four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
David Bellos
user_rating: 
0

A-Is-That-a-Fish-in-Your-EarProfessor of French and comparative literature and director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, David Bellos has made language his life, bringing the work of French novelist Georges Perec and the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, among others, to readers of English. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, Bellos looks at the problems and pleasures of communicating across the vast linguistic divide.

The Topic: The title of David Bellos's book comes from science fiction writer Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and his invention of the "Babel fish." Dropped in a speaker's ear, the fish allows flawless communication in any language. If only it were that simple. Anyone who's ever taken a foreign-language course knows that translation requires much more than the ability to name objects. Too often, the subtleties of language elude us--idiom, metaphor, or something as routine as ordering a cup of coffee. Loaded with fascinating facts (humans communicate in about 7,000 languages, and no one person knows more than 50; Eskimos don't really have 100 words for snow) and with engaging history (the Nuremberg Trials, the work of groundbreaking linguists, the rise and fall of languages over time) from the world of translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? convincingly argues that "translating is the first step toward civilization."
Faber & Faber. 384 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780865478572

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars"Is That a Fish in Your Ear? strikes me as the best sort of nonfiction, an exhilarating work that takes up a subject we thought we understood--or knew we didn't--and then makes us see it afresh. Such high-order scholarly popularizations, accomplished with the grace and authority of a David Bellos, are themselves an irreplaceable kind of translation." Michael Dirda

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars"In his book subtitled Translation and the Meaning of Everything, 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." Jim Higgins

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"[Bellos is] more interesting as the translator of two peculiarly great and problematic novelists: the Frenchman Georges Perec, whose work is characterized by a manic concern for form, and the Albanian Ismail Kadare, whose work Bellos translates not from the original Albanian, but from French translations supervised by Kadare. Bellos's twin experience with these novelists is, I think, at the root of his new book." Adam Thirlwell

Los Angeles Times HHHJ

"[The book] keeps moving quickly, stitching together 32 short, idea-packed chapters. ... Bellos slowly demonstrates that translation is making choices--at the level of the word and phrase and sentence--which account for tone and meaning and force, understanding both the initial language and the receiving one." Carolyn Kellogg

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars"This is all great stuff, and it's at least midway through the book before a certain unease sets in. ... Mr. Bellos's beguiling book never sufficiently explores the possibility that in any translation something essential might be getting lost." Lee Sandlin

Critical Summary

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is another of those ripped-from-academe books (think Freakonomics, for instance, or Malcolm Gladwell's books) that catches readers off guard with its popular treatment of a difficult discipline. Indeed, it's easy to get caught up in David Bellos's enthusiasm as he moves from philosophy to history to culture to trivia in 32 chapters examining the theory and practice of translation. Still, the author occasionally sacrifices depth for the subject's sexier details: one critic points out that Ferdinand de Saussure, a major figure in linguistics, gets short shrift, but whether the lay reader would notice such a slight is another matter. Though another critic felt that he was too breezy with his thesis, Bellos generates interest for a subject whose finer points remain obscure even to multilingual readers and speakers. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is well worth a look for anyone who still chuckles knowingly every time she recalls John F. Kennedy's well-known proclamation, "Ich bin ein Berliner."