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BLT of David Bellos: A Book Review of “Is That A Fish In Your Ear?”

October 24, 2011

[UPDATE:  David Bellos has kindly corrected a mistake I made in the following review of his book.  See his comment here, where he also announces a French translation of the book, available for purchase in January.  I hope to review that edition here as well, as the author is already improving the book.]

I don’t mean to start a book review with a review of another book review.  But the Kirkus review of the new book, Is That A Fish In Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by David Bellos gets a couple of critical things just wrong.  Whoever wrote the review claims that Bellos “has a broad definition of translation: in general, the ability of the human mind to convert stimuli into meaning.”  This is hardly his definition at all, and what Bellos says about translation is better described as rich, studied, deep, nuanced, and still as extremely accessible for both novices and experts alike.  It’s hardly, as the Kirkus review asserts, “[e]rudite and occasionally dense.”

So let me reiterate.  The strengths of the book are its depth, its richness, and its accessibility for novices and for experts alike.  (I’ll mention the weakness at the end of my review).


Anyone who is interested in the Bible, in translation, and in literature (the topics we tend to address at this blog) will find what Bellos writes to be wonderfully informative, interesting, and illuminating (to use one adjective that the Kirkus review does get right); at some points for some readers the book might even be inspirational.

The author confronts numerous common sense notions about translation, and he masterfully gets his readers re-thinking them.  For example, Bellos challenges reductive, binary thinking when considering what it means for any of us to have a mother tongue or to know a language natively:

The paths by which speakers come to feel at home in a language are far too varied for the range of their abilities to be forced into merely two slots (‘native’ and ‘nonnative’) however broad or flexible the definitions of those slots may be.  [page 66]

Similarly, he gives clear and simple definitions only to show how further nuanced they must be to account for what translators really do and must do.  Here’s how Bellos starts his chapter SEVEN, “Meaning Is No Simple Thing”:

Whether done by a speaker of L[anguage]1 or L2, an adequate translation reproduces the meaning of an utterance made in a foreign language.

So far so good.  And yet Bellos complicates what seems, at first, so simple.  Then he goes on to make his complication into a problem that translation can, and does, solve:

That [functional definition] sounds straightforward enough….  But it doesn’t provide an adequate understanding of what translation is, because the meaning of an utterance is not a single thing.  Whatever we say or write means in many ways at once.  The fact is, utterances have all sorts of “meanings” of different kinds.  The meaning of meaning is a daunting topic, but you can’t really study translation if you leave it aside.  It may be a philosophical can of worms — but it’s an issue that every translation actually solves. [page 69]

The book has thirty-two short chapters (in 384 pages), which, as you can figure, would seem to make for a fairly quick read. Nonetheless, this is Bellos writing. Each chapter is extremely rich, a delightful combination of both education and — if you’ll pardon my cheap adjective — entertainment. As you read the book, you’ll know you’re learning from a master at his crafts (a best-selling author and best-selling literary translator who is Princeton University’s Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, who also serves there as a Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature). And you’ll have great fun doing it.


If you haven’t yet bought Is That A Fish In Your Ear? and if you haven’t yet read it, then you may want a sample by watching this video and listening to Bellos go on a bit. Here:

The tremendous thing about Bellos is that he considers everything in his book. Well nearly everything.

When he subtitles the book, Translation and the Meaning of Everything, you may want to know that he’s playing with language, specifically with ambiguity as we have it in English. And what he means by using the word and there in the subtitle could very well be this: “Translation really is the meaning of everything.”

