I’ve been meaning to review Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos for some time now, having been given it for Christmas. I found it a fascinating book and very entertaining, although not always as playful as its title. Whether or not it would be such an easy read for somebody with no prior knowledge of translation, I don’t know, but I enjoyed the chatty, annecdotal tone as well as insights into aspects of the profession I’m unfamiliar with. The history of simultaneous interpreting, for example, or the mechanics of translation at the EU or the UN, as well as the dragomen of the Ottoman Empire. I also appreciated Bellos’ spirited defense of the importance and possibility of translation – he firmly believes that everything can be translated – and the way he takes issue with the idea of les belles infidèles (beautiful but unfaithful, whether referring to women or translation), poetry getting “lost in translation”, that translation is no substitute for the original, and so on.
(I must confess that I was rather childishly pleased to see lolspeak among the languages into which the title is translated on the inside cover of the book: U has gots fish in ur eer?!11 Translayshun and da Meening of stuffz…)
I am, however, less convinced than he seems to be about the usefulness of Google translate, having seen articles like this one, for example, although I take his point that a sentence such as:
“On the part of for the protection of the mansion building occurring it was made valid that a feedback of the building condition was not at all possible on the time Klimts due to documentation lacking.”
is clearly nonsense, where an inaccurate translation produced by a human being would be impossible to spot without knowledge of both languages.
This is such a comprehensive survey of the history and practice of translation that it would be impossible to summarise here. If you think it’s going to be about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (as some Amazon reviewers seem to have done), then you might be in for a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you’re even the slightest bit interested in words, language or what it is that translators and interpreters actually do then I’d highly recommend that you read this book!