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.