David Bellos, the author of the recently published and rather twee-ly titled Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, is a professor at Princeton and a pretty famous translator (at least among people who know something about translators, which unfortunately means relatively practically no one), so I was expecting to enjoy and be intrigued by his book—and I wasn’t disappointed. What I didn’t expect was to find bits in it about, of all things, my own place of employment—the United Nations in New York—and even the department I work in, which is called English Verbatim Reporting Services and is so obscure that most people in the UN itself have never heard of it, let alone anyone outside. VRS (as it is known in the acronym-rich UN culture) produces the permanent record of everything that gets said in official Security Council and General Assembly meetings (as opposed to unofficial “consultations”). What interests Bellos about this is that it is essentially the final written record that matters, even though that’s based on spoken words (which I and my colleagues listen to through the computer, on headphones):
This allows translation errors to be trapped and corrected, but, more significantly, it allows delegates to correct what they actually said. The “Verbatim,” the final official repository of UN proceedings, is not actually verbatim at all—it’s a rewritten version of a written text that passed through an untrusted oral stage in the interim. In large areas of national and international affairs, speech has now become a secondary medium, a byproduct of writing.
He’s right, in some ways, though most of the correcting is done by me and my colleagues—the delegates themselves very seldom try to have things changed. But a lot of editing and fact-fixing gets done in our transcription-cum-translation of a meeting, even of the speeches that were originally delivered in English. The “untrustworthiness” of the oral version is probably not because the simultaneous interpreter in the meeting room perverted the original—the kind of primal fear of interpretation that Bellos is talking about, when the translatee has no idea if the interpreter is truthfully conveying his meaning or not—but is much more likely to be because the speech was written by someone whose first language wasn’t English, or was delivered in whatever language by a speaker who likes to go off-script or misreads the words in front of him. Either way, the final version is a scrubbed one—occasionally barely recognizable as the original.
What is a translation?
Our UN Verbatim records strive to be clear, readable, rather dry and standardized “international English” that blends in with the sea of UN prose while retaining whatever sparks of personality the writer or speaker may have managed to endow it with. This speaks directly (at least, I think it does) to Bellos’s central point throughout this fascinating and incredibly wide-ranging book—it touches on everything from Sumerian clay tablets to the movie Avatar—which is, essentially, that translation is about, as he puts it, “finding a match” for a source. It’s not about some kind of arbitrary standard of “fidelity,” or, necessarily, of “beauty” or fluency in the target language (the “source” is the language being translated from; the “target” is the language translated into). If it’s poetry, it might attempt to reproduce rhythm, metre or rhyme in some way or other, or it might abandon that altogether.
Bellos is a firm believer that anything is translatable on some level; that having to read a work in translation does not mean that it’s impossible to really experience it fully, or that the very fact of translation somehow betrays the original—the traduttore/traditore (“translator-traitor”) canard. It’s true that sentences or phrases can exist that may not be properly translatable as such into a particular language independently—Bellos gives the example of the Native American Hopi language, which, he explains,
marks not so much the categories of definiteness or indefiniteness (“a farmer,” “the farmer”) but whether the thing or person referred to is within the field of vision of the speaker. “The farmer I can see” has a different form from “the farmer I saw yesterday,” which is different again from the form of “the farmer you told me about.” As a result, the English sentence “The farmer killed the duck” is quite untranslatable into Hopi without a heap of information the English sentence doesn’t give you—notably, whether the farmer in question is present to the speaker as he speaks and whether the duck is still lying around.
In Hopi speakers’ own environment, this wouldn’t be an issue; they’d know this information. “What you can’t translate in a meaningful way,” Bellos goes on, “is the sentence ‘The farmer killed the duck’ out of context.” Situated in context, anything can be conveyed—as in fact our own wwword Untranslatable section demonstrates; the words it discusses may not have simple one-word English equivalents, but it doesn’t make them inexplicable.
I was intrigued by another issue related to this that Bellos points out, which is the problems that can arise when versions of a text that are as identical as possible have to be created—say, legal contracts between a Chinese company and an American company that have to be written in both Chinese and English—but where a particular legal notion or assumption exists in one language but not the other. It turns out that it’s usually much easier to modify the source-language text to make it better suited to the target-language text that to try to invent some concept that doesn’t exist in the target language. Similarly, in my department at work, because so many more speeches are given in English than in the other official UN languages, the other Verbatim sections (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish) do their meeting records by translating our edited English versions; apart from the fact this means we always have to get our versions done first so that they have a text to work from, it also means that we often try quite consciously to avoid very complex turns of phrase or sentences that might read ambiguously, so as to avoid creating puzzles for the non-English translators.
