Monday 1 October 2012

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

The Amazing Adventure of Translation
David Bellos, 2011
(September 2012)

“Translating something ‘from cold’, ‘unseen’, out of the blue’, or, as some literary scholars would put it, ‘translating a text in and for itself’ isn’t technically impossible. After all, students at some universities are asked to do that in their final examinations. But it is not an honest job. It can only be done by guessing what the context and genre of the utterance are. Even if you guess right, and even granted that guessing right may well be the sign of wide knowledge and a smart mind, you are still only playing a game.”
(p78, emphasis added)

Anyone fancy translating that into Japanese?

I want to get it printed up on some cards to hand to my colleagues next time they shove a random decontextualised English sentence under my nose and ask, “Is this correct?”

Well, possibly, given the correct build-up. It’s even worse when they ask about a multiple choice question, because sure as eggs is eggs, there’ll be one clearly wrong answer, one answer that the question setter was obviously aiming for, and two or more answers that actually could work, given a plausible but admittedly uncommonly specific context.

“But why is this wrong, if it’s not grammatically incorrect?”

Because it’s shitty question design, is why.

On which note, Bellos takes another chance to swing at Chomsky’s now thoroughly disproved claim that it’s possible to write a grammatical sentence that makes absolutely no sense. Colourless green ideas and all that. If it’s grammatical, then it’ll make sense in the correct context. It’s just a question of working out what that context might be.

But this is a book about translation. So while you obviously can’t discuss that without going over words and effability and meaning, let’s not get too sidetracked. It’s actually quite impressive how it’s all kept on track (it’s actually quite impressive full stop). I’d be shooting off on tangents all over the place. I guess the short chapters help, and have the added advantage of also making it very readable.

It’s also interesting to read this so soon after The Last Lingua Franca. Not least because of how Bellos’s views on the future of translation mesh, or don’t, with Ostler’s predictions for the continued dominance of English. It’s standard practice to translate into your native language (however you may choose to define ‘native language’). So I’d translate from Japanese into English, for example, not the other way around. If my Japanese wasn’t quite so shit, of course.

The massive global migrations entailed by the conflicts in the middle of the 20th Century meant there were plenty of people who’d lived all over and could operate as translators. Now that generation is dying off. And because people who speak English are under less pressure to learn another language, there’s starting to be a genuine dearth of people who can translate into English. There’s a potential gap in the market for those of you with the time or the inclination.

Trouble is, machine translation (which was Ostler’s next big thing, remember) long ago gave up on trying to operate from underlying structures supposedly common to all languages, and now operates primarily through brute force. Google translate looks at as many previous translations as it can and tries to match up what you want to translate with something that’s already been translated. English, as the global lingua franca, also acts as the pivot language for dozens of less common language pairs. But with fewer translators working into this language, will there be enough of a corpus soon enough? Probably, it’s pretty fucking massive as it stands, but it’s all going to be a bit of a crap shoot. Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.

Pleasingly, this book also confirmed some of the thoughts I was having when I decided to list translators as well as authors for my book posts. There really is no point is saying stuff like, “Well, obviously characteristic X was far more subtle in the original. There’s a lot that’s been lost in translation.”

Was there? How the fuck do you know that exactly? The only way you could honestly make that judgement is if you’d read both the translation and the original, and you were equally fluent in both languages and cultures*. In which case why did you read the translation, apart from the obvious temptation to be able to indulge in smug intellectual wankery like saying, “Well, obviously characteristic X was far more subtle in the original”?

That’s a fairly limited market right there. Publishers produce stand-alone translations solely to cater to people who don’t speak the original language fluently, so bemoaning stuff that’s missing from the original is like describing the Mona Lisa to a blind person and saying, “You really have to see her smile to appreciate it.” True, but utterly pointless and not a little insulting.

This line of argument gets demolished as early as chapter four when Bellos takes aim at people who say, “A translation is no substitute for the original.” Yes it is. That’s the whole point of it even existing.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear is informative, interesting, entertaining, and above all proves – proves – that I’m right. Well worth a read.

*Because of course culture plays a part as well. Just how much sense would the title of this book make to the poor benighted soul who’d never read the source material?


  1. I would assume this person has some sort of experience with translation writing a book about it and all, yet it is ironic that with that experience he could write with such ambiguity. Out of the blue? Unseen? They might sound good, but every second person (native speaker) who sees those words would have a different interpretation of what they mean. I assume he means interpreting a text from a passive perspective, i.e. not having written it yourself. Kind of antithetical to translation if you ask me.

    I looked him up and he seems to be an English/French translator. Maybe you can translate those type of sentences ok between English and French, but good luck into Japanese. When I translate a lot of Japanese stuff, I basically have to trim off a lot of superfluous rubbish and I suppose there is a lot of this in English too. Maybe those first three terms are common lingo in amongst his translation circles though.

    Anyway, it looks like an interesting book and something I would like to read.

