"Negotiation is the key to good translation," says Umberto Eco
Thread poster: Aurora Humarán (X)

Aurora Humarán (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:32
English to Spanish
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Nov 18, 2003

Enjoy it!

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"Negotiation is the key to good translation," says Umberto Eco


Of mice and men

Sense for sense and not word for word, negotiation is the key to good translation, says Umberto Eco

Saturday November 1, 2003

I frequently feel irritated when I read essays on the theory of translation that, even though brilliant and perceptive, do not provide enough examples. I think translation scholars should have had at least one of the following experiences during their life: translating, checking and editing translations, or being translated and working in close cooperation with their translators.

As an editor, I worked for 20 years in a publishing house. As a translator, I made only two translations, which took me many years of reflection and hard work; these were from the Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau and Gerard de Nerval's Sylvie. As an author, I have almost always collaborated with my translators, an experience that started with my early essays and became more and more intense with my four novels.

Irrespective of the fact that some philosophers or linguists claim there are no rules for deciding whether one translation is better than another, everyday activity in a publishing house tells us that it is easy to establish that a translation is wrong and deserves severe editing. Maybe it is only a question of common sense, but common sense must be respected.

Let us suppose that in a novel a character says, "You're just pulling my leg." To render such an idiom in Italian by 'stai solo tirandomi la gamba' or 'tu stai menandomi per la gamba' would be literally correct but misleading. In Italian, one should say 'mi stai prendendo per il naso', thus substituting an English leg with an Italian nose.

If literally translated, the English expression, absolutely unusual in Italian, would make the reader suppose that the character (as well as the author) was inventing a provocative rhetorical figure - which is completely misleading, as in English the expression is simply an idiom. By choosing "nose" instead of "leg", a translator puts the Italian reader in the same situation as the original English one.

Thus only by being literally unfaithful can a translator succeed in being truly faithful to the source text. Which is (to redeem the triviality of my example) like echoing Saint Jerome, patron saint of translators, that in translating one should not translate 'verbum e verbo sed sensum exprimere de sensu' (sense for sense, and not word for word) - even though the notion of the right sense of a text can imply some ambiguities.

In the course of my experiences as a translated author I have always been torn between the need to have a translation that respected my intentions, and the exciting discovery that my text could elicit unexpected interpretations and be in some way improved when it was re-embodied in another language.

What I want to emphasise is that many concepts circulating in translation studies (such as adequacy, equivalence, faithfulness) can also be considered from the point of view of negotiation. Negotiation is a process by virtue of which, in order to get something, each party renounces something else, and at the end everybody feels satisfied since one cannot have everything.

For example, there is no exact way to translate the Latin word 'Mus' into English. In Latin 'Mus' covers the same semantic space covered by "mouse" and "rat" in English - as well as in French, where there is 'souris' and 'rat', in Spanish ('ratón' and 'rata') or in German ('maus' and 'ratte'). But in Italian, even though the difference between a 'topo' or, more unusually a 'sorcio', and 'ratto' is recorded in dictionaries, in everyday language one can use 'topo' even for a big rat - perhaps stretching it to 'topone' or 'topaccio' - but 'ratto' is used only in technical texts. So what happens when we find the word 'topo' in an Italian translation of a French text? Does it translate back as 'rat' or 'souris'?

Take the first chapter of Camus' La peste in the Italian translation by Beniamino dal Fabbro. It states that one morning, Doctor Rieux found, on the stairs of the building, 'un sorcio morto'. Now 'sorcio' is like 'topo', and like "mouse" in English, and if one knows that mouse in French is souris one can infer that the Italian translator chose 'sorcio' instead of 'topo' because he was phonically influenced by the French 'souris'. In spite of these obvious assumptions, one is tempted to reflect on the fact that Camus' novel is telling the story of a terrible epidemic, and the plague is not usually carried by mice but by rats.

Thus, not because of linguistic competence, but by virtue of general knowledge, one is encouraged to think that the translator made a mistake. As a matter of fact, if you check the French original, you will see that Camus does not mention a mouse but 'un rat'. This is an instance in which the Italian translator should have stressed the difference and mentioned, if not a 'ratto', at least a 'grosso topo' or a 'topo di chiavica'.

