53. ‘Is That A Fish In Your Ear?’ David Bellos

29 Dec
53. ‘Is That A Fish In Your Ear?’ David Bellos

Is That A Fish In Your Ear?’ David Bellos

My last blog of 2012 comes from Guatemala, (in case you haven’t been paying attention), where I am attempting to revive my Spanish by immersing myself in the everyday spoken Spanish of the locals here, and reading some Spanish books which I had dragged back to the UK from Buenos Aires with me, and subsequently dragged back to Central America, (my book collection must be better travelled than many people). The fact that most people here are either English/French/Swedish speaking ex-pats, or Mayan locals who speak the dialect Tz’utujil has not dampened my enthusiasm for rekindling my Castilian, and so it seemed fitting that the last blog of the year should be on the wonders of translation.

This is yet another book from my Hay-on-Wye collection: since they were almost all signed copies and therefore couldn’t come away with me, I read as many as I could before departure, and saved my favourite quotes up to be stitched together into blogs from the warmth of my lakeside balcony here in San Pedro. This may explain why the last blog, on Booker Prize nominee ‘Narcopolis‘ was so short: not having the book in front of me, I couldn’t flick through and consult it for ideas I hadn’t already noted, and since I didn’t have that many quotes saved from it, that was one of my shortest blogs so far.

This one will be a little different.

David Bellos’s book on translation promised a lot, being a) a book on translation, a subject of no little fascination to a wordsmith and linguist like me, and b) named after a feature of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,’ one of the funniest series of books I have ever read. Whilst it does dry out from time to time, not quite living up to its source quote, there was still more than enough to keep me entertained, (and hopefully you).


So, what exactly is translation? That is the meat which Bellos slices into several chapters, some more interesting than others: in one paragraph, he brilliantly underlines the difficulties of one-to-one word translation between languages by summarising 22-different words for ‘translation’ itself in Japanese, which brought back memories!

To all those who snootily proclaim that ‘translation is no substitute for the original,’ besides pointing out that this is untrue, (translations are quite literally substitutes for the originals!), Bellos goes further by pointing out of anyone who shuns all but original works that:

“…they would end up with a decidedly peculiar view of the world – if they were English readers, they would have no knowledge The Bible, Tolstoy or Planet of the Apes…”

And talking of being literally true, could this discovery be the epitome of irony?

“Studies of large corpora of recorded speech have shown that the majority of the uses of ‘literal’ and ‘literally’ in English are figurative…”

The highlight for me was an entire chapter on the difficulties of translating speech bubbles in cartoons: specifically, Asterix! This was my major reading staple growing up, when at least two of my four-book library limit was spent on Asterix comics, and yet I always had a sense that something was missing at certain points: often the pacing seemed to set you up for a punchline which never arrived, and now I know why – translating from comics is an unbelievably nuanced art, taking into consideration questions of culture, bubble size, linguistic meaning and a million other things. And to think, you thought comics were simple!


Further fascinating insights under the ‘Things I’d Never Really Considered Before But Which Make Sense Now That You Mention Them’ category soon followed with a chapter on the art of making subtitles fit: both literally, (size and speed on the screen), and figuratively in the sense of what needs to be left in, and what can be omitted. For example, who knew:

“Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of [Ingmar] Bergman‘s success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films. It’s called the ‘Bergman effect’…”

In a section on translations of the Old Testament, I learned for the first time of a technique called chuchotage, or targum, in which: “Aramaic interpreters read out a translation of the words of the service sotto voce, just after or even while the rabbi was speaking or chanting.” This practice continues today in a hilarious modern form:

“For contemporary re-broadcasts of British and American television soaps and comedy programmes in East and Central European languages, the targum device – low-volume voice-over translation – has been reinvented. Lectoring, as it is now called, often doesn’t make even a nod towards aural realism; a single voice speaks on behalf of all characters of both genders, and the original English-language sound remains clearly audible…”

Can you imagine that? I’m tempted to take a trip to Eastern Europe just to hear somebody gruffly read all the characters of a Simpsons episode in Albanian.


Talking of religious translations:

“On average, one new Bible translation was completed every month between 1900 and 1999…”

Towards the end of the book, some of the chapters get a little technical and less interesting, but there were even aspects of these sections which yielded some amazing facts: when discussing which languages are the most translated into and out of, Bellos reveals:

“…from 2000 to 2009, Chinese is the receiving language of barely 5 per cent of all the translations done in all directions…about the same as Swedish, whose speakers number less than 1 per cent of the speakers of Chinese. But the picture in the reverse direction is even worse. Only 863 books were translated from Chinese into Hindi, Arabic, English, French, German and Swedish combined, whereas more than twice that number of books written in Swedish were published in Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, English, French and German combined…”

See what I mean about interesting, but technical? In essence, if you’re wondering why there are so many dark, Swedish crime thrillers on the shelf, and so few books from the Middle Kingdom, it’s because we aren’t translating enough of the latter, (and translating even less into Chinese): in a supposedly international world, what may be the consequences of such imbalances in cross-cultural understanding?

On an intricate dissection of the different translations of the legal term ‘Human Rights,’ I learned the following gem about contemporary French:

“The word Homme written with an upper case letter now refers to men and women indistinctly…whereas homme with a lower case initial refers only to males. Although legally enforceable, the distinction is hard for people to remember…”

Ever wondered about the origins of translation services like Google Translate or Babelfish? As a teacher in Japan who has wasted possibly thousands of hours wading through pages and pages of blatant, terrible electronic translation, I sure had!

