'Meaning Of Everything' Often Lost In Translation

Nov 14, 2011

There's a word for light blue and a word for dark or navy blue in the Russian language, but no word for a general shade of blue. When a translator is tasked with translating English "blue" into Russian, he or she must choose which shade to use.

It's hard to imagine that this particular choice would have any serious implications, but translators constantly work to translate concepts with words in another language that have no exact match. In his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos explores the history, the future and the complexity of translation — from the tangled web of simultaneous translation at the United Nations, to movie subtitles and the text on ATM screens.

NPR's John Donvan talks with Bellos, director of the program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, about the art of translation and what's lost — and gained — in the process.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JOHN DONVAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. In English, we can think of a variety of words for the color blue. There's navy blue. There's baby blue. There's turquoise. There's cerulean. But we still think of all these colors as blue. In Russian, however, there is a word for light blue and a word for dark or navy blue, but there is no word for blue in general. So when it a translator has to translate English into Russian and the word blue comes up, he or she has to make a decision about which word to use, has to pick a color.

It's hard to imagine that this particular choice is going to have very many serious implications, but translators have to consistently work to get ideas from one language to another with words that do not fill exactly the same space. Sometimes the message is transmitted easily and sometimes the meaning can get lost. Well, in his new and rather brilliant book, translator David Bellos explores countless examples of differences between cultures and languages that affect how people do things with words and understand or do not understand each other.

We would like you to tell us about a time when you got lost in translation. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org and you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on in the program, J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan on the new CBS show, "Person of Interest." But first, David Bellos joins us from a studio in Princeton, New Jersey.

He is the director of the program in translation and intercultural communication at Princeton. His latest book is called "Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything." David Bellos, welcome to the program.

DAVID BELLOS: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

DONVAN: So you have an idea, a book with some rather large ideas and a whole lot of really fun facts. But I want to start with the large idea in which you essentially are making the argument that to translate is essentially to be human. What do you mean by that?

BELLOS: Well, we translate all the time. If we refuse to translate, refuse to listen to what other people have to say to us, whichever language it is in, we're not living as fully as human beings as we could be. So that's one thing I mean by that. But what else I mean is something a bit more substantive, substantial. For translation to exist, you have to accept the fact that languages are all different and they don't describe the world in quite the same way.

You also have to accept that languages are all the same in that anything you can say in one language can be said in any other. And it seems to me that's tension between the incommunicability of difference and yet the sharing of a common set of messages and meanings is to be human. I mean, we all live in that state, that I am not like you. My experience is not directly commensurable with yours and yet, for us to get on and to be human and to be in a society, we have to also make the assumption that in another dimension, we're all the same.

We have the same needs, the same fears, the same desires.

DONVAN: And so where your book becomes enormous fun - and I have to tell you, your book is enormous fun - is in the many instances you give where you really need to stretch between two languages in order to get them to meet up. And sometimes the stretch is easier and sometimes it breaks and snaps. And so a lot of us have certain expectations of what we're going to get from translation and you're telling us that we're wrong. So what is it you think that people want translation to be that it just never will?

BELLOS: The same. People, for various cultural reasons and reasons of education and so forth, often have the idea that a translation to be a translation has to be the same as the original that it's translating. And my big argument all the way through the book is no, no, a translation has to be like and the ways in which it is like its original vary. They vary historically. They vary in the specific language patterns that you're dealing. They vary depending on the kind of text or object that you're translating.

Likeness, is what translation seeks to provide. A good match is what you're after, but sameness, I mean, identity, well, that, you just can't have because even in the same language, no two utterances, even of the same sentence, are actually the same. You know, time has passed and the mere fact of saying it a second time makes it not like saying it the first time. So I think it's this ideology, not very explicit, not reformulated, but quite powerful idea, that unless a translation is the same as the original, then it's no good.

That's what I'm trying to get people to drop, to abandon, to realize it's much more subtle and much more interesting than that.

DONVAN: You even challenge our notion of what it is to be a native speaker of a language and you really even challenge the notion of who's English is English. This astounding fact, is that literally true that native or born English speakers are a minority of those who speak English in the world today?

BELLOS: Well, I haven't gone 'round and counted them all myself but I believe it to be true. But, you know, it's very difficult to say what we mean by being a speaker of English. Knowing that something is English, as opposed to French or German or whatever, is already to know English in one sense, yes? To know that it is not something else. To know English in the sense of being able to make sense of road signage or restaurant menus is to know English at another slightly higher level.

But, you know, at what point in the ascension between that and being T.S. Elliot, do you say, yeah, OK, above this level is to know English and below this level is not. it's very difficult to say. But yes, a very large number of people in the world today know English at one or another of these levels and of those, only a minority are actually native-born speakers of English.

DONVAN: So for example, Chinese engineers and Hungarian engineers would most likely choose to speak with one another in English, but would have a vocabulary that perhaps is not recognizable to those of us who don't know engineering so - including, perhaps, myself. So I might not understand their English and yet they would be speaking definitely a version of English.

BELLOS: Well, yes. But I mean, if an Australian engineer and a Scottish engineer get together and talk engineering, you wouldn't understand them either. I mean, the issue is partly of a field jargon of a special constituted branch of the language for talking about specific things and unless you're part of that field, you don't really know what's going on. But yeah, I mean, I should say, the dialectal varieties of international English are often impenetrable to other dialectal varieties.

DONVAN: I want to bring in some callers now. We've been asking you if you have experienced being lost in translation, and I want to go to Monica in Milford, Indiana. Monica, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MONICA: Hi. I have an interesting fact about translation. I married an Amish man and I was actually Amish for 12 years. I wasn't raised that way. The language was very hard to learn because it's kind of a slang language. But something that I picked up on, being that I wasn't raised like that, it amazed me. When you hear an Amish person say a word with the ending Uh, it always - as in the English translation ends with I-N-G, ing. That's why when you hear an Amish person speak, they have such an accent because they don't practice that distinct ing.

And I'll give you two examples. One, would be dance-uh and translation would be dancing. Another one would be eat-uh which would translate to eating. And what's interesting is when I bring this back for this translation rule out to people that aren't Amish, they didn't even know it. They had no idea. I would say 99.9 percent of the Amish people I've talked to had no idea that that carries through as a rule throughout the whole language.

And that was so interesting to me, to figure that out. And my question would be is there other languages like that that there's a rule that growing up speaking it, they don't even know it.

DONVAN: Where the grammar is invisible to the speaker. What about that, David Bellos?

BELLOS: Well, absolutely, of course, yes. You don't need to know the grammar to know the grammar, if you see what I mean. Operating in a language is something that we'll automitize(ph), that we do unreflectingly. At school, we're taught to reflect on it. We're given a vocabulary to talk about how we speak, but you don't need that to actually speak. And I would imagine there are a million, million examples of that. I mean, I'm a teacher of French.

I've taught French language for decades and of course, I sort of know how to teach the language so I know the grammar that I teach. But sometimes, you know, you run into areas that are a bit murky and difficult and I go ask a French native speaker, what's the rule here or there. And they say, I haven't the faintest idea. Of course, you don't possess, in a sort of formal, explicit way, all the rules that you actually observe when actually speaking the language.

I think that's a normal condition of human language.

DONVAN: You also talk a lot about where's the definition of the foreignness of a language, when are there enough foreign words in a language that it's not itself anymore or vice versa. So if I were to say to you, David Bellos, I schlepped to the bodega for some sushi...

BELLOS: That's right.

DONVAN: ...and probably the wrong choice of location, but am I speaking English or am I speaking several languages at once?

BELLOS: If you say so. That's entirely subject - I mean, there's no, like, scientific answer to that. English may be more than other languages, but other languages, too, are forever adopting words. They're blending and merging and hybridizing with other languages and some of those words you just used gets, as they say, lexicalized in it, which means schlepped is sort of part of at least New York English vocabulary. Others you use because they're foreign. You know, bodega maybe is in that category.

But they're not hard-edged categories. You know, things merge and move between them.

DONVAN: So in other words, even the lines between languages are fairly murky, murkier than we're used to thinking of them.

BELLOS: Well, I think so. Of course, it's terribly convenient and we've got thoroughly used to regarding French and English and Spanish and Italian as separate things. And that something is either English or is in French or is in Italian and 99 percent of the time, of course, that's true and I'm not trying to dispute the fact that, you know, different communities have different standard languages. But there is a gray zone where they merge between each other and I've tried to look at that gray zone and find out what it teaches us about the way we use language.

DONVAN: Well, a quick visit to the gray zone, we have an email from Tim Clark who says he was in Crete and saw a book, a translation, the title "The Grapes Of Wrath" had been rendered as "The Angry Raisin." We're talking with David Bellos, whose new book is entitled "Is That A Fish In Your Ear?" Tell us about a time when you got lost in translation. Our number is 800-989-8255. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan and we are talking about the art of translation, what gets lost, but also what can be found if you know what to look for. It's a subject that David Bellos explores in his new book "Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation And The Meaning Of Everything." Tell us about a time when you got lost in translation. Our number is 800-989-8255 and our email address is talk@npr.org and you can join the conversation on our website.

Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. So we've asked you to share your stories with us and we're going to go to Gina in Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Gina.

GINA: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

GINA: The question I have, really, is - I've listened to you guys talk about audible languages, but nothing about sign language. And that - to me, that would be an incredibly interesting area to look at and to research. And have you done anything in that area, and if you have, what have you found out?

DONVAN: Well, I think, David, you actually talked about languages where gestures are actually part of the - they go hand and hand with the spoken language and change meaning. Is that correct?

GINA: Yes. But also for the deaf community, you know, pretty much the international sign for I love you is the I, the L and the Y. And that, you know, anywhere in the world, but, you know, the (unintelligible) you know, could be...

DONVAN: Gina, let me take the question to David.

BELLOS: I haven't written about sign language in my book. It is a fascinating area and sign language is a real language - or languages. I mean, there's several varieties of sign language. They're different in different countries. And even in the same country, they have sign languages sometimes have dialects and rival versions. I haven't written about it because it's not my field. I don't know a lot about it. I've read some things about it and there are some very good books about sign language.

I also find it rather difficult to imagine how one would write and quote sign language, if you were trying to write about translation. But, no, sign language interpreting is an extremely important and valuable skill and it calls on some of the same gifts and skills that verbal - spoken language interpreters use, but also something else, something extra. And I'd love to know more about it.

DONVAN: Gina, thank you very much for your call. And we're joined now by Catherine in Tucson.

CATHERINE: Hi.

DONVAN: Hi.

CATHERINE: You know, some years ago, I was a simultaneous interpreter for Pan American World Airways at Kennedy Airport, and my two languages were Spanish and Urdu, so that's not your basic combination. And at one time, I had two elderly ladies come in. One was from Pakistan and one was from Peru and I had had a very long day and I ended up actually speaking Urdu to the Peruvian and Spanish to the Pakistani. And the sad thing about it was that there were some words in Spanish, which came out to be expletives in Urdu and vice versa.

It was very, very embarrassing.

DONVAN: Yeah, does that happen a fair amount, a lot of embarrassing moments just between individuals? I know it's happened to me. I spent years as a foreign correspondent, particularly when you've lined up two to three people to pass one message from say, Arabic to French, to French to Greek, to Greek to English.

CATHERINE: Yeah.

DONVAN: Yeah. What about that, David?

BELLOS: Sure.

CATHERINE: Thank you.

BELLOS: Yes, sure, sure. When you use relay languages, but even when you don't, I mean, embarrassing things happen. Yes, sometimes - I mean, languages are extremely diverse and so the kinds of sounds that we can make. But every now and again, a sound string in one language happens to mean - happens to exist and to mean something quite different in another language. And these are essentially unpredictable moments where there's just a little collision and yeah, sometimes it makes you red in the face.

DONVAN: So the story, David, you write that Eskimos have dozens or scores of words for snow. Turns out, you call it a hoax.

BELLOS: Well, it's a hoax in the way that that factoid has been used and is used and people keep repeating it. It's not an interesting fact about Inuit languages which are of the agglutinative kind, so all words in Eskimo, when they're used enough in a sentence, have many different forms depending on their grammatical roles, a bit like in Hungarian, which is also an agglutinative language. But I mean, that's sort of trivial. What's extraordinary is the way in which this notion that some languages, namely primitive languages, have loads and loads of words for concrete things, but not very many words for general abstract qualities has become a kind of recurrent theme in the way people talk about language and the relationship between language and civilization. That's the hoax.

DONVAN: That reminds me of a time when I studied Russian prior to an assignment to Moscow. And the teacher pointed out that because Russians have the word ruka means hand and means arm.

BELLOS: Arm.

DONVAN: And there's no way to find a word that really breaks that off at the wrist. That if you want to a refer to a person, any part of that limb, there's only one word for it. And he was making the argument that they didn't have enough words in Russian and he had a little bit of an attitude, although he was a Russian teacher, and it was a little bit of a put-down that we had more ways to articulate the joints in that limb...

BELLOS: (Unintelligible)

DONVAN: Yes, exactly. So what - there is a sort of snobbery about, and assumptions made, like the one you're just talking about, that if one society has many, many words for snow or a color it's because they can't - they're unable to abstract to the more general notion. And you can see the logic, but is there really any truth to that?

