Inside Story

Sameness, likeness and match

Iain Topliss looks at why we don’t – and shouldn’t – speak the same language, and how Russian has no single word for blue

Iain Topliss 15 December 2011 2377 words

“Almost all translations done until now are bad ones,” according to José Ortega y Gasset.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything
By David Bellos | Particular Books | $39.95

ABOUT eighteen months ago a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex attracted a critical reception that promptly degenerated into a public brawl. Accusations — of cronyism, self-interest, professional jealousy, incompetence, unfitness for the task (the new translators were charged with having previously published a series of cookery books with titles like Cookies et Cakes) — flew back and forth, with critics, scholars, gender theorists, editors, translators and publishers stalking each other in a Grub Street of dreadful night, knives and knuckle-dusters at the ready. None of this would have surprised David Bellos. The language people use about translation, he says, is often that of the passions, especially the language of disappointed lovers — hurt, possession, jealousy. He quotes the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset as declaring “almost all translations done until now are bad ones” and wonders to what other human activity this extraordinary claim could possibly be applied. But then he also thinks that “translation is another name for the human condition.” If that’s true, you might expect an intemperate outburst every now and then.

Bellos is a Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature at Princeton, the author of books about Romain Gary and Jacques Tati, and the translator of Georges Perec (Life A User’s Manual) and Ismail Kadare. His new book is a sparkling account of what on the face of it is one of the least promising of subjects. But Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (the naff title comes from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is lively, fast-paced, comprehensive, varied, learned and expressive of something Anglo-Saxon writers find hard to achieve — what the French call esprit. Esprit is… Well, what exactly is “esprit” and how would you translate it? The obvious first step is to look it up in a dictionary. Harrap’s has (1) Wit, (2) Vital Spirit, (3) Breathing (as in “rough breathing”), (4) Mind. Not much help. Esprit is greater than “wit,” not identical to “spirit,” less stuffy and formal than “mind,” and has little to do with “breathing” rough or otherwise. At this point Bellos advises the use of Roget (he thinks the Thesaurus is a miracle) and Roget certainly helps — he makes you think about gaiety, vivacity, verve and similar qualities. But even Roget reinforces the truth that there is no single word in English that will translate esprit, and the best one can come up with is an adjectival phrase, and adjectival phrases are themselves the reverse of esprit.

Words, Bellos points out, simply don’t slice up the same area of meaning from one language to another, and there is always something incommensurate in translation. It can never be a matter of finding a literal equivalent. It can never be “faithful” (the language of love again; Bellos has a lot of fun with this). All it can do is work at “the distinct but overlapping relations… called same, like and match.” This is a pragmatic and sensible approach, but I am not sure that Bellos, who is very tolerant, can offer an account of why one translation should be superior to another. (For a good discussion see Julian Barnes’s review of Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, in the London Review of Books.)

Bellos has early chapters on such matters — “Meaning Is No Simple Thing,” and “Words Are Even Worse” — as well as a chapter on dictionaries (the history and nature of), which begins with the proposition that dictionaries are the creation of translation, not the other way round. “Without translation, Western dictionaries would not exist” — dictionaries don’t lay down the law so much as organise usage retrospectively, catering to an existing need. But characteristically he soon heads off in an unexpected direction, a discussion of general purpose dictionaries, that is, dictionaries of one’s own language, which he soon makes you think are very strange things indeed. Why, if we are all competent users of our own language, would we need a dictionary of it? But then he is off somewhere else: towards the impact the general purpose dictionary (an invention of the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) had on the idea of a national language. Bellos suggests that it helped develop the notion of a language “in a peculiar modern sense” (this is standard), but also (and this is less standard, yet another tack) that by “raising the vernacular to the level of the language of scholars” it was a “two-pronged weapon for the improvement and assertion of the common man.” Bellos writes all the time as a cheerful, optimistic, social progressive, though it has to be said that this is sometimes a bit wearing.

As all this suggests, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers a genealogy of translation — “genealogy” in the sense that it takes something so common as to seem a universal category outside time and demonstrates that it is really a straggling line of man-made activities that have changed from time to time and place to place. Translation — which originated within the power struggles of earlier ages, in tribal rivalry, war, treaties, diplomacy, law, trade and so on — does not have an essence, it has a history, generally a highly politicised one.

Still, the book is far from a conventional history of translation. It is a McLuhanesque galaxy — a series of dense, bright, glittering chapters that flash from one topic to another sometimes with no very obvious linear argument. Perhaps this is better thought of as an example of the rhizome structure so beloved of postmodernists, a series of thematic rootstocks, spreading out horizontally, not heading anywhere in particular so far as one can see, least of all upwards like a tree, with its dead core, living bark toiling away, managerial boughs, clerical twigs, worker leaves and general air of striving ideological purpose à la Edmund Burke.

But in fact Bellos’s thirty-two chapters and the “Afterbabble” epilogue do exhibit both a design and a tendency. He starts, roughly, with some basics and the correction of common misapprehensions: “Why Do We Call It Translation?,” “The Myth of Literal Translation,” “Native Command: Is Your Language Really Yours?” — the last one destroying the idea of a “mother tongue.” He then moves to a series of test cases that completely up-end and enlarge our idea of what translation involves. “Custom Cuts: Making Forms Fit” deals with subtitling and translating comic books like Asterix, as well as literary examples. “Language Parity in the European Union” discloses that the treaty that governs the European Union exists in twenty-four different language versions, one for each language used in the EU, versions that are not individual translations of a French or German original but each one, in a spirit of high paradox, “a single original.”

