TOP SHELF: Book makes it enjoyable to be lost in translation


I have spent most of the summer translating work from English into Spanish and Nahuatl (a reverse of the normal direction of these projects for me), which got me thinking of a book by David Bellos, a professor at Princeton University and director of that university’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication.

“Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” is a must-have for anyone remotely interested in translation. But what I was not expecting was the fantastic sense of humor and matter-of-factness underlying the work. I should have been tipped off by the title, which makes multiple allusions to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, that epic work of science fiction humor by the late Douglas Adams in which interlingual communication is made easier by the insertion of a Babel fish in the ear of everyone in the galaxy.

Bellos is clearly an intellectual geek who loves language and literature. Excuse me while I swoon.

“Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” is ambitious in scope, taking on the definition of translation, exploring its history, and its many different varieties (from literary to simultaneous and all the shadings in between). He also tackles major issues in translation such as the balance between preserving literal meaning and being intelligible, whether or not to make translations “sound foreign,” the insane difficulty of rendering humor in another language, and whether it’s possible or desirable to translate “style.”

The author also spends several chapters exploring translation in the legal and political sphere, shedding light on the complex and innovative ways in which the UN and the European Union handle the linguistic needs of member states. Technology supporting translation is another topic of discussion, and we travel the strange, twisty road from Nuremburg to the Silicon Valley and machine translation.

Along the way, Bellos debunks many myths, such as The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (claiming Inuits have a hundred words for snow), the view that languages are unchanging things contained by dictionaries (imagine thinking wild animals were escapees from zoos) the view that written language is separate from speech, among others.

The biggest target Bellos is after is the idea that something essential gets lost in translation (he disproves, by the way, that Robert Frost ever said anything like “poetry is what gets lost in translation”). Instead, the professor demonstrates, it is completely possible to render foreign-language texts in what he calls “English-minus,” a literary dialect that strips away as many regional or national features, without losing any meaning at all.

What is lost, he willingly admits, is community-building, a sense that the text belongs to a particular people at a particular time in history. “But translation does almost everything else,” he concludes. It shows us clearly that humans can think and transmit those thoughts.

“We should do more of it.”

David Bowles is an award-winning translator and author. You can contact him at