Eco Advises

Umberto Eco once stated that to be a good translator one needs to translate and be translated. How true these words are. In fact, Eco goes on to state that the author must also act as an editor and consultant to the translator of his works. Umberto Eco makes it his duty to discuss the problems of translation with each individual translator regardless of whether he knows the target language or not. Eco asks his translators to discuss the problems they are having – which section is difficult, which paragraph seems unintelligible, or which sentence appears to be untranslatable. He is able to illicit answers to their problems by prodding them deeper and deeper about the culture of the target language and making them become aware of the real context of what lay within his mind at the time of writing.

In essence this shows us that the translator must have a dual outlook on the text he or she is translating – from the side of the author and the side of the translator. Or, in fact, from the point of view of the author and point of view of the reader. Moreover, a cultural fluency (or bi-culturalism) is essential. The first idea that comes to mind here is how does one translate into or out of the ancient languages? How does one grapple with a culture that is no more? All that can be done is to read, read, read, research, research, research until one immerses oneself in the source culture in order to then transpose (functionally) equivalent concepts into the (home) culture.

What Umberto Eco shows us is that even authors need to be sensitive to the sensibilities of the translator. And the best consultant for every translator is invariably the author of the original text. Interestingly, these are nigh-on always the most fascinating linguistic, translational and cultural conversations. The author who is ready to discuss a text with his/her translator is often an open person ready to take on new ideas. When culture meets culture, text meets text, author meets translator the boundaries between the two often blur, overlap and merge often producing something new and exciting. It is at moments like this the process of translation is most exhilarating.


11 thoughts on “Eco Advises

  1. Most interesting! I’d initially incline towards assuming that the author separates him/herself from the text and may not be the best adviser on the subtleties of translation. After all, true poets are really the worst public readers of their works. Still, being a semiotic author (and Eco surely believes that only such are true authors) definitely involves dealing with the cultural context, and this indeed is embedded sort of “behind” the literal words used in the translated text.

    By the way, why don’t you link to, while keeping dict and getionary? I know that ling has the annoying amount of ads, but the sheer volume of definitions is astounding – if they worked faster and more reliably, I’d probably switch from pwn…

  2. Certainly, but for me semiotic readership implies a separate relationship of the reader with the text, taking over from the place where the (semiotic) author finished.

    In this sense, the author may not fully understand his/her own text. It is a bit vague argument, but when I compare e.g. Shrek in English and in the famous Polish adaptation, I naturally begin to wonder if consulting the translation with the script author(s) would not deteriorate the outcome… Just thoughts, anyway.

    Per dictionaries, just for fun a quick check :> :

  3. Certainly. In a sense also this is the view take by Derrida – the reader creates a new interpretation of the text. It is not the case does not understand his/her own text but rather the reader creates a >>new<< interpretation for the text.

  4. The more I stay surrounded with native speakers, the more I realize that the process of translating myself into the second language is not completed, yet. I’m working on it everyday. I knew it before from the books I read, especially after reading Eva Hoffman’s “Lost in Translation”.
    And now, I’m staying in Cambodia, where so many misunderstandings come from our language differences and the perception of the language.
    It’s amazing.
    This sensitivity to the differences are not only important in translating. Teaching is another field. Here, the cultural differences reveal in full. But, that makes all the game more interesting and challenging.

  5. I think you’re right, that Eco’s advising of his translators, to try to bring them closer to the point of view of the initial writer, rather than that of the reader/translator-turned-writer, is important. But Eco must know he is on shaky ground here too, because he has already passed from one side of the mirror — of language as writer’s expression — to the other, of language as reader’s meaning. He can’t help, once the book leaves his hands, but see it as a strange or foreign thing, so his advice to translators is still somewhat from the point of view of a reader who creates the book again. Culturally of course, as you mention, he has a great deal to offer, but Blanchot mentions some of these difficulties in his “La litterature et le droit a la mort,” stating that the work dissappears for the writer and becomes the work of others. “The reader makes the work; in reading, he creates it.”

    So where does that leave the translator, who doesn’t want to translate the book he has created but the book the writer created?

    Anyway, thanks for the terrific and thoughtful posts!

  6. Glenn: Where does it leave the translator? The same place you left him/her! This deconstructivist idea is liberating for the translator as it gives him/her (usually her?) the freedom to create anew without the shackles of authorial power. Yes, we can consult with the author but in the end, the task falls to us. Glenn, thank you for your heartening words.

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