The Book of Speaking in Tongues

September 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (Eco, Umberto)

It would be an exaggeration to say that no Greek word has an exact equivalent in English; we are on sufficiently safe ground with such words as eye, night, tree, water and shall probably not get into serious difficulties with husband, house, battle, dance though the possibilities of misrepresentation is here already within sight. But with god, king, city, law, virtue, priest, sin, honour, and a host of kindred words very prevalent in tragedy, we enter a sphere in which the English vocabulary is clothed with associations which are at least partly and sometimes wholly different from the Greek
EF Watling, on the difficulties of translating Sophocles into English

Umberto Eco is known in academic circles not just as a novelist but also as Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna. Most of the rest of us have never heard of semiotics as a word, let alone as a serious subject for study. But I suspect it was at least as much for being a novelist as for being a professor that he was invited to deliver the Goggio Annual Lectures in the University of Toronto in 1998 and the Weidenfeld series of lectures at the University of Oxford in 2002, on the subject of translations. While Eco does not shy away from literary theory, the examples he picked to illustrate his points are from the practitioner’s perspective of an author who has translated, and who has been translated. This is a distillation of the content of those lectures in book form.

As anyone who has read him knows, Eco is exceedingly clever – his novels are little more than a celebration of how clever and knowledgeable he is. As he himself says:

Sometimes I ask myself if by chance I write novels purely in order to put in hermetic references that are comprehensible only to me. I feel like a painter who, in a landscape, puts among the leaves of the trees – almost invisible – the initials of his beloved. And it does not matter if not even she is able to identify them

Well, it may not matter to Eco, but if you recognized his allusions and were able to decipher his little linguistic puzzles, surely it meant you were clever, too, by association. I think that pretty much sums up his oeuvre and the main motivation of his readers – self-congratulation may be an essential feature of the enjoyment of Eco. If you are one of his fans, you’d find this book a tour de force as it affords him (and you) the luxury of being superior in six languages.

That said, I do have a lot of respect for Eco’s erudition. Although I probably don’t get many of his literary allusions, I know that they constitute genuine knowledge; that they represent decades of scholarly study, immersion, even, in the full glory of everything Western culture and civilization has had to offer over the last three millennia. In contrast to Eco’s rigor, stands the half-baked secondary research that fuels the novels of his modern day copycats targeted at a larger segment of the population, a segment that is easily impressed by sensationalist mediocrity. I am told this is a malaise of English literature, that the Italian, the French and the Hispanophone worlds are in better shape when it comes to the supply and appreciation of serious literature. I am therefore mildly alarmed at being recently told, by the Economist, that 75% of all translations are from English – is the malaise of mediocrity spreading to other parts, then, or is it merely a reflection of publishing volumes and politico-economic realities ? I hope it is the latter, and that the remaining 25% is the cream of world literature translated for English speakers. (The same article also raised the ridiculous question of whether translations can be done without completely. Given that much of the world’s best literature today comes from non-Anglophone countries, such a step would be a tragedy for English-speaking readers, who are also more likely to be monoglots than others)

A Translator who could not have been done without: Abu l-Walid Mu’ammad bin A’mad bin Rušd (Averroes), whose Arabic translation of a 10th century Syriac translation of the Greek original, was translated by Hermann the German into Latin in 1256, thus re-introducing Aristotle to Europe (Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Be that as it may. I would have enjoyed Eco’s book far more if I were fluent in French, Spanish, Latin, German, and Italian as well as in English, as I would have then enjoyed the subtle differences in idioms and phraseology in different languages, a grasp of which is vital, Eco demonstrates, for competence in translation. In fact, it goes beyond that – a good translator should have an intimate knowledge of cultural, political, and social history of both languages, so that he is able to decide, for each bit of original prose, what would be correspondingly appropriate in the language into which he is translating it. The aim of translation, Eco says, is to create the same effect in the mind of the reader (obviously according to the translator’s interpretation) as the original text wanted to create. Sometimes this calls for direct transliteration of every word, sometimes for the use of slightly tweaked metaphors, and once in a while, creating the same effect requires a more radical revision which may say something entirely different in the new language, while having the same effect on its reader as the original was supposed to have on its readers.

Of course, in doing so, there are permissible limits beyond which the translator may not stray without betraying the trust of the author in bequeathing the text to him. Too much creativity, and the translator has stolen the text and made it his own, he has exceeded his brief; too little creativity, and he has not done his job.

This slightly intangible ‘faithfulness to the text’ is therefore the single most important parameter when it comes to rating a translation – hence the Italian saying that Eco is no doubt aware of, ‘traduttore, traditore‘ (translator, traitor). As Eco points out, faithfulness is not a method but an abiding principle – and ‘among the synonyms of faithfulness the word exactitude does not exist. Instead, there is loyalty, devotion, allegiance, piety.’ This has fascinating parallels to an essay in Amartya Sen’s treatise on economic analysis, ‘Choice, Welfare and Measurement‘ (reviewed here), where he discusses Milton Friedman‘s argument that the appropriateness of a descriptive economic model must be judged not by its realism but by its predictive usefulness. Too exact, and the model says nothing useful, in the sense in which the only perfect map of the world is the size of the world, but to produce one would be utterly without utility or meaning. To say ‘Scandinavians are tall’ is probably an inaccurate generalization, but this description is more useful than to say that the mean height of Scandinavians (of all ages and genders) is 5 feet 5 inches with a standard deviation of 2 feet (although the latter may be a more exact and undistorted description of the underlying data)

Now, Eco goes into some pains to clarify that all interpretations are not translations (though all translations involve interpretation), but it appears to me, on reading Sen, that Eco’s point about faithfulness without exactitude is applicable for all interpretations, including intersemiotic ones like a mathematical or verbal model to describe an economic or demographic reality.

Translation problems are intellectually very stimulating, and involve much knowledge and many decisions. They are a kind of word game with unwritten rules that has no single right answer (but several wrong ones). This book is probably itself a translation from the original Italian in which Eco must have delivered the lectures. And so, as I put down the book and end this post, I found myself wondering idly, what the original Italian words could have been, of which the English translation is:

Translators usually adopt for famous foreign cities the name used in their own country: thus London in Italian becomes Londra and Roma in English becomes Rome. There is no embarrassment in reading (in Italian) that Sherlock Holmes lives in Londra.

Perhaps Roma becoming Rome in English might have been emphasized more than London becoming Londra in Italian? Might the exact transliteration of the Italian have been something along the lines of the following?

Translators usually adopt for famous foreign cities the name used in their own country: thus Roma in English becomes Rome and London in Italian becomes Londra. There is no embarrassment in reading (in English) that Julius Caesar lived in Rome.

Or, as suggested by (and of course we must keep in mind that Babelfish transliterates, and that too word for word, and so the result is likely to be ungrammatical gobbledegook, but here it is nevertheless):

I traduttori adottano solitamente per le città che straniere famose il nome ha utilizzato nel loro proprio paese: così Roma in inglese si trasforma in in ‘Rome’ e ‘London’ in italiano si trasforma in in Londra. Non ci è l’imbarazzo nella lettura (in inglese) che quel Julius Caesar ha vissuto a ‘Rome’.

My, my, I think to myself. How clever I am.


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