"Nowadays there are only about fifty languages [out of a possible 7,000] between which imports and exports of translated books occur with any regularity," Bellos tells us, noting that English, French and German still lead the pack. He spins out a dazzling essay on the ineffable qualities of languages, attempts to capture and communicate nuance across tongues, and explains the dangers of not questioning the source of highly quotable zingers.
Issues of "literal" versus "general sense" translations emerge in the essay "Bibles and Bananas," about the unavoidable choices made when the Bible has been rendered into some 2,500 languages. What happens when a version is a translation of a translation? What if the translator is more concerned with transmitting the story than the precise sacred script of the original?
Literary translations aside, consider the challenges when questions of law have to be communicated across languages. The Nuremberg Trials in 1945, U.N. language requirements and European Economic Union procedural rules created a demand for simultaneous translations that go far beyond the skills of legal counsel who interpret clauses of international trade contracts.
As Bellos so eloquently shows, a language and its translations into other languages make us not only human and stylish but civilized. --John McFarland, author