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One Interesting Translation Person Talking About Another

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review had a few interesting pieces, including Adam Thirlwell’s review of David Bellos’s new book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which is, by far, one of the best reviews I’ve read about this title.

That’s not all that surprising, since Thirlwell is such an excellent writer and translation enthusiast. (His The Delighted States is definitely worth reading.) And this book is right in his wheelhouse (so to speak).

I’m just going to quote at length, since Adam gets so many things right about Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:

David Bellos’s new book on translation at first sidesteps this philosophy. He describes the dragomans of Ottoman Turkey, the invention of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg trials, news wires, the speech bubbles of Astérix, Bergman subtitles. . . . He offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. 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.

Bellos is a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, and also the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication there (at which, I should add, I once spoke). But to me he’s more interesting as the translator of two peculiarly great and problematic novelists: the Frenchman Georges Perec, whose work is characterized by a manic concern for form, and the Albanian Ismail Kadare, whose work Bellos translates not from the original Albanian, but from French translations supervised by Kadare. Bellos’s twin experience with these novelists is, I think, at the root of his new book, for these experiences with translation prove two things: It’s still possible to find adequate equivalents for even manically formal prose; and it’s also possible to find such equivalents via a language that is not a work’s original. Whereas according to the sad and orthodox theories of translation, neither of these truths should be true. [. . .]

We’re used to thinking that each person speaks an individual language — his mother tongue — and that this mother tongue is a discrete entity, with a vocabulary manipulated by a fixed grammar. But this picture, Bellos argues, doesn’t match the everyday shifts of our multiple languages, nor the mess of our language use. Bellos’s deep philosophical enemy is what he calls “nomenclaturism,” “the notion that words are essentially names” — a notion that has been magnified in our modern era of writing: a conspiracy of lexicographers. It annoys him because this misconception is often used to support the idea that translation is impossible, since all languages largely consist of words with no single comprehensive equivalent in other languages. But, Bellos writes: “A simple term such as ‘head,’ for example, can’t be counted as the ‘name’ of any particular thing. It figures in all kinds of expressions.” And while no single word in French, say, will cover all the connotations of the word “head,” its meaning “in any particular usage can easily be represented in another language.”

The misconception, however, has a very long history. Ever since St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, discussion of translation has dissolved into the ineffable — the famous idea that each language creates an essentially different mental world, and so all translations are doomed to philosophical inadequacy. In Bellos’s new proposal, translation instead “presupposes . . . the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication.” Zigzagging through case studies of missionary Bibles or cold war language machines, Bellos calmly removes this old idea of the ineffable, and its unfortunate effects.

Like the book itself, this review makes me really happy. It’s so positive and honest and uplifting and pragmatic—traits that aren’t always present in discussions about literary translation. (As Bellos said in an article we referenced earlier in the week, “bellyaching is part of the community.”)

Anyway, you must read this book. It’s brilliant and fun and incredibly informative. If you want a taste, we featured this at Read This Next, so you can read an excerpt by clicking here. And be sure to check out this piece that Bellos wrote about the origins of the book, etc.



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