Tuesday, 1 November 2011

'Is that a fish in your ear?'

As part of my miscellany of clients I value a translation company.  Occasionally I receive a call from them, not to translate from a foreign language but to turn translated English into a different type of English.  Though sometimes the initial translation has seemed like a foreign language, or foreign to a native speaker of English.

What their clients are requesting is more colloquial English, 'as she is currently spoke'.

But of course that begs the question, currently spoken by whom?  Received English of the old fashioned BBC?  Teenager speak?  Jargon of a particular group or sub group of medics, engineers or any other category?

I've done my best on each project to come up with something that is closer to readable English.  That is English that doesn't have you stopping and starting because the word order doesn't work, the phrases are stilted and the vocabulary outdated.

That work has given me a brief, very brief, introduction to the challenges and frustrations that translators and interpreters face on a daily basis.  So a review in the Guardian of David Bellos' book on the subject 'Is that a fish in your ear?; translation and the meaning of everything' caught my attention.  Collected on Saturday, I'm half way through it which is more testament to the author's easy style than to my determination.  He sweeps across a very complex topic starting with What is translation and takes in such topics as how we gain language in the first place, what is meaning and is your language really yours.

A translator of international repute, David Bellos poses questions that philosophers have struggled with for centuries.  But he cuts straight to the chase and shows up the absurdity of not only some of the answers but also the questions.

If like me you struggled with translations at school, he has some interesting things to say about 'wording'; that is the replacing of one word for another before trying to make any sense out of it in the second lanugage.  And how difficult that was until we let go the need to get the words right, in the right order and thought about the sense of it instead.

He gives an example:
I have a big house in exact word Russian would read At me big house.

That's because Russian has no indefinite article, possession can be indicated with the pronoun me and for this expression there's no room for the verb to be.

A fascinating book and one of my favourite pieces so far is about Cherubim and how St Jerome,  the patron saint of translators, created the word as an approximation of the sounds of Hebrew into Greek to Latin.

David Bellos wears his deep learning lightly and his love of the subject shines through on every page.  I'm looking forward to reading the rest of it.  I highly recommend it, as a look at language both written and spoken.

David Bellos, Is That a Fish In Your Ear? Particular Books, 2011, 978-1-846-14464-6

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