BookBrowse Reviews Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Translation and the Meaning of Everything

by David Bellos

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2012, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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An examination of how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation

Everyone enjoys giggling over translation challenges when they pop up in daily life: Chinese food menus, amateur signs or banners, and idioms that get twisted and contorted when one tries to speak a new language. These linguistic quirks are honest reminders that all people are humbled when trying to operate outside of a familiar language. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos goes beyond the curiosities of translation to probe at the harder questions about translation and its relationship to what he bravely defines as "everything": philosophy, humor, history, technology, international affairs, and the human condition.

Bellos's occupation as a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton becomes evident a few pages into the book. The subtitle, Translation and the Meaning of Everything, conveys ambitiousness, but in some regards the content reads like recycled lectures. The neat, tidy chapters are of consistent length (not unlike a syllabus), bits of academic jargon pepper the pages, and the humor is light, in the vein of The New Yorker, and apropos to a classroom (it's definitely not the bubbly, self-effacing joking of Lynne Truss, author of the beloved Eats, Shoots & Leaves). Bellos is enthusiastic about and dedicated to his subject, but in the quiet, careful tradition of an academic. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? does not read like an attempt to bring the power of translation to the masses - as Truss did with punctuation - but rather like an attempt to bring the power of the masses to translation. In many ways, Bellos has drawn a flow chart - one that distills everything down to only being as good as one's ability to translate it.

Because many readers associate subjects like linguistics, punctuation, grammar, and foreign language with curmudgeonly twelfth-grade English teachers and mid-afternoon quizzes, most popular books on these subjects - and there aren't many of them - convey their topic with heavy handed doses of humor and satire (yes, I'm thinking of 2009's I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar by Sharon Eliza Nichols). Bellos has a loftier approach, and one that might sacrifice popularity among readers. But his tone in Fish is neither overly academic nor mainstream, but squarely in between, halfway between the Ivory Tower and the man on the street.

Readers should want to hear about the Nuremberg trials, Georges Perec (author of the highly underappreciated A Void, an entire novel written without using the letter E), Charles Baudelaire, foreign rights for publishers, and IBM. This intellectual middle ground works well for showing the relationship between translation and global society, and how language plays a role in issues of class, economics, nationality, and colonialism.

Throughout Fish, Bellos tends to look at issues on a micro level, as professors often do. Towards the conclusion, however, he draws back and gives readers a larger portrait of translation's role in global society and the human condition. This is where Bellos shines as an author, and demonstrates his knowledge and passion to a wider audience. At this point it becomes plain that citizens of the 21st century, who are increasingly relying on mechanical translations like those from Google Translate, should have a deeper appreciation for the complexity and artistry of human translations. I hope that Is That a Fish in Your Ear? will play a part in strengthening that appreciation.

Additional Info
The unique title of Bellos's book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, is a reference to Douglas Adams's novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In it there is a mysterious fish creature called a Babelfish that lives in a person's ear and performs instantaneous, perfect translations. (Incidentally, "Babel Fish" is the name Yahoo gave their online translation service.)

Watch the video below to hear David Bellos talk about language and how different cultures use words in very unique ways.

This review was originally published in November 2011, and has been updated for the October 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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