Eco on translation in paperback

The Observer selects Umberto Eco’s book on translation, Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, as the paperback of the week, though without making it sound like a fun read.

bq. He starts with what may seem a rather obvious conclusion – that Babelfish and its like are doomed to failure because translation requires the ability to understand a language as a cultural system, with nuances and contextual associations beyond the dictionary definitions. From this starting point he moves into far more complex territory; how, for example, do you even begin to go about translating poetry, where meaning is so often conveyed by a rhythm and musicality unique to the poet’s original language? How do you translate regional dialect, or the language of past ages – a problem Eco set for the various translators of his last novel, Baudolino?

There is a review by Arle Lommel at the LISA site. He finds the book worth its cover price, and that was the hardback. Apparently the translation is into British English. ‘Negotiation’ means compromise:

bq. In each case, a decision of which word to use is made that requires some information to be lost (size of the rodent, distinction from other similar rodents, etc.), while other information is preserved in the translation. It is in this sense that Eco uses negotiation: something must be lost for something else to be gained, and the basis for the negotiation is generally not within the text itself, but rather in factors external to the language of the text. Although in the Globalization, Internationalization, Localization and Translation (GILT) industry we are generally dealing with texts that try to control language, such issues are never entirely eliminated, and we frequently deal with materials, such as marketing collateral, where these issues are at the forefront. What might seem like theoretical pondering on Eco’s part can have real impact on how we conduct business.

The Guardian has already published a review of the book by Michael Hofmann , an interesting essay on translation in its own right (via Isabella).

7 thoughts on “Eco on translation in paperback

  1. Well, that’s not the problem, one is not too uneducated to throw together a few scraps of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, to say nothing of A Level French – the problem is that I had to throw Douglas Hofstadter’s book in the corner. Well, I will glance at this if I pass it.
    Eco sold masses of The Name of the Rose in Germany. Rumour has it that books like that are bought as presents rather than actually read.

  2. I bought my (unread, French) copy of _The Name of the Rose_ at an airport.

    But Eco is OK for non-fiction when he wants to be. (Not including _Kant and the Platypus_, which is pretty hardcore – I bought that at a train station and haven’t read it either.)

  3. I must admit I haven’t read it either. I did see the film, and it was not one of the (few) films I walked out of or wanted to, but I remember the camera work more than anything else. I’m thinking of something else, a novel by Lawrence Norfolk that was translated into German and there was a big outcry among literary translators at how badly it was done. It was an experienced translator and writer and he translated this novel as if every idiom had been invented by the author, as if it had been, say, James Joyce, so even the most platitudinous comparisons were done literally. Anyway, this book had fantastic sales and I didn’t like it much – I read it because of the controversy, but it seemed a bit like the Emperor’s new clothes to me.

  4. Perservere. Name of the Rose is excellent once you get past all the Latin at the beginning. And if you like comparing translations, the German and French versions are outstanding. Another book that has been extremely well translated into English and French is Süsskind’s Perfume. Also House of the Spirits. You see, it can be done!

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