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

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