Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything David Bellos

Penguin, pp.304, 20

David Bellos is a professor of comparative literature. He is the main English translator of George Perec and Ismail Kadare, and he has written biographies of Perec, Jacques Tati and the French writer and con man Romain Gary. His most recent book, for which he draws on all his wide range of interests, is a clear and lively survey of the world of interpreting and translating. He covers everything from subtitling films to translating poetry, from the genesis of simultaneous interpreting in the early days of the UN to the advances he predicts — somewhat to my surprise — in computer translation.

This book fulfils a real need; there is nothing quite like it. Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman, is equally well written, but it is limited to the field of literary translation. Steven Pinker’s books about language have been highly praised, but they leave me wondering how closely the author has ever wrestled with any language other than English. And ‘Translation Studies’ as taught in universities is a highly theoretical discipline that is beyond the understanding of most practising translators — let alone of the general public.

Bellos spends a lot of time demolishing misconceptions. Speakers of English tend to think that being monolingual is the norm, and that being bi- or tri-lingual is something rather remarkable. In reality, there are vast areas of the world, e.g. most of India, where it is normal to speak several languages. There has always been surprisingly little translation between the country’s many languages; most people simply learned the languages spoken by their neighbours.

Bellos is particularly interesting about ‘vehicular languages’ — a useful phrase I had not known. A vehicular language is one that serves as a means of communication between individuals or groups, most of whom are not native speakers of this language. There are only around 80 vehicular languages in the world, and knowing nine of them — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Russian, Spanish and Urdu — would allow you to talk to 90 per cent of the world’s population.

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One of the major linguistic controversies of the last 100 years has been over the extent to which language moulds thought.  Does each language impose on its speakers so specific a mental world that real translation between any two languages is impossible? Bellos’s answer is admirably balanced:

The mind-grooves laid down by the forms of a language are not prison walls, but the hills and valleys of a mental landscape where some paths are easier to follow than others.

One chapter is devoted to the linguistic politics of the European Union. Bellos quotes from a recent version of the EU’s basic language rule. This begins,

This Treaty, drawn up in a single original in the Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish languages, the texts in each of these languages being equally authentic…

The idea of a ‘single original’ existing in ten — or, in today’s enlarged EU, 24 — languages seems incomprehensible. I had always imagined it was a fiction, but evidently it is not.  EU texts are not written first in English, or any other language, and then surreptitiously translated. Instead, a sub-committee, working in English, French, German or Italian, but including speakers of other languages, meets to discuss the drafting of a particular regulation. They discuss not only the content, but also how this content is to be expressed in other EU languages. The draft moves back and forth between the committee and language experts until satisfactory drafts are established in all 24 languages. If something cannot clearly be expressed in one language, then all the other versions may be revised. The 24 final drafts then constitute the ‘single original’.

The lawyer-linguists of Brussels and the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg are intelligent people with a finely tuned sense of language. It is, however, only too easy to imagine how their sense of belonging to an almost priestly elite can lead them to lose contact with the real world. As a literary translator myself, I am well aware of the temptation to fudge some concrete detail that obstinately resists translation.  The difficulty of trying to harmonise complex regulations in 24 languages is unimaginable. No wonder that the members of this elite sometimes get so absorbed in matters of language that they forget about the real world.

Recently I read an article by the journalist Merryn Somerset Webb about the European network of E-roads. The E-20 runs from Shannon in the west of Ireland to St Petersburg. It involves three sea-crossings; for one of these — from Hull to Esbjerg in Denmark — there are no car-ferries. After reading Bellos, I found it easier to understand how such ‘concept roads’ come into being.

I have given a lot of space to the European Union, but it takes up only one of the 32 chapters of this book. Other matters Bellos discusses no less interestingly are Anthea Bell’s brilliant translations of Asterix; the possibility that Bergman developed a particular style of film-making — long silences and few words — because he wanted an international audience and he knew how hard it is for subtitlers to cope with complex dialogue; and the likelihood that the well-known Italian gibe traduttore-traditore (translator-traitor) began as an expression of the distrust felt by important Venetians for their Turkish interpreters in Ottoman Constantinople. These interpreters were slaves and, therefore, did not dare accurately to interpret anything that might offend their masters. Bellos is evidently concerned that too many translators still think of themselves as invisible slaves. He certainly does a good job of explaining why their work deserves to be valued.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated