David Bellos on Being Translated

What's it like to have your own work translated if you're an author who is also a translator? This was a question recently faced by David Bellos, the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, whose book was just published in French with the title, Le Poisson et le bananier (The Fish and the Banana Tree). Bellos and his translator, Daniel Loayza, recently participated in a debate in Paris for the Salon du Livre on exactly this topic. A condensed version of our interview follows:

Nataly Kelly (NK): Given that you're a translator, did you write the book in a way that was more "translatable" than the typical author might?

David Bellos (DB): The overall argument of the book is that everything is translatable. What I was trying to explain would be open to criticism -- even to ridicule -- if my own work turned out to be untranslatable! That did not make me write in a restricted register to facilitate translation. On the contrary! I sought out all the nooks and crannies of the English language that I could find so as to make Is That a Fish in Your Ear? a challenge to creative transposition. I didn't put in the jokes and allusions just to give translators a hard time, but I was aware as I wrote that it would be tremendous fun to find ways around them in other languages. German publishers were initially very reluctant to take on the book precisely because they thought it would take too long and cost too much to translate. On the other hand, my French publisher just happened to know the right person to translate it into French, Daniel Loayza. He's a classical scholar with a playful mind and vast experience of translating between three modern languages -- Spanish, English, and French -- as well as Greek and Latin. I have been very lucky!

NK: Did you have any contact with the translator in order to clarify any questions about the intended meaning of your own writing?

DB: My publishers in the UK and in France were aware from the start that I would take an interest in the French translation, and arranged for me to meet Daniel Loayza at an early stage. We got on very well, and have become good friends. It seemed to go without saying that we would work together on the French version.

NK: How long did it take to translate?

DB: The translation got under way in March 2011, on the basis of the copy-edited typescript of the UK version. Over the following months the original went through copy-editing for the US version, then first proofs, then revisions for the UK and the US. So Daniel kept on having corrections and revisions to insert into his draft translation, which made his task more than usually tricky. I was already cross-eyed from reading English proofs when he produced his French draft in August, but I buckled down and went over it and suggested changes here and there. As is often the case in translation, Daniel's work highlighted some errors that had not been spotted by English-language correctors, and these improvements have now been integrated in the second, third and fourth printings of the "original."

NK: Did you have any points of disagreement with the translator? If so, how did you resolve them?

DB: Yes, of course, and they were all resolved without difficulty. Most often Daniel accepted my version and sometimes I gave in to him. For example, he thought my translation and explanation of St. Jerome was wide of the mark, and he was right -- his Latin is much better than mine. I thought his tone was sometimes too chatty, and I asked him to make it sound a bit more tight-lipped, which he did. To avoid using the French word équivalence to translate "pattern-matching skills," I wrote a three-page addition in French to explain "pattern," "match," and "skill," none of which have simple "equivalents" in French. Almost all of this was done by email, but we did meet on I think three occasions, in Paris and in Princeton, to talk through various issues -- especially the title.

NK: What did you learn about your own writing through the process of working with the translator?

DB: That I am not always as clear as I should be! And that the posture I adopt of being "jargon-free" and "plain-speaking" is not directly transferable to any other language, French included, without serious risk of sounding plain dumb.

NK: Will the translator's name appear on the cover?

DB: It appears on the back panel, not on the front. I've always accepted that authors and translators have the final say over what goes inside the covers, and that publishers have the final say on the covers themselves. I didn't play any role in the placing of the translator's name, but I must say the French publishers consulted me at every stage on the design of the cover and on the back-panel text.

NK: As with many book titles, the title of your book in English was transformed completely in French. Can you explain the meaning of the title for English-speaking readers?

DB: The fish of the English title refers to the Babel Fish, from Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is not widely known in France. In order to keep "fish" in the French title, we added a whole page (and a picture from the British TV serial) to explain the idea of the Babel Fish. The banana tree of the French title refers to an anecdote told in Chapter 15: in the first translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Malay, the parable of the fig tree was transformed into the parable of the banana tree (figs being unknown in Sumatra at that time). So the French title joins together the impossible fantasy of a universal automatic translation device with the historical reality of cultural substitution.

NK: Much of the content of the book is directly related to the English language, such as the discussion of the many words for coffee as a way of debunking the myth of the number of words the Eskimos have for snow. Did you have to provide different examples for French readers?

DB: Yes, the French version has some additional material. What's surprising and impressive, though, is that Daniel managed to retain a great number of the original illustrations and examples. In some places, he invented splendid back-translations -- putting Hofstadter's English translations of a poem by Marot into French, for example, to quite special and intriguing effect. For the Great Eskimo Hoax, he invented a French tag, La Grande Escroquerie du Lexique Esquimau Etendu ("The Great Mystification of the Extended Eskimo Vocabulary") which just happens to produce an aptonym, G.E.L.E.E. It means "frozen!"

NK: In which other languages is the book forthcoming? What kind of interaction will you have with those translators, and will it make a difference if you do or don't speak the language(s)?

DB: So far, rights have been sold for Korea, Greece, Spain, and Germany. The only one I will be able to read is the German version. I will certainly be happy to answer all and any questions my translators ask me (in English), but I hope they will also have access to the French, to see what kind of transpositions and decorations are possible.

NK: One of my favorite lines in the book is this: "Translators do not translate Chinese kitchen recipes into English. If they are translators, they translate them into kitchen recipes." Now that your book is not being translated into other languages, but rather, into many different books, what is your greatest hope for those versions?

DB: That they all become originals! And better than the original!