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26 February 2012

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

Fantastic book about a difficult, under valued topic.  Read this book and take your time.  David Bellos' arguments are well thought out and often illuminating because we take language for granted.  I usually notice translations when done badly.  I am fairly certain most people have the same experience.  I have tried to put furniture together based on horrific translated instructions.  But, when a translation is done well, who notices, at least in English?

Most of us have news sources that we trust.  What if you found out that most of the news you see or read are translations of the news originally reported? Would you continue to trust your news source?  Probably not.  Most people mistrust translation and often wish that we could read books in their original language.  (I am talking to you manga fans, you know who you are...)  This book is not only about what translation is but what translation does.  Translation in history (remember the Rosetta Stone?), translation of literature, instant translators in conferences, Google Translate and the future of translation are all discussed.

Some of my favorite writers did not write in English, so now I must bounce upstairs and find the name of the heroes who lovingly introduced me to Japanese, Russian, Portuguese and French literature.  I feel rather ashamed of all the writers I desperately rushed through in order to read, comprehend and retain in university.  Without some excellent translations my literary world would be much poorer.  Next time I read Paolo Coelho I will give a silent thanks to his translator for the peace and wisdom I receive as I read.

But this book takes me much further than the art of translation in the literary world.  Bellos defines language, translation and meaning.  He gives some powerful examples to illustrate his points and arguments. Yes, arguments.  People make assumptions about definitions and are shocked when their definitions are wrong or biased, especially about language and meaning.  "Native speaker" and "mother tongue" were quickly dispatched as inaccurate and deceptive terms for language competence.  I cheered out loud and felt vindicated.  He defends his definitions and places them in the context of western culture and philosophy, no small feat for one book.  Without definitions we cannot explore boundaries, argue, learn or share.

He also brings us into the real world of translation.  The European Union and the United Nations are the most unbelievable consumers of translations and translators.  The chapter devoted to law and politics had some real "wow" moments.  Statistics and charts illustrate the hierarchy of languages and the importance they have, for instance, in the dissemination of news.

Every chapter clarified or opened the world of translation and finding meaning.  We are all affected by translation and translators in every aspect of our lives, now I know just how much.  As for the title of the book, it is taken from 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' so be warned, there is humor in this book as well even if the bagels joke was a little lame.

ISBN: 9781846144646


  1. I read the last book of the Stieg Larsson in Spanish right after reading the other two in English. It had such a different feel- and the main characters sounded so different, they were different people. It was very interesting. Now I'm reading the English version of the same book.

    XOXOX Ale

  2. You could argue that to speak in a different language is to be a different person; that's not all,when you translate, even in your head, you often also edit for the culture, interests and expectations of the recipient.