Not surprisingly, then, you find Bellos and yourself asking in chapter ONE – What Is a Translation?  Well, I’ve already given away the answer, haven’t I?  Translation is everything; or is it?  The answers to the titular question are followed by chapter TWO, another question, “Is translation avoidable?” What do you think?  Well, if translation is everything, where might one avoid it, and how?  Next the author reflects in chapter THREE with us readers — asking “Why do we call it ‘translation’?” — before he has us remembering “Things People Say About Translation” [chapter FOUR].  The things people say are some of the very things which we have said at this blog, although after reading Bellos there is good reason to question our ever saying them again.  Towards the end of the book, you’ve already read all about what translators do — translate the Bible, translate literature, translate poetry, translate law, translate in the UN, translate for imperial purposes, translate comics, translate the news, translate spoken bits in film and television with captions and dubbing, translate literally, translate metaphorically, translate by machines, translate by simultaneous interpretation, and more.  And just  when you’ve exhausted all of the possibilities, or so you think, the author startles you with the title, “What Translators Do” [chapter TWENTY-EIGHT].  That near to ending chapter is rounded out, finally, with a chapter that tries to get us to declare, “What Translation is Not.”  Three more chapters including “A Parable of Translation” do bring the book to a close, but not before Bellos subjects us to his “Afterbabble: In Lieu of an Epilogue.”

The tour Bellos gives his readers is a tour de force.  His own theory of language is delightfully dimensioned.  Nevertheless, he walks readers through a review of the theories of the likes of Noam Chomsky, of Leonard Bloomfield, of Edward Sapir, of Ferdinand de Saussure, of Jacques Derrida, of Ludwig Wittgenstein, of George Steiner, of Vladimir Nabokov, and of Benjamin Whorf.  But not in that order, and Bellos is not just dropping names. Although the book never gives a heavy dose of these theorists or their theories in a single chapter, Bellos brings the most abstract of the abstract down to earth in narratives that flesh out the flow and the concerns of his book.  He deals with the translation theories of men such as Eugene Nida and Lawrence Venuti and Friedrich Schleiermacher and the translation practices of men such as Sigmund Freud and Augustine and Septuagint and King James Bible translators.  Bellos does a compelling job of showing readers his own robust and substantial theory of translation.  What might he mean when he deals with translation and the meaning of everything in just a few hundred pages?

Visitors to and commenters at this blog might be most interested in chapters relating to Bible translation, namely “The Myth of Literal Translation” (note the English ambiguity in this title); and  “Bibles and Bananas: The Vertical Axis of Translation Relations” and “Translation Impacts.”  In these sections of the book, Bellos considers Jewish translation, Christian missionary translation, and the effects of translation when translators are translating “UP” and when they are translating “DOWN.”  You may have noticed, if you watched the youtube video above, that these English prepositions figure into Bellos’ discussion.  When you read his book, you get how integral the directional metaphors are to parts of his theories on translation and on the intended and unintended impacts of Bible translation in particular.

Literature scholars and critics and aficionados will appreciate all that Bellos brings to light about “Translating Literary Texts.”  Though that’s the focus (and the title) of chapter TWENTY-SEVEN, it’s the discussion through much of the book.  Bellos is himself a literary translator, winning awards for his translations of Georges Perec and of Ismail Kadare, and for his work on of Honoré de Balzac.  Bellos opens Is That A Fish In Your Ear? with puzzlers in literary translation.  And some the most delightful discussions are about literary translation, in the chapters on “Foreign Soundingness”; on “Translation as a Dialect”; on “The Awkward Issue of L[anguage]3”; on “Custom Cuts: Making Forms Fit”; and on “Translating Humor.”  The literary perspectives in the book show that Bellos is not just a linguist, not only a historian, not merely a translator, not simply an expert on the Bible, not just a theorist about translation but also a writer, a rhetor, a user of English and other languages, and a literary critic as well.


Bellos gives readers examples and more.  For example, he shows twelve different ways that the following Chinese “shunkouliu” (politically motivated slippery jingle)








can be translated:

1. Translated character for character
Hard hard bitter bitter four ten years
One morning return to untie release before
Already thus return to untie release before
Just-at year change fate in-fact for whom?

2. Translated group for group 
Strenuous, strenuous forty years
One morning return to before Liberation
Given that return to before Liberation
In those days revolution in fact for whom?

