Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

Title: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
Author: David Bellos
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Particular Books
Publish Date: 2011
Source: Library

Why You're Reading This Book:

  • You're a non-fiction fan.
  • You have a love of language.
What's the Story?:

From "People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighbours' languages - as did many ordinary Europeans in times past. But today, we all use translation to cope with the diversity of languages. Without translation there would be no world news, not much of a reading list in any subject at college, no repair manuals for cars or planes, and we wouldn't even be able to put together flat pack furniture.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are. What's the difference between translating unprepared natural speech, and translating Madame Bovary? How do you translate a joke? What's the difference between a native tongue and a learned one? Can you translate between any pair of languages, or only between some? What really goes on when world leaders speak at the UN? Can machines ever replace human translators, and if not, why? The biggest question is how do we ever really know that we've grasped what anybody else says - in our own language or in another? Surprising, witty and written with great joie de vivre, this book is all about us, and how we understand each other."

My Two Cents: 

How do I know when a book is really interesting? If a book is really interesting, I will be compelled to read it aloud to whoever has the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your point of view) of being around at the time. Usually it's my poor, dear husband who is the witness to these readings. Let's just say with this book, he got a lot of it read to him.

Guys, I'm a word nerd. What does that mean? I love the written word, I love the spoken word, I love languages among other things. I think the way that we communicate with each other is fascinating. David Bellos has an extensive background in translation. He takes us through what translation is and what translation isn't. Translations are really substitutes for reading something in another, more accessible to you language than it was originally written in. There are so many books that I would never have access to if it weren't for some really good translations (where would I be without my love, Murakami???).

I learned so much from this book. There's not one way to translate and a lot of times, it seems to be an iterative process to get to a true understanding of the original text. Who knew so much had to go into it?

I think this book is good for anyone who has ever read a translation of a book and wondered about if the book was really getting to the original author's true meaning? How do we know that Murakami or Tolstoy sound the same way that they do in Japanese and Russian as they do in English? It's truly awesome to think about.

Bottom line: This book is for my fellow word nerds.



  1. I read parts aloud my hubby. kids, strangers..LOL This sounds like a great read Meg and I am really glad you shared it, because i would have walked right past that cover and never looked back. Now that I understand what the book is about, I get the cover. I have always wondered if we lose part of the writer's soul when we translate. Fabulous review!

    1. I always wonder that too! I'd love to be able to read everything in its native language just to make sure that I'm not missing anything!

  2. I'm a total word nerd too and this is one of the reasons I love your blog so much: you discover cool books like this! Can't wait to read it. :)

  3. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  4. I loved this book as well! I never would have thought it would be as fun and interesting as it was!

  5. Oh wow, this looks wonderful. I seriously considered going into translation as a career because I love different languages and how they all relate, so I'm really going to have to look this one up!

    An awesome cover and a Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference - what more can you want in a book? :)


Hi! Welcome to A Bookish Affair. If you leave a comment, I will try to either reply here or on your site!

As of 6/6/2011, this book is now an awards free zone. While I appreciate the awards, I would rather stick to reviewing more great books for you than trying to fill the requirements.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...