Saturday, 12 May 2012

Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

David Bellos (2011) Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything Particular Books, London; 390 pp.; ISBN 978-1-846-14464-6

A few years ago I went into a café in a small town in north-east Cambodia to have breakfast with some friends. On the menu, which was both in Khmer and English, there was a dish listed on the English side as sgaam borraeg. Looking at the Khmer (ស្កាមបូររែក), I saw that the ‘English’ version was just a direct transliteration. Yet my Cambodian friends had absolutely no idea what it was: a local ethnic dish, perhaps? Curious, I ordered it and a little while later received a plate of … scrambled eggs! Both the transliteration and the Khmer were an attempt to reproduce this very English term in a local accent. I was a bit surprised, as in neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam you can order it using directly comparable terms (ไช่กวน or khuấy trưng). Does this mean that Cambodians can’t conceive of scrambled eggs? Of course not. You can ask for ពងមាន់ចៀវញក់ញី and get exactly what you want, even if it is a bit long-winded. Secretly, I held out a hope that sgaam borraeg would catch on, but sad to say it remains the clever invention of a single café owner in a dusty rural town. Human ingenuity is everywhere.

David Bellos has written a lucid and fascinating book about translating between languages. He rejects the idea of a single original human language and points out that we constantly use language as a way of identifying ourselves and ‘our group’ and distinguishing ourselves from others. It is the heart of culture. Every language has a somewhat different way of looking at the world, but even within a language people use different expressions and vocabulary to convey their wants, feelings and thoughts. As social animals, we thus use language to express our individuality, but we also have a strong desire to build links to others and this inevitably involves reaching across a language divide.

The process of bringing different language speakers together is the raison d’être of translation. It increases our mutual understanding and often enriches the vocabulary of our respective languages (even if sgaam borraeg never quite made it into Khmer). I’ve spent much of my life in circumstances where more than one language is needed to live and work from day to day. It’s common when I speak in English to drop in a foreign word or two when I know the other person will understand. It’s a quick and lazy way to keep the conversation rolling along, but as Bellos notes, there is no expression in any language that cannot be translated into another. How to do this, and to convey the right nuance, context and import of what is being said, is the great (and greatly undervalued) art of the translator.

Bellos covers a wealth of detail, looking at the extraordinary skill of simultaneous interpreting, translation machines and software, the difficulties in bringing a joke from one language to another, and the global hierarchy of languages that translation has helped to produce. If you want to understand why Chinese is the most spoken native tongue but is rendered insignificant by English in international affairs, Bellos’s explanation is both compelling and instructive.

If we could each learn about 50 of the 7,000 or so global languages, then we would put most translators out of a job, but the human brain can at best cope with five to ten languages before going into overload. So if we are to become civilised and to share ideas across language groups, translation will remain an essential thread in our social fabric. This does not mean that we should preferably cling to a single language and leave cross-cultural communication up to translators alone. Bellos is very clear that failing to learn languages impoverishes ourselves and the culture to which we belong. People who complain that they are ‘no good at languages’ are denying the very thing that distinguishes them as human.

The book is characterised by many short chapters, perhaps pandering to the modern condition of short attention spans, but it covers a formidable range of issues and Bellos always has something thought-provoking to say. He also has a humour and generosity of spirit that shines through. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is certainly not a book for pedants or grammar nazis.

David Bellos is one of the many brainy Brits who has left the UK for an American university because his homeland no longer puts great value on scholarship. That is a great pity for that septic isle but a genuine treat for the rest of us.

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