Making a match
It turns out that nothing is context-free; for instance, where any translation has to be done, one of the languages will always be more “prestigious” than the other. English is often the more “important” language because so many books are originally written in it (although, for instance, philosophy or mathematics texts are often originally written in German, which in that context would be more prestigious than English); Bellos makes the distinction of translating “up” (from the less into the more prestigious language) and “down” (from the more into the less). This process itself, it turns out, has an effect on the nature of the translation itself:
Translations toward the more general and more prestigious tongue are characteristically highly adaptive, erasing more the traces of the text’s foreign origin; whereas translations down tend to leave a visible residue of the source, because in those circumstances foreignness itself carries prestige.
Thus, for instance, American crime novels often retain their “American” flavor with bits of slang or other references when they’re translated “down” into other languages; whereas all those highly successful Swedish detective novels, such as the Stieg Larsson series, don’t “read” Swedish when translated “up” for the American market. And all these nuances are the result of judgments that the translators will make, sometimes almost unconsciously, as they strive to create the right match, the version that will give the translation the “meaning and force” of the original.
No translation is the same as its source, and no translation can be expected to be like its source in more than a few selected ways…. If meaning and force are kept the same and if in a limited set of other respects a translation is seen to be like its source, then we have a match. It’s not as simple as the marriage of content and form. Just as when we match faces and portraits, we rely on multiple dimensions and qualities to judge when a translation has occurred…. When we say that a translation is an acceptable one, what we name is an overall relationship between source and target that is neither identity, nor equivalence, nor analogy—just that complex thing called a good match.
Talking about language
John McWhorter teaches linguistics and western civ at Columbia, and he recently published a cool little book called, rather boldly, What Language Is. I don’t think it’s going to end up on the New York Times bestseller list like one of his other books, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, though, because what most people will notice when they flip the pages is a whole lot of tables showing verb forms labeled “present,” “past,” “repetitive,” “subjunctive,” and so forth. And some rather unexcitingly black-and-white line-drawing maps (production values are not the book’s strong point). Also, if they’re like me (former copy editor), they won’t be able to help being somewhat shocked that a professor of linguistics has put out a book with the word disheveled spelled wrong (“dissheveled”) apparently throughout—including in a chapter title! The horror.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I can say that What Language Is conveys some truly interesting facts and concepts about different languages, what makes them distinctive and why they have ended up the way they are. While for instance I knew dimly that Iranian (or Farsi or Persian) and Pashto (spoken in Afghanistan) are related, I had no idea that Iranian is a relatively simple, fairly uninflected language with a basic grammatical structure that isn’t too hard for foreigners to get a handle on; while Pashto, despite its connections, is very complex, with verbs that conjugate differently depending on whether they’re transitive or intransitive—and that’s just the beginning. In a chapter titled “Language Is Intricate” he tackles the question of Black English—whether it’s “wrong,” and whether its peculiarities are in fact derived ultimately from the African languages that slaves spoke originally or that it’s essentially a dialect of English with its own grammar and vocabulary. (The answers: it’s not wrong, and it is a dialect of English.)
The thing I found myself puzzling over somewhat is who McWhorter’s audience is supposed to be. He has a breezy, unacademic, engaging style—yet the book is based on a lot of quite tiny detail about various very specific languages and how they function that I can’t imagine would have much appeal to, say, readers who might be interested philosophically or historically in his assessment of Black English. And it’s curiously unprefaced—it dives right into a discussion of Iranian versus Pashto after a very short introduction, and winds up rather abruptly, as if the author hadn’t really got around to summing things up. I have a feeling that perhaps it’s meant to serve as a text accompanying one of his Columbia courses. Worth it for those with at least a passing interest in linguistics.
Either Henry Hitchings or his publishers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the U.S., John Murray in England) appear to have felt the need to sex up the title of his new book a bit: it’s called The Language Wars, but its subtitle, “A History of Proper English,” is rather more descriptive of the subject matter. What makes it worth reading, and not just yet another hand-wringing meditation on whether the prescriptive approach to spelling and grammar is good or evil, is that it is indeed a quite thorough look at the social development of English—as a conscious vehicle for style and ideas—since Chaucer, and the disagreements and changes that have influenced it historically. Hitchings charts the arrival of grammar books, the rise and fall of trends such as capitalized common nouns—and, of course the arguments. One thing that’s quite clear is that people have been complaining about poor English and sloppiness for hundreds of years. And yet, as Hitchings says,
These rules…are not really rules, but conventions. At different times, and in different places, different conventions are the norm. Of course, some of these conventions become so deeply ingrained in us that we find it hard to grant they are merely that; we think of them as timeless, profound and inherently sensible. Conventions can put down deep roots; they can be hard to eradicate. Yet they have changed before and will change again.
