light blue background with stylized font of the book title and a yellow fish

Is that a Fish in Your Ear? notes on the 2011 book by David Bellos on translation

Translation isn’t about specific word choice. It’s about meaning.

But, then, there are many different kinds of translation. The very old act of translation both creates and defends language in an interconnected world. Earlier this summer, I finished a 2011 book by translator David Bellos called “Is that a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.” [PDF] Find a review here of it. This is a different approach to understanding language, which has been an interest of mine for years.

You should read the book. For my own purposes, I’ve captured my notes below.

Interderminacy of translation

Here are my notes:

  • Christopher Columbus spoke many languages but he wouldn’t have understood such precise lines. He went into Spanish and Italian and Portuguese depending on which crew members or financiers he was speaking to, using them more like dialects that he used to get the job done.
  • Today English dominates: They say even God couldn’t get a promotion in academia because he had only one publication and it wasn’t in English.
  • CK Ogden on word magic: “levitation, socialism and safe investments” exist because we have a word for them, not because they exist in the world
  • Flower is an example of a Hypernym; tulip and rose are hyponyms
  • In English translation is a very general word (far more than the many varied words in Japanese). It’s etymology is with the metaphor to “take across” but not a given. InSumer and early Latin the metaphor was “to turn” which is the origin of our metaphors today of”turning a phrase into something simpler”
  • Only three ways empires have dealt with language differences:
    • suppress non dominant language (Romans);
    • Multilngjialism (Ottoman Turks) or
    • one shared language (Esperanto)
  • L1 vs L2 translation, in which L1 means the translator is writing into their native language (funny English translations are likely the result of L2 translation)
  • Nomenclaturism is the name for a misbelief that language is just a list of names for things, rather that context and meaning
  • Translation is about meaning and word choice is a part of that
  • General purpose dictionaries came very late (1690s in French and in 1755 Samuel Johnson’s famous English contribution); dual language glossaries were as old as the Sumerians to support translation. But it was translation that came first not dictionaries.
  • The origin of “Literal” as a word came from the Latin word for “letter” likely because it was used to refer to phrases so true that they were written down at a time when writing was seen as quite rare
  • “Literal translation” is something of a misnomer: all effective translation moves word order to maintain meaning
  • German and French have separate words for our split meaning of “word”; In French, “parole” is for “I give you my word” (“word as act”) and “”mot” is “word as unit)
  • Roy Harris used the word “Scriptism” to describe the illusion that there’s anything inherently natural about “words.” Ancient Greek had no space; the space convention we have today is cultural and from writing but most if history is speaking
  • The Ottomans used Ottoman Turkish for state records including capturing people’s dreams (we think)
  • Ottoman Turks like Greeks and Romans before them would enslave language boys and train them in their language to serve as translators. This “di oglan” language boy model was repeated with the Kingdom of Venice (giovani di lingua) to help access the West
  • Dragoman is the translation of the Turkish word for a translator which can go all the way to a Sumerian word “eme-Bal” perhaps the English word with the oldest known direct language lineage
  • Dragomans were essentially diplomats: they translated not the sultan’s words but his word
  • For example when Sultan Morant the Second granted permission for English merchants to trade in the Ottoman lands, his original letter in Turkish said the first to Queen Elizabeth “having demonstrated her servitude and devotion”,  but the grand Dragoman translated this into the international language of Italian without such patronizing language.
  • Asterix linguists and translators love that cartoon
  • The Ingmar Bergman effect
  • Meryl Streep and Homer Simpson and Robert De Niro etc all have one actor in German or French who dub their voices to keep it consisntent
  • Chuchotage is the word for a style of interpreting in which the translator whispers immediate translation to the listener
  • Lectoring is a kind of translation in which the original voice can still be heard; this is common in Eastern Europe of American programs
  • Nabokov said rhyme can’t be translated; “mathematically impossible”
  • Translators love the constraint of stanza snd rhyme; poetry is a great challenge
  • “The only impossible things in translation are those that haven’t been done.”
  • Author does not like the adage “poetry is what is lost in translation” because in truth translated poetry is two different poems. You can not like them but they aren’t word for word translation.
  • Jerrold Katz: “Any thought a human has can be expressed in any natural language.”
  • This author then says any sentence in a natural language can be translated to any other
