Book Review: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

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.

All Today’s Parties

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive. I think she’s half-right: sometimes it is predictive.

William Gibson has been writing science fiction long enough that he can now write stories containing some of the predictive elements from his earlier works, and present them as descriptive elements in contemporary fiction. I just finished reading Spook Country, and I get the distinct impression he’s having fun with this.

It has some of his favorite character types—defrocked military men, art traders, hugely wealthy pawn-pushers, loners living outside their home countries.

It has specific concepts and technologies, slightly altered to fit present-day circumstances:

From Virtual Light:

He had his feet up on the back of the front passenger seat and the little red lights around the edges of his sneakers were spelling out the lyrics to some song.

From Spook Country:

“You can’t see an image unless the wheels are turning. The system senses the wheel’s position and fires the LEDs it needs, to invoke an image in persistence of vision”

In the future world Neuromancer, ICE stood for Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, software to prevent hackers from gaining access to computers. In the contemporary world of Spook Country, ICE is a different kind of gatekeeper: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The “locative art” helmets in Spook Country, while I’m not aware of any such item available as an off-the-shelf product, would be technically feasible today. And they recapitulate the augmented-reality goggles that were the MacGuffin in Virtual Light.

The most delicious update of all, in Spook Country:

“See-bare-espace,” Odile pronounced, gnomically, “it is everting.”
“Turns itself inside out,” offered Alberto, by way of clarification. “Cyberspace.”

Here Gibson gets to take a word he coined in Neuromancer, which was adopted wholeheartedly into the English language, and re-uses it here unironically. I have to wonder if he was consciously looking for an opportunity to work it in, or if it just flowed out naturally—as if he had re-learned the word as everyone else uses it—and then he rocked back and thought “How about that!”

Perhaps Gibson’s favorite character type—appearing in one form or another in Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Pattern Recognition—is the idiot-savant bricoleur. That character makes no appearance in Spook Country. Perhaps the part is played by Gibson himself, cutting pieces out of his old books and reassembling them into something new.

Black Rock, White City

While visiting Chicago recently, I borrowed the book The Devil and the White City, a book about the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and a serial murderer who stalked Chicago at the same time, H. H. Holmes.

Even growing up the better part of a century after the fair ended, as a Chicagoan it was always part of the collective unconsciousness, and fair factoids were part of my knowledge of the city’s history. But the book brought a lot of the small details and broader themes into clear relief for me. Some of those themes got me thinking that, at least in some ways, Burning Man carries on the principles the Columbian Exposition.

The World’s Fair of 1893 was conceived partly as a temporary utopian city, partly as a grand spectacle of the exotic, the titillating, and the audacious. All of these things, at least in the abstract, are true for Burning Man.

At the World’s Fair, the utopianism was material: it was called the White City partly because all the major architecture was that color, and partly because, unlike regular cities (Chicago at the time was described as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror.”), it was very clean and manicured. It had pure drinking water and effective sewage. It was extensively wired for electricity, with hundreds of thousands of bulbs being lit—for some visitors, it was their first exposure to electric lighting. None of these things strike modern city-dwellers as miraculous, and indeed, it is perhaps partly the fair’s legacy that we can take them for granted. Accordingly, the utopianism that Burning Man represents is intangible: the gift economy, self-expression, volunteerism, and community-building. Indeed, at the material level, Burning Man is a harsh place demanding “radical self-reliance” that reminds participants not to take their everyday material comforts for granted.

Both Burning Man and the World’s Fair had their own urban infrastructure; at the Fair, the private police force was another aspect of the utopianism (Chicago’s regular police force at the time was apparently so bad that it never even occurred to anyone to contact them regarding the many women who went missing at the hands of Holmes); Burning Man doesn’t have its own police force per se, but it does have the Rangers, who are considered “community mediators.”

The World’s Fair had numerous spectacles. It would be hard to top the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Fair. That first one was a doozy—each carriage was the size of a train car accommodating 60 riders, and there were 36 cars. The whole thing reached a height of 250′, probably a higher altitude than any of the visitors had experienced without having a hill underneath them. The Midway of the fair (which has given its name to a part of every carnival since) introduced Americans to exotic foods and peoples from other countries. And for titillation, it was the occasion for the arrival of belly-dancing in this country. Burning Man has its share of the epic, the exotic, the marvelous, and the titillating as well.

