About The Author
David Bellos had his first taste of translation when he read a Penguin Classics edition of Crime and Punishment; that same summer, he got his first interpreting job, helping a seafood seller to import Portuguese oysters from a middleman in France. He went on to teach French language and literature, but it was only when he encountered Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual and was convinced it should be read in English that he considered becoming a translator.
Since then he has translated many books and won numerous prizes, including the inaugural Man Booker International Translator's Award for his work on the novels of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. Amongst the other authors he has translated are Georges Perec, Fred Vargas, Hélène Berr, Romain Gary and Georges Ifrah. He is also the author of three biographies, Georges Perec: A LIfe in Words, Jacques Tati: HIs Life and Art and Romain Gary: A Tall Story.
His latest book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, sheds light on a relatively unsung process that is vital to the movement of literature around the world: translation. (The title is a reference to Douglas Adams' neat solution to science fiction's problem of alien races not understanding each others' languages, the Babel fish, which the user is required to insert into the aural canal.)
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are. What's the difference between translating unprepared natural speech and translating Madame Bovary? How do you translate a joke? What's the difference between a native tongue and a learned one? Can you translate between any pair of languages or only between some? What really goes on when world leaders speak at the UN? Can machines ever replace human translators, and if not, why? The biggest question is how do we ever really know that we've grasped what anybody else says - in our own language or in another?
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, David talks about the the myth of British readers' aversion to books in translation, explains how one of his translations was carved in stone and offers tips for budding translators.
Below the interview is a list of titles by David Bellos currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
At a recent event at Foyles, Carlos Ruiz Zafon suggested that the English "mystify" the process of translation. Do you think there is a widespread psychological barrier to reading fiction in translation over here or do others factors better account for the low proportion of sales here compared to, say, other European nations?
Yes, I think British publishers, with several notable and noble exceptions, do "mystify" translation and the translatedness of foreign texts. It's true that many translated books make little impact - but a huge proportion of the 159,969 titles published in the UK last year made no impact at all! It's also true that translation has to be paid for - but many foreign governments and cultural foundations provide grants that reduce the extra expense to something not far above zero. Despite this, many publishers continue to present translations as far as possible as if they were not written in some other tongue, on the spurious grounds that the Reading Public shies away from works that are not "original". Yet millions of British mantelpieces sport copies of The Odyssey, the Bible, Dr Zhivago, The Name of the Rose, War and Peace, plays by Ibsen and Chekhov, Les Misérables, Planet of the Apes and Life: A User's Manual. British aversion to translation is a myth, but when it is repeated so often it risks making itself come true.
It is also true that the proportion of titles published in the UK and America that are of foreign origin - around 3% - is much lower than the translated proportion of titles appearing in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. That is partly because the British and American book systems are much bigger than all others. But it has other causes too, which I explore in one of the chapters of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?.
Do you think it's ever possible for someone raised speaking just one language to develop a sufficient appreciation of the nuances of vocabulary and style that would allow them to develop a comparable ability in a new language?
"Someone raised speaking just one language" belongs to an underprivileged minority in the world today, as at most times past. Such a person needs an education, which normally includes the learning of at least one foreign language during childhood or adolescence. Even in the absence of this (as in many UK schools, I regret to say) then the acquisition of a foreign tongue to a high level is far from impossible - given the need and the will. To speak a second language is not evidence of a high IQ. But to know any language, including most especially your own, to a degree that would make you a competent translator is a different matter. It requires study, practice and reflection over a long period of time.
The world wide web has only reinforced the place of English as the world's lingua franca. Do you think this is having an impact in how other languages are evolving?
I'm not sure that the premise is true - there's a great deal going on on the web in languages other than English. But many languages are indeed aligning their vocabularies and some small parts of their syntax to English-language norms. Conversely, English has long been a kind of vacuum cleaner for useful and interesting bits of other languages. More than 40% of the headwords in a large English dictionary started life in some other tongue - fuselage, bungalow, pyjama, caviar and pizza, for example, which come respectively from French, Malay, Bengali, Turkish via Italian and Italian direct. Mix and match is the way languages survive.
Do you feel it is important to keep obsolescent languages in use or should we avoid interfering with linguistic evolution and studying them solely historically?
I don't have an emotional relationship to the rescue of dying languages as if they were a special species of baby seal, but many people - including some but not all speakers of those languages - most certainly do. (If all speakers of a dying language felt strongly about it, their language would not be dying.) So though it would be really interesting for me if I could speak the Yiddish of my grandparents, I'm not about to start campaigning about it. There's enough going on in the languages that people actually use to keep me busy! But I am glad that there are scholars who keep our knowledge of obscure and ancient tongues alive. They are not wasting their time.
Do you subscribe to notion, most popularly espoused by Noam Chomsky, of a universal hard-wired grammar or do you think the development of different languages is too disparate to suggest there can be only one underlying structure?
There are at least two issues here. I don't dispute the claim that humans have a "language acquisition device" (though I dislike the way it is named), that is to say, that humans are predisposed by genetic inheritance to engage in a fascinating form of behaviour called speech (as opposed to just making noises with our mouths). However, I am not convinced of monogenesis - the idea that all languages are ultimately derived from a single form of speech that was invented once and once only. Given that writing was invented independently four times over, I can't see why it is implausible to imagine language itself emerging independently among different groups of our ancient ancestors. But of course we will never know. As for finding a 'universal grammar" - keep on looking! I touch directly on these questions in the 'Afterbabble' of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?.
What has been the most unusual translating challenge with which you've been confronted?
To produce the English version of the legend in French and Hebrew on the wall of the Shoah Memorial Museum in Paris explaining what is meant by 'Righteous Among Nations' in the same number of characters and spaces as the French, so as to fit exactly alongside it. These are the only words of mine to have been carved in stone.
You've written an award-winning celebrated biography of Georges Perec. What did you make of A Void, Gilbert Adair's translation of Perec's La disparition, which famously avoids using the letter 'e'?
It's wonderful! You should read it!
Which translators do you particularly admire?
Anthea Bell, Gilbert Adair, Jordan Stump, Esther Allen... but this is silly. I admire everyone who does good work in the field. And there are many.
Do you find yourself dreaming in different languages?
I've no idea. My dreams, if I have any, evaporate as I wake.
How would someone keen to work in the field of translation be best able to develop the required skills?
Go to university. Read lots of books. Write. Then read some more. Live in the country. Get married, have children and learn their nursery rhymes. Watch television. Read some more. Write. Then try your hand at translating. Best to start with a book you feel passionately interested in. But actually, there is no 'main' or 'direct' route into a career as a translator into English. Most of my colleagues in the field got into it by happenstance. Just don't expect it will ever pay your rent.