Review: “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos

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

“Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos (ISBN=9781846144646 2011 Penguin Edition. Faber and Faber published the e-book edition. Page numbers below refer to the Penguin edition)

Knowing I was a translator, a senior Eurocrat friend enthused about this book, until I felt I ought to have a look and see what the fuss was about. Translation is at the centre of the European Union and in its widest sense, the centre of all communication. I suspect it was Bellos’s useful chapter on how the European Union handles translation that initially attracted my friend. The blurb claims the book, “ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are.”

Bellos certainly covers a lot of ground, then covers it again, and once again, just so that we get the message. And the message is that this book is, to quote from the prologue, “made of stories and examples and arguments that circle around what seems to me to be the real issue—understanding what translation does.” And there’s the rub, Bellos circles around and circles around. On page 72 he says “the point is worth repeating”. On other pages he doesn’t say so, but you get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth a read, but not as a tight piece of scholarship. The book is more a personal romp through some wonderful history of translation, some wonderful stories and lots of interesting facts. The series of 32 essays, vignettes, and think pieces could have had better editorial control from Penguin and could have been shaped to be more than a collection of essays.  Better academic control would also have resulted in a better book. For example, the glib dismissal of Chomsky’s famous “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” argument as “wrong” and the failure to cover research on the biology of language (deaf children in two different sign-language cultures developing the same grammatical structures) are major problems. An incomplete index, mispelling both Shenzhen and the Chinese translator Stephen Owen’s name are unhappy blemishes.

I get the feeling that Bellos is a kind-hearted post-modernist. Kind hearted because he can’t quite bring himself to criticise bad translations and post-modernist because he says “A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils.” (page 331) Translations can be wrong. Have you read an instruction manual lately? Or the English to Chinese translation of Stephen King’s ‘Bag of Bones’? Or the Bible? Or one of my favourites, the bouncing cows. And see below for more fun wrong translations.

Where Bellos is best is describing the world of translation: differing origins of English and Chinese dictionaries (English dictionaries arose from bilingual lists used for trade while Chinese dictionaries began as glosses on ancient texts); differences between English and French styles of headline writing (snappy and cryptic versus explanatory); Arab/Turkish translation culture and diplomacy; translating film subtitles and the cultures of dubbing; press agency translations (page 251); the history of conference interpreting at the United Nations (page 275). He is also interesting in mapping the various pairs of language translations via Index Translationum and showing the huge discrepancy between translations into a language and translations from a language. Thus the top four source languages for the world’s translations are English, French, Russian and German. But the languages most translated into are Arabic, Chinese, Dutch and English. (page 216) He moulds this into an argument about language hierarchies but the concept doesn’t always fit neatly.

His discussion of genres (kitchen recipes, fairground hype, greetings, condolences, ceremonies, court proceedings, the rules of soccer, haggling etc) is enjoyable and worth a read. And he has a great sense of humour: “Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman’s success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films. It’s called the “Bergman effect,” and it can be observed in the early films of István Szabó and Roman Polanski, too.” (page 139). His elucidation of the brilliant translations of Asterix is an eye-opener and a great discussion of the problems of translation. But in discussing bible translation, he is not as good as Adam Nicolson’s ‘God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible’ which points out that the project was more political and cultural, rather than religious, and that the final product is a mishmash created by a committee, and full of errors.

Bellos recounts the old Stalin and Roosevelt joke: “Stalin and Roosevelt had an argument about whose bodyguards were more loyal and ordered them to jump out of the window on the fifteenth floor. Roosevelt’s bodyguard flatly refused to jump, saying, “I’m thinking about the future of my family.” Stalin’s bodyguard, however, jumped out of the window and fell to his death. Roosevelt was taken aback. “Tell me, why did your man do that?” he asked. Stalin lit his pipe and replied: “He was thinking about the future of his family, too.” (page 284).

Given Bellos expertise as a French translator I was surprised by the lack of the famous Goethe translation joke – “Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them, they translate it into their own language, and forthwith it means something entirely different.” (Unless it was lost in the index). Which reminds me of another translation joke which supports a Bellos point:
A Mexican bandit held up a bank in Tucson. The sheriff and his deputy chased him. When they captured him, and the sheriff, who couldn’t speak Spanish, asked him where he’d hidden the money. “No se nada,” he replied. The sheriff put a gun to the bandit’s head and said to his bi-lingual deputy: “Tell him that if he doesn’t tell us where the money is right now, I’ll blow his brains out.” Upon receiving the translation, the bandit became very animated. “Ya me acuerdo! Tienen que caminar tres cuadradas hasta ese gran arbol. Debajo del arbol, alli esta el dinero.” The sheriff leaned forward. “Yeah? Well..?” The deputy replied: “He says he wants to die like a man.”

Some more reasons why translation can be wrong (apologies for not sourcing this list and I can’t vouch for the truth of them):

Translation and Advertisement

  • The Dairy Association’s huge success with the campaign “Got Milk?” prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention the Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?”
  • Coors put its slogan, “Turn It Loose,” into Spanish, where it was read as “Suffer From Diarrhea.”
  • Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American campaign: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”
  • Clairol introduced the “Mist Stick,” a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that “mist” is slang for manure. Not too many people had use for the “Manure Stick.”
  • An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of “I Saw the Pope” (el Papa), the shirts read “I Saw the Potato” (la papa).
  • Pepsi’s “Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation” translated into “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From the Grave” in Chinese.
  • Frank Perdue’s chicken slogan, “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” was translated into Spanish as “it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”
  • When American Airlines wanted to advertise its new leather first class seats in the Mexican market, it translated its “Fly In Leather” campaign literally, which meant “Fly Naked” (vuela en cuero) in Spanish.
  • Hunt-Wesson introduced Big John products in French Canada as Gros Jos. Later they found out that in slang it means “big breasts”.
  • Bank Caixa Econômica Federal in Brazil offered in an advertisment “HOT MONEY” (in english), obviously unaware of the fact that hot money means “Stolen Money” in normal slang.
  • The Coca-Cola name in China was first read as “Kekoukela”, meaning “Bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax”, depending on the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent “kokou kole”, translating into “happiness in the mouth.”
  • When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.”The company thought that the word “embarazar” (to impregnate) meant to embarrass, so the ad read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”

I could go on for a long time in this rich vein, but you get the point.


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