3. Explanation, sense for sense 
An extremely strenuous forty years
And one morning we [find ourselves having] returned
to before Liberation
And given that we’ve returned to before
Liberation [We might ask] who, in fact, the revolution back in
those days was for.

4. Plain translation
An extremely strenuous forty years
And suddenly we’re back to before Liberation
And given our return to before Liberation
Who, in fact, was the revolution for?

5. Adding some rhythm 
An extremely strenuous forty years
And suddenly we’re back to ’forty-nine,
And since we’ve gone back to ’forty-nine
Who, in fact, was it all for?

6. Matching words to Chinese syllables 
For forty long years ever more perspiration
And we just circle back to before Liberation
And speaking again of that big revolution
Who, after all, was it for?

7. Adding rhyme 
Forty long years crack our spine
Back we go to ’forty-nine
Since we go to ’forty-nine
Back then who was it all for?

8. First polish 
Forty years we bend our spine
And just go back to ’forty-nine
And having gone to ’forty-nine
Whom back then was this for?

9. Adaptation, with double rhyme 
Blood sweat and tears
For forty long years
Now we’re back to before
Who the hell was it for?

10. As a word rectangle (6 × 4) 
We had sweat, toil, and tears
For more than forty bloody years
Now we’re back to square one
For whom was it all done?

11. Isogrammatical lines (21 × 4) 
Blood sweat and tears
Over forty long years
Now it’s utterly over
Who stole the clover?

12. Sounded out in Chinese 
Xin xin ku ku si shi nian
yi zhao hui dao jie fang qian
ji ran hui dao jie fang qian
dang nian ge ming you wei shui

Bellos explains how this “barbed rhyme about New China’s old guard” can be– as translation, in translation — “a pleasing and meaningful shape in a language completely unrelated to its original tongue.”  He shows it, and then he explains it, in various pleasing and differently meaningful ways.


So what’s the weakness of Is That A Fish In Your Ear?  The disappointment of Bellos’ book is that it gives women the short shrift.  That’s not to say that Bellos himself is anti-female.  (He may be a feminist.)  And it’s not to suggest that he ignores sexism in language and in translation.  (He doesn’t.)  In fact, he seems quite aware of the problems of masculinist language (reductive binaries and gyne-phobic metaphors).  Take for example how Bellos, in good way, exposes misogyny at one point:

Translations, this saying goes, are like women. Si elles sont belles, elles sont infidèles, mais si elles sont fidèles, elles ne sont pas belles—“If they are good-looking, you can’t trust them to be faithful, and if they stick by their mates, it’s because they’re old frumps.” That’s a fairly free translation by conventional standards, but it is exactly what the adage implies (while also being translatable in its other dimension as “Aesthetically pleasing ones are adaptive, and nonadaptive ones are just plain”). The shadow of such sexist nonsense falls even today upon a French publishing house with an otherwise admirable list of translated works—Les Belles Infidèles.

Sexist language has been the object of long and mostly successful campaigns in France as in the English-speaking world, but only rarely has it been observed that outside the context of politeness as it was understood in the French seventeenth century, les belles infidèles, whether used as a three-word catchphrase or in the longer adage that was built from it, is an insult to women. Most people let it pass because they think it is a statement about translation. It is not. It’s about male anxiety—to the point of misogyny. It applies to translation, I suspect, only because, like other versions of the betrayal motif, it says just how frightening translation can seem.  [page 130]

But Bellos fails to take the opportunity to discuss what linguists and rhetoricians such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray might say — and have said — about phallogocentricism in language and in translation (about French in French no less).

The book does discuss some gender configurations of some languages; here’s a note on French again:

In 1789, the new revolutionary regime in France drew up its famous declaration of the rights of man and called it the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. Its purpose was to sweep away the religious and feudal underpinnings of the legal system inherited from the monarchy and to establish, under the authority of a Supreme Being who could not be called God lest that be seen as a sop to the Catholic Church, the basic rights of the citizen in his relationship to the new French state.

