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Derrida had a word for it

An irritating cliche inspired David Bellos to examine the artful skills of the translator. Matthew Reisz reports


Derrida had a word for it
Credit: Michael Kappeler/Getty


At a graduate ceremony at Princeton University, where he is professor of French and Italian and comparative literature, David Bellos recalls "a rather plump, pink-faced parent who came up and started chatting. When I told him I was a translator, he said: 'But a translation is never a substitute for the original, is it?' Trotting out a piece of folk wisdom as if it were an important new truth! I was so annoyed that I went home and started writing a diatribe. That's how the book started."

Firmly aimed at a non-specialist audience, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything offers a lively survey of translating puns and poetry, cartoons and legislation, subtitles, news bulletins and the Bible. It also explores the ingenious systems used at the United Nations and the European Union to cut down on the hundreds of interpreters that would be required if they operated directly between every single possible pair of languages. Translations, it notes, are precisely "substitutes for the original", since "you use them in the place of a work written in a language you cannot read with ease". (And, as many celebrated hoaxes have shown, Bellos observes, "there is no reliable way of distinguishing a translation from an original by internal criteria alone".)

Bellos has equal fun with some of the other commonplaces about language and translation, including "poetry is what is lost in translation" and "Eskimos have a hundred words for snow". He has little time for the distinction between "literal" and "free" translation, or the moralistic language of "fidelity" and "betrayal", often compressed into the misogynistic maxim that one can't hope for either translations or women to be both beautiful and faithful.

A translation, admittedly, can never hope to match every aspect of its original. But that hardly justifies the theoretical arguments that translation is a fundamentally pointless or spurious activity - any more than the impossibility of an absolutely perfect fit means that all tailors should be put out of business.

More generally, Bellos is keen to challenge academic as well as popular misconceptions about translation. As a seasoned professional - who has produced acclaimed translations of writers such as Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare and Fred Vargas - he is sceptical of much that goes on within the theoretical discipline of translation studies.

This has often been tainted, he believes, by "an idea which comes from the German mystical tradition: that, behind an expression in any language, at some inaccessible depth or height, there lies pure meaning - an interlingua, the language of God or the language of truth. That's a religious concept that is very odd for secular humanists to believe in.

"I am attacking translation studies as they currently exist, I hope in a generous way. I'm showing how interesting and wide-ranging the subject could be, and how central to understanding our humanity."

Today, of course, the global dominance of English gives it a status very different from any other language. Bellos describes the cultural power of English-language translators of literary texts such as himself, who "control their source text's access not just to their target audience, but through the international trade in books and sometimes through double translation as well, they may open or shut the door to the rest of the world".

Stranger is the role of popular fiction. Where earlier models of machine translation unsuccessfully tried to break down sentences into the smallest possible semantic units, Google Translation uses brute force and a vast corpus of existing texts - on the principle that, although language theoretically offers infinite scope for creativity, in practice it tends to be used to say very similar things over and over again. There may never have been a single translation from Slovak into Icelandic, but as long as Harry Potter is translated into both, he can be used as a "pivot" for moving from one to the other.

As a practitioner, Bellos is enthusiastic about the ways that, by forcing us "to pay attention to more than one dimension of an utterance", translation can lead us to "find resources in (our own) language (we) never knew were there". Yet this can have surprising effects. The vogue for French critical theory led many anglophone academics to adopt the mannerisms of Jacques Derrida. French celebrity journalism, by contrast, has been deeply influenced by its role models in the US and UK.

It is here that we come to some rather more concrete issues that translation raises for UK academic life - and the international circulation of research.

There is now significant pressure on many non-anglophone academics to publish in English. Some need translators who understand their field. Others, says Naomi Segal, professorial Fellow in French and German studies at Birkbeck, University of London, "write in English but not quite well enough" and so require expert editorial help. Both of these roles can be and often are performed by postgraduate students or early-career academics keen to develop knowledge of their discipline, expand their skill set and perhaps earn a little extra money.

When Segal was editing a book with chapters translated by postgrads, however, she noticed that the results were often very unsatisfactory. Although the students had the necessary subject knowledge and linguistic ability, she remembers, "they had too much respect for the foreignness of the original. They didn't have the skill to use their own English effectively. So I thought it would be good to get professional translators to provide some training."

Many degrees in translation have a strong theoretical basis or a focus on areas such as commercial translation, literary translation or work for the EU. There is little available to create a specific cadre of "academic translators", Segal says.

In order to help meet demand, she therefore joined forces with Ros Schwartz, a professional translator representing the Translators Association of the Society of Authors, and they were later joined by Debra Kelly, professor of French and Francophone literary and cultural studies at the University of Westminster. They then secured funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a training project called Use your Language, Use your English.

This has already produced an online course, with examples of annotated model translations, and a six-day summer school bringing together aspiring academic translators with professional tutors and publishers of books and journals. Although Segal stresses that they are offering "uplift rather than a degree in translation", they are also setting up an accrediting exam with a view to creating a database of people with a knowledge of French and philosophy, German and art history, and so on.

When translating academic authors' work, says Schwartz, she often submits sample material to them, "showing what I've done with their texts and explaining why I've changed what I don't feel will work in English. Most are delighted to be made accessible to an English market and give me carte blanche."

At a time when the humanities are under considerable pressure, Segal believes it is crucial that foreign scholarship made available in English should be presented to readers as clearly and as effectively as possible.

Bellos wants to make even higher claims. Every act of translation, his book concludes with a flourish, rests on the assumption that, while we are obviously all different and "see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongues we speak", we are also "all the same (and) can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings and so forth". To that extent at least, "translation is another name for the human condition".

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