Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

courtesy of NPR

With the subtitle, Translation and the Meaning of Everything, this book felt like just that. I found David Bellos’s new book about translation an incredibly fascinating read not only as a newbie to literary translation but also as an etymological nerd. Any lover of words and languages would enjoy this book.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? was easily accessible for even the layman.  This book is so well-thought out and information is presented about translations and words and languages that I had not even thought of before (think: UN interpreters, etc.). On a basic level, after finishing Bellos’s book, I feel more confident in departing from the word-to-word translation that the German writer of the story I’m translating wants and make it more fluid, natural, and well, literary. A bad translation is verbatim is what I’ve heard from a couple of professional translators working in all different languages. I mean, I’m the native English speaker; I know when the prose sounds stilted and awkward in English! If you feel in the mood to jump through some syntactical hoops, just take a gander at some German sentence structure.

Chapter 23 of the book (“The Adventure of Automated Language-Translation Machines”) reminded me of one of the first posts I wrote for this blog: One Brief Defense of Literary Translation. The verdict is yes to the necessity of literary translators.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about Bellos’s book was the little anecdotes throughout about translating some of George Perec’s works. Perec wrote with constraints and was a member of Oulipo.  I can’t even imagine undertaking such a task. I’ve only read one thing by Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris but after reading Bellos’s book and because of the recent death of the great writer and translator, Gilbert Adair,  I feel motivated to finally pick up A Void. The original title of the book is La Disparition  and is written in its entirety without the letter e. Adair took up the task and produced an English translation without the letter e as well.

But now I’m starting to get sidetracked. What I’m trying to get at is read this book! It was a real page turner. For more info, check out this author interview at NPR’s website.


  1. Nice review. My roommate is a professional German translator and I do a lot of proofreading of her English to make sure it doesn’t sound odd, so I totally understand what you mean by “a bad translation is verbatim.” This sounds like an excellent book and I’ll pass on the recommendation to my roomie.

      1. She works mostly with businesses–translating web sites or work documents–so she’s not really in the literary realm. She also mostly works word of mouth, but she been talking about launching a website for a while. I’ll let you know when that happens 🙂

  2. My edition of Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad (translator Michael Kandel) has always amazed me. Not only is the text full of alliteration and language jokes, it’s also full of math puns. And the math is correct.
    How hard must that translation have been?

    Thanks for the book recommendation, I think this one is going on my list.

    1. When I was reading this book, I kept thinking about Stanislaw Lem and more specifically, Solaris. The only available English translation is from the French translation of the original Polish. Bellos also talks about this sort of translation in his book.

      Even simple translating is super difficultt, so I can’t even imagine how Michael Kandel managed. Bellow also writes about how most people don’t even think of the translator/interpreter in the process.

  3. @LibriCritic
    Yes, definitely do send me the info if she ever launches a website. In the book, Bellos dedicates portions to technical and business translating. I’m sure she will enjoy that.

  4. I’ve just ordered it, thanks for the heads up! I’ve loved reading Eco’s works on translation, and hey, the title makes reference to Douglas Adams, I love it already.

    1. I know. However, I think he only mentions Hitchhiker’s Guide briefly. On a sidenote– I’m getting antsy. I want to read Eco’s new book (The Prague Cemetery) but I am waiting for it in paperback. I’ve become finicky about hardcovers in the past few years. So neurotic.

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