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.

11bellos "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?" by David BellosI’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:

Translation typically takes place not between languages felt by their speakers to be on an equal footing but between those that in some respect have a vertical relationship between them. Laws, commands, instructions, and treaties are translated DOWN— from Sumerian, Greek, and Latin in ancient times; from German in the Hapsburg Empire; from Ottoman Turkish in the long period of Ottoman sway in the Mediterranean basin— into vernaculars spoken by people who need to grasp what the rules and agreements that affect them are. Novels, plays, philosophical and mathematical treatises, and religious texts may accompany them, but not always. Out of these kinds of situations the world over have grown ideas among the speakers of culturally dominant tongues that their language is inherently superior and the only true vehicle of thought.

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:

Each language version of a law, regulation, directive, or letter emanating from the commission or any of its institutions has the same force, the same authority, the same validity as any other. Nothing is a translation— except that everything is translated. …

It’s an open secret that the EU also possesses an interlanguage for most practical uses in the corridors of the Berlaymont building, in the canteens and private meeting rooms— and it’s English. However, it is definitely not the case that EU texts are first written in English and then translated. Things work in an altogether more interesting way. A panel or subcommittee meets to draft a regulation. It uses one of the four official working languages of the EU — German, French, English, Italian — but there are always other language drafters present. The first draft is argued over not only for content but also for how it is going to be expressed in the other working languages. …

Many of the cases brought before the ECJ arise from conflicting interpretations in different member states of regulations made by the European authorities — in effect, clashes between different interpretations of different language versions of what is held to be the same text. …

[T]he court has to decide what the law was intended to achieve, over and above any one of its linguistic expressions. In monolingual national cultures of law, the best evidence of the legislator’s intention lies in the words of the law, and much traditional legal argument is about the meanings of words. In European law, you have to go one further than that. Questions of legal interpretation in the appeals court of the EU are also always questions about language in twenty-four different forms.

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.

  1. Awesome – this has been on my to-read list for ages! Now I am more encouraged to getting around to it.


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