BELLOS: I think, and I argue quite strongly in my book, that, no, there is not logic to that. Every human language can fulfill all the needs that its users want to make of it. And if it really needs a word to articulate the wrist and distinguish the hand from the arm, well, they'll jolly well invent one so as to do so. And if they haven't invented one, it's because actually they're all sort of other ways around it because life is a very flexible thing.

I'm personally very skeptical of the idea that any language, any of the languages that human communities have, constrains them to talk about the world in any particular way. It may make it easier to talk about the world in some particular ways, but if you really need to make a distinction, well, you invent a word. You do something new. Language is forever changing in response to their users need.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Trevor from Salt Lake City. Hello, Trevor. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TREVOR: Hi. How are you doing?

DONVAN: Good.

TREVOR: Good. I wanted to share just a quick embarrassing experience as a previous caller mentioned. I was in Cambodia studying Cambodian. I went to the grocery store, and being an American, you know, the most common things we eat are just chicken eggs and so I needed to purchase some eggs. And I went and asked this young store clerk where - if they sold eggs. Well, in Cambodia, they eat all different kinds of eggs, like chicken eggs and duck eggs and whatnot.

And so if you just say the word egg, it actually means testicle.

BELLOS: Yeah.

TREVOR: And so I asked this young woman if she sold testicles. You know, she went red in the face. I didn't realize what was going on so she kind of half-jokingly turned to a male colleague and asked him if he wanted to sell his testicles. And I finally realized what was going on, just felt completely embarrassed.

DONVAN: I'm glad they laughed because that could have ended badly.

TREVOR: Yeah. They - yeah, it was. It was very - I mean, they laughed at me and then I - the guy I was with, who was Cambodian, just kind of grabbed me and pulled me off because he was embarrassed by the situation and explained to me what had just happened.

DONVAN: All right.

TREVOR: Just an example, coming from my culture, you know, trying to just directly translate the word turned into a very embarrassing situation for everyone.

DONVAN: Thank you. Thanks for your call, Trevor. And we're now joined by Max who's in Spokane. Max, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MAX: Hi. I lived in Japan for about four years and I am a big musical theater buff. And of course, like, in musical theater, one - the usage of rhyming and everything and how they use that in musical theater, and I was interested in how they translated that into Japanese. Because Japanese, as you know, doesn't rhyme. Well, it cannot rhyme basically. So I have one perfect example of things getting lost in translation. I saw a production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which is a musical about a spelling bee competition.

So the show was in Japanese, but they, you know, spelled in English, which didn't make sense to begin with. But one very famous, very funny lyric from the show is - it goes I heard that she's pro-choice though still a virgin, talking about an eight-year-old girl. And I was wondering how on earth they're going to translate that. And of course, pro-choice is such an American - it's, like, an American idea.

So when they translated it into Japanese, they translated it as and even though she's a virgin, she likes abortions. So it was very funny to me and of course, I laughed, but nobody else - the audience didn't think it was very funny at all.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much for your call. We're going to go next to Josh in Charleston, South Carolina. Josh, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOSH: Hi. Thank you so much. Actually, I have two stories. I have one I wanted to tell you, but the one I just thought of, I just want to mention in Hebrew, there's a word for pacifier, is based on the word to suck. It's called motsets. And there's another word, very similar, (foreign language spoken), which is based on the same word, which is a slang word, a street word which I don't think I can say on the radio. I once told a parent that I think their baby wants a (foreign language spoken), which is - I won't say it, but it's something very, you know, inappropriate to say about a child.

But the reason I called was because I have to translate a lot from Yiddish and Hebrew for my book on Jews of Eastern Europe, and it's - I very much appreciate the author's description of translation as being very rough. It's impossible. There are a lot of words that are so loaded with cultural meaning, you simply can't translate them. And the example I gave your screener was the word Passover time, because you have text that say this happened Passover time. And what that means in Yiddish is it's springtime, but it doesn't just mean spring. It means it's springtime, and it also means everything associated with the imagery of Passover.

And there's simply no single word in English that could capture all of that. And you have to resort to asterisks and glossaries or else, and brackets and things like this. But it's very hard to translate these things.

DONVAN: David, care to comment on that?

