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.

Comments are disabled for this article.


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

Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .

Read More >

Twenty-One Cardinals
Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier
Reviewed by Natalya Tausanovitch

Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .

Read More >

One of Us Is Sleeping
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .

Read More >

Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

Read More >

La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

Read More >

Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes; Rodrigo Flores Sánchez
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .

Read More >

All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

Read More >