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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 9 FEBRUARY 2012 — Call it the postmodern dream.  You can travel anywhere you want, passing as a native in the sushi bars of Tokyo or the markets of Tangiers. You can conduct meetings with engineers who speak Mandarin, German and Czech, read poetry in Italian, watch telenovelas in Spanish, respond to your taxi driver in Amharic. Click on the left bar of Wikipedia and have fun translating the entries into Magyar or Malay.  Land a job at the CIA or the United Nations. Be a scholar, diplomat, or international man of mystery. Fit in anywhere, effortlessly. 

Two fascinating new books, David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? and Michael Erard’s Babel No More, provide some insight into how we’re progressing towards that dream and what obstacles we face along the way.  Bellos, a scholar of French and Comparative literature and the director of Princeton University’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, starts with the basics. How do we communicate in a multilingual and multicultural world?  We could all become multilingual — difficult when there are are as many as 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. One language could become the lingua franca, as Latin was during the Roman empire. We could speak in creoles and pidgins, like sailors in the Middle Ages, or isolate ourselves into our own linguistic communities. But if none of those is adequate — and they are not — we need translation. 

We learn how Google Translator works — and when it doesn’t.

What follows is an erudite and absorbing tour of the history and practice of translation. We learn about the translation schools of Venice, which produced "language boys" — giovani di lingua — to serve the Ottoman empire, about the difficult miracle of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg Trials, about the underpaid geniuses who translate movie dialogue into subtitles that can be read quickly enough to keep up with the film. We get a glimpse into the United Nations, where a team of 14 translators provides the illusion that they can translate any language simultaneously into all the world’s tongues. We learn how surprisingly dominant English is as a language for translation. We learn how Bible translators adapted ancient Aramaic to all sorts of contemporary cultures. We learn how Google Translator works — and when it doesn’t.

But Bellos’s main purpose is to mount an impassioned defense of translation as both a communicative necessity and a creative art. Thus much of the book is devoted to dispelling the myths that make translation a poor substitute for the original. Bellos takes on the contention that certain things simply can not be translated, that poetry disappears in translation, that a translation that does not preserve every single feature of the original is a poor one. He even wrestles with the old chestnut that Eskimos have 100 words for snow. After all, New Yorkers have a few hundred words for coffee, and a fairly complex lexicon for snow as well. The myth survives, Bellos theorizes, because we want to preserve the idea that the "civilized" languages are better at expressing abstract ideas, while "primitive" languages are better at expressing the immediate and the physical. Throughout Bellos is sensitive to the power dynamics between languages — how conquerers hand down their dictates to subordinates, and how the linguistic riches of the primitive are brought back to the conquerers.

And riches they are. As one might expect from Bellos, who is known for his dazzling translations of George Perec and Romain Gary, Is That a Fish in Your Ear is full of linguistic wonders. There’s a German poem that looks like a fish, translated into Finnish, language games from 15th century French wit Clément Marot and (of course) George Perec. Chinese shunkouliu that look impossible to translate resolve into beautiful word rectangles with meaningful rhymes. I’ve never had so much regard for the translators of the Astérix cartoons, who not only have to translate French jokes and character tics into English, but have to do it in a space that fits the pre-drawn cartoon bubble.  After reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear I wanted to go out and read some translations to find out what I’d been missing.

But what if translation still isn’t enough? Michael Erard explores another part of the dream. What would it take to learn all the world’s languages?  Is it possible? Does it get easier the more you learn? Is there a limit?  Erard, a journalist with a masters’ degree in linguistics, plays the scholar-adventurer, searching for the secrets of people who speak eleven languages or more — people he calls "hyperglots." Erard’s search takes him all over the world. He begins in Bologna, Italy, where he scours the archives of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th century cardinal who could speak fluently to any visitor in their own language after only asking the visitor to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Along the way he talks to translators at the Defense Language Institute, where the U.S. military provides its recruits with language training. He meets eccentrics and spiritual seekers, linguists and neuroscientists. Each throws a different angle on the question of how we learn language, and whether it is possible to learn or maintain many.

Although Erard does hazard a theory about learning languages — that polyglots and hyperglots might have different brain plasticity than the rest of us — the fun comes more from the questions he asks than the questions he answers. After all, what does it mean to "speak" different languages?  Cardinal Mezzofanti, after all, might have been just an accomplished mimic, able to imitate accents and glean a few common phrases, but unable to read and write or to carry on a more complex and technical conversation. And what of the language collectors that Erard finds, who have studied as many as 130 languages, but who show no interest in using them to speak? And what about cultural fluency? One of the hyperglots Erard finds, a woman who spoke and read 16 languages, claimed that only five "lived inside" her, to the extent that she could switch among them easily. Is there a limit?  Is it that? And can one even count?  Erard moves in the multilingual climate of Hyderabad and Secunderabad in southern India, where three, four or even five languages are spoken side by side. No one is a monoglot, but there is a good deal of tolerance for levels of expertise in different languages. A few words here, a few phrases there. Eventually the languages start to run together, "less like apples — neat and discrete — and more like oatmeal," as Erard puts it.

As the following suggests, a good deal of the pleasure of Erard’s book, like Bellos’, is Erard himself. We see him learning to order espresso in Italian, or looking at slices of brain matter in Germany, or learning Hindi from a polyglot in Berkeley. A Russian teacher Erard encounters at community college spews out grammatical rules "like a jaded stripper." Erard’s landlord, on hearing of his project, points out his son-in-law, the genius, who speaks six or seven languages, and who is at that moment fixing Erard’s sink. Even for people who don’t think they’re interested in languages, linguistics, education or science, Babel No More is, quite simply, a fun book.

Bellos and Erard also have some words for those of us whose last language experience was in a high school or college classroom. Language teachers tend to emphasize perfection. They want you to learn grammar and follow grammatical rules. But the language experiences that Bellos and Erard find are much more flexible. While their language learners don’t necessarily "pick up" languages effortlessly, both emphasize trial and error. Language learners make mistakes. The secret is to make them and make them often.  As Erard tries to twist his tongue around Italian, Russian and Kannada, and as Bellos twists one language into another with art and joy, the message is clear. Don’t be afraid to play and to experiment. The world awaits.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
By David Bellos

Hardcover 384 pages
Faber & Faber (October 2011)
ISBN-10: 0865478570
ISBN-13: 978-0865478572

Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners
By Michael Erard

Hardcover: 320 pages
Free Press (January 2012)
ISBN-10: 1451628250
ISBN-13: 978-1451628258

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. She last wrote on Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia and Chicano/Latino activist and playwright Herbert Siguenza’s A Weekend with Pablo Picasso for Culturekiosque.

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