The comparison between the fair and that thing in the desert was gradually forming in my mind as I read the book, but one passage really brought it home for me. The buildings of the fair were never designed or constructed to be permanent, and the question of how to dispose of them once the fair was over occupied many minds, who couldn’t bear the prospect of the White City fading out into disrepair. One of the architects involved in building the fair, Charles McKim, wrote “indeed it is the ambition of all concerned to have it swept away in the same magical manner in which it appeared, and with the utmost despatch. For economy, as well as for obvious reasons, it has been proposed that the most glorious way would be to blow up the buildings with dynamite. Another scheme is to destroy them with fire.”

Old Man’s War

Just finished Old Man’s War. It had been favorably reviewed by someone whose opinion I respect, and it had received a certain amount of buzz for being picked up as a book after the author serialized it on his own website.

Didn’t do much for me. Admittedly, I now see that PNH refers to it as a “juvenile,” and I suppose it’s fine as juveniles go. As adult fiction, it’s flat and shallow.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Read What’s the Matter with Kansas? recently. The book homed in on and answered a question that has been bugging me for a long time.

The way I see it, the Republican party doesn’t seem like it should hold together as a single party. There are the country-club conservatives, people interested in laissez-faire economic policies (or blatantly favorable economic policies) and not particularly interested in social issues. And there are the red-meat conservatives, who seem more populist, but are mostly interested in social issues. The way I’ve always perceived it, each pays lip-service to the interests of the other, but ultimately their interests don’t overlap, and may even clash.

Kansas responds to this directly, and essentially portrays the plebian red-meat conservatives as the willing dupes of the country-club conservatives, who push on hot-button issues to get them worked up, without ever really throwing them a bone. People always talk about banning abortion, but nobody ever does anything about it.

And this is where I find a point of disagreement: over the past few years, right-wing triumphalism has led to more actual action on those issues. South Dakota did outlaw abortion. Most states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

And of course, over the past 6 years, a different wing of conservatism has achieved prominence, the neoconservatives, the foreign-intervention maximalists. Frank doesn’t really address this faction, but in the current political climate, it’s impossible to talk about politics without talking about that.

Still, these are isolated problems in what is otherwise an interesting and entertaining read. Frank does show how the embrace of laissez-faire principles has damaged Kansas, but those principles have become part of the red-meat faction’s holy crusade, even to the direct self-impoverishment of its members. And shows how the bizarre history of the state brought them 180° politically to where they are.


Coincidentally on the same day that scientists announced clear evidence that dark matter really exists, I finished reading Accelerando, a story about the singularity by Charlie Stross. As this interview with the author points out, it’s “information-dense” (resulting in reading aids like the Accelerando Technical Companion).

Saying it’s dense is an understatement. In the early chapters, my (somewhat annoyed) impression was that “this guy has devoured every Boing-boing post for the past five years, digested and ruminated them, and vomited them onto the page.” As the book moved on and got weirder and more intense, I decided “this guy drops mind-bombs like a deer running through a forest drops turds.” So my mind is pretty well blown at the moment.

The singularity is an interesting proposition, an audacious prediction about the future, and this book gives a lot of ideas on the subject to chew on. While reading it, I found myself wondering “does he really believe this stuff?” In that interview, he hedges a bit, but says “any SF that doesn’t try to address the issue is either a dystopia or a fantasy.” So, yes. He’s a pretty smart guy who’s clearly listening to and extrapolating a lot of trends. And it makes me wonder ”can we create a world too weird for us to inhabit?“ According to the book, the answer is yes, many times over.

I’ve heard the year 2040 thrown around as a target date for the singularity. I’ll live that long, most likely. It’ll be an interesting ride.

Mistaken for a eunuch at an orgy

I’ve heard before about conventional media (or indeed, any commercial enterprise) trying to co-opt bloggers into creating buzz for whatever they’re selling. At one point, I was offered a pass to a movie, and it was made clear that it was because I am a blogger, and no doubt a Highly Influential Opinion Leader. I wound up not picking up the pass or seeing the movie, but it’s the thought that counts.

I have just received an unsolicited and unexpected UPS delivery of a new book. Interestingly, this was sent to the address I had for only about half a year, but someone at UPS apparently knew I had moved and redirected it to the right place. I’m not quite sure how they got my old address (and since it seems likely that whoever was behind sending me the book in the first place is monitoring this blog, please do chime in in the comments).

Rather than reviewing the book—because that would be playing right into their hands—I will review the mailing instead.

