Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (a book about translation by David Bellos - reviewed by Lee Sandlin)


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Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (a book about translation by David Bellos - reviewed by Lee Sandlin)

Lost and Found In Translation
Eskimos don't have a 100 words for 'snow.' But see what happens when you walk into your local Starbucks and just order 'coffee.'

A Russian friend of mine once tried to improve his English by studying T.S. Eliot's "Preludes." He already knew a translation by heart, and he liked to recite, with great reverberating passion, a line about how the streetlamps of London glowed like luminous jellyfish at the bottom of the ocean. When he reached the corresponding passage of the English text, he was shattered. All it said was: "And then the lighting of the lamps." No jellyfish, no ocean. Evidently the Russian translator had found Eliot's austere original to be insufficiently poetical and had decided to goose it up. My friend felt doubly betrayed—first by Eliot, because his poem was not so interesting after all; then by the translator, because his beautiful line was a fake.

This is an experience many of us have when reading great works in translation. We're troubled by a creeping, paranoid anxiety that we're not really experiencing the work, that we're being fooled. Does the "Divine Comedy" or "The Tale of Genji" really mean anything like what the translator says it means? How can we be sure, when we don't know the original language and never will?

These are not doubts that would meet with much sympathy from David Bellos. He is a professional translator (mostly of classy Europeans like Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare) and would be briskly dismissive of my Russian friend's despair. Translation, he argues in "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?," is an inherently creative act. A strictly literal translation is a mirage—it looks like unadorned accuracy, but that's really just a stylistic trick, which, Mr. Bellos says, is "unrelated to authenticity, truthfulness, or plainness of expression." He would celebrate the Russian translator's gaudy jellyfish, as though they were flowers breaking from the hard ground of Eliot's original.

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« Last Edit: 01 Jan, 2012, 18:10:42 by dominotheory »
Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune.


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