Eerily well-timed, I discovered David Bellos’ book on translation while reading the English version of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. The latter proved hard work; the former, rather more rewarding. I am willing to accept that my failure to warm towards Mann no doubt says more about me than it says about either Mann or his translator, but Bellos perfectly articulates one of the main problems I had with the Mann novel. Buddenbrooks, dealing with the decline of a wealthy Hanseatic family over the course of four generations, depends for much of its portrayal of the family’s status on the distinction between them and members of different classes, using dialect as an instantly recognised marker for class. At least, I assume that’s what the original does. The translation has all sorts of anachronistic markers thrown in, with servants speaking in a sort of a Wessex brogue (unfortunately channelling more Stella Gibbons than Thomas Hardy), and painfully fussy ruminations on the verb choices of other characters (such as an ill-mannered Bavarian suitor). Bellos makes me feel much better about my frustration with Buddenbrooks when he identifies exactly this function of language (to flag social identity) as one of the few things that cannot be translated:
“Most people currently think it is just silly to make a Bavarian dairy farmer use Texas cowboy slang, or to have a woman on the St Petersburg tram express herself in Mancunian in order to suggest her geographic and linguistic distance both from the capital and the standard language.”
Make of Mann in translation what you will, but don’t you dare quote the old adage of “translation being no substitute for the original”. What else is it, asks Bellos, but a substitute for the original? By its very definition a translation is not the original. It’s a clever point, neatly made, and a good indication of what you can expect from Bellos (the title, with its reference to the ‘babel fish’, last seen in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will also give you a clue to Bellos’ lightness of tone).
A renowned translator himself, having won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize for his translations of works by Albanian author Ismail Kadare, he is currently a professor at Princeton University, and Bellos writes knowledgeably and entertainingly about his subject, with only occasional lapses into denser academic discourse.
For the most part, the short, punchy chapters are easy to digest, and the scope of his investigation is fascinating. He deals with the enormously complex translation practices required to execute the European Union’s egalitarian approach to language parity, the challenges of simultaneous translation, the ratio in which languages get translated (no surprise that English is far and away the most dominant language in these statistics). A discussion on translation machines goes on to explains the machinations of Google’s “translation” service, which turns out, unsurprisingly, as the mere pilfering of other people’s translations. Google assumes that everything you could possibly read or write online has been said before, and, probably, translated. So it searches through its vast databanks and pulls out word and sentence pairs, and offers this up as quite serviceable translations. It’s not exactly evil, but it’s also not translation, one would have to agree.
He ends the book with a description of the role of language in human society, noting that it is not merely a means of communicating, but rather similar to the grooming primates carry out – a way of connecting and establishing our identities together and apart from other humans. It is an enthralling book, both highly intelligent and passionate. Bellos’ indefatigable enthusiasm for the craft (or rather, the art) of translation is evident, and the reader cannot but share in it. When he closes the final chapter by saying that translation is “another name for the human condition”, I all but clapped in agreement.