There was no question of these rights being accorded to any who were not fully emancipated citizens. As no one had yet thought of enfranchising women, the use of a masculine term, homme, was not just a convenience of language—it was what the declaration meant to say. It established and made explicit the rights of male subjects who were also citizens. [page 222]

Well, Bellos in saying “no one had yet thought of enfranchising women” completely forgets Olympia de Gouges, who did think of enfranchising women and who did re-write the first declaration as Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne to make everyone else think of enfranchising women, and who went to the guillotine and there was beheaded because of such thoughts.  Bellos might have mentioned Simone de Beauvoir and her Le Deuxième Sexe; he might have discussed how Canadian women coined Madelle, and how French women are hoping similarly to revolutionize their language.  The book is current, and the oversights therefore are curious.


If you want a rich discussion of translation, then David Bellos’ book is it.


Bellos doesn’t make it real obvious where he comes up with his title Is That A Fish In Your Ear?. If you’d like a hint, then (after reading Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in English) turn to page 270. You’ll find it there.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. David Bellos permalink
    October 24, 2011 9:38 pm

    I’m sorry to have to correct you, but although I have written about Honoré de Balzac, I have never translated him. And your perfectly correct correction of me—re Olympe de Gouges— has already been noticed and integrated into the French edition of the book (forthcoming in January) and will feed back into the English paperback when it comes later next year.

    If you notice any more mistakes, please send them along!

  2. October 25, 2011 11:11 am

    professeur Bellos —

    My main mistake is not emphasizing strongly enough how insightful your book is.

    — J. K. Gayle


    I’ve updated my review with the necessary corrections. Thank you. Thanks also for noting the inclusion and recognition of Olympe de Gouges, due in the paperback books (which I hope will show likewise in the various ebook versions) and in the French edition.

    The latter I intend to review here too. With respect to the French, it will be wonderful to see how you translate the following paragraph:

    An obvious case of movement toward the center occurs in Charles Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug.” The African American slave in the story, Jupiter, is represented as speaking in this manner: “Dar! dat’s it!—him never plain of notin—but him berry sick for all dat.” Baudelaire doesn’t try to find a dialect of French to fit, he just says what Jupiter means to say in standard French: Ah! Voilà la question!—il ne se plaint jamais de rien, mais il est tout de même malade.

    And this one:

    Identical translation problems arise in a vast array of European fiction. The first page of Balzac’s Le Père Goriot contains a sentence in English (“All is true!”) that has an entirely different environment and force when reproduced in an English translation of the text. But what can you do? Translate “All is true!” back into French? Or alter the spelling to “Oll eez troo” to indicate it having been thought by a Frenchman with an atrocious accent? Balzac had no qualms about altering the orthography of French to represent the regional accent of Nucingen, a Jewish banker from Alsace, who also appears in Le Père Goriot. Current conventions don’t allow translators to do that to the diction of narrators—but there’s no strictly logical reason for withholding a lousy accent from Balzac’s narrator, too.

    Will the French translation have a “third code”? Or will Bellos in French (to English readers) be like Hegel in English (to German readers)? Will it still be Bellosian: will it retain the phrase “Dickensianity”? Might it invent a term for a French Dickens’ style that sounds more like Derrida’s différance?

    Est-ce que les «styles» de «match»? (Is a “match” a game in French? Sorry for the bad puns.)

    Will the French be a translation UP, DOWN, or some other way?

    HAUT? BAS? ou un autre chemin?


  1. Dynamic UnEquivalence: Nida v. Buber and Rosenzweig (per Bellos) « BLT
  2. Bellos on “War and Peace” as Russian (and French) in English « BLT
  3. Bellos, Loayza, Olympe de Gouges and the Meaning of Everything « BLT
  4. Translating Translations: no pound of raisins for Екатерина Лобкова « BLT
  5. “Multiples”: to “politely frazzle” the “whole category of the original” | BLT

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