David Bellos
Director, Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, Princeton University
02:46

Linguistic Diversity IS Language

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In his book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and The Meaning of Everything, master translator David Bellos argues that “Babel tells the wrong story. The most likely original use of human speech was to be different, not the same.”

David Bellos

David Bellos is Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, and others, including the Man Booker International Translator’s Award. He also received the Prix Goncourt for George Perec: A Life in Words.

Transcript

David Bellos:  Translation isn’t a secondary or subsidiary or awkward little corner of our universe.  It’s right at the center of our civilization of what it means to have a language and to use language.  My book is really designed to make people forget the myth of the Tower of Babel, which is an interesting myth and legend, but it’s had some awful consequences these last few thousand years because the diversity of language, the diversity of different forms of speech isn’t a curse.  On the contrary, linguistic diversity is the nature of language itself.

Languages are forever changing and we use language to define ourselves as groups, as entities, as clans, as families, as nations.  So rather than thinking of linguistic diversity as a nuisance, we should think about language from the very fact that linguistic diversity has always been part of the human condition and always will be, and therefore, for anything like a civilization to exist, some kind of inter-lingual communication has to happen and the translation is quite central to what it means to be human.

I am much more attracted towards translations that happen at the same time or within the same generation as the originals and less interested, less taken by re-translations of the classics, those that people do later on to try and make the translation better, because I've always felt that there is something that you can never really get back to and that’s the state of cultural knowledge and social relations that were prevalent at the time where it was written, and that the contemporary translator--even he--makes mistakes or misses things out or gets a bit wrong, nonetheless he’s got something there that we can never recapture and never pastiche and never pretend to write like an English aristocrat--Scottish aristocrat--of the 1920s.

The minimal requirement for a thing to count as a translation is that it says in the target language pretty much what the source says.  Short of that, it’s not a full translation or perhaps not a translation at all, but that obviously isn’t enough.  It has to get that message across in the translation, in the receiving text, in a way that is both respectful of the way it is expressed in the source and of the conventions and attitudes and practices of the receiving culture.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

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