Herself a skilled translator, Merrill uses these examples to investigate the expectation that translated work should allow the non-English-speaking subaltern to speak directly to the English-speaking reader. She plays with the trope of speaking to argue against treating a translated text as property, as a singular material object to be "carried across" (as trans-latus implies.) She refigures translation as a performative "telling in turn," from the Hindi word anuvad, to explain how a text might be multiply possessed. She thereby challenges the distinction between "original" and "derivative," fundamental to nationalist and literary discourse, humoring our melancholic fixation on what is lost. Instead, she offers strategies for playing along with the subversive wit found in translated texts. Sly jokes and spirited double entendres, she suggests, require equally spirited double hearings.
The playful lessons offered by these narratives provide insight into the networks of transnational relations connecting us across a sea of differences. Generations of multilingual audiences in India have been navigating this "Ocean of the Stream of Stories" since before the 11th century, arriving at a fluid sense of commonality across languages. Salman Rushdie is not the first to pose crucial questions of belonging by telling a version of this narrative: the work of non-English-language writers like Vijay Dan Detha, whose tales are at the core of this book, asks what responsibilities we have to make the rights and wrongs of these fictions come alive "age after age."
People speak different languages, and always have. The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin; and in India, people learned their neighbors' languages—as did many ordinary Europeans in times past (Christopher Columbus knew Italian, Portuguese, and Castilian Spanish as well as the classical languages). But today, we all use translation to cope with the diversity of languages. Without translation there would be no world news, not much of a reading list in any subject at college, no repair manuals for cars or planes; we wouldn't even be able to put together flat-pack furniture.
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across the whole of human experience, from foreign films to philosophy, to show why translation is at the heart of what we do and who we are. Among many other things, David Bellos asks: What's the difference between translating unprepared natural speech and translating Madame Bovary? How do you translate a joke? What's the difference between a native tongue and a learned one? Can you translate between any pair of languages, or only between some? What really goes on when world leaders speak at the UN? Can machines ever replace human translators, and if not, why?
But the biggest question Bellos asks is this: How do we ever really know that we've understood what anybody else says—in our own language or in another? Surprising, witty, and written with great joie de vivre, this book is all about how we comprehend other people and shows us how, ultimately, translation is another name for the human condition.
Fallows learned, for example, that the abrupt, blunt way of speaking that Chinese people sometimes use isn't rudeness, but is, in fact, a way to acknowledge and honor the closeness between two friends. She learned that English speakers' trouble with hearing or saying tones-the variations in inflection that can change a word's meaning-is matched by Chinese speakers' inability not to hear tones, or to even take a guess at understanding what might have been meant when foreigners misuse them.
In sharing what she discovered about Mandarin, and how those discoveries helped her understand a culture that had at first seemed impenetrable, Deborah Fallows's Dreaming in Chinese opens up China to Westerners more completely, perhaps, than it has ever been before.