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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Frederic Raphael


Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything
By David Bellos (Particular Books 390pp £20)

If I say 'David Bellos has to be one of the smartest people now on the planet', what language am I using? English of a kind; but scarcely the Queen's, which - to judge from her public utterances - retains a careful insularity; mid-Atlantic schtick is not Her Majesty's bag. The use, in England, of 'smart' meaning 'super-clever', as opposed to 'well-dressed', dates from the Sixties. It takes its tone and form from David Ogilvy's Madison Avenue. 'Has to be' promises my personal endorsement. It is also remarkably difficult to translate, even into so adjacent a language as French. 'D B doit être certainement un des gens les plus intelligents du monde' does some of the work, but it lacks the American tang and it fails to render 'has to be' as daring the reader to say I'm wrong. 'D B est un crack' is closer, but also further away. Bref, even simple translation ain't easy to do.

Bellos is a Princeton professor and an award-winning translator, notably of Georges Perec. His subject is the crisscross of languages, the theories behind their variety and the best practice of rendering one into another. In the eighteenth century, the great Cambridge classicist Richard Bentley established the uniqueness of the Greek when, after looking at Alexander Pope's version of the Iliad, he said: 'It is a very pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer.' Modern reactionaries have said as much about Christopher Logue's version of the Iliad, War Music, which may be a work of genius, although its author makes a virtue of not knowing Greek (and, of course, of belittling those who do).

'Literal translation', of which Bellos is no advocate, cannot supply the neutrality often imputed to it. Word-for-wordism began with St Jerome, who maintained that the veracity of the scriptures demanded it: the order of scriptural dicta was part of their mysterium. The Church resisted translation into the vernacular for fear that it would breach the priestly monopoly and banalise the sacred. 'Translation', we are reminded, 'is the enemy of the ineffable. It causes it to cease to exist.' Yet without it, the Torah would have remained the purview of the priesthood. Even in Jerusalem, before the Roman annexation of Judaea, the congregation could not understand Hebrew. They had to have it simultaneously translated, by attendant whisperers, into Aramaic, the vernacular of the ancient Middle East.

Not until the Pentateuch was translated into Greek, in the third century BC, by seventy-two bilingual Jews, did it reach a wide audience. Bellos says that they did their miraculously harmonious work in Paphos on Cyprus. Unless Bellos has new information, tradition has it that the scholars were sequestered on the lighthouse island of Pharos, a suitable spot for those whose work was destined to be a light to the Gentiles. Elsewhere, Bellos has knowledgeable fun with the difficulties missionaries have in making the Bible intelligible to users of arcane tongues. Polyvalent as well as polyglot, he also takes time out to remark that Ingmar Bergman made two kinds of movies: chatty comedies for the Swedish home market and taciturn moralities for foreign audiences for whom the sparse dialogue had to be rendered in terse subtitles.

Bellos cannot quite see why such a big deal is made of linguistic cross-dressing. He abstains, just a little ostentatiously, from engaging with George Steiner on the latter's high ground. Because Bellos finds it easy to switch from French to Italian to German, and isn't mystified by Russian or Chinese or Albanian (if only in 'phrasebook' form), he refuses to take verbal versatility as evidence of genius. He remarks that until recently there was no tradition of translation in India, even though the loquacious subcontinent seethes with a variety of languages, because most Indians have been accustomed to speaking three, four or five of them. Christopher Columbus spoke a form of verbal gazpacho, comprising Italian, Castilian and Portuguese. The dominance of English-speakers, first the British, then the Americans, has made them lazy about acquiring other tongues. The imperialist and the law-giver have expected 'natives' to make themselves useful by learning the master's codes. Bellos does not mention that in Nazi concentration camps inmates who spoke German had a somewhat better chance of survival.

The facile pun on traduttore and traditore points up the suspicion that a linguist is likely also to be traitor, both to the original text and when employed as interpreter or middleman between mutually uncomprehending parties. In diplomacy, translation has rarely been literal. The self-importance of a ruler often led him to use condescending language when writing to another. The tactful middleman excised potentially offensive flourishes. Bellos attributes the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to the false cousinage of the German word Adjutant, which referred to a high official, and the French adjudant, which meant only 'sergeant-major'. When Bismarck announced that the French ambassador had been dismissed by a message from the Kaiser delivered by his Adjutant vom Dienst, Napoleon III took great (and calamitous) offence at his representative being seen off by what he assumed to be an NCO.

Today, we are happy to presume that the media report foreign news and the speeches of our betters, in all parts of the world, with reliable accuracy. Bellos knows better:

A report of the latest speech by the Iranian president ... could ... be attributed to a named journalist's adaptation of a Reuter's English-language wire originating in Kuwait based on a report in Arabic from Al Jazeera which had provided the information from listening to a radio broadcast in Farsi from Teheran.

The claim, by Arab protesters, that they want 'democracy' is an instance of the adoption of the vocabulary of the 'master-tongue' in order to bathe their motives in a sublime light.

The European Community might have been devised to keep translators in work. The standard was set at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, where simultaneous versions of the proceedings had to be relayed to the judges and lawyers of the four victorious countries and to the defendants. Complex as that machinery was, the European Union's is infinitely more elaborate. An axiom of the organisation is that no language should be primary. All have equal status. In theory, no document or law is a translation of another; the Alpine mountains of paperwork consist of equally valid and authentic texts, none admittedly derived from another. Yet each version, however hard its composers have sought to remain accurate to the spirit of the legislation, is likely to carry nuances or ambiguities that are absent in a parallel text in another language. Babel has its modern towers in Brussels and Strasbourg with a growing staff of translators who alone can make the representatives understandable to each other and, in the end, verify that parallel lines of language meet, if possible, in a happy consensus.

Science, however, is conducted principally in English, hence its seemingly unstoppable spread as a global language. Bellos points out that our notion of what Freud actually said has been determined, perhaps disastrously, by James Strachey's rendering of his prose into scientific-sounding English, whereas his French admirers read him as a literary pundit writing in 'Freudish' (a sublime version, maybe, of what Karl Kraus sneeringly called Mauscheln, German as written by Jews).

Bellos treats a fine spread of topics, but doesn't discuss why the well-intentioned Esperantists have failed to sell their one-size-fits-all vocabulary to the world. Can it be that it is too nice? Without a history or a literature, it fosters no dark or furtive duplicities. It is so nice that no one would want to speak it after nine o'clock at night. As it is, the drift towards a modern lingua franca is very slow, but there are signs of it, not least in advertising: Citroën's latest advertisement on English TV ends with a sexy French female voice-over reading the slogan 'créative technologie'. The words have, in fact, been inverted to seem like ze real zing; no Frenchman would say anything but 'technologie créative'. The original phrase has been 'translated' into what seems like the same language.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is spiced with good and provocative things. At once erudite and unpretentious, Bellos saves his best trick for last, when he concludes that language is not necessary for communication, as theorists insist (other species communicate without it). He sees it as a way 'to establish rank or declare hostility' (or friendship?). Speech has more in common with the sociable rituals of eating - hence the polite rule against doing both at the same time - than with some Pentecostal notion of universal mutual understanding. The practical deposit of Bellos's scintillating bouillabaisse is that if you want your children to have a safe job in tomorrow's world, have them learn Arabic and/or Chinese, always assuming they come out of the current education system able to speak and spell comprehensible English.

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Frederic Raphael's Ifs and Buts, his fifth volume of notebooks, is published by Carcanet.