Book Club: What Exactly Gets 'Lost' in Translation?

David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything is the most exciting book I've read in months - a profound examination of what language is, and what it means to try to translate from one language to another.

When we think about a translation, Bellos argues, we tend to ask whether it's ‘right.’ Underlying this question is a belief that each language is a vehicle for something deeper - "meaning." In this view, translating involves ensuring that this other, deeper thing is preserved as we move between languages.

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For Bellos, this way of thinking about language is rooted in the idea that words are symbols - that each word stands for something else, and that it’s possible to say that “something else” in just about every other language. But what about words that aren’t symbols? What about “all those human vocal noises - ums, hums, screams, giggles, mumbles, stammers, exclamations and interjections, alongside ellipses, nonsense words, gargles, cooing, baby-talk, pillow-talk and so forth”? What do these mean, exactly? It’s hard to say in words - but that doesn’t meant they’re hard to understand.

Bellos offers much more along these lines. He also offers fascinating insights into the world of professional translation. (Those head-setted folks at the UN do impressive mental jiu-jitsu; some of the news agency folks who translate the foreign articles in your local paper, a little less so.) It’s a thrilling read, and all the more so because Bellos consistently challenges deeply-held ideas in a mild, unobjectionable, friendly-uncle tone.