Sunday, November 6, 2011

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Review of Is That a Fish In Your Ear? By David Bellos

Bellos starts with a provocative question: what exactly is translation? The answer is more elusive than you might think, but in trying to answer it he takes us on a fascinating journey that is partly academic and partly anecdotal, with a light enough touch to make a fun read. Of course he is an advocate for the unsung, underpaid translator, but he makes a convincing case that translation is often just as creative as writing, and a translation can be an original creation itself.

But he's not just talking about novels: the problems of translation in international diplomacy are given a thorough airing, and he finishes with a fascinating discussion of how language evolved in the first place, not (as we usually presume) as a way of communicating but as a way of defining primitive groups. In other words, language was a way of restricting communication by excluding outsiders, so it was intended to limit communication rather than broaden it.

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