Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

by David Bellos

Rating: ★★★★

If this book's title leaves you a little mystified, the subtitle, The Amazing Adventure of Translation gives it fairly straight. This is a book about translation. People who still don't understand the title obviously won't know how to catch a lift from a planet scheduled for demolition, or where their towel is.

The subject matter of translation is particularly appropriate for me, as I'm abroad in a foreign land at the time of reading, surrounded by a foreign tongue and several rather shoddy (though appreciated) attempts at translation in the form of tourist guides and public information. I can certainly relate to Bellos' anecdote about his father, who managed to buy slippers abroad without either he or the salesperson needing any language whatsoever to communicate -- the value of body-language (particularly a good ol' stab with the index finger) is often underestimated.

Above the anecdotal level, the book performs well as a sort of tourist's guide to translation. Following a somewhat predictable pop-science formula, the author leads us around a few topics of general interest within what might broadly be termed 'the field'. Valuable insights are gained into practical matters as varied as the organisation of Nuremburg, the UN and the EU and the translation of comic books, movies and literature. The restrictions that translators face in many places makes you kindle up a decent amount of respect for the skill of these almost-invisible facilitators of cultural exchange.

While Bellos understandably talks up his trade's importance (sometimes to vague and contradictory effect), he doesn't shirk from reality. The daunting dominance of English as a world language is acknowledged many times. He even handily outlines the eight or so world languages you would need to be able to converse with the majority of the world's population, and the three or four languages that most books are written in. He certainly succeeded in re-igniting my own fickle interest in learning foreign tongues.

As a light read for someone in the mood for picking a few things up, this book is a good choice. It's filled with interesting tidbits which string you along in an educationally entertaining sort of manner, like a particularly enthusiastic lecturer cornering you in a student bar.