BELLOS: Well, yeah, I'd like to comment on all of these stories we've just heard because, yes, of course, you have to know a foreign language to speak it properly, and you have to know the difference between testicles and eggs and how you say eggs in Cambodian. And, of course, no single word in English corresponds to a single word in Yiddish or Hebrew, even ones that aren't so culturally loaded as Passover time. The thing is you don't translate words, and this is what I've tried to explain in many chapters of my book. You translate utterances. You translate whole things. And you have to make something that - in the translation that is like the original.

And I guess we're probably too hooked on ideas of translation between languages that are very close to each other, like English and French, or French and Latin, where very often, you know, the words do match, because, frankly, they're really dialects of each other. But between languages that are bit more distant, you also have to take a distance as a translator. And what you're bringing over is not the words, but the overall meaning, and then as much of the texture as you can.

So it's not remotely surprising that if you approach the thing as a question of, you know, what is the English word for that word in the foreign text, you end up with a brick wall or you end up with, you know, there isn't anything you can do. There's always something you can do to write the sentence or the paragraph differently so that the important things do get represented in the translation.

DONVAN: Josh, thank you very much for your call. And we're now joining Patrick in Kansas City.

PATRICK: Hi. How you doing? I just wanted to say I'm a videographer who works for attorneys a lot of times, and occasionally, we'll have a translator. And the court reporter will swear in the translator, as well as the witness, and they ask the translator to translate everything that they're saying in a legally binding and accurate manner, which I think kind of goes along what you said.

DONVAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for your comment, Patrick. And we're talking with David Bellos about the art of translation, what gets lost and what gets found. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

David, I ran a little bit of an experiment where I'm curious about machine translation with - I don't know if you would call it artificial intelligence, but the use of computers to tend to translate, which is improving with time, but still comes up with funny outcomes. And I'm wondering if they actually give us insights to the language.

So I typed into Google Translate - assuming there's a scenario where somebody challenges you on whether you wrote this book or not. The answer is obviously yes. So I type in: Yes, David Bellos wrote this book all by his lonesome. He isn't some literary stand-in mug for the guy who really put in the sweat. So I translated that into Russian, and then I translated it from Russian back into English, all of this on Google Translate. And the result is: Yes, David Bellos wrote this book to all my lonely. He was not a literary circle to stand in for a guy who really put in the pot. And I feel lost with that. But I'm wondering, does that just show us the weakness of the algorithm, or does it tell us something about the nature of the two languages?

BELLOS: Oh, it tells us quite a lot. First of all, if you don't mind my saying so, John, it's very silly to use Google Translate or any automatic translation service to produce text in a language you don't master completely.

DONVAN: So that's important for all of us to know and to hear. Thank you for that point.

BELLOS: The output of any automatic translation device needs to be read and corrected by somebody who commands that language completely, because you can often see easily where the mistake is, or you can tell whether it's garbage or not. And if it's garbage, you disregard it.

So, second, the retranslation game, well, if you work for human translators, you know, it is almost certain that doing this test with a human translator, the retranslation into English would not be the same as what you started with. It would be fluent English, because the translator's a human being, not a machine. But it would be different in some degree, in some detail, great or small, because language isn't a machine itself.

So the third thing that is interesting on this is that your input sentence is actually in very idiomatic, contemporary English, yeah. I might even say it's not - it's a bit of a - you did it on purpose, haven't you?

DONVAN: Yes, I do.

BELLOS: All by his lonesome, literary stand-in mug. Well, how is a machine going to tell, because - that stand-in is a hyphenated word, because you didn't put the hyphen in?

DONVAN: Right.

BELLOS: So you're giving the machine a test that it's not set up to perform.

DONVAN: Right. But you're still saying, no matter what, we have to be careful about trusting these machine translations.

BELLOS: Well, when you use it to take a letter from a Swedish girlfriend and check that you have understood what she meant, that's fine, you know, if you're Swedish is a bit ropey. It - Google Translate has many perfectly sensible and viable uses, and it's a most impressive intellectual and technical achievement. But it does not - I mean, Google itself wouldn't think of using Google Translate to produce its publicity literature in the languages in which it sells its services. It uses human translators to do that. But to get a good idea of what a text in a language you don't speak is dealing with, Google Translate, more often than not, gives you a good enough idea.

DONVAN: Well, David Bellos, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. David Bellos is a professor of French and comparative literature and the director of the program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton. His latest book is titled "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything." Thanks very much for your time with us today.

BELLOS: It's been a pleasure.

DONVAN: And coming up: the man behind the hit TV show "Lost" is back. J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan join us to talk about their new show "Person of Interest." I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.