Anyone living in this part of the world should be well aware of the importance of translation. Anyone in Hungary should be particularly aware. Very few non-Hungarians can understand the Hungarian language, so for a small nation like Hungary translation is a basic necessity if the country, so to say, wishes to communicate with the outside world.
On the same basis, it’s true that to be a translator is a common mode of employment in Hungary – certainly compared with a country of native English speakers such as Britain, Canada or the US.
At the same time, however, even those of us living in Hungary tend to take translation for granted.
It’s something that just happens, usually behind the scenes. The translator’s task and its involved difficulties are not usually appreciated by people not involved with translation themselves.
Hence the first set of people who will appreciate this book comprises translators, since it describes all the difficulties encountered when trying to translate a text.
Some questions for translators
What is meaning? What is context? What is literal and when should literal translation be avoided? How can humour be translated? What’s so special about translating literature? How on earth does poetry get translated?
These are just some of the issues touched on and explained for a general readership. Translators will be happy that someone has taken up their “cause” and is presenting their case to the world.
Some history for interpreters
The author includes interpreting as part of translation and one of his revealing sections describes quite clearly the extremely demanding mental agility required to work as a simultaneous interpreter and the stress involved.
Although people have been interpreting between languages for centuries, he traces the origin of today’s highly organised so-called conference interpreting to the end of the Second World War and the Nuremburg Trials, when it was necessary to have top-quality interpreters on hand with the necessary technical equipment to relay the proceedings simultaneously in several languages.
Of the importanceof writing in English
Thus, given that the work is not simply “technical” but takes into account historical developments, there is a second category of people who will like this book, namely all those interested in the social context of translation.
That context, of course, includes the dominance of the English language across the world, and how there is a “centre” and a “periphery” when it comes to the translation of books.
A fascinating table shows that in the first decade of the current century among books translated between seven languages (Swedish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, German and English) the vast majority – 103,000 out of 132,000 – were translations from English. If you can get published in English, it seems you are perhaps more than half way to becoming “recognised” internationally.
Challenge for the reader
There’s also a bit of fun to be had with this book. In a section about the difficulties of being faithful to meaning while also being truthful as a translation, the author asks us to consider how to translate the following: “There are seven words in this sentence.” Readers familiar with Hungarian or any other non-English language can have a try. It can be done but it’s not always obvious how.
David Bellos writes in an engaging style but due to the different complexities of different languages some parts are rather difficult to get through. However, what you can do – which translators can but interpreters can’t – is skip a section then return to it later having seen how the overall story unfolds.
Buy the Book
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the meaning of everything
By David Bellos,
Hardback, 390 pages,
Particular Books/Penguin, 2011