Review: “Is That A Fish In Your Ear?” by David Bellos

Thumbs up for Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos. Nonfiction/linguistics.

All the stuff you never think about translation. This was loaned to me by a professional translator, so it has enough depth to appeal to someone in the field; but it’s also very easy to read for the interested layman. It’s not a book of grand theories. Yes, Bellos has opinions and he’ll tell them to you, but really his object seems to be to get you thinking about the acts of translation and interpretation and how much more prevalent, important, and difficult they are than we (especially Americans) sometimes realize. Each chapter touches on a different area, ranging from the history of translation to translations of news and literature, from courtroom interpretation to the frankly mind-bending work done in the UN:

The structure of conference interpreting at the UN and its agencies and at most other international gatherings that can afford it is not now quite as it was at the Nuremberg Trials [a breakthrough moment in simultaneous, multi-language translation]. The rules invented for that first experiment were that all interpreters should work only into their “native” language (now called their A language, “A” standing for “active”), and that all interpreting should be done from the “original.” With six UN languages currently in operation, that would require six teams of five translators, or thirty people in all, to service a single meeting. The job is now reckoned to be as stressful as the work of air traffic controllers; the eighty-five-minute slots used at Nuremberg have been replaced with a routine of alternating thirty-minute shifts (the Chinese and Arabic booths change over every twenty minutes) through a three- or six-hour working day – so that in fact you would need sixty people, not thirty, to service an international meeting if the original rules were still applied. There just aren’t sixty people with those high-level and variegated skills that can be gathered at any one time in any one place in the world, not even in New York City. The following schema allows the illusion of seamless language transfer to be achieved with a team of just fourteen members:

    In the French booth: two interpreters, one listening in Spanish and English, the other listening in Russian and English, and giving out in French
    In the English booth: two interpreters, one listening in French and Russian, the other listening in Spanish and French, and giving out in English
    In the Spanish booth: two interpreters, both listening in English and French, and giving out in Spanish
    In the Russian booth: two interpreters, both listening in either Spanish or French as well as English, and giving out in Russian
   In the Chinese booth: three interpreters working shifts, taking in English and Chinese and giving out in Chinese and English
    In the Arabic booth: three interpreters working shifts, taking in French or English and Arabic and giving out in Arabic and English or French

In other words, Chinese gets into Spanish, French, and Russian by relay from the English channel, and Arabic gets into Spanish and Russian by relay either from English or, most often, from French; Spanish and Russian get into Chinese by relay from the English channel, and into Arabic by relay from French. If the Russian interpreter in the English booth has gone to the bathroom, then the Russian channel also gets into English by relay from the French booth; similarly, if the Spanish interpreter in the French booth has a nosebleed, Spanish gets into French by relay from English.

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