work is tucked into a chapter on international law. Yet when Bellos gives himself space to go micro, the result is arresting." - Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is on to something new. (...) So two futures, I think, can be drawn from this dazzlingly inventive book, and they are gratifyingly large." - Adam Thirlwell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "You'll learn a lot, and you may even abandon a prejudice." - Nicholas Clee, The Observer

  • "This book is a wonderful celebration of the sheer diversity of language and the place it occupies in human endeavour. Conducted by a man who clearly knows his stuff, it is a whirlwind tour round the highways and byways of translation in all its glorious forms" - Jennie Erdal, The Scotsman

  • "(A) clear and lively survey of the world of interpreting and translating. (...) This book fulfils a real need; there is nothing quite like it." - Robert Chandler, The Spectator

  • "In this witty, erudite exploration of translation and its history, David Bellos sets out to render such inquisitions obsolete. (...) Bellos seems to have no anger in him whatsoever. Even as he demolishes the myths of translation, he delights in its chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity." - Maureen Freely, The Telegraph

  • "This is all great stuff, and it's at least midway through the book before a certain unease sets in. The zigzag, endlessly digressive line of Mr. Bellos's exposition keeps things lively, but it's not the best way of laying out a thesis. And he does have a thesis. (...) Mr. Bellos's theory, as I add it up, is that translation is part of the free, spontaneous, joyful play of language -- and in the end I'm not persuaded that the process is quite that sunny." - Lee Sandlin, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       David Bellos is a professor of French and comparative literature, and well-known as a literary translator (of works by Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, Romain Gary -- and Fred Vargas), but the scope of this book about Translation and the Meaning of Everything goes far beyond just literary translation, as Bellos considers much of the very essence of language and communication.
       Bellos writes in English, with many of his examples and arguments tailored to English-speaking audiences -- foremost, of course, predominantly (and proudly) monoglot Americans and Brits --, but as he shows, the larger multilingual world is considerably more complex. Indeed, multilingualism remains widespread, and much local (and international) communication doesn't even rely on translation, but rather on common (first, second, or third, etc.) languages that people have (some) command over; English, as the currently completely dominant such 'vehicular' language, is the most obvious example of a language people fall back on to communicate with one another, but hardly the only one. Yet actual translation -- reproduction of a (written or spoken) text in another language -- is also essential, and widespread, whether in the simultaneous translation of politicians' speeches, dubbed (or subtitled) films, legal documents ranging from contracts to treaties to statutes, manufacturers' instructions meant to help consumers assemble or use products, or, of course, literary texts. As Bellos shows, there's little that is straightforward about any of these; appealingly, however, Bellos isn't much bothered by any concept of the impossibility of translation but rather suggests that on the whole translation, in its many manifestations and variations, works just fine.
       [Personal aside: I am completely in the translation-is-an-abomination -- and it's impossible ! -- camp (I exaggerate only slightly ...), but I understand that that's a purely idealistic and in many respects unreasonable position, and I can appreciate Bellos' much more realistic and practical take.]
       Bellos usefully points out many things about the ways in which we think about language, taking for granted that are there are any number of different ways in which language can function (from its grammar to how words are used) -- a basic hurdle that makes any kind of 'literal' (essentially word-for-word) translation from all but the closest languages pointless. He notes also, for example, that Chinese dictionaries, lexicons, and glossaries are very different in, for example, how they are arranged from Western ones (invariably arranged alphabetically), and:

