Is That a Fish in Your Ear is a book about translation, so it should be no surprise that I picked it up. But it’s not so much a book about the mental process of translation as it is a book about the business of translation and its role in society at large. So it certainly has some tidbits that are of interest to translators, but not a lot of insight. It isn’t the endless buffet of food for thought that Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter is.
Early in the book, the author, David Bellos, discusses how many different words the Japanese language has for “translation,” wandering perilously close to snowclone territory—though he later tackles the idea of snowclones head-on.
He does talk about the size of the international translation market, which is interesting, but his source is UNESCO’s Index Translationum, which only covers books. This is only a part of the translation industry, and as far as I can tell, only a small part (also, digging through UNESCO’s statistics reveals some very messy data). There are some interesting facts about the flow of translation—English is overwhelmingly dominant as a source language, exceeding the second-most common source language, French, almost sixfold. Japanese, the language I translate from, comes in at 8th, with only about 1/8th as many works translated as French, and only about 1/47th as many as English.
English is much less popular as a target of translation, coming in fourth to German, French, and Spanish (with only about half as many works as German). Japanese comes in fifth, with only about 15% fewer works translated into Japanese than into English. This would suggest that English speakers are not that interested in hearing what the rest of the world has to say.
But I am sure these figures are not representative of commercial translation. In patents, for example, I have read that English is the dominant target language, and the most frequently translated source languages for English are Japanese, German and French. Not sure where those statistics come from, but they don’t surprise me. It should be relatively easy to get statistics on patents, because they wind up being collected by a few government agencies. Much less so all the newspaper clippings, press releases, user manuals, depositions, specifications, clinical drug trials, and so on that make up the bulk of commercial translation, some of which are never intended for public consumption (and some of which is probably hardly read at all, in any language).
There are also different market forces at work here: a lot of patent translation is “push” translation (by the authors), whereas book translation is “pull” translation (by literary agents in the target language that are proxies for the eventual audience).
As to some of the standard problems of translation—He does talk about translating poetry (with reference to Hofstadter’s book), and to a lesser extent, humor, but these were fairly superficial treatments. He talks about the problem of translating culture-specific features to some extent and some of the solutions. He points out that it is not hard to translate a high social register satisfactorily, but translating uneducated-sounding regional dialects is much more problematic, and in the last pages of the book, he actually gets around to an interesting observation that might explain why: he makes the argument that language in its original form did not emerge to communicate ideas, but to reinforce social bonds, like monkeys grooming each other. And the aspects of speech that are peculiar to one community—which reinforce those social bonds—are exactly what can’t be translated to another, and seem glaringly misplaced when “translated” to the speech habits of a different community.
Is the book worth reading? It’s light. It gives a mile-high view of translation. It doesn’t grapple much with translation problems, much less offer solutions to them. It feels like it’s more intended for people who are interested in knowing about translation than in actually translating (which is fair, since there are probably more of them). It won’t have a lot of keen insights and revelations for translators, but it is interesting.