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Lost and Found In Translation

Eskimos don't have a 100 words for "snow." But see what happens when you walk into your local Starbucks and just order "coffee."

Book review, Oct. 27, 2011

A Russian friend of mine once tried to improve his English by studying T.S. Eliot's "Preludes." He already knew a translation by heart, and he liked to recite, with great reverberating passion, a line about how the streetlamps of London glowed like luminous jellyfish at the bottom of the ocean. When he reached the corresponding passage of the English text, he was shattered. All it said was: "And then the lighting of the lamps." No jellyfish, no ocean. Evidently the Russian translator had found Eliot's austere original to be insufficiently poetical and had decided to goose it up. My friend felt doubly betrayed – first by Eliot, because his poem was not so interesting after all; then by the translator, because his beautiful line was a fake.

This is an experience many of us have when reading great works in translation. We're troubled by a creeping, paranoid anxiety that we're not really experiencing the work, that we're being fooled. Does the "Divine Comedy" or "The Tale of Genji" really mean anything like what the translator says it means? How can we be sure, when we don't know the original language and never will?

These are not doubts that would meet with much sympathy from David Bellos. He is a professional translator (mostly of classy Europeans like Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare) and would be briskly dismissive of my Russian friend's despair. Translation, he argues in "Is That a Fish in Your Ear – ," is an inherently creative act. A strictly literal translation is a mirage – it looks like unadorned accuracy, but that's really just a stylistic trick, which, Mr. Bellos says, is "unrelated to authenticity, truthfulness, or plainness of expression." He would celebrate the Russian translator's gaudy jellyfish, as though they were flowers breaking from the hard ground of Eliot's original.

Mr. Bellos's book is not a technical manual on how to translate poetry. It's an informal survey of the challenges and joys of translation in all its forms – literary, diplomatic, cultural, political, economic. He takes the broadest possible view of his subject. He writes about the way that Google Translate works, for instance (it doesn't consult dictionaries but instead searches through zillions of pages of originals and translations to find examples of how similar phrases were translated before); or how business lawyers manage to write contracts that will stand up in both American and Chinese courts (especially tricky with construction contracts, because Americans and Chinese sort out the various categories of buildings in radically different ways); or why it's so curiously difficult to translate the phrase "human rights" into French when the French claim to have invented the concept (what they invented was "the rights of man;" there is no elegant gender-neutral alternative, and you know about the French and elegance).

The book is brisk – speedy, even – but Mr. Bellos does slow down occasionally to squash this or that pernicious bit of linguistic folklore. It is not true, for instance, that the Eskimos have a hundred words for different kinds of snow but no word that just means "snow." It's actually, he explains, a racialist myth about how "primitive" societies can't generalize their experience into abstract nouns. And even if it were true, Mr. Bellos points out, there would still be no reason to feel smug: Try walking into your local Starbucks and see what happens when you just order "coffee."

This is all great stuff, and it's at least midway through the book before a certain unease sets in. The zigzag, endlessly digressive line of Mr. Bellos's exposition keeps things lively, but it's not the best way of laying out a thesis. And he does have a thesis. The subtitle of his book, "Translation and the Meaning of Everything," hints as much, while (as is mandatory with cutesy subtitles these days) reassuring readers that, while there's an important point about to be made, things aren't going to get too serious, and they won't have to work very hard.

Mr. Bellos's real agenda, as it slowly emerges, is an attack on what is called "nomenclaturism." This is the notion that words have a one-to-one relationship to the things they purport to name. Mr. Bellos has no trouble demonstrating that the whole idea is deeply confused and philosophically na´ve. Even the most straightforward words and phrases turn out to be infiltrated by the figurative. As Mr. Bellos points out, an English phrase like "head of state" relies on a buried metaphor (that society is like the human body) which doesn't exist in other cultures. And yet most people, without thinking too much about it, are nomenclaturists in one way or another: "We are trapped," as Mr. Bellos writes, "inside the idea that words are the names of things."

But what's the alternative? Mr. Bellos offers no simple answer, and with good reason: A convincing anti-nomenclaturist theory would require a long exploration of the wilder shores of linguistic philosophy (including, inevitably, a close study of Wittgenstein, one of the toughest reads on earth), and Mr. Bellos is reluctant to drag readers into such harsh terrain. But one can't help feeling that he skates away from his argument while distracting you with yet another of his side-trips – on how, for instance, the ancient Romans might have made some sense out of the word "jazzercise."

But this might all be my own nomenclaturist bias. Mr. Bellos's theory, as I add it up, is that translation is part of the free, spontaneous, joyful play of language – and in the end I'm not persuaded that the process is quite that sunny. My heart is really with my Russian friend. There's a cryptic line of Sophocles (most of Sophocles is pretty cryptic, but bear with me) about the glories of Athens, which can be translated as "Superior horses, superior colts, the superior sea." William Butler Yeats once offered a rather stunning alternative version: "Horses and horses of the sea, white horses." Is that a satisfactory translation? Is it a translation at all? I have the feeling that it's more like the opposite of a translation: it's so striking and beautiful that it obliterates the original. Mr. Bellos's beguiling book never sufficiently explores the possibility that in any translation something essential might be getting lost.

This article appeared Oct. 27, 2011, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos (Faber, 373 pages, $26)