When we arrived back to England, I had a friend loan me a copy of Is That a Fish In Your Ear by David Bellos. We had been talking about translation and what that meant when he mentioned it. Here’s a review of it; however, first off, before we left the US to go live in Serbia, I had never learned another language. Sure, I had a year of Spanish on my high school transcript; but I didn’t know any more than I learned living in Texas. Even more than that, I thought it was a sheer waste of time for a generic American to learn a foreign language. Think about this….who are you going to talk to? You can travel thousands of miles in any direction and only meet people whose first language is English. Even if you travel abroad on holiday, you might learn a few words, but come on…except for France, you are going to find many people willing to speak English to you and help you out. The only time it really ever became important to me to learn a language was moving to Serbia. This caused me to see that “translation” means different things at different times. On to the book.
This book was good great. I read it in about 3 hours on a plane (now I see why my dad read so much). I only have two complaints (I’ll detail those below); however, everything David Bellos said, I had seen or realized while learning Serbian. In one case, he takes a poem in Chinese then spends two pages showing different translations. Some would say that not all were translations; however, depending upon what the author and translator needed or wanted to keep intact, they all were valid.
In addition, he talked about how translators work. As an example, he used poetry and movie titles. I had noticed that movie titles aren’t always translated (sometimes they are redone entirely). This also applies to phrases like “human rights.” Sometimes, a direct translation has undesirable connotations so they choose something else that applies more directly to the “thoughts” of the movie or phrase.
On to my two gripes: Bible Translation and language history. Mr. Bellos lumped Bible translation in with every other kind of translation. The Bible says that God “moved” (aka inspired) the writers of the Bible to write down what God wanted written down (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Most reliable Bible scholars believe this means that God told the men to write down exactly what He wanted written down (similar to a secretary transcribing a letter that her boss is dictating) but not exactly. God told the men what to write; however, it was written by the men (in their “style” and with words to suit their personality). See, the secretary doesn’t have leeway to “rephrase” what her boss says, but God can use people this way because He knows us better than He knows ourselves. This means that more than just the idea of what the Bible says is important…the words are important as well. Yes, translators can’t often say everything exactly how the authors wrote it (Mr. Bellos says this) but, in the case of the Bible, they can’t play fast a loose with what they have (as he did in some cases of the Chinese poem).
He then goes on and talks about language history. He starts with the account of the Tower of Babel and says it is because of this that so many people have tried to find the “original” language. For this reason, language trees have grown up. Mr. Bellos does not believe the Biblical account and pokes holes in it; however, he makes one false assumption that clouds his judgement: he assumes that the new languages were related somehow. The Bible doesn’t say they were so we cannot assume they were. Why couldn’t God have just made one group for each branch of the language tree? That fits with 1)the Bible and 2)what we see today.
In spite of my two complaints, I enjoyed the book very much. It was well written, easy to read, and covered the subject very well.
Disclosure: The book links on this page are for the Kindle version and are through my Amazon Associates account (this means I’ll get a small percentage of the sale if you buy the book by clicking the link).