Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

I recently finished reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos. Despite its odd title (an allusion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the book is actually a serious work on translation by a Princeton University professor.

As the playful title might suggest, the book caters to a popular audience and is delightfully packed with curiosities, oddities, and difficulties surrounding the task of translation. We learn that Eskimos don’t really have a hundred words for snow and about the eighteenth-century academic discussion that prompted the myth. Bellos discusses rare grammatical categories such as evidentials, nouns that refer to only those objects that the speaker currently sees. We also get an inside look at the task of translating genres ranging from movie subtitles to bible translation to simultaneous interpretation. Here’s a teaser video from the publisher:

Bellos contributes two insights that are helpful for translators and anyone who reads a translated work such as an English Bible. First, all translation involves interpretation. Translators can only translate what they can express in their own words. Translators must come to some conclusion concerning what a text means before they can translate.  Thus differences in translation should be treated much like differences in interpretation, which translations inevitably reflect.

Second, when applied to a translation, the term “literal” can be misleading due to its flexability. The term “literal” is commonly used in at least three different senses. (1) “Literal” can denote that which is not figurative. The expression “it is raining cats and dogs outside” has two possible meanings. Figuratively, it means a heavy downpour. Literally, it means house pets are falling from the clouds. (2) “Literal” can denote that which is not false. It is not uncommon for an English speaker to say, “It is literally raining cats and dogs outside.” The speaker of course intends to emphasize the truthfulness of his or her figurative expression and does not imply that animals are actually dropping from the sky. (3) “Literal” can denote a translation that is not free. Translators must choose the degree to which their translations retain characteristics of the source language such as grammar, idioms, and word order. If we were to translate “It was raining cats and dogs” into another language, the free translation would substitute something about a heavy downpour while the literal translation would talk about dogs and cats plummeting towards earth regardless of whether the target language could make sense of such an expression.

We are predisposed towards all things “literal” largely because the term itself connotes that which is true. However, interpreters need to remember that the true meaning of a figurative expression is the figurative meaning, not the literal. Translators, when dealing with a difficult expression, should remember that their job involves a degree interpretation and should try to render the expression understandable to speakers of the target language.


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