  • Animal communication still viewed as signaling not speaking, hence no translation but will that change someday?
  • Hopi language has evidential endings (As did Navajo but I couldn’t confirm nor deny if Lenape Unami does?)
  • Linguist Sapir wrote about “mind grooves” for certain languages but didn’t entirely subscribe to what is now known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity
  • “Eskimo” snow hoax is nonsense (Inuit languages do not have some strange number of words for snow); go into a Starbucks and realize how many words we have for coffee
  • Eugene Nida (1914-2011) was an outsized influence on bible translation and he focused on spreading the word, not holding to the literal translations. He helped Christianity spread. Translating is translating meaning, he said not words.
  • The Bible is likely the greatest retranslation (translating a translation) effort in human history, with many versions built off other translations not original Biblical Hebrew, but gathering versions to get a meaning for a local vernacular
  • Douglas Hofstader asked: “ how do you say Jazzercise in Aramaic?”
  • All translation when no word exists has three options:
    • foreignism: import the word adapted for sounds
    • calque: take two existing words to create a descriptive compound word or
    • semantic expansion: stretch the meaning of an existing word
  • Albert Cornelius Ruyl used “pisang” (word for banana tree) when he translated the Bible fig tree into Malay which had no figs or word for it. (This is an example of a semantic expansion)
  • Nida’s Bible translation (sacred story not sacred script) is very different than academic translation mostly concerned with literary works that aim to preserve the script itself.
  • Author repeatedly references the big difference translating “up” to a larger or more prestigious language (Malay into English) and translating “down” to smaller languages (English into Malay)
  • Translation tends to the “center” on standard forms. Especially “low rank” class vernacular are rarely attempted at being reproduced in translated form (ie Jupiter in an Edgar Allen Poe short story is translated into standard French not a slave vernacular
  • Translators then are guardians and creators of language
  • L3: the idea that as much as we try to hide the translator as nonexistent they are always there. Famous stories of Nikita Khrushchev using idiomatic Russian jokes at the UN and his translators having to break code to say themselves “that is a joke”
  • In the 1290s, the famous stories of Marco Polo’s travels were told to his prison mate (Rustichello da Pisa) who wrote in French not Italian and did live translation. This is before the nation-state concept that developed the perception of strict language distinctions and lines. These were essentially seen as vernaculars. But subsequent editions were translated by professional editors who removed vernacular and “inconsistent anchoring” of live translation from a direct oral storyteller. It’s why it helped go global as a story but it also removed that character, the translator
  • Today the line between helping the reader and destroying the source is still quite muddled
  • War and Peace by Tolstoy is a famous example: part of the dialogue is in French reflecting how 19th century aristocratic Russians spoke, so translating this into French loses that context
  • Well-known Kazakh folk singer Dzhabayev was forced to endorse patriotic poems written in Russian under his name
  • Summmerian lasted as a prestige language even with Akkadian conquering for 1,000 years. English is just a couple hundred years in that position.
  • Greek was a prestige language that Romans followed and translated their Latin into
  • Author argues military might does not always mean language prestige (Sumerian and Latin remained powerful after their fall)
  • Of 1 million translations from a UNESCO data set: 650k are from English and 10% are into English; 75% therefore involve English. No other language comes close to that.
  • The 1963 novel Alpine Ballad by Belarusian novelist Vasil Bykau was originally written in Russian and later translated into English by Soviet translators. In Bykau’s original text, a character responds to a foreigner about his country saying “It will get better someday. Things cannot go on being a lousy forever.” In the Russian translation by Soviet propagandists, this quote in English was made “The collective farm is good.”
  • The English phrase “Human Rights” in part inspired by German “Mensch,” a more general word for human being. This was used for translation of the French gendered Declaration of Rights of Man, because the German word for man (Mann) can also mean husband and felt less fitting than Mensch . Even though Rights of Man phrase was popularized by Thomas Paine in 1791
  • Though “human rights” as a phrase found itself back into several European languages, it still didn’t work in French as “humaines” in French means both human and humane. Thusly, though “human rights” is popularly used, it is not used in legal contexts especially global ones for this confusion.
  • French now somewhat uses uppercase “Homme” to mean men and women
  • Legal language is its own language different from the same vocabulary (murder means something different to a lawyer than a layman)
