David Bellos’ superb book,’Is That A Fish In Your Ear’, subtitled ‘the amazing adventure of translation‘, is aimed at the lay reader yet doesn’t dumb down the subject.

As an award-winning translator of George Perec’s daunting ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ and teacher at Princeton University, Bellos obviously knows his onions.

But it is not only his experience of the craft and knowledge of all the pitfalls that make this such an entertaining and illuminating guide.He also has that rare gift of being able to explain potentially complex ideas or dry topics in lively terms and in plain English.

He makes it crystal clear that being a skilled translator or interpreter requires linguistic ingenuity, mental stamina and a love of words. Even if you possess all these qualities there will still be times when you will be unable to find the precise phrase to say what you mean and mean what you say. The challenge of language is that it is a constantly moving target.

Bellos’ mission is to puncture the myths and misunderstandings about how translations work and to demonstrate that those who toil in this field are mostly undervalued and underpaid.

The babel fish explained – a screenshot from the BBC adaptation of A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

He looks at the subject from the past to the present  and also considers what the future might hold in the light of rapid advances in voice recognition programmes and computerised translating tools.

The title is a reference to the ‘babel fish’ in Douglas Adams‘ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a creature which, when placed in the ear,  allows the wearer to ” instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”. Bellos is savvy enough to realise that such a device no longer belongs to the realm of science fiction.

Nevertheless, for the forseeable future at least, it is human beings we depend on to make the sense of the babble of people writing and speaking  in tongues that are not our own.

A thesaurus reminds us that “to know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words” and this is what translators seek to do. If you think this is a simple task then you need to read this book.

A lively promotional video, voiced by Bellos, gives a flavour of the wit and wisdom that make this book such a delight.

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