Tuesday, November 15

Translation and the Meaning of Everything

In his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos explores the history, the future and the art of translation. David Bellos is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. In his book and recent interview on NPR Bellos declares that “the practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition.” Bellos posits that translation is something that all humans do, whether it be through the act of reading or conversation, we are extracting and interpreting meaning. Of course this act becomes more complex when we translate into a second language and seek a culturally and linguistically appropriate equivalent.

When asked what it is that people want translation to be, Bellos responds that “People, for various cultural reasons and reasons of education and so forth, often have the idea that a translation to be a translation has to be the same as the original that it's translating.” Bellos disagrees with this argument as all expressions even when restated in the same language will vary. “They vary historically. They vary in the specific language patterns that you're dealing. They vary depending on the kind of text or object that you're translating.” Instead of seeking the same expression in the target language, Bellos states that the art of translation seeks likeness or a good match. This brought to mind the Spanish translation of Shakespeare’s infamous quote “To be or not to be. That is the question.” I’ve often seen this translated as “Ser o no ser, he ahí la pregunta,” which conveys the message but I couldn’t help but to feel that something was lost in translation. After researching this phrase, I stumbled upon Tomás Segovia’s ingenious translation "Ser o no ser, de eso se trata," In this inarguably rich equivalent, the recently deceased poet and translator avoids a literal approach and in my opinion focuses on the spirit of the message. (Click here to read more about Tomás Segovia) I believe this is what Bellos is referring to when arguing for a good match, instead of focusing so much on sameness.

Please take a moment and listen to the interview and after reading the book, share your thoughts.

This Interview is Copyright of 2011 National Public Radio®.


Website Translation said...

Excellent book, I like this book and also like the writing style of David Bellos. Thanks for sharing this.

English to Bulgarian Translations said...

Hello , congratulations on the article! After I read this post I begin to think that this book must be very intriguing.