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Summary and book reviews of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Translation and the Meaning of Everything

by David Bellos

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • 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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About this Book

Book Summary

Funny and surprising on every page, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers readers new insight into the mystery of how we come to know what someone else means - whether we wish to understand Astérix cartoons or a foreign head of state. Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices of Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron's Avatar. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across human experience to describe why translation sits deep within us all, and why we need it in so many situations, from the spread of religion to our appreciation of literature; indeed, Bellos claims that all writers are by definition translators. Written with joie de vivre, reveling both in misunderstanding and communication, littered with wonderful asides, it promises any reader new eyes through which to understand the world.

In the words of Bellos: "The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same - that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition."

ONE
What Is a Translation?

Douglas Hofstadter took a great liking to this short poem by the sixteenth-century French wit Clément Marot:

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C'est prison.
Guérison
Recouvrez,
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu'on sorte
Vitement,
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Confitures;
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
L'embonpoint.
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

He sent a copy of it to a great number of his friends and acquaintances and asked them to translate it into English, respecting as well as they could the formal properties that he identified in it:

(1) 28 lines
(2) of 3 syllables each
(3) in rhyming couplets
(4) with the last line being the same as the first;
(5) midway the poem changes from formal (vous) to informal (tu) and (6) the poet puts his own name ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

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 with Fish - one that distills everything down to only being as good as one's ability to translate it... 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.   (Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk).

Full Review Members Only (649 words).

Media Reviews
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

David Bellos writes like a person who chooses his words not only carefully but also confidently and pragmatically. Translation is a challenging enterprise, but one he embraces vigorously and without the gloomy pessimism that leads some to declare that it's impossible... Rich, often playful chapters.

Literary Review

Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious... [it is a] scintillating bouillabaisse.

Kirkus Reviews

Erudite and occasionally dense, but ultimately illuminating, even transformative.

Library Journal

Not for everyone, but deep thinkers should find this a thought-provoking book.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It is a breeze to get lost in translation, and for this reason Bellos cannily exclaims, 'We should do more of it.'

The Scotsman, Jennie Erdal

This book is a wonderful celebration of the sheer diversity of language and the place it occupies in human endeavour. Conducted by a man who clearly knows his stuff, it is a whirlwind tour round the highways and byways of translation in all its glorious forms... Bellos develops a fondness for bold statements that produce an occasional 'yes… but' response in the reader.

The Times (UK)

Bellos has numerous paradoxes, anecdotes and witty solutions... his insights are thought provoking, paradoxical, and a brilliant exposition of mankind's attempts to deal with the Babel of global communication.

Sunday Telegraph (UK)

[A] witty, erudite exploration... [Bellos] delights in [translation's] chequered past and its contemporary ubiquity... He would like us to do more of it. With the encouragement of this book, we might even begin to enjoy it.

Author Blurb Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives and 2666
Bellos dispels many of the gloomy truisms of the trade and reminds us what an infinitely flexible instrument the English language (or any language) is. Sparkling, independent-minded analysis of everything from Nabokov's insecurities to Google Translate's felicities fuels a tender - even romantic - account of our relationship with words.

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Google Translate

It is a universally acknowledged truth that Google has changed the world we live in, and one of their newer features, Google Translate, is also likely to have a big impact on the future of language and translation.

Traditionally, mechanical translation has relied on systematic matching of word meanings between languages, and reordering words based on different grammatical and structural rules. This literal methodology is faulty and full of pitfalls. The vocabularies and grammars of languages do not always line up in perfect or equivalent ways, which - though the linguistic diversity is beautiful - can make mechanical translation a frustrating process. According to an article in Slate, this is "the kind of process that translates ...

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