Anything goes—and frequently has done
I was mildly surprised that Hitchings considers the question of whether split infinitives are allowable to still be worth responding to; I thought any worry about it must have been laid to rest by now. But while Hitchings himself has a fairly relaxed attitude to such “rules”—which, in the case of split infinitives and many other sore points have to do with analogies to Latin grammar that are unsuited to English—he also tends to sound a slightly fearful note: “A language is a transcript of history, not an immutable edifice,” he points out—but then gasps, “Whoever makes this point, though, is at risk of being labeled permissive.” This despite the fact that, as he points out, what are now considered solecisms have often been perfectly acceptable—such as when Antonio says to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, “All debts are cleared between you and I.” Having spent years embarrassing myself by pointing out to people that “between you and I” is wrong, I’ve lately given up; there’s always a new person you’re going to come across doing it anyway, and people think you’re either a bore or a creep or, worse, don’t believe you. I don’t mean that I don’t want English to be beautiful, but at some point—as with “hopefully,” or “impact” as a verb—you have to admit defeat.
Hitchings believes that people who insist on such things are essentially in despair at their powerlessness in the world and seize on language as something they imagine they can keep a grip on.
Even if other aspects of our existence appear beyond our control, language feels as if it can be rescued from the chaos of modernity. If we can arrest language change, the thinking goes, we can hold off other kinds of change. All the while, people who stress that change is inevitable are dismissed as wimpish egalitarians, pluralists, relativists—as “shit happens” defeatists. Yet if the “anything goes” approach seems an abdication of responsibility, its opposite, pernickety [sic] micromanagement, recalls in its desperateness King Canute’s mythic efforts to turn back the waves.
I don’t disagree with Hitchings’ basic analysis here, but I do take issue with his comparison of these wretched, control-seeking souls to Canute—the whole point of whose demonstration on the beach was to prove to the people that the king had no godlike powers and that attempting to stop the tide coming in was utterly foolish.
Where will it end?
It’s amazing how influential some of the grammars and dictionaries were; Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar, which was commissioned by the publisher of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary a few years after the dictionary came out, was still being used a century later. The 1795 English Grammar by Lindley Murray (interestingly, an American who emigrated in reverse to England) was well known and referred to (disparagingly) by writers such as Dickens. (The writer on English grammar for the 1875–1879 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote that “the endeavour to find the distinctions of Latin grammar in that of English has only resulted in grotesque errors and a total misapprehension of the usage of the English language”—something that some of today’s “pernickety” types could do well to remember.) Such volumes poured out as books became cheaper and cheaper and the self-help industry grew. Hitchings makes the interesting point that “the society in which Dr. Johnson lived experienced a ‘literacy crisis’ that was the opposite of the one we worry about today. There was immense anxiety that the increasing literacy of people outside the social elite would upset the established cultural and political order.” Never easy, is it?
As if to confirm that the literacy crisis of Dr. Johnson’s time is not what we’re living through today, Richard Benson has produced a hilarious little stocking stuffer of a book, F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers. Sadly, a lot of them are in the math and science area and have to be accompanied by their diagrams to achieve full effect; but there are plenty of others:
Q. Where was the Declaration of Independence signed?
A. At the bottom.
Q. Explain the word “autocracy.”
A. A country that has lots of cars.
Q. Name one of the early Romans’ greatest achievements.
A. Learning to speak Latin.
Q. Discuss the style of Romeo and Juliet.
A. It is written entirely in Islamic pentameter. The play is full of heroic couplets, one example being Romeo and Juliet themselves.
Happy new year.
David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words
One of Britain’s great language writers (Evolving English; Begat: the King James Bible and the English Language) handpicks words to illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences and events that have helped shape our vernacular since the fifth century.
Christopher Johnson, Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little
It had to happen: a 228-page book on how to write tweets and texts, Craigslist ads and PowerPoint presentations. But it’s got some good advice: be clear, paint a picture, keep it simple.