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Review of the Month

This month we go fishing in deep waters
and learn that translation is a breeze!

Hook, line & thinker

There are moments when reading David Bellos is like trying to reel in a struggling game-fish. The author twists and turns, then races off at frantic tangents before diving into the mysterious darkness of deep waters – only to break surface again amid a cascade of sparkling light as he scales the heights of wit and wisdom. Don't fight it. Flow with the tide and enjoy the cerebral surfing.

As the title hints, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is an often quirky delight of insight, informative opinion and memorable comment that embraces linguistics and philosophy, the Bible, language dictionaries, cinema sub-titles, the impact of the post-war Nuremberg trials, the workings of the European Union, the octopus of international law, and – for some light relief – the demands of translating the texts of children’s comics.

Fortunately Bellos packages his ideas in a collection of 32 bite-sized chapters, enabling the reader to come up for air before being submerged by another brain wave.

Dark art
Bellos, an award-winning British-born biographer and translator of French literature, is perhaps most widely known for his translation of works by Albanian Man Booker winner Ismail Kadare – a task Bellos achieved without the benefit of speaking Albanian (he worked instead from earlier French translations).

This wide-roaming book reads like an introduction to a master’s degree course in translation, examining the craft's challenges, its history and its future, occasionally chastising its disparagers, while also dipping into technology to chart translation's flirtation with computerisation.

Unquestionably a work of great depth, Fish in Your Ear effortlessly casts its net far beyond the horizons of translation – which relates to the written word – in order to explore the realm of interpretation, that linguistic dark art which wrestles with spoken language.

English minus
Despite the real-world intricacies of translation, Bellos makes the process seem like a breeze. He describes his work as "rewriting foreign books" into what he engagingly calls "English minus" – that is, English diluted by the least possible number of regionalisms or national variations, enabling it to be easily understood across the Anglophone diaspora.

Then he goes on to suggest that literary translators don't really face a difficult task since substituting one word for another, far from being extraordinary, is what people do all the time.

Indeed, tongue in cheek, he suggests the human race – with its 7,000 languages – could actually manage quite well without translators.

Myths debunked
Still in light vein, the Princeton professor debunks a handful of widely held linguistic myths – including the notion that Eskimos have hundreds of words to describe various types of snow, and the well-dispersed but erroneous whim that English is simpler than other languages. On a more serious note, he also firmly refutes the claim that the value of a text can only be derived by reading it in its original language.

While Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is certain to enrich the mind of anyone vaguely interested in language or translation, maybe it ought to be required reading for all those lost souls who have never paused in the daily millrace to ponder this fascinating field of endeavour.

Reader, expect to become well and truly hooked.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is published by Particular Books, part of Penguin, and is available at bookstores and through Amazon.com.

ISBN: 9781846144646. 390 pages.

Reviewer: Cliff Hutton

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a work of
great depth,
Fish in Your Ear
casts its net
far beyond
the horizons
of translation