Now let us suppose that one has to translate "How now! A rat?" from Hamlet (Act III, Scene IV) into Italian. As far as I know, every Italian version translates it as 'Cosa c'è, un topo?' or 'Come? Un topo?' A rigorous translator should check in an old dictionary whether in Shakespeare's time "rat" meant, as Webster's says today, "any of numerous rodents (Rattus and related genera) differing from the related mice by considerably larger size and by structural details", adding that a "rat" can also be "a contemptible person"; (and that to "smell a rat" means to realise that there is a secret plot).

In fact, Shakespeare, at least in Richard III, used "rat" as an insult. However, in Italian the word 'ratto' has no connotation of "contemptible person", and rather suggests (though improperly) speed ('ratto' as an adjective means "speedy"). Moreover, in every situation in which someone is frightened by a rodent (when, according to a vaudeville tradition, women jump upon a chair and men grasp a broom to kill the intruder) the usual scream is 'un topo!' and not 'un ratto!'

I would decide that Hamlet, in order to kill Polonius, did not need to know if there was a "mouse" or a "rat" behind that arras, and that the word 'topo' accurately suggests surprise, instinctive alarm, and an impulse to kill. For all these reasons I accept the usual translation: 'Cosa c'è? Un topo?' If in Camus' case it is indispensable to make the size of the rodent clear, and it had to be a rat, for Hamlet it is more important to stress the animal's sudden passage and the nervous reaction it elicited.

Thus we have negotiated which portion of the expressed content was strictly pertinent in that given context. Between the purely theoretical argument that, since languages are differently structured, translation is impossible, and the commonsensical acknowledgement that people, after all, do translate and understand each other, it seems to me that the idea of translation as a process of negotiation (between author and text, between author and readers, as well as between the structure of two languages and the encyclopedias of two cultures) is the only one that matches our experience.

(This is an edited extract from Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation by Umberto Eco, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on November 13 for £12.99)


JTLingos  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:32
Dutch to English
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Agree Nov 18, 2003

I agree with you completely. I always look at the sentence or paragraph as a whole to see if it gives me the same "feeling" as the original source text.


Earl Rogers
United States
Local time: 20:32
English to Spanish
+ ...
Absolutely correct Nov 19, 2003

I agree completely. I do simultaneous interpreting every weekend, and you can not translate word for word. If you do, it does not make any sense. One of the problems that comes up for me most often when doing simultaneous interpreting for a speaker is the problem of jokes. When you don't have time to think about what you're translating, you just have to go with what the speaker is saying (I don't know ahead of time what they're going to speak about). That can be difficult. Jokes, idioms, and some other items can't be translated literally. They have to be translated for their meaning, otherwise, we would be doing a dis-service to the listener (or reader as the case may be), and to the client.
Agree completely. Good point, well said.


Paul Roige (X)
Local time: 02:32
English to Spanish
+ ...
Rats! Nov 19, 2003

I translate, therefore I smell a rat... which in Spanish is a cat ("aquí hay gato encerrado").
Business as usual...


Ruben Berrozpe (X)  Identity Verified
English to Spanish
Sí... ¡¡pero no le busquemos tres pies a la rata!! Nov 19, 2003

Paul Roigé wrote:

I translate, therefore I smell a rat... which in Spanish is a cat ("aquí hay gato encerrado").
Business as usual...



Aurora Humarán (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:32
English to Spanish
+ ...
About word by word... Nov 19, 2003

earlrog wrote:

dis-service to the listener

I liked the word!

That servile path thou nobly dost decline,
Of tracing word by word, and line by line:
A new and nobler way thou dost pursue,
To make translations and translators too:
They but preserve the ashes, thou the flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame.

This was "dedicated" by Sir John Denham to Sir Richard Fanshaw on his verstion of Pastor Fido.

Saludos,icon_smile.gif Au


Juanita Eskubi
Spanish to English
Arratsalde On Aurora Nov 19, 2003

Te saludo en euskera para que rememoras tus antepasados, pero no vayas a pensar que domine el idioma - ni mucho menos, solo unas cuantas palabras y frases. Por cierto, aunque el origen del idioma es desconocido, sí tiene un cierto parecer con el inglés en que los objetos no tienen sexo, algunas palabras como "liburudenda" = bookshop - se componen como en inglés.
Pues nada más por ahora voy a seguir trabajando un poco - para no acostumbrarme ¡ja! ¡ja!


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"Negotiation is the key to good translation," says Umberto Eco

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