Brain Pickings

What Translation Reveals about the Human Condition

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How to get a tarantula off your southwest leg, or what Astérix has to do with religion and the Manhattan grid.

Language is one of the most fascinating technologies, a human invention so central to our social function and very survival it’s practically indistinguishable from life itself. Yet languages are incredibly intricate, complicated, culture-specific organisms, and much of their delicate complexity can get lost in translation. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a fine new addition to our five favorite books on language, translator, biographer, and Princeton professor David Bellos explores the mystery of how we come to understand what someone else means, using translation as a lens on empathy in the human experience. Intelligent, entertaining, and brimming with delightful, surprising factoids, it’s a cross-disciplinary lens that spans from the evolution of written language to Astérix cartoons and a wealth in between, revealing how translation shaped everything from the propagation of religion to the literary legacy of famous authors.

The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition.”

~ David Bellos

This charming kinetic typography trailer by Matt Young, full of fascinating trivia-worthy bites of knowledge, is the ultimate cherry on top, and an instant addition to our favorite book trailers:

From what Manhattanese has in common with the Kuuk Thaayorre language of South Australia to why we don’t have a word for all things with chrome handlebars, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything dances across linguistic fascination, cultural history, and pure wit to deliver a unique meditation on mankind’s ever-evolving tango with global communication.

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