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David Bellos, Is That a Fish in your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything

London, Penguin Books, 2011, 390 p. ISBN: 978-1-846-14464-6.
Bibliographical reference

David Bellos, Is That a Fish in your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. London, Penguin Books, 2011. 390 p. ISBN: 978-1-846-14464-6.

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1Since the time of the Ottoman dragomans, translators have always been suspected of disloyalty. Paradoxically, “[t]he disparagement of translation emanates most powerfully from those very circles where the ability to translate […] is most likely to be found”, i.e., from scholars themselves. This explains why translators have long been in need of a talented and persuasive supporter to defend their case. Today, they have found it. David Bellos may well be their ideal promoter.

2Indeed, not only is Bellos the translator of Georges Perec, Romain Gary and Ismail Kadare, he also teaches French and Comparative Literature at Princeton and is the author of several biographies (Georges Perec: A Life in Words published in 1993, Jacques Tati: His Life and Art in 1999, and Romain Gary: A Tall Story in 2010) as well as of a learned essay on translation. Is That a Fish in your Ear? is much more than an entertaining study littered with brilliant asides about how not to get lost in translation. This is an ambitious work whose title should ring a bell to its English readers, even those (or especially those) who never paid attention to translation studies. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a successful series first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1978), an odd Babel fish, when stuffed in one’s ear, was able to translate any kind of foreign language. Now, are translators and interpreters performing chuchotage at, say, international meetings gathering several heads of state, modern equivalents of Adams’s fish? Yes they are, up to a certain point, because they re-enact original statements in manners which vary depending upon the context, the kind of text they translate, and the people for whom they do it.

3Paradoxically, Bellos deals with the flexibilities of language and the trade of translation without ever mentioning Walter Benjamin’s famous piece on “The Task of the Translator” (1923). Throughout his provocative book, the author seldom refers to theorists, philosophers, or historians who tackled the subject before him, even though he duly acknowledges his sources in concise endnotes. He deliberately avoids any pedantic or professorial tone to achieve his goal, i.e., to convince us that translation is at the center of the world we live in. Doing so, he writes in a clear, witty prose and only mentions unavoidable names such as Cicero, Horace or St Jerome, the patron saint of translators. Incidentally, Jerome’s letter to Pammachius (346 BC) may well be more problematic than it first seemed to be. In it, Jerome says he does not translate literally except when rendering sacred scriptures into Latin. So, he abandons sense for sense translation “in those places where the order of the words is even a mysterium” (ubit et verborum ordo mysterium est). But what does mysterium mean? On the one hand, if it designates a holy sacrament, as is sometimes supposed, then Jerome would in fact defend word for word translation. On the other hand, if by mysterium Jerome merely alludes to something such as an impenetrable phrase, then what he could possibly want to tell us is that he uses word for word translation when and where the sense is impenetrable to him (108).

4A vivid cultural history of translation based on concrete examples, Is That a Fish in your Ear? is keen on destroying clichés associated with translation. It thus refutes the idea according to which translation always occurs between L1 and L2, dismisses the widespread (but unfortunate) notion that style is untranslatable, asserts that a match (because it is not an equivalence) “cannot be the same as the thing that it matches” (320), and refuses to talk about translation as a form of treason. Last but not least, it is a work which is actually designed to make people forget the contentious myth of the tower of Babel. As opposed to George Steiner, Bellos thinks that the diversity of language is not a curse. On the contrary, his point is that linguistic diversity is the very nature of language. One of the major claims of the book, therefore, is that for anything like a civilization to exist, some kind of interlingual communication has to happen, and translation practices must thus be regarded as quite central to what it means to be human.

5Translation raises many complex questions, such as “What is it that translators really do? How many different kinds of translating are there? What do the uses of this mysterious ability tell us about human societies, past and present?” (5). David Bellos answers many of them in 32 short, stimulating chapters covering a vast range of topics, from the myth of literal translation or translation as a dialect (translators are here considered as “the creators of the standard form of the language they use”, 200), to translation and the spread of international law, simultaneous interpreting, and the challenges posed by the translation of humor (with a particular attention paid to patterns of mismatched sounds and meanings between two tongues). The author always starts with simple assumptions. The minimal requirement for a thing to count as a translation, for example, is that it expresses in the target language pretty much what the source says, in a way that is respectful both of the way it is expressed in the source and of the conventions of the receiving culture. But soon, things get more complicated and much more exciting, not least because word for word renderings are bound to fail. Therefore, in order to offer relevant translations of their sources, translators have to reject any “servile adherence to the ideology of equivalent effect” (317) and use instead clever strategies to match their potential target. As a consequence, the borderline between translating and rewriting is not that clear-cut. How is a French translator supposed to translate the French parts of Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Must he/she reproduce Tolstoy’s French and run the risk of writing in a different kind of French from the rest of his/her translation? Or must he/she simply rewrite the French of the 19th-century Russian aristocrats so characteristic of Tolstoy’s novel?

6All in all, what interests the author is not to say how translation should be done, but what it does and how it has already been done. He does not neglect either tricky topics such as artificial intelligence and machine translation. An incurable optimist, Bellos is not afraid of the development of high-speed automatic devices like Google Translate because, he argues, they will not put translators out of their jobs. The demand for translation will always exceed the supply.

7Bellos’ book is therefore a real page-turner, highly recommended to anyone already fascinated with language, anthropology, and translation, and absolutely necessary for those who are not. Not yet.

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Electronic reference

Sophie CHIARI, “David Bellos, Is That a Fish in your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of EverythingE-rea [Online], 10.1 | 2012, Online since 20 December 2012, connection on 11 May 2021. URL:; DOI:

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