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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk