Umberto Eco

A Rose by Any Other Name

By Umberto Eco
Translated by William Weaver

Guardian Weekly, January 16, 1994

There are writers who do not bother about their translations, sometimes because they lack the linguistic competence; some sometimes because they have no faith in the literary value of their work and are anxious only to sell their product in as many countries as possible.
    Often the indifference conceals two prejudices, equally despicable: Either the author considers himself an inimitable genius and so suffers translation as a painful political process to be borne until the whole world has learned his language, or else the author harbours an "ethnic" bias and considers it a waste of time to care about how readers from other cultures might feel about his work.
    People think an author can check his translations only if he knows the language into I which he is to be translated. Obviously, if he does know that language, the work proceeds more easily. But it all depends on the translator's intelligence. For example, I do not know Swedish, Russian, or Hungarian, and yet I have worked well with my translators into those languages. They were able to explain to me the kind of difficulties they faced, and make me understand why what I had written created problems in their language. In many cases I was able to offer suggestions.
    The problem frequently arises from the fact that translations are either "source-oriented" or "target oriented," as today's books on Translation Theory put it. A source-oriented translation must do everything possible to make the B-language reader understand what the writer has thought or said in language A. Classical Greek affords a typical example: in order to comprehend it at all, the modern reader must understand what the poets of that age were like and how they might express themselves. If Homer seems to repeat "rosy-fingered dawn" too frequently, the translator must not try to vary the epithet just because today's manuals of style insist we should be careful about repeating the same adjective. The reader has to understand that in those days dawn had rosy fingers whenever it was mentioned.
    In other cases translation can and should be target-oriented. I will cite an example from the translation of my novel Foucault's Pendulum whose chief characters constantly speak in literary quotations. The purpose is to show that it is impossible for these characters to see the world except through literary references. Now, in chapter 57, describing an automobile trip in the hills, the translation reads "the horizon became more vast, at every curve the peaks grew, some crowned by little villages: we glimpsed endless vistas." But, after "endless vistas" the Italian text went on: "al di la della siepe, come osservava Diotallevi." If these words had been translated, literally "beyond the hedge, as Diotallevi remarked," the English-language reader would have lost something, for "al di la della siepe" is a reference to the most beautiful poem of Giacomo Leopardi, "L'infinito," which every Italian reader knows by heart. The quotation appears at that point not because I wanted to tell the reader there was a hedge anywhere nearby, but because I wanted to show how Diotallevi could experience the landscape only by linking it to his experience of the poem. I told my translators that the hedge was not important, nor the reference to Leopardi, but it was important to have a literary reference at any cost. In fact, William Weaver's translation reads: "We glimpsed endless vistas. Like Darien," Diotallevi remarked..." This brief allusion to the Keats sonnet is a good example of target-oriented translation.
    A source-oriented translator in a language I do not know may ask me why I have used a certain expression, or (if he understood it from the start) he may explain to me why, in his language, such a thing cannot be said. Even then I try to take part (if only from outside) in a translation that is at once source and target-oriented.
    These are not easy problems. Consider Tolstoy's War And Peace. As many know, this novel -- written in Russian, of course -- begins with a long dialogue in French. I have no idea how many Russian readers in Tolstoy's day understood French; the aristocrats surely did because this French dialogue is meant, in fact, to depict the customs of aristocratic Russian society. Perhaps Tolstoy took it for granted that, in his day, those who did not know French were not even able to read Russian. Or else he wanted the non-French-speaking reader to understand that the aristocrats of the Napoleonic period were, in fact, so remote from Russian national life that they spoke in an incomprehensible fashion. Today if you re-read those pages, you will realize that it is not important to understand what those characters are saying, because they speak of trivial things. What is important is to understand that they are saying those things in French. A problem that has always fascinated me is this: How would you translate the first chapter of War And Peace into French? The reader reads a book in French and in it some of the characters are speaking French; nothing strange about that. If the translator adds a note to the dialogue saying en francais dans le text, it is of scant help: the effect is still lost. Perhaps, to achieve that effect, the aristocrats (in the French translation) should speak English. I am glad I did not write War And Peace and am not obliged to argue with my French translator.
    As an author, I have learned a great deal from sharing the work of my translators. I am talking about my "academic" works as well as my novels. In the case of philosophical and linguistic works, when the translator cannot understand (and clearly translate) a certain page, it means that my thinking was murky. Many times, after having faced the job of translation, I have revised the second Italian edition of my book; not only from the point of view of its style but also from the point of view of ideas. Sometimes you write something in your own language A, and the translator says: "If I translate that into my language B, it will not make sense." He could be mistaken. But if, after long discussion, you realize that the passage would not make sense in language B, it will follow that it never made sense in language A to begin with.
    This doesn't mean that, above a text written in language A there hovers a mysterious entity that is its Sense, which would be the same in any language, something like an ideal text written in what Walter Benjamin called Reine Sprache (The Pure language). Too good to be true. In that case it would only be a matter of isolating this Pure language and the work of translation (even of a page of Shakespeare) could be done by computer.
    The job of translation is a trial and error process, very similar to what happens in an Oriental bazaar when you are buying a carpet. The merchant asks 100, you offer 10 and after an hour of bargaining you agree on 50.
Naturally, in order to believe that the negotiation has been a success you must have fairly precise ideas about this basically imprecise phenomenon called translation. In theory, different languages are impossible to hold to one standard; it cannot be said that the English "house" is truly and completely the synonym of the French "maison." But in theory no form of perfect communication exists. And yet, for better or worse, ever since the advent of Homo sapiens, we have managed to communicate. Ninety percent (I believe) of War And Peace's readers have read the book in translation and yet if you set a Chinese, an Englishman, and an Italian to discussing War And Peace, not only will all agree that Prince Andrej dies, but, despite many interesting and differing nuances of meaning, all will be prepared to agree on the recognition of certain moral principles expressed by Tolstoy. I am sure the various interpretations would not exactly coincide, but neither would the interpretations that three English-speaking readers might provide of the same Wordsworth poem.
    In the course of working with translators, you reread your original text, you discover its possible interpretations, and it sometimes happens -- as I have said -- that you want to rewrite it. I have not rewritten my two novels, but there is one place which, after its translation, I would have gladly rewritten. It is the dialogue in Foucault's Pendulum in which Diotallevi says: "God created the world by speaking. He didn't send a telegram." And Belbo replies:"Fiat lux. Stop."
But in the original Belbo said: "Fiat lux. Stop. Segue lettera" ("Fiat lux. Stop. Letter follows.") "Letter follows" is a standard expression used in telegrams (or at least it used to be standard, before the fax machine came into existence). At that point in the Italian text, Casaubon said: "Ai Tessalonicesi, immagino." (To the Thessalonians, I suppose.) It was a sequence of witty remarks, somewhat sophomoric, and the joke lay in the fact that Casaubon was suggesting that, after having created the world by telegram, God would send one of Saint Paul's epistles. But the play on words works only in Italian, in which both the posted letter and the Saint's epistle are called lettera. In English the text had to be changed. Belbo says only "Fiat lux. Stop." and Casaubon comments "Epistle follows." Perhaps the joke becomes a bit more ultraviolet and the reader has to work a little harder to understand what's going on in the minds of the characters, but the short circuit between Old and New Testament is more effective. Here, if I were rewriting the original novel, I would alter that dialogue.
    Sometimes the author can only trust in Divine Providence. I will never be able to I collaborate fully on a Japanese translation of my work (though I have tried). It is hard for me to understand the thought processes of my "target." For that matter I always wonder what I am really reading, when I look at the translation of a Japanese poem, and I presume Japanese readers have the same experience when reading me. And yet I know that, when I read the translation of Japanese poem, I grasp something of that thought process that is different from mine. If I read a haiku after having read some Zen Buddhist koans, I can perhaps understand why the simple mention of the moon high over the lake should give me emotions analogous to and yet different from those that an English romantic poet conveys to me. Even in these cases a minimum of collaboration between translator and author can work. I no longer remember into which Slavic language someone was translating The Name of the Rose, but we were wondering what the reader would get from the many passages in Latin. Even an American reader who has not studied Latin still knows it was the language of the medieval ecclesiastical world and so catches a whiff of the Middle Ages. And further, if he reads De Pentagono Salomonis he can recognize pentagon and Solomon. But for a Slavic reader these Latin phrases and names, transliterated into the Cyrillic alphabet, suggest nothing.
    If, at the beginning of War And Peace, the American reader finds "Eh bien, mon prince... " he can guess that the person being addressed is a prince. But if the same dialogue appears at the beginning of a Chinese translation (in an incomprehensible Latin alphabet or worse expressed in Chinese ideograms) what will the reader in Peking understand? The Slavic translator and I decided to use, instead of Latin, the ancient ecclesiastical Slavonic of the medieval Orthodox church. In that way the reader would feel the same sense of distance, the same religious atmosphere, though understanding only vaguely what was being said.
    Thank God I am not a poet, because the problem becomes more dramatic in translating poetry, an art where thought is determined by words, and if you change the language, you change the thought. And yet there are excellent examples of translated poetry produced by a collaboration between author and translator. Often the result is a new creation. One text very close to poetry because of its linguistic complexity is Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Now, the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter - when it was still in the form of an early draft -- was translated into Italian with Joyce himself collaborating. The translation is markedly different from the original English. It is not a translation. It is as if Joyce had rewritten his text in Italian. And yet one French critic has said that to understand that chapter properly (in English) it would be advisable to first read that Italian draft.
    Perhaps the Pure Language does not exist, but pitting one language against another is a splendid adventure, and it is not necessarily true, as the Italian saying goes, that the translator is always a traitor. Provided that the author takes part in this admirable treason.


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
The Guardian

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.


Speaking in tongues

Making the foreign accessible is an overlooked art. Michael Hofmann on Mouse or Rat?, Umberto Eco's essay on translation

Saturday November 22, 2003
The Guardian

Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation
by Umberto Eco
200pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

I wonder from time to time why most of "my" authors are dead. Isn't there something unhealthy about that? What does it say about me? Perhaps I should go out and find myself a nice leafy green one - or perhaps things have already gone beyond that, with my dead hand.

It's not actually the reason (if there is a reason), but then I think to myself that I do like to be, as it were, in sole possession of a book. I like not having someone looking over my shoulder, not having someone to ask, or someone to offer me advice or instruction. Not that my dealings with the living have been that awful. Some have been quite pleasant. But - other things being equal - I'm still glad to have one less source of interference, one less party, as Umberto Eco puts it, with which to "negotiate". I like being left in charge, and I like being left im Kraut - as the Germans say. It would be the Germans.

There is a point of view in this which isn't heard often, if ever - and it's not in Eco's book either - which is the translator's. I was at a conference not long ago, called "The Translator Speaks". I began by saying "not much, he doesn't", and was straightaway asked to speak up.

Why does someone translate? What possesses them? I can't speak for anyone else, but in my case it's firstly to scrape together a living in letters, and secondly a duty to the literature and the language (German). Once there, I also found I wanted to make a difference. I want it to matter that a book has had my time and my English expended on it, and not someone else's. I want both the choice of book, and the manner of the translation, to be expressive of me. Perhaps this is already illegitimate, I quite see that. Perhaps this is some of the executive vanity of authorship meddling with and muddying the dull pitch of the translator. But I'm not deluded. I may set down every word of my Koeppens and Roths (proper names excepted), but I don't think I'm them.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that translation is perceived as a function, not an agency. It's not fully personalised and accredited work. No one sees it. You're an ambulance driver, not a surgeon. If not me, then someone else. If not someone else, then me. When people buy a book, they want to read the author, not a centaur or a Zygos brothers figure - the work, and not the product of something I once described as "the strange bi-authorship of translation". If the book was written in a different language, then there will, perforce, have to have been a translator involved in it, but the reader prefers to remain unaware of that. It may even be disagreeable to be informed or reminded of the fact. Even otherwise bookish people seem never to know who translated the book they are reading. Efforts by publishers to promote something as a "new translation", I am convinced, do as much harm as good. There's something as unnatural and infrequent about those as there is about a comet; people quite naturally take fright.

In the English-speaking world (ha!), there is very little empathy with translators. Most readers don't have any experience of translating, or indeed of another language at a serious level. Most authors and reviewers don't either. Among poets, off the top of my head I can only think of a handful who translate: Muldoon, Heaney, George Szirtes, and Don Paterson, with his Machado, and a Rilke forthcoming. Among novelists only Tim Parks (recently retired from the fray), and Julian Barnes with his Daudet. There are one or two more in the US. (You do get them in the theatre, though, where it sometimes seems that every English and Irish playwright has had a go at Chekhov, but the ground rules there are different; they work from literal versions, and it's their dramaturgical expertise and ear for speech that are brought to bear.) Any European country, I think, would have dozens of equivalent figures who had offered translations. Pavese translated; Proust translated; Bruno Schulz translated. It's an ordinary aspect of literary work. Eco refers to an Einaudi series of books translated by Italian authors. Primo Levi translated The Trial; Eco himself did De Nerval's Sylvie. A series like that would barely get off the ground in the UK.

The background of such ignorance and lack of experience has left an odd nimbus or whiff around translation. People don't know how to talk about it, and so they don't like to talk about it. Translation is perceived either in terms of clarity and faithfulness (Eco does it too), or in terms of mistakes, which is banal, because everyone makes mistakes. Again, a function, rather than an agency. Everything beyond that is shrouded in an unfortunate mystique. But really, there is no mystery. If you have a good time with a book, praise the author; if you have a good time with a paragraph, praise the translator (as well). That would be my rule of thumb.

Discussion of translation - where there is any - often involves a sort of Trinity, where the parts of Father, Son and Holy Ghost are taken by anecdote, detail and theory. This holds for Mouse or Rat? as well. It's a strange performance, but that probably reflects Eco and his rather striped appeal. Accordingly, we sometimes get the egregiously learned semiotician jargonising and bandying names and scholastic significations (I've often been bothered by the rather tedious difficulty of following descriptions, especially of interiors, without ever knowing what I was suffering from was hypotyposis). Sometimes it's the velvet-jacketed after-dinner entertainer getting down to some good-humoured tricks. And sometimes detailed and practical and even humble points going every which way through five or six languages. There is no translator credited on Mouse or Rat?, hence I presume Eco must have written and delivered these lectures in his second - or third or fourth? - language. Well, one wouldn't have known it.

On occasion what he says seems purely to evaporate: he is anxious about taking issue with Jakobson, his former teacher, but I can't for the life of me see where and how that is. He is exercised by Averroes's rather speculative and misleading translation of Aristotle's theory of tragedy, but doesn't follow through with any consequences it may have had. (Not many dead, I wrote in the margin.) Generally, he seems to have a penchant for quantity as a measure of all things: the number of allusions that can be incorporated or adapted in the cause of "intertextual irony" (a big favourite); the number of alexandrines and hendecasyllables hidden in a prose text of De Nerval's; the fact that a Dante translation had only 37 stanzas of terza rima, where Dante himself had 45. This is a little close to helping-size, and I think it's almost sub-literary as a plane of regard. At a certain point, naturalness has to operate as a criterion and a value, even when all the talk is of artifice. I love Joyce's "meandertale", but you have to think someone once thought of it. Eco's extreme liking for complexity and problems in general put me in mind of the maxim "hard cases make bad law"; but finally his watchword is "negotiation", which is fine by me.

Eco is an amiable enough marshal of his (nobly unawkward) squad of translators in all sorts of languages. Mostly my heart went out to those poor people - except his American English translator William Weaver ("Bill"), who seemed to be able to cut corners pretty regularly without being made to stand in one too often: for instance, he came up with only six words for "red"' where the original and everyone else had eight. But Eco's writing itself seemed to me so insistently and abstrusely gamesome that it must have been - I mean this - hellish to try to replicate some medieval witticism in the Lombard dialect. Sisyphean. Baffling really that it ever caught on, and yet it did. Der Name der Rose was the highest selling title Germany had ever had before Harry Potter. All the same, I'll stick to my dead people, if that's all right.

Michael Hofmann's translation of The Radetzky March is just out in paperback from Granta.



Separated by a common language
(Filed: 24/11/2003)

Noel Malcolm reviews Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation by Umberto Eco

"In the God that began created the sky and the Earth and the Earth was without form, and emptiness; and the dark was on the face of the deep one. And the alcohol of the God moved on the face of waters."

This boozy-sounding rendering of the opening verses of the Bible was created by the most sober of translators: a computer. Umberto Eco simply typed in the English from the Authorised Version, asked a computer programme to translate it into Spanish (where "void" became a noun, not an adjective, and "the Spirit of God" became "el alcohol del dios"), and then asked the same programme to translate the Spanish back into English.

A further attempt, using German, produced "the white spirits of the God", which may possibly tell us something about the difference between Germans and Spaniards. But the main point of the exercise was to show the difference between human beings and computers (or, at least, computers which function as little more than automated dictionaries).

Human language-users, even if they happen to be atheists, know what sort of meaning "spirit" must have when it appears in a phrase such as "spirit of God", because they know what religious language is about. However good the dictionary may be, its users will always need other sorts of knowledge that it cannot supply.

Umberto Eco is interested in these matters for more than one reason. As an academic, he specialises in literary theory and "semiotics", the study of systems of signs. As a novelist, he revels in techniques of so-called intertextuality, inserting elements or echoes of other texts (sometimes written in foreign languages) into his prose. And as a novelist who has been hugely successful, he has seen his own works translated into dozens of languages, and has often been consulted by bemused translators who wondered how on earth they could find equivalents for his Italian word-games and allusions.

His new book is a set of lectures on translation, in which he tries to solve some of its age-old problems. Traditionally, theories about how to translate literature have fallen into two opposing camps: the "source-oriented" and the "target-oriented". The former method tries to stick as closely as possible to the nature of the original text (the "source"), which often means presenting something culturally alien to the reader - for example, giving a literal translation of foreign slang, regardless of how odd this may sound.

The "target-oriented" approach, on the other hand, tries to put things in terms familiar to the reader: if an Italian novel has someone speaking in the slang of Trastevere, this may be transferred into Cockney in the English version. This opens up much wider possibilities for the translator, who is not only changing the words from one language to another, but attempting a kind of cultural translation too.

Eco tries to stand somewhere in the middle, arguing that there must be some give-and-take between these two methods - what he calls a "negotiation" between author, translator and reader. The key example he gives involves mice and rats. The Italian "topo" (mouse) is also commonly used for rats, and is what any Italian would shout if he saw a rat scurrying across the floor. So when Hamlet shouts "How now! A rat?" (just before he kills Polonius), this is correctly translated using an Italian word which the dictionary normally explicates as "mouse".

But at the opening of Camus's La Peste, when a dead rat is found on the stairs, Eco insists that the Italian translator should use the technical term "ratto" (or "grosso topo", to show that a rat and not a mouse is meant), because the relevant point here is not that the animal scuttles or startles, but that it carries the plague.

So far, so good; but this is not a special "negotiation", just a straightforward application of the rule that translators should know how words are actually used. The complications start to arise when Eco discusses the problems involved in translating his own novels, with their fine webs of hidden quotations and literary in-jokes. For example, when one of his characters uses a phrase from a famous poem by Leopardi (famous, that is, to Italian readers but not to English ones), he suggests that the English version should substitute a quotation from Keats. What matters, he says, is that the "effect" on the reader should be the same - in this case, the experience of hearing a familiar literary echo.

Gradually, this emphasis on the creation of an equivalent "effect" takes over his argument, until it becomes clear that, far from offering a compromise, he is in fact putting forward a strong version of the target-oriented approach. It is obvious that the "effect" of Trastevere slang on Italian readers is best replicated, in the case of English readers, by using Cockney. But why stop there? Why not transfer the setting of the novel itself from Rome to London?

More than once Eco refers to the "deep sense" of a novel, and identifies this with the sort of "effect" he discusses. But the implications of this are quite unnerving. What Eco's argument implies is that everything that is truly specific to a work of art is inessential to its true meaning. If the "deep sense" of Anna Karenina cannot include any of the details that would have to be changed for the benefit of readers ignorant of the social, moral and material conditions of life in late 19th-century Russia, what sort of sense will it still contain? The novel will be reduced, it seems, to a box of rather abstract tricks for manipulating the responses of its readers - which is surely an impoverished view of what great novels are, no matter how accurately it may sum up the novels of Umberto Eco.

Despite the worrying tendency of its argument, this is still a stimulating and rather charming book. But it also prompts some more immediate queries about the business of translation. Eco seems first to have written the text in English, and then to have entrusted the proof-reading to a monoglot Italian: these pages are littered with misprints and ungrammatical constructions. Was neither a translator nor an editor available to help him? And, when this text is published in Italian, should that edition be carefully peppered with equivalent errors, in order to guarantee the same "effect"?

Noel Malcolm's books include 'Aspects of Hobbes' (Clarendon Press).


Why a bee might grasp a banana with a stick
(Filed: 22/12/2003)

Graham Robb reviews Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation by Umberto Eco

It is ironic that, while most literary translators are paid a pittance, people who theorise about translation receive grants, attend international conferences and draw salaries for publishing books too boring ever to be translated. This sub-section of academe has produced some memorably idiotic notions - the idea, for instance, that translators should be as unconvincing as possible in case readers forget that they are reading a translation, or the idea that there is no such thing as a "good" or a "bad" translation.

This is why Umberto Eco's sparkling but occasionally pedantic lectures on translation seem to be addressed to intelligent beings with no practical experience of human language. In Eco's view, "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 co-operation with their translators". Having had all three experiences, Eco has some jolly tales to tell. He was once asked to check an Italian translation of a psychology book in which "a bee managed to grasp a banana outside its cage with the help of a stick". ("Ape" in Italian is "bee".) It seems that there is, after all, such a thing as a bad translation.

The title, Mouse or Rat?, refers to the fact that a single Italian word - topo - can be used for either animal. Ratto would be too specific for "How now! A rat?", but essential for the disease-carrying rodent in Camus's The Plague. Word-for-word translation is usually a mess, as Eco shows by feeding Genesis 1:2 into AltaVista's "Babelfish" online translator. After a quick spin from English into Spanish and back again, the text comes out in tatters: "The alcohol of the God moved on the face of waters."

At the other extreme are translations that interpret and embellish. The opening line of Proust's In Search of Lost Time ("Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure" - "I've been going to bed early now since I can't remember when") was once jokily translated as, "It took me a long time to convince my parents to let me go to bed after nine." A good interpretation but a hopeless translation. Yet even inept translators have their uses. Elio Vittorini's ignorance of idiomatic American English might have produced some dodgy translations of American novels but it also helped to create a new Italian narrative style.

The solution, says Eco, is "negotiation". There must be a compromise between accuracy and readability. Pulling someone's leg would be odd in Italian; taking them by the nose would not. Sometimes, a rat must be a topo. This might seem obvious, but, apparently, it needs to be said.

The final chapter of this cheerful book could have been headed, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" (or, as Babelfish would have it, "Give whole hope for ye which write here"). It seems that, not only do some languages lack words for certain colours, the perception of the colours themselves has changed over time. Even the nimblest translator would despair of finding the mot juste for the Latin word flavus, described by Aulus Gellius as a mixture of green, red and white, and applied by various writers to olive leaves, marble and Dido's blond hair.

Readers who don't know their hypotyposis from their ekphrasis might find Mouse or Rat? hard to digest. Eco himself admits that some of his erudite jokes are appreciated only by rare-book dealers. This does not prevent him from upbraiding some of his own translators for showing "an insufficient appreciation of the deep sense of my text". The author of The Name of the Rose now sends his translators "pages and pages of notes" and rewards them by making fun of their feeble efforts in books like this. Beyond the world of international semiotics, this is known as "showing off", as is the breezy use of jargon such as "Linear Text Manifestation". (This review, for instance, is an LTM, whereas the word "review", on its own, is just a word.)

The cover of Mouse or Rat? shows a 17th-century Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators, getting some help from an angel - probably the angel later known as Roget. But the real hero of this book, apart from Eco himself, is Martin Luther, who must have run into some translation theorists when he was translating Matthew 12:34: "If I followed those jackasses, they would probably set the letters before me and have me translate it, 'out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh'. Tell me, is that how any real person would speak? … What on earth is "'the abundance of the heart"'? … What the mother in her house and the common man would say is something like: 'speak straight from the heart!'"


Recensão de «Dire quasi la stessa cosa, Esperienze di traduzione»,
o último livro de Umberto Eco publicado pela Editora Bompiani, Milano, 2003


«A intenção do Escritor é ingénua, primeira, outra; a sua (do Tradutor) é derivada, última, ideal. Porque o seu trabalho é animado pela vontade duma integração das diversas Línguas, para chegar a uma única Língua verdadeira»

Walter Benjamin, «A tarefa do Tradutor» 


Esta breve recensão crítica da última obra de Umberto Eco pretende, por um lado, ser um convite à leitura e à divulgação dum texto que achamos de grande interesse e actualidade e, por outro, um convite à tradução, jà que a obra ainda não se encontra traduzida em Portugal.

«Dire quasi la stessa cosa» nasce duma série de conferências e colóquios sobre a tradução que tiveram lugar em Toronto, Oxford e na Universidade de Bolonha, onde Eco é actualmente Presidente da «Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici».

Não é a primeira vez que Umberto Eco fala de Tradução, lembramos por exemplo a óptima antologia de textos publicada também pela editora Bompiani com o título «Teorie contemporanee della traduzione», organizada por Siri Nergard, onde Eco nos deixa uma estimulante reflexão sob o título «Riflessioni teórico-pratiche sulla traduzione» (e onde, aliás, jà encontramos muitas ideias e exemplos presentes na obra em análise).

E não só, diríamos que em toda sua investigação semiológica, Eco nunca perde de vista o discurso sobre a Tradução, que ele situa no âmbito duma mais ampla reflexão sobre a Conotação e a Interpretação.

A Semiótica, diz Eco, serve para descodificar e entender melhor o nosso mundo e a Tradução faz parte, justamente, deste grande processo interpretativo. Porque traduzir é em primeiro lugar interpretar. Uma interpretação que deve sempre ser seguida por uma negociação: o tradutor precisa, passando do texto de partida ao texto de chegada, de encontrar “compromissos”, quer no plano lexical, quer no plano semântico. Para não dizer exactamente a mesma coisa, mas quase a mesma coisa:

«Tradurre significa sempre “limare via” alcune delle conseguenze che il termine originale implicava. In questo senso, traducendo non si dice mai la stessa cosa. L’interpretazione che precede ogni traduzione deve stabilire quante e quali delle possibili conseguenze illative che il termine suggerisce possano essere limate via. Senza mai essere del tutto certi di non aver perduto un riverbero ultravioletto, un’allusione infrarossa.»

O livro começa por um divertido capítulo sobre a tradução automática oferecida pelo site «Babel fish» da Altavista. Com o humor que lhe é próprio (e que aliás transforma sempre a leitura dos seus livros num verdadeiro “acto de prazer” para os sentidos e a inteligência), Eco percorre o site da Altavista saltando dum exemplo a outro, duma língua a outra, num desafio permanente do qual a tradução automática sai abertamente derrotada. A conclusão é, lembra Eco, que a sinonímia pura e simples não existe e que de qualquer maneira não pode ser utilizada por um tradutor, com o risco de encontrar-se diante dum texto de chegada completamente absurdo e que nada tem a ver com o original.

O Autor vai depois reflectir sobre aspectos práticos da tradução, com uma profusão de exemplos e de “autocitações”, isto é de estudos comparativos sobre as traduções, em várias línguas, das suas obras principais. Eco leva o leitor a reflectir sobre a prática da já mencionada negociação: o tradutor deve “melhorar” o texto original? O tradutor pode omitir determinadas expressões? Até onde pode ir a liberdade e a “infidelidade” do tradutor? Qual é o limiar onde o texto começa a ser traído? É verdade que não são questões novas, mas o minucioso trabalho de investigação que Eco produz sobre os textos analisados é sem dúvida um utilíssimo contributo para todos os estudiosos desta área.

A salientar sobretudo o capítulo 11, onde Eco analisa as mudanças de «substância» que podem ocorrer durante uma tradução.

Eco (com referência às fundamentais teorias do linguista Hjelmslev) reflecte sobre as modificações da «substância» relativas a sistemas semióticos não verbais (por ex: o sistema pictórico ou musical), à tradução entre duas línguas naturais e sobretudo a um texto poético, chegando à conclusão de que as mudanças da «substância» extra linguística são fundamentais para um discurso que tenha uma «função poética», isto é para um texto de criação artística. Conclusão que leva imediatamente a outra:

«Per bene che vada, traducendo si dice quasi la stessa cosa. Il problema del quasi diventa ovviamente centrale nella traduzione poetica (...) Però è interessante vedere dove talora il traduttore, sapendo che puo dire solo un quasi , va a cercare il nucleo della cosa che vuole rendere (sia pure    quasi) a ogni costo.»

E aqui chegamos à ideia central de Eco, uma ideia-chave que percorre todo o seu texto: o papel dum bom tradutor é procurar e descobrir o referido «nucleo della cosa», isto é o conceito central que está dentro da obra original e que constitui a «intenção» profunda do autor. Uma vez individuada esta intenção, a sua tarefa será aquela de a reproduzir o melhor possível para o leitor. E como? Justamente recriando, com uma alquimia quase mágica, o mesmo efeito (fonético, semântico, emotivo) que envolvia o leitor do texto de partida. Operação, como se sabe, muito árdua e, como reconhece Eco, às vezes quase impossível.

Interessante e fascinante ao mesmo tempo o capítulo 14, o último do livro, onde Eco fala do mito da «Língua Perfeita» e analisa o Sistema Cromático. A «Língua Perfeita» é uma língua universal, que deveria servir de parâmetro a todas as línguas humanas. Uma esperança evocada também por Walter Benjamin, que aliás via mesmo na tradução uma possível concretização deste sonho.

Segundo Benjamin, a língua de chegada, não conseguindo reproduzir totalmente a língua de partida, deve confiar numa convergência entre todas as línguas existentes, tentando chegar a uma «língua pura» e universal.

Quanto à análise cromática, Eco parte dum texto do II século d.C., o «Notti Attiche» de Aulo Gellio. No texto, Gellio refere uma conversa que teve com um poeta e um filósofo seus amigos sobre as diferentes cores. Diz Eco que um leitor moderno, ao percorrer o texto, ficaria completamente transtornado verificando que o sistema cromático daquela época era muito diferente do nosso. Por exemplo, para o nosso «vermelho» existiam uma série de variantes e de palavras correspondentes que não aparecem no nosso sistema (nem na nossa língua). Isto quer dizer, conclui Eco, que:

«Il modo di distinguere, segmentare, organizzare i colori varia da cultura a cultura. Anche se sono state individuate alcune costanti transculturali, sembra per lo meno difficile tradurre tra lingue lontane nel tempo o di civiltà diverse i termini di colore ed è stato osservato che “ il significato del termine colore è uno dei peggiori grovigli della storia della scienza”.»

A diferença cultural transforma-se assim numa diferença linguística e representa um desafio para qualquer tradutor. Como expressar verbalmente numa determinada língua um conceito que, naquela língua, não existe?

Para concluir o nosso rápido olhar sobre a obra de Eco, não podemos deixar de estranhar, e também lamentar, a quase total ausência de referências a traduções em língua portuguesa. Por exemplo, na lista das traduções citadas entre as obras de Eco só aparece a versão portuguesa do «Diário Mínimo», do tradutor Miguel Serras Pereira. Contra inúmeros exemplos em francês, inglês, alemão, espanhol... Fica no ar esta observação e o convite a comentá-la da parte dos nossos leitores.

De Rita Ciotta Neves
Professora e Directora da Área de Línguas e Culturas
da Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias

em http://www.abussola.com/Tradutor_artigos2.htm


Umberto Eco
Dire quasi la stessa cosa
Esperienza di traduzione
Bompiani, Milano, 2003



Che cosa vuole dire tradurre? La prima e consolante risposta vorrebbe essere: dire la stessa cosa in un'altra lingua. Se non fosse che, in primo luogo, noi abbiamo molti problemi a stabilire che cosa significhi "dire la stessa cosa", e non lo sappiamo bene per tutte quelle operazioni che chiamiamo parafrasi, definizione, spiegazione, riformulazione, per non parlare delle pretese sostituzioni sinonimiche. In secondo luogo perché, davanti a un testo da tradurre, non sappiamo quale sia la cosa. Infine, in certi casi, è persino dubbio che cosa voglia dire dire.
Non abbiamo bisogno di andare a cercare (per sottolineare la centralità del problema traduttivo in molte discussioni filosofiche) se ci sia una Cosa in Sé nell'Iliade o nel Canto di un pastore errante dell'Asia, quella che dovrebbe trasparire e sfolgorare al di là e al di sopra di ogni lingua che li traduca — o che al contrario non venga mai attinta per quanti sforzi un'altra lingua faccia. Basta volare più basso — e lo faremo molte volte nelle pagine che seguono. Supponiamo che in un romanzo inglese un personaggio dica it's raining cats and dogs. Sciocco sarebbe quel traduttore che, pensando di dire la stessa cosa, traducesse letteralmente piove cani e gatti. Si tradurrà piovea catinelle o piove come Dio la manda. Ma se il romanzo fosse di fantascienza, scritto da un adepto di scienze dette "fortiane", e raccontasse che davvero piovono cani e gatti? Si tradurrebbe letteralmente, d'accordo. Ma se il personaggio stesse andando dal dottor Freud per raccontargli che soffre di una curiosa ossessione verso cani e gatti, da cui si sente minacciato persino quando piove? Si tradurrebbe ancora letteralmente, ma si sarebbe perduta la sfumatura che quell'Uomo dei Gatti è ossessionato anche dalle frasi idiomatiche. E se in un romanzo italiano chi dice che stanno piovendo cani e gatti fosse uno studente della Berlitz, che non riesce a sottrarsi alla tentazione di ornare il suo discorso con anglicismi penosi? Traducendo letteralmente, l'ignaro lettore italiano non capirebbe che quello sta usando un anglicismo. E se poi quel romanzo italiano dovesse essere tradotto in inglese, come si renderebbe questo vezzo anglicizzante? Si dovrebbe cambiare nazionalità al personaggio e farlo diventare un inglese con vezzi italianizzanti, o un operaio londinese che ostenta senza successo un accento oxoniense? Sarebbe una licenza insopportabile. E se it's raining cats and dogs lo dicesse, in inglese, un personaggio di un romanzo francese? Come si tradurrebbe in inglese? Vedete come è difficile dire quale sia la cosa che un testo vuole trasmettere, e come trasmetterla.
Ecco il senso dei capitoli che seguono: cercare di capire come, pur sapendo che non si dice mai la stessa cosa, si possa dire quasi la stessa cosa. A questo punto ciò che fa problema non è più tanto l'idea della stessa cosa, né quella della stessa cosa, bensì l'idea di quel quasi. Quanto deve essere elastico quel quasi? Dipende dal punto di vista: la Terra è quasi come Marte, in quanto entrambi ruotano intorno al sole e hanno forma sferica, ma può essere quasi come un qualsiasi altro pianeta ruotante in un altro sistema solare, ed è quasi come il sole, poiché entrambi sono corpi celesti, è quasi come la sfera di cristallo di un indovino, o quasi come un pallone, o quasi come un'arancia. Stabilire la flessibilità, l'estensione del quasi dipende da alcuni criteri che vanno negoziati preliminarmente. Dire quasi la stessa cosa è un procedimento che si pone, come vedremo, all'insegna della negoziazione.

Ho iniziato a occuparmi teoricamente di problemi di traduzione forse per la prima volta nel 1983, nello spiegare come avevo tradotto gli Esercizi di stile di Queneau. Per il resto credo di avere dedicato al problema pochi accenni sino agli anni Novanta, durante i quali avevo elaborato una serie di interventi occasionali nel corso di qualche convegno, e in riferimento, come si vedrà, ad alcune mie esperienze personali di autore tradotto. Il problema della traduzione non poteva essere assente dal mio studio sulla Ricerca della lingua perfetta (1993b), e ad analisi minute di traduzioni sono tornato sia parlando di una traduzione di Joyce (Eco 1996) che a proposito della mia traduzione di Sylvie di Nerval (Eco i 999b) . Ma tra il 1997 e 1999 si sono svolti due seminari annuali per il Dottorato di ricerca in Semiotica dell'Università di Bologna dedicati al tema della traduzione intersemiotica, vale a dire di tutti quei casi in cui non si traduce da una lingua naturale a un'altra ma tra sistemi semiotici diversi tra loro, come quando per esempio si "traduce" un romanzo in un film, un poema epico in un'opera a fumetti o si trae un quadro dal tema di una poesia. Nel corso dei vari interventi mi sono trovato a dissentire con parte dei dottorandi e dei colleghi circa i rapporti tra "traduzione propriamente detta" e traduzione detta "intersemiotica". La materia del contendere dovrebbe apparire chiara dalle pagine di questo libro, così come dovrebbero apparire chiari gli stimoli e le sollecitazioni che ho ricevuto anche e specialmente da coloro con cui dissentivo. Le mie reazioni di allora, così come gli interventi degli altri partecipanti, appaiono in due numeri speciali della rivista VS 82 (1999), e VS 85-87 (2000).
Nell'autunno del 1998 ero stato frattanto invitato dalla Toronto University per una serie di Goggio Lectures, dove ho iniziato a rielaborare le mie idee in proposito. I risultati di quelle conferenze sono stati poi pubblicati nel volumetto Experiences in Transiation (Eco 2001).



Some links for Umberto Eco:

Página de Umberto Eco

Universidade de Bologna


Artigo " Le guerre sante, passione e ragione"

Directories:        O        O


 Primo Levi


On translating and being translated

By Primo Levi
Primo Levi, the author of many books, including "The Periodic Table," "The Monkey's Wrench" and "Survival in Auschwitz," died in 1987. This essay was translated from the Italian by Zaia Alexander

March 30 2003

Genesis tells us that the first men had only one language: This made them so ambitious and skillful they began to construct a tower that reached the sky. God was offended by their audacity and punished them subtly: not by striking them with lightning but by confusing their tongues, thus making it impossible for them to carry on with their blasphemous work. It is certainly no coincidence that the story directly preceding this one tells of man's original sin and punishment by expulsion from paradise. We might conclude that from earliest times linguistic difference had been considered a malediction.

It continues to be a malediction to this day, as anyone knows who has had to live or, worse, work in a country where he did not know the language. Or who has had to cram a foreign language into his brain as an adult, once that mysterious material upon which memories are engraved becomes more refractory. Furthermore, there are many people who believe, more or less consciously, that a person who speaks another language is an outsider by definition, a foreigner, strange and, hence, a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian; that is, etymologically, a stutterer, a person who doesn't know how to speak, almost a nonperson. In this way, linguistic friction tends to turn into racial and political friction, another of our maledictions.

It should follow that whoever practices the craft of translation or acts as an interpreter ought to be honored for striving to limit the damage caused by the curse of Babel, but this does not usually happen. Since translation is a difficult job, the outcome is often inferior. This gives birth to a vicious circle: Translators are paid poorly and those who are good at it look for a better-paying profession.

Translating is difficult because the barriers between languages are greater than is commonly believed. Dictionaries, particularly the pocket-sized ones used by tourists, may be useful for basic needs, but they constitute a dangerous font of illusion. The same can be said of the computerized, multilingual translators that have been available on the market for some time now. There is almost never any true equivalence between an expression in the source language and its corresponding one in the target language. The respective meanings may overlap in part, but it is rare for them to match, even between languages that are structurally close and historically related.

Invidia (envy) in Italian has a more specialized meaning than envie in French, which also signifies desire, or the Latin invidia, which contains hatred, aversion, as can be seen in the Italian adjective inviso (disliked). It is probable that the origin of this family of words goes back to veder male, which either means to give somebody the evil eye or denotes the discomfort we feel when looking at a person we despise, which is expressed by non possiamo vederla (we can't stand the sight of her). But then, in each language, the meaning of the term slips off in a different direction.

There do not appear to be languages with a wider or narrower sphere: The phenomenon is capricious. Fregare (rub, scrub, polish, strike, deceive, swipe etc.) in Italian covers at least seven meanings; "to get" in English is practically infinite; Stuhl in German and "stool" in English mean chair but, through a chain of metonymic senses, it would be easy to reconstruct how it came to mean excrement as well. Only Italian seems to be concerned with distinguishing between the words "feather" and "down": French, English and German don't care about the difference, and Feder in German signifies four distinct objects -- down, a quill, a pen to write with and any kind of spring.

Other traps for translators are the so-called "false friends." For remote historical reasons (which would be amusing to investigate case by case) or because of a single misunderstanding, certain terms in one language acquire a totally different meaning, neither kindred nor contiguous with that of the other language. In German stipendium (cf. Italian stipendio, "salary") means scholarship; statist (cf. Italian statista, "statesman") is an extra in the theater; kantine (cf. Italian cantina, "wine cellar") is a canteen; kapelle (cf. Italian capella, "chapel") is an orchestra; konkurs (cf. Italian concurso "competition") is bankrupt; konzept (cf. Italian concetto, "concept") is a rough draft; and konfetti (cf. Italian confetti, "sugar-coated almond") is confetti. Macarons in French are not macaroni but rather macaroon cookies. "Aperitive," "sensible," "delusion," "ejaculation" and "compass" do not mean in English what they might seem at first sight to us [Italians]. To an Italian they mean: purgative, sensitive, illusion, exclamation, an instrument for describing circles. "Second mate" is the third in command. "Engineer" is not only an engineer in our sense [as we understand it in Italian] but also one who works with motors ("engines"). These "false friends" are said to have cost more than translators dear: After the War, a young aristocrat from our south found herself married to an American train engineer on the basis of a declaration made in good faith but wrongly interpreted.

I do not have the fortune of knowing Romanian, a language loved passionately by linguists, but it must be teeming with false friends and represents a true minefield for translators, especially if friptura (cf. Italian frittura, "fried foods") is roasted meat, suflet (cf. Italian suffle, "souffle") is soul; dezmierda (cf. Italian di merda) means to caress; and underwear is indispensabili. Each of the terms listed is a snare for inattentive or inexpert translators, and it is amusing to think that the trap goes in both ways: A German runs the risk of mixing up our statista (statesman) with an extra in the theatre (cf. statist in German).