“Although it is still in its infancy, machine translation has had an eventful and uneven history. It first arose in dramatic historical circumstances  and in response to an overriding political need…its launching ground was the climate of terror at the start of the Cold War. The United States had developed and used the atomic bomb. For the time being it had a monopoly on this terrible weapon. How long would the monopoly last? When would the Soviet Union catch up? One way of guessing the answer was to comb through all the research journals being published in the USSR, looking for clues as to the state of knowledge in the relevant disciplines. The journals were in Russian. The US needed either to train up a veritable army of Russian-English scientific translators – or to invent a machine that would do the job for them…”

The result? Using World War II code-breaking techniques to develop machine-based translation which, eventually, led to the online translation services we use (and abuse) today.

(It’s just a bonus for the 12-year-old in me that the goal of these programmes was to develop what MIT in their wisdom decided should be called ‘Fully Automated High-Quality Translation’…or FAHQT!)

It was interesting to hear that one way machine translations have improved is not through anything inherent in the programmes themselves but, on the contrary, the fact that language is often used which is simple enough for the machines to translate as they are:

“Most companies that have global sales have house styles designed to help computers translate their material. From computers helping humans to translate we have advanced to having humans help computers out…”

The nickname for this simplified language of translatable, international English? ‘Boeinglish’!

Coming to the end of the year, I have naturally begun thinking about goals and resolutions, and this book may have given me one. We learn as early as page 10 that knowing just nine of the 7,000 or so languages in the world, you can communicate with 5.5 to 6.5 million people: in decreasing number of speakers Chinese (1.3b); Hindi (800m); Arabic (530m); Spanish (350m); Russian (278m); Urdu (180m); French (175m); Japanese (130m) and English (with anything from 800m to 1.8billion speakers). Four kind of down, one on the way, just Chinese, Hindi and Arabic to go, then…

Finally, in a book dedicated to words and languages, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a phrase so beautiful and so ridiculous, that I finally have a new favourite German word, (twenty-three years after first learning the word ‘Selbstbedienung’ – self-service). The phrase? Two words used to describe ‘speeches read aloud from prepared written text’:

“…gesprochene Sprechsprache,

‘spoken speech language…”

Now to find a way to slip it into daily conversation.


That’s all for 2012, readers: join me in the first week of 2013, when I will be supplying a summary of my reading over the past year: highs, lows, statistics, locations, and who knows what else. Enjoy the 31st!…


Posted by on December 29, 2012 in BOOKS


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7 responses to “53. ‘Is That A Fish In Your Ear?’ David Bellos

  1. sarajeanne83

    January 7, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I am just starting to get to know your blog. I am not a linguist but have learned Japanese, Swahili & taught English to several nationalities. I am currently reading The Mother Tongue – English and how it got that way by bill bryson. Although dated a bit on his research (it’s at least 10-15 years old), I find the content eye opening and am having a lot of a-ha moments from a linguistic standpoint. Check it out if you haven’t already! Cheers, Sara

    • doronklemer

      January 8, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      Hi Sara Jeanne!

      Thanks for reading, (both my blog, and generally!).
      I read ‘The Mother Tongue’ years ago, and loved it: I like most things Bryson writes, but this was probably my favourite, with all of the trivia and fascinating stories about the origins of English, (I vaguely remember something about Americans speaking an English closer to Shakespeare than my fellow countrymen now do: but only vaguely, which is one of the reasons I’m keeping this blog now!)

      Any other recommendations, or books you’d like me to review, feel free to let me know!

  2. Alice

    September 26, 2013 at 7:26 am

    Hi Doron,

    I’ve nearly finished reading David Bellos’ book. Thoroughly enjoyable and full of new items even to a linguist like me (professional translator and conference interpreter).

    However, I have a quibble with “gesprochene Sprechsprache” and I am currently corresponding with David Bellos about this.

    Having lived for 30 years in Germany, that phrase simply means “the spoken language” or “the vernacular” as opposed to “formal written language”. It has nothing to do with reading aloud from a prepared text for a “speech” in the sense of an address to a gathering of people.

    As an interpreter, I know only too well that the language that politicians use in their speeches is by no means “the vernacular”. It is carefully crafted text to sound as if it were natural spoken language, but it is very much closer to formal written language, than any spontaneous utterance. Here, they call that “Vortragsdeutsch” (German for speeches, or oratorial German).

    • doronklemer

      September 26, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      Hi Alice,

      Thanks for dropping by the blog: glad to know professionals enjoyed the Bellos book as much as I did!

      Whatever it strictly means, ‘gesprochene Sprechsprache’ is still my new favourite German phrase!

      Keep up the good (translating/interpreting) work, and hope you enjoy looking around the rest of the blog!


  3. mytwostotinki

    May 25, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Interesting review (and blog)! A few thoughts of my own on translations that were partly triggered by Bellos’ book you can find here, in case you are interested:

    • doronklemer

      May 26, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your blog!

      The question of translation really is coming to the fore in recent years, as proven by the joint award of the Man Booker International prize to both the original author and the translator, and varaious projects including Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent release ‘In Other Words/In Altre Parole’ which she decided to write in the Italian which she was studying, getting a translator to render her new language back into her native English!

      There was also a fascinating book released a few years ago where a few dozen authors took a single story and translated it into their native tongue in a giant literary game of Chinese Whispers, (pun kind of intended). Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the compilation, or find it online at the moment!!


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