The art and science of translation
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything
(Faber & Faber, 2011)
To many of us, a translation seems like a currency exchange: You bring in your words, and the translator hands you a different set of words of equal value. In his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber, 2011), David Bellos explains why it doesn’t work that way.
Bellos, who directs the translation program at Princeton University, tells how the writer and scientist Douglas Hofstadter once sent a French poem to dozens of people and asked them to translate it. Each result was different, yet each was legitimate.
There is no perfect translation. A translation is an act of re-creation, an appropriation of the original in an attempt to find an acceptable match in another language. Because words are imbued with many tones and histories and connotations, literal translation simply isn’t possible. Bellos likens translating to painting a portrait: The result is not the same as the original, but if it’s done well, it captures the original’s essence.
He makes this point in various ways, and at length. But the book is also filled with enough trivia to keep even the most ardent word nerd happy, including tidbits on the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” the “axiom of effability” (the concept that anything you can say in one language, you can say in another), and the fact that in 1941, the president of Lithuania issued his appeal for Allied help in Latin.
Underlying the author’s obvious love of languages is nostalgia for a time when there was more fluidity between them – when Christopher Columbus could scribble notes in Italian, use place names in Portuguese, write in Castilian Spanish, and keep two journals, one in Latin and one in Greek, without being all that remarkable.
“To expand our minds and to become more fully civilized members of the human race,” Bellos writes, “we should learn as many different languages as we can. The diversity of tongues is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.”
The best translation, in other words, is our own.