    I am currently re-reading all of Murakami's books in Japanese, but I still too busy thinking, "fuck I'm so good for being able to read a novel in Japanese," that I'm not picking up on the subtleties though. It would be perhaps worthwhile to read one after the other at the risk of getting sick of a good book, but I have to say that the second time in Japanese didn't feel like a second time, more like time 1.5 or something.

    Lastly, here is my translation attempt. I think I did alright:


    1. 'Momotaro', I was thinking of Jay Rubin's translations of Murakami while reading 'Kamo's' post, funny enough. I wanted to address:

      "There really is no point is saying stuff like... 'There’s a lot that’s been lost in translation.' Was there? How the fuck do you know that exactly?"

      And Kamo is right, even at my perhaps, 'san-kyu'* level in the Japanese Proficiency Test. However, I can SUSPECT some translations are better than others, by how much they 'ring true'. In Jay Rubin's translations I do not find the English to feel foreign, and yet I can often sense what Japanese phrases Murakami has probably written. That's of a very high skill level.

      Yet, at my middling level, I am prepared to stand corrected.

      *'San-kyu' on the new test, not the old, thank you. I must take pride in what little I can.

    2. You are right, there is no way you can read say the Japanese and the English one paragraph by paragraph and compare them while experiencing the same feeling as someone reading only one and getting into the story. And your point about Rubin rings true. Especially with Japanese, there is just so much open to interpretation, meaning that the interpreter almost has to re-write it in a way. Each sentence can have quite a few translations which all would be 'correct' but are slightly different in meaning. That is hard enough for me with medical texts which is quite a dry format and objective writing of course, so I really respect someone like Rubin.

      For example, there is the lovely word 木漏れ日(こもれび)

      Just off the top of my head this could be translated as:

      Sunlight filtering through the tree-tops
      Gentle rays of sun filtering through the vegetation above
      Rays of sunshine filtering though the overhanging trees above
      Sunlight gently cascading through the arching trees above into a dark forest

      And so forth. The Japanese meaning is supposed to reflect their love of nature, but that is hard to convey in English without sounding completely wanky and ridiculous. This was a title about something to do with stained glass that I translated, but I just deleted the saying, changed it to 'stained glass' and explained it below in the text. Someone who is good at writing would obviously come up with something to trump my wonderful pieces of literature above.

      For the record, I have the old 2, but I just can't seem to get the new 1. I have failed twice now. Some of my friends have gotten the 1 which gives me an inferiority complex, but I use the fact that they have been here longer than I as an excuse. The exam is at a uni which has no parking and is at a top of a giant hill and takes ages to get to, so that's excuse number 2.

    3. Dude, if you have either the new or old 2, I bow before you. Those who have the 1 know 'better' Japanese than the locals.

  2. Momotaro - Thanks for having a stab at the translation! In fairness, that irony you mention is at least partly my doing (I guess Alanis Morissette is getting on a bit to be using as a reference. Showing my age, sadly).

    I'm nowhere near being able to read a novel in Japanese, but I do still remember the first time I managed to have entire conversation in the language without gurning like an idiot. It was only "Where does to bus go from?" "Stop number 7." But I felt like a linguistic god. You take your motivations where you can find them, nothing wrong with that.

    Ant - Yeah, 'suspecting' is the way to go. I'm a fan of qualifying stuff that way, you may have noticed. You remember that write up of Paprika I did a while back? I hated it so much that my wife eventually bought a copy of the original to find out what was so bad. I think she managed about five pages. Anyhow, it means we can indulge in some that intellectual wankery ourselves. First lines in English and Japanese -

    “Kosaka Tokita lumbered into the Senior Staff Room.”


    I'll happily bow to your gentlemen's opinions (maybe slightly more to Momotaro's ;) but I'm getting no sense of 'lumbering' from that whatsoever. I know taking it out of context like this is a little unfair, but it does rather confirm what I suspected about the quality of the writing in translation...

    1. It depends on the translator, the other thing too is that the translation could be spot on, yet a non-native speaker who thinks they know better and doubts the native's interpretation of the original text can basically fuck it all up. It happens a lot in Japan, don't know about other places. lt could have also been done by a non-native English speaking translator and then checked by a native. This is pretty frequent too, so things are corrected, but obviously a lot becomes distorted from the original text.

      Lumber is bad. I'm getting images of an obese person or someone with their jeans down far too low. I don't know if Mr Tokita is like that, but possibly not. Entered would be ok, or basically any word that fits and may sound better. It depends on the pro and preceding sentences too. The translation for 理事室 sounds like it was done by a Japanese native. WTF is a senior staff room? Staff room for seniors? Very Japanese in thinking, because not all execs in the west are necessarily old. I think executive office fits a lot better, since a 理事長 is basically a CEO or CFO or whatever in the tricky little hierarchies they have here. Once again depends on context, what kind of organisation, how big, etc.

      Kamo - If you can, learn kanji. Very tedious, but once you get there you can get that buzz you were talking about from any book. A book is non-discriminatory too, it won't dumb down the words because your face is different, nor will it deny you the pleasure of interacting with it in its own native language. For these reasons I love reading, especially in Japanese as it's a treasure trove of information I have only recently been able to start accessing.