  • The EU is doing something so interesting we may be missing it: all its legal documents are written “original in all member languages. Nothing is a translation, and also everything is.” This is meaningful. The inter language of conversation in Brussels is English but that’s not popularly discussed. No one language can be the first, so they must all be.
  • The Oath of Strasbourg (842) progressed vernacular languages: even though two cousins speaking different language (old high German and old French) came together likely speaking Latin to each other, their teams translated into those spoken idioms to be read aloud to their troops as a cease fire. Nothing was translated, a meaning was conveyed and built in all languages simultaneously,
  • Like the lawyer translators of the EU, journalist-linguists of the big agencies (Reuters, AP, AFP, etc) work in conjunction with others like Al Jazeera to quickly and simultaneously translate news (an Iranian president’s speech in Farsi might first be translated to Arabic by Al Jazeera  and then to English by Reuters). Bylines of these translators are typically omitted
  • July 1949, U.S. military member Warren Weaver used the metaphor following Allied success with code breaking: isn’t a Chinese book just an English book written with Chinese code? Can’t a machine translate?
  • Why haven’t we made computers perfectly trained to translation language? Two reasons:
    • A complete linguistic description of a language remains purely aspirational
    • Even native speakers require lots of training, learning and constant upkeep to update
  • How close is data-powered Google Translate? (Gaps remain but it’s impressive)
  • Language isn’t just vocabulary and grammar with meaning draped over it to be coded and translated over. The grand Google Translate project that scans billions of human translated documents to predict word order and choice shows what we say isn’t unique. But it’s because our needs and desires are always repeating.
  • Nuremberg Trials was first formal multi language simultaneous language translation; this process influenced how the UN did its own
  • Cheval, retour, relay are kinds of translation systems developed for conference translation
  • UN and EU translation regimes are complex and thorough, though kept almost hidden at many events
  • Try repeating what a TV says back at it without losing focus, now imagine doing that in a different language
  • Not all jokes translate, some are metalingusitic jokes that don’t work but other jokes just take a bit of cultural knowledge like many Soviet jokes
  • CK Williams said you don’t translate French poetry into English you translate it into poetry
  • 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” and One Hundred Frogs” are books of different translations of the same poem to show the variety
  • What is style and how can it be translated? Gustave Flaubert in 1857 was criticized for bringing undue attention to the sentence level rather than overall characters and pieces
  • Other ways we say style is unique to a writer and so translators must leave their own imprint
  • le style cest le homme.meme  
  • Translators of English into Japanese are literary heavyweights, those into German and French and others are seen as notable parts of literary scene. In contrast those who translate into dominant English today are very minor clerks, with few exceptions
  • Post war Penguin Classics translations of important works into approachable English was a major success and remains a rare exception of notable project into English (note they were old language classics not modern works)
  • Freud wrote in German and used simpler terms for id and ego; it was his translator James Strachey that took theGerman and he used Greek forms to coin words like id and ego, to reflect how German and English manage scientific terms differently. (The word for oxygen in German is a compound for “water stuff” but it has a far more serious connotation). There’s a bit of controversy if making Freud sound scientific was well done or betrayal of Freud’s approach
  • Bad translation helped lead to the Franco Prussian war
  • Jakobson three kinds of translation
  • Saussure continued the tradition that language is the dress and transfer of thought
  • Translation could take into account that English is stress timed as opposed to syllable timed like French but poetry doesn’t always do that  
  • Translation is about finding match in a few of many ways depending on culture and form. It’s never equivalence
  • Tower of Babel and a similar Sumerian story show there has long been an attempt to understand language
  • Author challenges the view that grammar defines and separates language because no grammar is really complete. It is a grammar for writing but speaking is something different.
  • We move our hands when we speak live, but when we are reading we are motionless (a lecturer reading or a newscaster reading a teleprompter). Something is different about speaking than reading. Speaking is tied to our bodies.
  • “Speaking is a parasitic use of organs whose primary function is to ensure survival” (same muscles as eating)
  • “Language is a human way of relating to other humans” not communication first but of establishing bonds. He argues it seems more likely to him that language sprung up in multiple places than one
  • “Babel tells the wrong story. The most likely original use of human speech was to be different, not the same”
  • “Translating as a first step towards civilization”