The packaging is stiff manila cardstock, and the book arrived in good shape with a press packet tucked inside. The press packet is six letter-sized sheets of glossy paper printed monochrome, double-sided. The cover letter addresses me as “Dear Producer/Editor.” They say you should always open with a joke, so this is off to a good start. I am advised that the book I am about to enjoy was reviewed as being a “winning comedy…with cracking prose and sharp observations that consistently entertain and surprise.” According to the publicist, Kristan, it is “spellbinding and wickedly funny.” I also learned the book has been optioned for a movie (seriously, has any book not been optioned? I’m pretty sure even the phonebook has been). The author managed to squeeze a colon and parentheses into the title of his previous book, and that punctuation note alone should tell you this guy is trying way too hard. The book in my hand has only a colon, which suggests either that he’s getting a grip or that he’s just given up.

The packet includes a schedule of the author’s appearances, including one in (surprise) Austin in late July. So they’re giving me a month and some change to read the book and blog about it so that my rapt audience of discerning readers will be primed to go to the book signing. Kristan, I’m not a very quick reader, I admit, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take me six weeks to plow through this book, should I choose to read it—I’m not really inclined to, but I’ve read my toothpaste tube twice already, so who knows.

Next we turn to a brief author’s bio, somewhat longer than the typical inside-back-cover bio (which is coyly brief in the book itself). It is entirely precious, telling us the author’s astrological sign in a tongue-in-cheek way, recounting the series of awful jobs the author has had, his sad litany of rejections from “every established press in North America,” his shameful descent into self-publishing and then redemption at the hands of a major publisher. And, saving the worst for last, it appears this poor schmuck has a blog.

For dessert, an interview with the author running three and a half pages. I won’t bore you with it because I didn’t bore myself with it, except for the penultimate question and answer, which did catch my eye:

What’s the one thing you’d like readers to know about you that they may not already know?

I want my readers to know how grateful I am that they have given me 5 to 8 hours of their busy lives to read my books.

Now, this may be sincere, but it comes across as an incredibly calculated “oh gosh, thank you for reviewing my book,” showing up in this review-copy press packet as it does.

On the whole, I’d say this press packet does a good job of making me not want to be a book reviewer.

The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups

Recently finished reading The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups, by David Ansel.

David is a friend (he was also the officiant when Gwen and I got married), and it’s not every day that friends have books published (unless you’re a friend of John Grisham’s), so this is pretty neat. Bad part first: I thought his writing was a little gimmicky–I know half the people in the book and they aren’t all quite that jaunty. He invents a character to give the story tension and conflict, which I don’t think it really needs.

But it was a fun read. I guess that’s inevitable when you know have the people in the book, and most of the locations. It’s a real love-letter to south Austin, something that will be cited as a source of Lost Austin someday (perhaps October) when Austinites are waxing nostalgic about how much better things used to be here. It also contains a number of soup recipes (imagine!), some of which I may try once the weather cools off a bit.

David’s story, in case any of you don’t know it and can’t wait for the book to arrive, is that he quit a programming job suddenly, wasn’t quite sure what to do for work, and started preparing soup for friends and delivering it by bike. It caught on, and he now has an intergalactic soup-deliver empire. Well, it’s not intergalactic, but he has like a proper place of business and employees, and I hear he even delivers to the north side now.

Words and Rules

Recently finished reading Words and Rules by Steven Pinker. Very interesting and enjoyable. The book breaks down numerous aspects of the way our brains handle language by looking through the prism of irregular verbs, discussing the etymology of irregular verbs (which I found to be the most entertaining part of the book–I guess that says more about me than the book); showing regularity in irregulars (stink/stank/stunk; drink/drank/drunk) and how irregulars get regularized over time; covering how irregulars work in other languages, especially The Awful German Language, where irregular verbs outnumber regular verbs (calling into question the very notion of regularity); and even delving into the neuroanatomical basis for the problems that some people have conjugating verbs.

At the core of the book, though, he’s looking at two basic models for how we organize language in our heads: a Chomskyite rules-based model that reduces irregulars to a few basic rules, which is remarkable as an academic abstraction, but assumes that children are already doctorate-level linguists at an intuitive level; and a neural-network model that assumes our brains unthinkingly string together sounds without the meaning of the words influencing how we use them, a model that is defeated by Pinker’s favorite pet example, the verb “fly,” which is normally irregular (fly/flew) but gets regularized in the limited context of baseball–“he flied out to left field.”

