Language expert explores the art and science of translation


(Book cover image courtesy of the publisher)

Translations never produce quite the same phrasing, feeling or meaning as the original, according to Princeton professor David Bellos. In his 2011 book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Bellos, a professor in the departments of French and Italian and comparative literature, explored how people understand — or do not understand — each other in various situations and settings.

Bellos charted the complex, fragile beehive of translators who keep the United Nations operating; explored the mental state involved in translating into and out of one’s native tongue; and delved into online translation — technology that actually dates back to Cold War-era efforts by the United States to quickly unscramble Russian — among other topics.

“There’s this idea that a translation is just not as good as the original,” said Bellos, director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. “Why does it annoy me so much? Well, a translation is different from the original. It can never be the same thing. But it’s not worse.”

In the end, Bellos said, one must put faith in a translation. “A text and its translation are two different objects, and they always will be,” he said. “So we must grant the translator authority in a language we do not know. We don’t like to do that. But we have to come to terms with it.”