It makes a strange sort of sense that the man who translated Life A User’s Manual would subtitle his new book “Translation and the Meaning of Everything.” Clearly, David Bellos isn’t lacking in ambition, and without giving away too much too soon, that’s for the best. Maybe it’s because of the concept of the “invisible translator,” or the simple fact that they’re not praised nearly as often as the authors they work with, but translators tend to be a modest bunch.

As a result, a lot of theoretical and critical writings from translators tend to be either deferential or to fall into the trap of preaching to the choir. And more strident pieces, ones that proclaim the seemingly obvious importance of literature in translation, can oftentimes come off as whiny. Bellos, manages to avoid all of these traps while crafting a book that’s interesting to everyone—those involved with translation, as well as those who aren’t—a book that’s pragmatic, evenhanded, filled with fascinating historical anecdotes, and, for those of us who are involved in the field, life-affirming.

Chapter Four—“Things People Say about Translation”—is a perfect example of all of these qualities. It starts simply enough:

It’s a well-known fact that a translation is no substitute for the original.

It’s also perfectly obvious that this is wrong. Translations are substitutes for original texts. You use them in the place of a work written in a language you cannot read with ease.

This is straightforward enough, and a rather common sort of rebuttal to an age-old complaint—one that translators can all relate to and get behind. But Bellos takes this further, grouping this cliche with other oft-repeated, and not exactly true cliches.

The claim that a translation is no substitute for an original is not the only piece of folk wisdom that isn’t true. We happily utter sayings like “crime doesn’t pay,” or “it never rains but it pours,” or “the truth will out” that fly in the face of the evidence—Russian mafiosi basking on the French Riviera, British drizzle, and family secrets that never get out. [. . .]

People who declare translations to be no substitute for the original imply that they possess the means to recognize and appreciate the real thing, that is to say, original composition as opposed to a translation. Without this ability they could not possibly make the claim they do.

Again, this is a sort of refrain among translators—especially in relation to book reviews by monolingual reviewers—but here’s where Bellos makes his special mark. After discounting the “translation is no substitute for the original” sentiment, he goes on to spell out a series of “translation hoaxes”: Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, which wasn’t written by Ossian and translated from Gaelic, but rather was written by English poet James Macpherson; Horace Walpole initially claimed The Castle of Otranto was translated from the Italian; Andrei Makine’s first few books were presented in French as having been translated from Russian by the non-existent Francoise Bour; and the in the opposite direction, Romain Gary wrote three books that were believed to have been written in French, but had actually been composed in English and secretly translated by Gary’s editor. Point being, if it’s so obvious that a translation is no substitute for the original, than these games really wouldn’t have worked . . .

In addition to the practical, cooly rational, life-affirming sort of investigations into rather large issues (e.g., translating humor, the history of simultaneous interpretation, how Google translate works, the “global flows” of translation), Bellos includes some great anecdotes of translation obstacles he faced, which really puts a fine point on his arguments and further demonstrates his brilliance. (A particular favorite involves one of the games found in Perec’s 53 Days, and the phrase “Bellos Dunnit,” which will make sense when you read this book.)

It’s hard to write a review of this book, since it is so big, and so erudite, and so well put together. Instead, you should just trust me—Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is brilliant, and well worth the price of admission.

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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
By David Bellos
Reviewed by Chad W. Post
384 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780865478572
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