Forever Peace

Just finished reading Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace. Very good. Some years ago, I read his book Forever War, one of the standards in the science-fiction canon. This was not a sequel to that, rather a sideways look at some of the same issues in it.

The book starts off slowly with exposition. He’s set up an interesting near-future world for the reader to get acquainted with, and if that were the extent of the book, it wouldn’t be bad. But right in the middle of the book, when things are starting to slow down, he throws a crisis at us, which is merely the butterfly wing-flap that precipitates a boggling storm of events. Everything starts happening very quickly.

I’ve always said that a cynic is a disappointed optimist, and I think Haldeman is a cynic when it comes to human nature: he hasn’t given up hope, but he’s arched his eyebrow at his fellow man for so long that those muscles have just given out. The book was written in 1998 and the action takes place in 2043; I suspect that every day now he cradles his head in horrified amazement at his own premature prescience.

The Name of the Rose

Finished reading The Name of the Rose today. An excellent book I can’t recommend highly enough. It is a book about perversions. Perversions of faith, of knowledge, and of sex, and the ways in which these perversion lead to bad ends. It is about the conflict between faith and reason (this theme was the main focus in the movie version), between religious and temporal power, between the learned and the unlettered, between the powerful and the weak.

In many places, the book touches on matters of current interest, and it is rife with eerily relevant quotes.

The conflict between faith and reason is still with us in the fight between creationism and science. The stalwart conservative of the book, Jorge, polemicized:

“Preservation of, I say, and not search, because it is a property of knowledge, as a human thing, that is has been defined and completed over the course of the centuries, from the preaching of the prophets to the interpretation of the fathers of the church. There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”

Contrast with the progressive protagonist, William:

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means, a precept the commentators of holy books had very clearly in mind.”

This has some resonances with the position of the right wing that dissent is somehow unpatriotic, and questioning the government intolerable. And despite the lapdog media’s reluctance to call the government on its shit, we are seeing some of G.W.’s whoppers coming back to bite him. The narrator, Adso, hopefully observed

Such is the power of truth that, like good, it is its own propagator.

Some unpatriotic churls have wondered why we invaded Iraq on the suspicion that it had WMDs, when North Korea was openly admitting they had them. Adso was told by the nomadic heretic Salvatore that

…when your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies. I reflected this is why the simple are so called.

It’s been noted in a few places that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats see the world in shades of gray, and believe in compromise; Republicans see the world in black and white, and don’t. In a showdown, William accused Jorge:

“…the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came. You are the Devil, and like the Devil, you live in darkness. If you wanted to convince me, you have failed. I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer.”

Jennifer Government

Just finished reading Jennifer Government by Max Barry, a blackly satirical story that answers the musical question “what would happen if Ayn Rand had her way?” The book has inspired an online game and is evidently being adapted to the screen.

It would actually make a good comic book, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s a fast read, and suggests visuals that would be a lot of fun.

The story is fun but improbable, the characters are a bit sketchy, the plot moves quickly. Joe Bob says “check it out.”

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Finished reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Very enjoyable. Partly, to me, because of its involvement with the early days of comic books (I collected comics when I was younger), partly because it’s just an engaging story. Michael Chabon seems to have done a prodigious amount of research to fill in the details of the story he’s telling. I have no idea whether there was a Hofzinser Club for magicians in Prague, or what it was like, but Chabon’s account of it has the ring of truth. His writing style occasionally treads a blurry line between inventive and precious, and sometimes comes close to annoying me, but is mostly straightforward. The story–of the brief golden age in the days before the war as the USA emerged from the depression, of the closing Holocaust in Europe, of creating a comic-book empire, and inevitably of men and women–makes for a good read. The themes–of tragedy, of opportunities foregone, of emergence, and so on–are common enough but not less worth reading because of it.


Just finished reading David Sedaris’ Naked. Like his other writing, it’s hilarious, and consists mostly of personal anecdotes that he’s embellished perhaps just a bit.

This one includes a more schmaltzy (but still hilarious in spots) essay on his mother when she had lung cancer.

The book’s last essay, the one from which it draws its title, is upbeat, in a disturbing sort of way. Two words: pudding toss.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Just finished William Gibson’s latest, All Tomorrow’s Parties, a follow-on to Virtual Light. As usual, he does an excellent job with spartan wordsmithing and big-ideaness. As usual, he leaves at least as much unsaid as said. And, as usual, he confuses “braze” with “braise.”