Anyone working internationally has encountered a multilingual work environment at some point. It brings unique challenges and power dynamics. Translation in such a context can become a contentious practice, though often it’s treated as a mechanical — and not political — exercise.
I’ve been thinking about these dynamics as I recently finished reading David Bellos’ fascinating book on translation: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. The book lays out a dozen dimensions of a practice that many of us take for granted as part of our professional lives.
Bellos challenges our typical understanding of what it means to translate, and especially the red herring of “literal” translation. With a more pragmatic approach, he elaborates the nuances of hard-to-translate locutionary acts such as poetry and jokes (“untranslatable only if you insist on understanding ‘translation’ as a low-level matching of the signifiers themselves”). He spends chapters on the unique constraints brought by certain forms: cartoon strips, photo captions, and movie subtitles all face length restrictions that are only somewhat correlated to the content being translated.
He also describes the challenges of communications that lie on the edge of language, such as hand movements, facial expressions, and even accents. How, for example, should a character speaking the American southern dialect of English be translated into French? The phrase “how y’all doin’?” would be losing something if it were translated the same way you translate “how do you do?” Certain pronunciations and idioms affirm identity with a particular community, both to outsiders and to others from within that community, but those identities have national, ethnic, cultural and other factors that don’t map well outside their context. As Bellos concludes: “The community-building role of actual language use is simply not part of what translation does.”
The navigation of a multilingual work environment is a bit outside the scope of the book, but for those working in international affairs or development of some kind, Bellos has several insightful chapters. For example, on the power dynamics of translation:
And naturally there’s commentary on the global role of English, the changes that Bible translation brought to language relationships, and the impact of translatability on the development of international law.
The effect of the European Union’s language-parity rules provides an unique example of how translation plays out in contemporary politics. Bellos’ analysis of the European Commission and European Court of Justice is worth excerpting:
He goes on to compare European jurisprudence with the interpretation of scriptures. It makes the American system sound relatively straightforward!
Final assessment: Interesting throughout, though a bit repetitive at times. Good for a couple flights if you want to read something that’s only semi-connected to your work.