I read quite a few books on translation and I can say that in my opinion the best book on translation came out in 2011 was Is That a Fish In Your Ear? by David Bellos. Bellos is professor of literature at Princeton and he translates from French to English.
Bellos’ book is not complicated and it is not about theory. Much of what he writes about has been written about in other books already, and often one can find much more information in other books than in his book. But what I like here is that he writes short, fairly simple mini-essays on many different aspects of translation. You can read a chapter here and a chapter there and learn something new and interesting without having to read the whole book if you do not want it. He writes, for example, about what translation is and is not, and what people say and think about translation, and how to use dictionaries, and on interpretation, and the European Union and language, and what the news has to do with translation, and automatic translation (he writes that it is not possible right now because “what you can say by means of translation is what the word means in the context in which it occurs” (p. 83), and a computer does not understand context), and dialects, and how we must rely on the translator or interpreter, and about poetry, and much more. It is clear that with so many topics, Bellos’ does not into much depth with them; in other words, in this book he discusses a little bit about a lot, and not much about just a little, as some readers would probably prefer. Personally, I like being able to dip in, but I understand that such a book is not for everyone.
What would we do without translation? Bellos writes, “Instead of using translation, we could learn the languages of all the communities we wish to engage with; or we could decide to speak the same language; or else adopt a single common language for communicating with other communities.” (p. 7) With 7000 or more different languages in the world it sounds unlikely. So we need translators, but why then do we have phrases such as traduttore traditore? Why are people suspicious of translators and translation in general? You can read about this in Bellos’ book.
Another thing that you can read about is how many non-translators believe that there is a right or good translation and a wrong or bad one. Bellos writes, “A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek or miss out the grey hairs in the sideburns – and still give us a good likeness.” (p. 331) A translation is an interpretation and everyone interprets differently.
Sometimes a reader might wish that Bellos had written a whole book instead of just a short chapter on something, but as a whole, his book is very interesting and worth reading. His book is “en portrait in oils” – you or I might have added some jewelry or removed some hair, but it is still a beautiful painting.
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