Their profound difference perhaps makes clearer the extent to which Western dictionary making is also a "regional" tradition arising from the particular nature of the script that we have.
       Among the fascinating explanations and examples he offers are of how meaning is adapted to different cultures: the example of the Bible -- the world's most translated text -- and the United Bible Societies' efforts in disseminating the Word in translation (with great attention paid to accommodating local understanding) is particularly interesting. (Somewhat disappointingly, he skirts the issue of what it means to change these words and meanings in this way -- the theological implications -- and completely sidesteps those who take their foundational texts (the Bible and the Koran, in particular) in a more ... literal-minded way (i.e. believe the only valid reading is, essentially, the original reading).)
       Bellos can also point to the influence of translation (rather than the original) itself, as, for example, apparently:
A small but quite profound change in the way dialogue is introduced in Swedish narrative can be traced back to its source in translations of English-language novels.
       Or, he suggests:
Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degrees a by-product of Bergman's success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films.
       Bellos considers (and is impressed by) the workings of Google Translate, which relies on "a very large preeexisting corpus of translations" and gets the most out of it, using also 'pivot' languages (usually English) to provide matches between languages -- hence: "the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese".
       He also does address the special case of literary translation, from offering an example of how a 顺口溜 (shunkoulio) jingles can be transformed into English while conveying both the meaning and the playfulness inherent in the Chinese original (an amusing textbook exercise) to broader discussions of questions of literary translation (for example, dismissing the idea that 'poetry is what is lost in translation').
       Sometimes the points Bellos hammers home are a bit obvious or (surprisingly) literal-minded -- just how silly the idea of simple word-substitution is as a way of translating a text, or that truly simultaneous interpretation is an impossibility, or his issues with terminology such as 'mother tongue' -- but on the whole the wealth of information and the way it is presented is both informative and entertaining, and it's perhaps useful to make even these obvious points (and Bellos does go beyond that in each case, using his explanations to expand on ideas or consequences). Still, he does gloss over some issues and facts a bit lightly: relying on UNESCO's Index Translationum -- and citing very specific numbers -- he eventually notes: "the data stored by UNESCO may not be complete, and its search engine may have its own quirks" but doesn't note all the possible consequences; that's adequate for one weakened conclusion (that the overall picture, of English being by far the most-translated-from language, "must be broadly true") but perhaps not for the others (or rather: the picture is more complicated than the (incomplete) numbers he cites suggest) [1].
       Bellos also offers asides such as -- regarding the quote: "poetry is what is lost in translation" --:
But nobody has ever been able to find Frost saying anything like that in his works, letters, interviews, or reported sayings. Like so many other received ideas about translation, this one turns out to have no foundation in fact.
       While true that there is apparently nothing in Frost's "works, letters, interviews" like this, it's not quite as unfounded a claim as Bellos insists [2].
       There is a fantastic amount of thinking (and thought-provoking) about language (and translation) here, and it perhaps can seem a bit overwhelming in part; Bellos' presentation -- in bite-sized chapters, appealing style, and often entertaining (if sometimes too limited) examples -- does lead readers through all of this quite well, however, and it's a book that can be enjoyed both as a whole and piece by piece.
       Those familiar with Bellos' own impressive work as a translator might be a bit disappointed that there aren't more stories about his own literary-translation-adventures; there are a few -- especially concerning the work of Georges Perec -- and they're all fascinating, but Bellos doses them carefully. There are also surprising omissions -- not only no mention of his translation of Gary's Hocus Bogus (one that required considerable ... creative input on Bellos' part) but also such details as, in including Gary's name in a list of "immigrants who had chosen to write in French", no mention of the fact that Gary also wrote several works in English [3]. (Indeed, among the literary topics that could also have been explored is the phenomenon of writers adopting a second language to write in -- recall, say, Strindberg or Kazantzakis' works in French (or Jonathan Littell with his The Kindly Ones), and any number of contemporary authors who already established themselves as authors in one language turning to another (usually English, but also French and others) -- as well as (literary-)authors in their role as translators (something far more common outside the English-speaking world).)
       An impressive and enjoyably thought-provoking volume, Is That a Fish in Your Ear ? deserves (and is clearly aimed at) an audience far beyond merely those interested in literary translation. Bellos goes so far as to claim that: "Translation is another name for the human condition" -- but then, of course, part of the fun of translation is that it is an exercise of coming up with 'another name' for every- and any-thing, and that there's an argument to be made for almost any choice ..... Certainly, he shows it is a subject worth thinking about -- and not just as narrowly as is often the case in 'translation studies' and the like -- and that it affects many facets of all our lives.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 October 2011

[1]   The Index is a valuable resource and good starting point, but any claims about specific numbers (of titles, etc.) must be handled with extreme care: all my experience with it suggests that it is still a very messy and incomplete database -- and that Bellos is being kind when he refers the 'quirks' of its search engine.

[2]   Louis Untermeyer reports in Robert Frost: A Backward Look (1964) that Frost told him:
You've often heard me say -- perhaps too often -- that poetry is what is lost in translation
       In Poetry and Translation (2010) Peter Robinson quotes an e-mail from Mark Richardson (editor of The Collected Prose of Robert Frost) stating that the 'quip':
does not appear in the published prose, though RF did occasionally utter it (or forms of it) in public performances. He didn't say this in any essay he published, but he did say it.
       And in Lost and found in translation (2005) Martha J. Cutter reports that:
in an unpublished notebook from 1950 to 1955, Frost defines poetry as "that which tends to evaporate from both prose and verse when translated" (Dartmouth, MS 001728).
       So it seems there is some foundation in fact suggesting that Frost did, in fact, say (and think) this (frequently, even) .....

[3]   As the author of a Gary-biography Bellos is, of course, aware of this, so the omission is entirely deliberate.

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Is That a Fish in Your Ear ?: Reviews: David Bellos: Other books by David Bellos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David Bellos is Professor of French at Princeton University. He has translated numerous works, including several by Georges Perec.

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