Sunday, November 20, 2011
Translation Theory, or Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
The problems with translation are many. Does a translator literally translate the meaning of every word, or does he instead do justice to the more metaphorical or poetic parts of a work? It’s never an easy question to answer, and a happy medium is perhaps the safest way to go. Starting with the Tower of Babel, the problems with translation have only multiplied.
Cicero and Horace, in the first century BC, were the first theorists who distinguished between a sense-for-sense translation, and a word-for-word translation. Their comments on translation still have profound effects on current translation theory. Great modern figures of literary translation have included Vladimir Nabokov, who translated many of his own works into English and attacked other writers for their unfaithfulness to the literal sense of words, and Walter Benjamin, who—in The Task of the Translator—presented stylistic concerns wherein he postulates that, by definition, a literary translation produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text.
However brilliant these men were, the average person does not concern himself daily with translation theory nor gets over-the-top excited to read a book on it. Therefore, I viewed with great excitement the release of David Bellos’s book Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber, 2011). It appeared that the book would treat the sometimes tedious subject of translation theory in a light and humorous manner. Adam Thirlwell, in his New York Times review of the book, aptly stated that “The theory of translation is very rarely—how to put this?—comical.”
And coming from the synopsis of the novel on the publisher’s website: “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. 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? The biggest question is how do we ever really know that we've grasped what anybody else says - in our own language or in another?”
The title of the book is an allusion to Douglas Adam’s popular novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a Babel fish (a small, yellow, leech-like fish) can be inserted into the ear and acts as a universal translator, instantaneously translating from any spoken language to another. This is the same concept behind the alien devices inserted into the Earthlings in the Danish film, Rejsen til Saturn (The Trip to Saturn). There are countless other examples of television shows, films, and novels dealing with cultural clash due to translation problems. So, besides the infusion of the problems of translation into popular culture, will the average person care about translation theory? Well, they should.
For example, many students use Google Translate, a very popular free translation service that provides “instant” translations between (at the moment of publication) 58 different languages. The site’s stated goal is to “make information universally accessible and useful, regardless of the language in which it’s written.” It’s a noble goal indeed. But how does it work?
According to the site, when generating a translation, it searches for patterns across millions of documents that it has access to. It then tries to detect patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, and guesses what the appropriate translation should be. It is not an exact science. The more documents that Google Translate can analyze and has access to, the better the translation quality will be. Of course, the makers of Google Translate recognize the problems with machine translation and allows you to click on individual words and select from a drop-down menu a better translation.
Yahoo has a similar service, called Babel Fish (yes, that too is named after Douglas Adam’s creation). Its website gives a much more obscure explanation of how it works, but it must be assumed that it’s run in a very similar way. Finally, Facebook has a Translations application that allows for individuals to help translate the website text and phrases with the goal of translating it into every major language on earth. (To learn about the science behind machine translation, check out the Machine Translation Archive and the Statistical Machine Translation.)
While tech companies are approaching machine translation very seriously, there is no reason it shouldn’t be fun for the rest of us. And that’s what David Bellos is trying to make it with his novel. In fact, there is even a short animation of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? If it’s any indicator of the novel itself, it looks to be a humorous read.