Particular Books, £20, 390pp, £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

No word for fig? Have a banana

A couple of years ago, Edith Grossman published her stout defence of the translator's art, Why Translation Matters, to richly deserved acclaim. Unlike David Bellos, however, she wasn't translated into lolspeak ("U has gots fish in ur eer?") on the "I Can Has Cheezburger?" cats-with-captions website. In his marvellous study of the nature of translation, language and meaning, Bellos has adopted a radically different approach: as his Hitchhikery title suggests, he has set out to make it fun.

Bellos, perhaps best known as the translator and biographer of Georges Perec, gets going with a spirited account of the recognition of different languages over the past few thousand years. The Greeks, of course, thought that all foreign languages were gibberish, or "bar, bar" noises, hence varvaros, or barbarian, and the Romans notoriously didn't bother learning any foreign languages, with the exception of Greek. Even today the Russian word for German, nemets, means "the mute ones".

This leads us into a discussion of linguistic hierarchies (with English currently at the top), and what can and cannot be said in different languages. How do you cope, for example, when the language you're translating into has, like some Australian Aboriginal languages, no notion of right and left? Or of thought?

The topic inevitably comes around to Biblical translation – not just St Jerome's dicta on free and literal translations (which Bellos renders as "I only translate word for word where the original – even its word order – is completely impenetrable to me"), but the difficulties encountered by missionaries translating into the languages of the Far East. So, for example, the Dutch translator of the Gospel of Matthew into Malay, Cornelius Ruyl, faced with the problem of translating "fig" into a language that has no notion of a fig, turned the fig into a banana, or pisang. As Bellos puts it: "The receiving language did not get a new word for a new thing. It got a substitute thing with its existing word." Or: "You can't really understand, and we're not going to try to explain. Have a banana instead."

So what can't be translated? Regional dialects in fiction are a stumbling-block: "Most people currently think it is just silly to make a Bavarian dairy farmer use Texas cowboy slang, or to have a woman on the St Petersburg tram express herself in Mancunian in order to suggest her geographic and linguistic distance both from the capital and the standard language." What about puns? Bellos gives the lie to that one with an example from Perec: in Life: A User's Manual, one character visits a printer's shop, with comical dummy business cards, one of which, in French, reads "Adolf Hitler: Fourreur" ("furrier", but a soundalike for Führer). After some deliberation, Bellos comes up triumphantly with: "Adolf Hitler: German Lieder".

Chapters on topics such as the hazards of conference interpreting ("The General Secretary of the CPSU just made a joke") and legal translation (the attempt to map one closed system onto another) are fine as far as they go, but it's the chapters on literary translation that really take wing. Bellos cites marvellous examples of poems ingeniously translated into a plethora of different styles. He speaks of translation "into Eliotish, Ashberysh, freeversish and so forth" – and refers to Anthea Bell's peerless translations of Goscinny and Uderzo: "If you thought translating Proust might be difficult, just try Astérix".

What you gradually realise as you read on is that while being thoroughly entertained, you are being introduced almost without noticing it to a series of quite recondite topics such as "the vertical axis of translation relations", calques and chuchotage (you'll have to read the book). At the same time you're discovering a single overarching theme: that literal translation is not real translation, and that successful translation, whether literary or otherwise, seeks equivalence rather than a precise linguistic match.

I can quite imagine translators, particularly those who also do a spot of teaching, being consumed with envy at Bellos's ability to entertain while getting difficult linguistic ideas across to the general reader. I was consumed with envy myself. The odd minor cavil aside (language is surely a mode of communication before it becomes a mark of identity; and I didn't quite recognise Bellos's image of the indigent English translator as against the comfortable French one) Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is essential reading for anyone with even a vague interest in language and translation – in short, it is a triumph.

Shaun Whiteside's most recent translation is 'Stabat Mater' by Tiziano Scarpa (Serpent's Tail). His translation of 'Perlmann's Silence' by Pascal Mercier will be published by Atlantic in October

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy