In his absorbing and wide-ranging book, Bellos addresses virtually every aspect of translation. He discusses “what translation does,” the dominance of English as the world’s major “interlanguage” and the various linguistic theories of Edward Sapir, Ferdinand de Saussure, Leo Spitzer, Vladimir Nabokov and Noam Chomsky (with nearly all of whom he takes issue). He praises the demanding work of simultaneous interpreters, demonstrates the ingenuity of caption writers for comics and of subtitlers for foreign films, and reflects on the character of Bible translation in the 20th and 21st centuries. He even explodes the insidious cultural implications behind the widespread (but inaccurate) belief that Eskimos possess 100 words for snow. There are pages about translation’s place in international law and business, as well as a potted history of automated language-translation machines.
In short, Bellos looks at every conceivable issue surrounding the relationship between a “source” language and a “target” language, while loading his chapters with anecdotes, arguments and striking examples. For instance, in the section “Why Do We Call It ‘Translation’?,” Bellos begins by discussing C.K. Ogden, co-author of “The Meaning of Meaning” (1923). Ogden believed that many of the world’s troubles “could be ascribed to the illusion that a thing exists just because we have a word for it.” He called this phenomenon “Word Magic.” As Bellos wryly notes, “Candidates for the label include ‘levitation,’ ‘real existing socialism,’ and ‘safe investment.’ These aren’t outright fictions but illusions licensed and created by the lexicon.” In Ogden’s view and presumably Bellos’s as well, Word Magic “stops us from questioning the assumptions that are hidden in words and leads us to allow words to manipulate our minds.” Here, in embryo, lurks the Newspeak of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Bellos’s nimble wit runs throughout his book. “It’s a well-known fact that a translation is no substitute for the original.” Pause. “It’s also perfectly obvious that this is wrong. Translations are substitutes for original texts. You use them in the place of a work written in a language you cannot read with ease.” What translators actually do, argues Bellos, “is find matches, not equivalences, for the units of which a work is made, in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve overall as a substitute for the source.” He takes pains to show that readers often cannot distinguish a work that is translated from a work originally composed in their own tongue. He strongly believes that anything expressed in one language really can be “shared” with readers in another. Our culture is based on just this conviction. “The history of Western poetry is the history of poetry in translation.”
What ultimately matters is fidelity to form and context: “Translators do not translate Chinese kitchen recipes ‘into English.’ If they are translators, they translate them into kitchen recipes.” Yet what of the widespread feeling that a novel by, say, Georges Simenon should somehow sound French even when it’s in English? Bellos demonstrates that “foreign-soundingness” is “only a real option for a translator when working from a language with which the receiving language and its culture have an established relationship.” For English-speakers, that generally means French or Spanish. After all, how can you present what it feels like to write in Chuvash to a reader who hasn’t the slightest acquaintance with Chuvash?
From here Bellos goes on to stress the implications of language status, of whether one is translating “up” or “down.” That is, translations up toward a “more prestigious tongue are characteristically highly adaptive, erasing most of the traces of the text’s foreign origin; whereas translations down tend to leave a visible residue of the source, because in those circumstances foreignness itself carries prestige.” In other words, the U.S. editions of foreign novels have traditionally sounded smoothly American in their English, while translated American crime fiction, for example, tends to preserve its Americanness and doesn’t try to pass as wholly French or Italian. More subtly still, Bellos wonders about what he calls a “third code,” the propensity, or at least the possibility, that translations by Constance Garnett — whether of Chekhov, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky — all tend to sound like Constance Garnett. Not least, Bellos reminds us that translating into English is a sadly ill-paid occupation, largely a hobby for amateurs or a sideline for college professors. But translators from English into German or Japanese are often as famous in their own countries as the foreign authors they work with.
In a chapter on dictionaries, Bellos unexpectedly praises Roget’s Thesaurus, not so much as a help for writers struggling for the right word, but as a work that drives home on every page that “to know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words,” that, in essence, “all words are translations of others.” Nonetheless, true intercultural communication can only start with a leap of faith — with the willingness to trust a stranger. “For [that trust] to exist, huge intellectual and emotional obstacles to taking the word of another for the word of the source have to be overcome. They can be overcome only by a shared willingness to enter a realm in which meaning cannot be completely guaranteed. That kind of trust is perhaps the foundation of all culture.”
After all, each time you speak, you reveal “who you are, where you come from, where you belong.” It follows from this “that translation does not come ‘After Babel.’ It comes when some human group has the bright idea that the kids on the next block or the people on the other side of the hill might be worth talking to. Translating is a first step toward civilization.”
“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.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.