Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of "Is That a Fish in Your Ear"

I have just finished reading David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, and though it is not exactly a book in Russian studies, the topic of the book touches directly on my career as a Russian translator. In addition, the author does use a number of foreign language examples from Russian (even though Bellos is a French-studies scholar). In what follows I will present what I found to be the most interesting points and passages that I noted down in my digital commonplace book.

Bellos discusses the problem of translating in such a way that the "foreigness" of the source text is preserved. As I discussed earlier this year, the task of trying to preserve the ethnic content of the original in a new language is problematic to say the least. Bellos says that it "runs the risk of dissolving into something different --- a representation of the funny ways foreigners speak." In literary translation, it is hard if not impossible to mark the fact that characters in a foreign-language novel, though they are made to speak the language of the target text, originally spoke a different language.

Bellos makes the interesting point that the English language allows only foreign words from certain cultures that have had a historical relation with an English-speaking nation to be allowed into translations. So the preservation of certain French words in the English translations of French novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an accepted and common practice due to the prestige of the source culture, and modern American English is receptive to the use of certain Spanish phrases in translation since they have been made familiar to a large audience due to the presence of large numbers of Spanish-speakers in the United States.

The author states that the translation of poetry, drama, film subtitles and even sometimes literature (as in the case of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is often a collaborative process. Bellos even confesses that he translates the novels of Ismail Kadare, who writes in Albanian, from a French translation by Tedi Papvrami: in essence a translation of a translation. This is the kind of practice that some critics believe is one of the faults underlying the Google Translate engine, in that most language pairs translated by the machine translation service are translated through an intermediate translation into English (what Bellos terms a pivot language).

I find the author's argument that foreign works of fiction, and even films, are now created in such a way as to facilitate adaption and translation into English, to be quite compelling. In the case of dialog for films this means crafting short dialogue that lends itself to the subtitling constraints of how many characters can be displayed on the screen at one time and the reading speed of the average moviegoer. "Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman's success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films."

Bellos believes that there is no special mental procedure (other than requisite knowledge of two or more languages) that distinguishes translation from other activities that rephrase and recontextualize language: "[N]o precise boundary can be drawn between translation, on the one hand, and drafting, editing, correcting, reformulating, and adapting a text, whether written in the same or in some other tongue, on the other." He gives the example of the practice of journalists around the world who, while reading one of the major news wires published in French, Russian or Arabic, create news stories for their target markets. They inevitably end up translating the news into their local language, but these journalists do not think of what they do as translation; in fact, what they do is not just servile translation, since they add to and embellish the plain information that is published in the source wires.

The book is not just concerned with written translation, but it also devotes much discussion to oral interpretation. The practice in the West of only translating or interpreting in one's native language (which is what I do as a Russian to English translator) is not universally true. Bellos gives the example of official Soviet interpreters at the UN, who were all native Russian speakers who interpreted into foreign languages. This may have had a political motivation (the Soviets were not going to trust foreigners to do their interpreting), but nonetheless these interpreters supposedly performed just as well as others who interpreted into their native languages. Bellos cites a Soviet-era textbook in interpreting which explicates this method (G. T. Chernov, Osnovy sinkhronnogo perevoda (Moscow: Vysshaia shkola, 1987)), but my hunch is that except in the case of exceptional individuals (e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, who admittedly spent much time in an anglophone environment), it is extremely hard to exercise native command of a foreign language. I encounter English written by native Russian speakers who have university educations in foreign languages, linguistics and translation studies on a daily basis, and though their writing is competent and serviceable, rarely does it seem like it came from the pen (or keyboard) of a native speaker.

Bellos repeats the insights of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy when he states that "[i]n large areas of national and international affairs, speech has now become a secondary medium, a by-product of writing." The author spells out what this means for the practice of oral interpretation, which in pre-literate times was the only form of translation, sharing with epic poetry the same kind of immediacy of performance and characterized by the same ephemeral, fleeting nature of an utterance that could not be recorded. Today, by contrast, interpreters working at the UN often receive ahead of time the texts of speeches that are to be delivered by delegates.

Indeed, though it is ostensibly just a book about translation, Bellos has plenty to say about the nature of language. For example, much of the active vocabulary of any fluent speaker of a language is concentrated on just the few thousand most common words, and that most other words, such as most of the headwords that can be found in a large dictionary, are used only in rather precise contexts and have recondite meanings. The fact that this is true helped me immensely when I was in the initial stages of learning Russian, since one of the ways that I built up my vocabulary was through studying Nicholas Brown's frequency dictionary of the 10,000 most common Russian words.

Though we tend to think of dictionaries and other wordlists as primarily monolingual constructs, and of bilingual dictionaries as secondary specialist tools of translators and bilinguals, the latter tools preceded the former by many centuries. According to the author, "[a]mong the very earliest instances of writing are lists of terms for important things in two languages." Bellos cites the example of Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual dictionaries from the ancient Near East. By contrast, the first alphabetically complete general-purpose monolingual dictionary was Samuel Johnson's dictionary of the English language, which was published in 1755. Indeed, I remember reading this tidbit before in C. M. Millward's A Biography of the English Language, one of my favorite textbooks from college. (I see that it is now in a third edition, whereas what I used was the second).

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