Nicholas Lezard marvels at the translator's art...
After only a few short chapters, I had my first uncomfortable moment: "Reviewers … have customarily declared in order to praise a translation to the skies that it sounds as if it had been written in English. This is hollow praise ..." At which point I became all too conscious that only last week I had praised Sophie Lewis's translation of Marcel Aymé's The Man Who Walked Through Walls in almost exactly that fashion. "Where," asks Bellos, "is the bonus in having a French detective novel for bedtime reading unless there is something French about it?" I then remembered that I had also said that Lewis's translation retained the Gallic flavour, so consider myself mostly off the hook. Towards the end of the book, Bellos gives a scornful list of the meaningless adjectives used by book reviewers to describe translations they think are good: fluent, racy, stylish ... I have used "damned fine", which doesn't feature in the list. Is that OK?
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
by David Bellos
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Bellos has used this book, in part, as a means of demolishing received ideas about translation. I am all in favour of demolishing received ideas but, as Gloria Steinem said, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. I would have lazily assented to the proposition that a translation is no substitute for the original, but this, as Bellos points out, is a stupid thing to say when you consider that, in fact, a substitute for the original is exactly what a translation is. And if we didn't have translations, then we would, as he points out, have no knowledge of the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, or Planet of the Apes.
People have always been saying daft things about translation. José Ortega y Gasset said "almost all translations done until now have been bad ones", which Bellos demonstrates is ludicrous by experimenting with replacements, eg "Almost all firefighters up till now have been bad ones." Referring to the "extravagant" amount of attention that has been paid by scholars to the story of the tower of Babel – our search for an original, unitary human tongue being its testament – he says "it is far from obvious that their time is well spent." (If anything, the idea of there being one original language and now many is exactly the wrong way round.)