Umberto Eco’s Experiences in translation

December 18, 2014 6:45 pm

Umberto_Eco_04Introducing professor Umberto Eco is a challenging and almost impossible task. Semiotics professor, storyteller, writer, translator, intellectual, journalist, a mix of erudition and profoundness. All of these made him one of the authors who are more apt to speak about translation, particularly about translation in that complex field that is literature, his own playground. The main challenge in the translation of books is how to deal with all those poetical complexities which make a text as complex as a maze. This is what Umberto Eco explains in his book “Come dire quasi la stessa cosa” (“Experiences in translation” in the English version), the intellectual autobiography of a writer and a translator that every translator, terminologist or linguist should always have at hand. In this article we will share with you some useful hints and thoughts that Eco himself presented at a conference at the University Normale di Pisa, to introduce the book to a specialized audience. We will add at the end of this post some useful reading for the curious reader who wants to discover more.

Eco starts his speech with an example not directly connected to the book itself. The example is taken from the book “Alice in the land of numbers”, a sort of a further elaboration of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, in which the author brings Alice in a mathematicians’ world where math and logic are taken to their extreme. Like Carroll’s book, this one as well is full of puns and jokes. Now, we won’t analyse in depth all the complexities of the translator’s choices. We will focus on the conclusion that Eco extracts from the little example. Not surprisingly, he finds a solution for the perfect Italian translation of a pun in the book, better than the actual one, in which some of the meanings got lost. He concludes that even though the Italian translator failed the translation, a reader, even though not so experienced and skilled, will always perceive the “world” of the book. Eco states that in his search for the perfect translation he first tried to use images taken from his own cultural world and only afterwards he counted on his linguistic knowledge, in order to verify if the pun can have an equivalent in Italian.

From this little example Eco extracts some basic rules for a decent translation of a book, which we will summarize in some points. A translation, Eco states as a first commandment, is not simply the comprehension and an interpretation of a text. Second rule, an interpretation introduces us to multiple possible “worlds”: an idea that Eco, as semiotics professor, had always underlined in his essays. Third, in the translation of a book it seems legitimate to violate some rules in order to produce the same effect the original author intended. Eco talks about a principle he calls “multiple transaction” when trying to distinguish and to choose between the various layers tangled inside a text.

Some other rules: the translation can be more complex than the original text. Strange, isn’t it? But it can actually happen. In the Italian language there is only a word for the concept of nephew, while in English we could have niece, nephew, grandson or granddaughter, which define more precisely the family relationships and the sex of the person. Moreover, a translation can be compared with a Rebus: this kind of riddle has multiple layers, from letters to images, and it can be used as a model for the various layers of a story.

These are just some of the rules that should guide a translator inside a text, that you will find in the book. Generally, to conclude our short summary, Eco always suggests to use common sense and to respect the original purpose of the text. For a complete reading, we add the following links.


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  • James Nolan

    Thank you, Umberto! One good turn deserves another; so here is an example of a translated pun from my book:
    Occasionally, by sheer coincidence, a pun based on homophones may be roughly translatable because a meaningful related pun can be produced in the target language. The alert interpreter may be able to spot those cases.
    Example: “The devout lady asked her minister, ‘Please pray for my pancreas’. The minister replied, ‘We are not usually so specific in our prayers’. And she said, ‘Oh yes, last week you prayed for loose livers.’ ” = “Une dame pieuse demande au curé, ‘Priez pour mon pancréas’. A quoi le curé répond, ‘Nous ne prions pas d’habitude pour des choses si concrètes’. Et la dame de répondre, ‘Mais si, la semaine dernière nous avons prié pour ne pas perdre la foie!’ ”