Next, “The Adventure of Automated Language Translation Machines” offers a condensed history of the search for a high-quality automatic translation program, a search that begins in the Cold War with Russian-less scientists needing to scour Russian scientific literature for hints about how far the Soviets had got with the atom bomb, and ends triumphantly with Google Translate, which works not by translating in any standard sense but by assuming that every phrase submitted for translation has already been written down somewhere else, and all that has to be done, with the aid of the huge computing power of Google and the web’s infinite archive of digitised texts, is to match the phrase to be translated with an already-used phrase and its already-translated equivalent. He ends his book by replacing the simple notions with which he began with some high-end speculations of his own, which are partly pre-historical and partly anthropological in character. These final pages are stimulating but adventurous to the point of over-reach — we’ll come to them in a moment.

The book is notable for the extraordinary range of learning that lies behind it, enlivening page after page, although at times I was reminded — is this unfair? — that this is the age of QI and the fetish of arcane information with its promise of conversational superiority. In passing we learn: that the president of Lithuania used Latin to make an appeal to the Allies before his country was overrun by the Soviets and the Nazis; that a radio station in Helsinki broadcasts news in Latin to this day; that Russian has no general word for blue; that it is not true that Eskimos have one hundred words for snow; that Classical Greek has no word for word; that no one really knows what the word “cherubim” means because it is just an untranslatable Hebrew word sounded out in a different alphabet; that Jacques Tati produced an English version of Mon Oncle in which the street signs were all in English but an obviously French film with street and shop signs not in French created such confusion in English-language viewers that the film has hardly ever been shown; and that the commonly held view that Swedes are “verbally challenged depressives” derives partly from Ingmar Bergman’s serious films aimed at international viewers, all of which had purposely terse dialogue to accommodate the constraints of a standard sixty-four-character subtitle (Bellos says this is called “the Bergman effect”).

We learn that the provision of simultaneous translations in the eight official languages of the United Nations by only fourteen booth translators is a miracle of organisation which depends on an intricate system of double translation — so an Arabic speaker, say, gets into Spanish, Chinese and Russian not by direct translation into those languages but from the Arabic booth through the English or French booths and thence into the other three languages. We also learn that over 80 per cent of the world’s book translation activity in the years 2000–09 was either from or into English. This last fact, incidentally, an example of the world domination of English, is often held to be a malign consequence of empire, but Bellos (no friend to imperialism) explodes this idea. He points out that English’s role as the world’s inter- and pivot language started to grow exactly at the moment when the British Empire collapsed, and he goes so far as to say that “translation is the opposite of Empire” because it promotes connectivity, exchange and difference.

WHAT of his ambitious final chapter? He plays with two ideas here. One is that if we want to understand how language evolved we have to see what other human activity it is always associated with. It is the hand gesture. Speaking, when it is truly spontaneous and communicative, is always accompanied by hand gestures. (It is worth testing this claim in a café or on a train.) “Hand movement is a profound, unconscious, inseparable part of natural speech.” What links the gesturing hand and the moving mouth? The answer is, eating. There are, he says, important similarities between eating and talking. “Speaking can be seen in this light as a parasitic use of organs whose primary function is to ensure survival.” Language thus emerges as an extension of eating, within the tribe as it were, moving from some primal group outwards. Bellos is working here to demolish any idea of a universal tongue, pre-Babel. Language itself is a rhizome: a local, horizontal, outwardly spreading phenomenon.

But, to take his other favourite theme, what does this new invention actually do? Here Bellos returns to another received idea that he wants to demolish, the idea that language is basically about communication. This is all wrong. Language is really about establishing a bond with someone — “a wish to be linked in some way.” One thinks of the chatter of teenagers in a group, in which nothing is actually said but the bonding is intimate and intense, and an adult’s attempt to participate is doomed to fail; but Bellos must also crazily have in mind a group of cave dwellers grunting over a gobbet of grilled sabre-tooth tiger. “If these acts are communication,” he writes, “then we must redefine communication not as the transmission of mental states… but as the establishment, reinforcement and modification of immediate interpersonal relationships.” Language is primarily a social gesture, which defines a group, whether constituted by age (children, teenagers, retirees), class (the “bewildering” variety of diction in the British Isles), profession, country, ethnicity or nationality.

Bellos argues that the way someone speaks is the key thing, for it “tells your listener who you are, where you came from, where you belong.” The story of Babel, with everyone communicating happily with everyone else in Proto-Nostratic, or Proto-World, an original unitary human tongue, is a Utopian fantasy, not to say a nightmare. It tells the wrong story: “the most likely original use of human speech was to be different, not the same.” As for translation, it is an essential part of this picture. Translation doesn’t happen “after Babel,” it happens during Babel, when one human group wants to know what some other human group is all about, in the spirit (one hopes) of constructive curiosity. It is in this sense that translation is “a first step towards civilisation” — not because it is community-building (that is what speech is), but because it links and builds and binds across the language gap. It is all a bit daft, perhaps, but I was taken with it, and like many readers, I suspect, share with Bellos a dislike of the idea of everyone speaking the same language: la différence — as Frank Muir, also an Englishman of esprit, once said — should always be vivred. •