Tuesday, October 18, 2011

David Bellos, "Is That A Fish in your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything" (FSG 2011)

Lots of people have noticed and are reviewing Davis Bellos' new book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (FSG, 2011). For example, Maureen Freely in the Daily Telegraph (UK) thinks the book "witty and erudite." Michael Hofman in the Guardian calls the book "brilliant (and) a disquisition of remarkable freshness on language, speech and translation...written in short punchy instructive chapters." For him, Bellos has "a wonderful, Scotch-educated temperament..He doesn't accuse, lament or gripe." The Economist says that while the book is ostensibly about translation, it is in fact a "richly original cultural history...of the effects of language and translation" starting with the Greeks who ignored other languages and the Romans who made everyone learn Latin. Frederic Raphael in the Literary Review writes a longer assessment and concentrates on Bellos' focus on best-practices of translation. He concludes:

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious, Bellos saves his best trick for last, when he concludes that language is not necessary for communication, as theorists insist (other species communicate without it). He sees it as a way 'to establish rank or declare hostility' (or friendship?). Speech has more in common with the sociable rituals of eating - hence the polite rule against doing both at the same time - than with some Pentecostal notion of universal mutual understanding. The practical deposit of Bellos's scintillating bouillabaisse is that if you want your children to have a safe job in tomorrow's world, have them learn Arabic and/or Chinese, always assuming they come out of the current education system able to speak and spell comprehensible English.

Across the pond, Kirkus Review calls the book "erudite and occasionally dense but ultimately illuminating even transformative." PW helpfully notes that the title is a riff on Douglas Adam's "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in which a "Babel fish" (think: Tower of Babel) when inserted into one's ear could translate any language. There's even a video in which the author gives us a flavour of his book and challenges our cultural presuppositions. (I note with delight that he sounds a little like Michael Kitchen).

You get the picture. Everyone likes the book and it's being reviewed positively in all sorts of places. And I too enjoyed reading the book and found it entertaining and engaging.

However, I want to describe one chapter in the book, "Bible and Bananas: The Vertical Axis of Translation Relations." Since reviews like those mentioned above are mostly brief, many note that there is a chapter on bible translations, but only a few delve into it. Frederic Raphael in the Literary Review is one who thinks about this issue.

Raphael notes that Bellos is no advocate of literal translation. Here's why. In a chapter called "The Myth of Literal Translation" Bellos cites Jerome's Letter to Pammachus (346CE) as perhaps "the first full formation of the lopsided dispute between translations that are "literal" and those that are "free."" Bellos renders Jerome's formulation of the issue:

Thus, I not only confess but of my own free voice proclaim that apart from translations of sacred scriptures from the Greek, where even the order of words is a mysterium, I express not the word for the word, but the sense for the sense.

Bellos notes that we don't know what Jerome's word "mysterium" means and so he leaves it in Latin. Maybe Jerome was describing a problem engaging every translator, namely, what to do with words you don't understand. In this rendition of Jerome into English, we don't translate the word but instead render it pronounceable in the target language. In the above paragraph Bellos leaves it in Latin. But is that enough?

Bellos next cites an alternative rendition of the passage from Jerome by a (mysterious) canon of Canterbury Cathedral:

For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of holy scriptures where even the order of words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for words.

Jerome is explaining, Belos says, what translators have always done. They transmit the sense and where the sense is obscure, they render the words of the original. So transmitting sense in a non-literal way is normative except when the original is obscure.

Here's my point: when we come to a subsequent chapter on bible translation, readers are already suspicious of a literal translation. Now in this chapter there are only two methods of Bible translation surveyed--a) adaptive translation used by an early Dutch missionary in Sumatra and the later American Bible Society under Eugene Nida and b) a more literal approach used by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig to render the Hebrew Bible into German. The Buber-Rosenzweig version favors keeping closely to the Hebrew and using obscure (I would say "arresting") German words occurring more regularly in stories like Grimm's fairy tales. (I know this because I spent a happy morning in the reading room of the New York Public Library locating Buber and Rosenzweig's German words in dictionaries of old German). By the end of the chapter we haven't heard of a useful or even good way of translating the Bible. Those translations mentioned and the approaches they employ--well-intentioned missionaries using cultural substitution replace the fig tree of Matthew's gospel with bananas since there are no figs in Sumatra; Buber's "foreignizing" is described as incomprehensible--are critically assessed and implicitly dismissed.

Bellos would reply that his is not a book about how to translate but about what translation does. Fine. But when it comes to bible translations, we can't avoid assessments. And it is disingenuous not to mention up to date translators who use the method of Buber and Rosenzweig successfully: Everett Fox in the Schocken Bible for one.  

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