The Art and Science of Translation

To many of us, a translation seems like a currency exchange: You bring in your words, and the translator hands you a different set of words of equal value. In his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, David Bellos explains why it doesn’t work that way.

Bellos, who directs the translation program at Princeton University, tells how the writer and scientist Douglas Hofstadter once sent a French poem to dozens of people and asked them to translate it. Each result was different, yet each was legitimate.

There is no perfect translation. A translation is an act of re-creation, an appropriation of the original in an attempt to find an acceptable match in another language. Because words are imbued with many tones and histories and connotations, literal translation simply isn’t possible. Bellos likens translating to painting a portrait: The result is not the same as the original, but if it’s done well, it captures the original’s essence.

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