Joyful translation

The NYT Sunday Book Review does a lovely job on IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos. Contending that the traditional theories and opinions of translation were archaic and severe, Bellos calls for a return to delight. Often this entails treading on toes:

as the translator of two peculiarly great and problematic novelists: the Frenchman Georges Perec, whose work is characterized by a manic concern for form, and the Albanian Ismail Kadare, whose work Bellos translates not from the original Albanian, but from French translations supervised by Kadare. Bellos’s twin experience with these novelists is, I think, at the root of his new book, for these experiences with translation prove two things: It’s still possible to find adequate equivalents for even manically formal prose; and it’s also possible to find such equivalents via a language that is not a work’s original. Whereas according to the sad and orthodox theories of translation, neither of these truths should be true.

At one point, Bellos quotes with rightful pride a small instance of his own inventiveness. In Perec’s novel “Life: A User’s Manual,” a character walks through a Parisian arcade, stopping to look at the “humorous visiting cards in a joke-shop window.” In Perec’s original French, one of these cards is: “Adolf Hitler/Fourreur.” A fourreur is a furrier, but Perec’s joke-shop joke is that it also resembles the French pronunciation of Führer. So Bellos, in his English version, rightly translates “fourreur” not as “furrier,” but like this: “Adolf Hitler/German Lieder.” Bellos’s new multiphonic pun is a travesty, no doubt about it — and it’s also the most precise translation possible.

And there is a philosophical bent behind it that is compelling to say the least:

Bellos’s deep philosophical enemy is what he calls “nomenclaturism,” “the notion that words are essentially names” — a notion that has been magnified in our modern era of writing: a conspiracy of lexicographers. It annoys him because this misconception is often used to support the idea that translation is impossible, since all languages largely consist of words with no single comprehensive equivalent in other languages.


It’s often said, for instance, that a translation can’t ever be an adequate substitute for the original. But a translation, Bellos writes, isn’t trying to be the same as the original, but to be like it. Which is why the usual conceptual duo of translation — fidelity, and the literal — is too clumsy. These ideas just derive from the misplaced anxiety that a translation is trying to be a substitute. Adolf Hitler/Fourreur! A translation into English as “furrier” would be literally accurate; it would, however, be an inadequate likeness.

In literature, there’s a related subset of this anxiety: the idea that style — since it establishes such an intricate relationship between form and content — makes a work of art untranslatable. But again, this melancholy is melodramatic. It will always be possible in a translation to find new relationships between sound and sense that are equivalently interesting, if not phonetically identical. Style, like a joke, just needs the talented discovery of equivalents. “Finding a match for a joke and a match for a style,” Bellos writes, “are both instances of a more general ability that may best be called a pattern-matching skill.”

Bringing translation back to an art form, I think, makes it easier to see how making money as a bespoke translator – presuming that potentially a machine can’t provide the nuance and subtlety of a truly great translation:

Translation, Bellos proposes in a dryly explosive statement, rather than providing a substitute instead “provides for some community an acceptable match for an utterance made in a foreign tongue.” What makes a match acceptable will vary according to that community’s idea of what aspects of an utterance need to be matched by its translation. After all, “no translation can be expected to be like its source in more than a few selected ways.” So a translation can’t be right or wrong “in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils.” In a translation, as any art form, the search is for an equivalent sign.

An then finishes with a sentiment you will all recognise as one heard hear often:

Google Translate, no doubt about it, is a device with an exuberant future.