Mind your language

Sat, Oct 8, 2011, 01:00

LANGUAGE: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of EverythingBy David Bellos Penguin, 390pp. £20

IF YOU ENJOY teasing creationists, a sport that has much to recommend it, I suggest asking the next one you come across why a benevolent God would permit mankind such a bewildering number of languages. If your creationist is from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, he or she will probably refer you to the account in Genesis (11: 6-7) of the destruction of the Tower of Babel; in the King James version this is given as: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

Why it should be of any advantage to God that human beings should be unable to understand one another is a question for another time; what is interesting about the Babel myth is its postulation (and its construction as an affront to God) that a common human language would lead to a liberation of the imagination, an augmentation of human powers.

The dream of a common language has a theological foundation, one of the points David Bellos makes in his fascinating new book, and a political teleology also, as in the American formulation “One nation under God” – which we can parse as one nation ruled in a common language. No room in such a world view for parity of esteem extended to, for instance, Ojibwa, Cree, Shoshone or (a real source of friction now) Spanish.

In the administration of public affairs one can understand the usefulness of a lingua franca, a language spoken by all living under a common jurisdiction: the relatively rapid projection of Roman (as later British) power was as much a linguistic as a military phenomenon; so, too, with perhaps more emphasis on linguistic power, was the rapid spread of medieval Islam via Arabic, or indeed the Coca-colonisation of the 20th century via American English.

The problems begin to arise when we get the establishment of a linguistic hegemony, which inevitably means privileging one language over another, to the extent that the more powerless language is launched on a path, quick or slow, that ends in extinction.

The best contemporary estimate is that there are 6,809 distinct languages in the world today – many of which are in the course of disappearing forever. Having closed the covers on Bellos’s sparkling, witty and thought-provoking survey of the nature of translation, I found myself wondering why there isn’t an anti-myth of Babel, one in which the variety of languages stands for, indeed grounds, humankind’s protean and empowering fascination with this world and its possibilities.

Every language community inhabits a different world, or perhaps it would be better to say inhabits the world differently, while sharing the common ground of all languages, the material world and humankind in it with our needs, drives, passions, expressive urges and appetites. To understand each other we need translation and translators, and the wit to understand that translation is not equivalence, that indeed total translation is an utter impossibility. In the act of translation, something extra is brought to the table, something is born in the space between the original text and its translation, some new intralingual possibility enters into consciousness. The very act of crossing between worlds that making or reading a translation entails is in itself a good and positive thing, an augmentation of being human.

The book consists of 32 short chapters; a selection of chapter headings will give you some idea of the ground he covers: “Translating News”, “The Adventure of Automated Language”, “How Many Words Do We Have for Coffee?”, “Language Parity in the European Union”, “Global Flows: Centre and Periphery in the Translation of Books”.

Bellos is a witty and perceptive writer, a provocateur in the best sense of the word. He is particularly enlightening on the linguistic protocols of the European Union – I had not known of what he calls the Basic Rule, originally laid down as article 248 of the Treaty of Rome, which stipulates that the treaty (now encompassing 24 languages for 27 member states) is “a single original” in each of those 24 languages.

He is also compellingly informative on the paradigm shift between Google translation and the efforts at machine translation that preceded it, and if you labour under the illusion that cybertechnology means we all get the same news at the same time, his chapter on translating news will give you food for thought. But then Bellos is clear, informative and wise on practically any aspect of translation that might cross your mind. This is a stimulating, lucid, ultimately cheering survey of the field.


Theo Dorgan’s recent books are Time on the Ocean: A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town(New Island) and the collection of poems Greek(Dedalus Press)