Other traps for the translator are idiomatic expressions, which are present in all languages but specific to each one. Some of them are easy to decipher, or they are so bizarre that even an inexperienced translator will notice them. I don't think anybody would write lightheartedly that it really rains "cats and dogs" in Great Britain. At other times the phrase looks more innocent, and it can get confused with plain discourse. The risk of translating word for word, as in the example of a novel in which the well-known benefactor is described as having a skeleton in his closet, is possible though not common.

A writer who does not want to embarrass his translator should abstain from using idiomatic expressions, but this would be difficult, because each one of us, whether speaking or writing, uses idioms without being aware of it. There is nothing more natural than for an Italian to say siamo a posto (we're OK), fare fiasco (to fail), farsi vivo (to show up), prendere un granchio (to make a mistake), the above cited example non posso vederlo and hundreds of other similar expressions, but they make no sense to a foreigner, and not all of them are explained in bilingual dictionaries. Even Quanti anni hai? (literally, "How many years do you have?") is an idiomatic phrase: an English or German would say the equivalent of Quanto vecchio sei? ("How old are you?"), which to us [Italians] sounds ridiculous, especially if the question is addressed to a child.

Other difficulties arise from the use of local terms, common in all languages. Every Italian knows that Juventus is the name of a soccer team, and every reader of Italian newspapers knows what is being alluded to with il Quirinale [residence of the president of the Republic], la Farnesina [foreign ministry], Piazza del Gesu [headquarters of the Christian Democrats], via delle Botteghe Oscure [headquarters of the Communist Party]. But if the translator has not been immersed in the culture for a long time, he will be perplexed and no dictionary can help. He will be helped by a sensitivity to linguistics, which is the most potent weapon for a translator but which is not taught in schools, just as the virtue of writing verse or composing music is not taught. This ability enables him to take on the personality of the author he is translating, to identify with him. It serves him when something in the text doesn't quite add up, doesn't work, sounds out of tune, makes no sense, seems superfluous or confused. When this happens, it may be the fault of the author, but more often it is a signal that some of the pitfalls described are present, invisible, but with their jaws wide open.

Yet avoiding the snares does not automatically make one a good translator. It is more arduous than that. It has to do with transferring the expressive force of a text from one language to another, and this is a superhuman task. Indeed, certain famous translations (such as the "Odyssey" in Latin and the Bible in German) have signaled a new direction in the history of our civilization.

Nevertheless, since a literary work is born from a profound interaction between the creativity of the author and the language in which he expresses himself, there is an inevitable loss in translation, comparable to the loss when one exchanges currency. This reduction in value is variable, large or small, according to the ability of the translator and the nature of the original text. It is usually minimal with technical or scientific texts (though here, in addition to having a command of the two languages, the translator needs to understand what he is translating and must therefore have a third competence as well) and maximal with poetry (what is left of e vegno in parte ove non e che luca, "and I come to a place where nothing has light," if it is reduced and translated to giungo in un luogo buio, "I arrive in a dark place"?).

All these "cons" might be intimidating and discouraging for aspiring translators, but some weight can be added to the "pro" side. Translation is more than a work of civilization and peace; it is uniquely gratifying: The translator is the only one who truly reads a text and reads it in its profundity, in all its layers, weighing and appraising every word and every image and perhaps even discovering its empty and false passages. When he is able to find or even invent the solution to a knot, he feels sicut deus [like god] without having to bear the burden of responsibility that weighs on the author's back. In this sense, the joys and fatigues of translating are related to the process of creative writing as those of grandparents are to parents.

Many ancient and modern writers (Catullus, Foscolo, Baudelaire, Pavese) have translated literary works they felt attracted to, deriving joy for themselves and their readers, and finding a certain release in them, much like a person who takes a day off from his job and devotes himself to doing something different.

One word about the condition of a writer who finds himself being translated. Being translated is a job neither for weekdays nor holidays; in fact, it is not a job at all. It is a semi-passive state similar to that of the patient under the surgeon's knife or being on the psychiatrist's couch, rich in violent and contrasting emotions. The author who sees himself on a translated page in a language that he knows feels at one time or another flattered, betrayed, ennobled, X-rayed, castrated, planed, raped, adorned or murdered. It is rare for him to remain indifferent toward a person, whether he knows him or not, who has stuck his nose and his fingers in his entrails: He would gladly send him (one after another or all together) his own heart properly wrapped, a check, a laurel wreath or "godfathers."

Da “Tradurre ed essere tradotti”, di Primo Levi (in “L’altrui mestiere” – Einaudi 1985).


Walter Benjamin - Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers


Alexis Nouss, dir. (1997) : L’essai sur la traduction de Walter Benjamin. Traductions critiques/Walter Benjamin’s Essay on Translation. Critical Translations, numéro spécial de la revue TTR, 10-2.

Écrit en 1921 et publié en 1923 comme préface à la traduction allemande des Tableaux parisiens de Baudelaire, l’essai sur la traduction de Walter Benjamin (« Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers ») figure sans conteste parmi les textes phares en épistémologie de la traduction. Jusqu’à la publication des retraductions anglaise et française qui paraissent dans ce numéro spécial consacré à Benjamin et à son célèbre essai, le public français avait surtout eu accès à la traduction de Maurice de Gandillac (« La tâche du traducteur », 1971) et le public anglais, à celle de Harry Zohn (“The Task of the Translator”, 1968). Pourquoi la nouvelle traduction de Laurent Lamy et d’Alexis Nouss, en français, et celle de Steven Rendall, en anglais, sont-elles si importantes et étaient-elles si nécessaires ? Tout simplement, peut-être, parce que la traduction et la traductologie sont au cœur même des préoccupations qui ont mené à la réalisation de ce numéro spécial sur l’essai de Benjamin. Outre le fait que les traductions proposées constituent de réelles « traductions critiques », on doit souligner que ce sont aussi les premières traductions « traductologiques », c’est-à-dire les premières à paraître depuis qu’il est possible de parler de traductologie comme discipline autonome, comme champ d’expérience et de connaissance à part entière (moment que plusieurs font remonter à la parution, en 1975, d’After Babel de George Steiner, qui, faut-il le souligner, a sans doute contribué plus que tout autre ouvrage à faire connaître l’essai de Benjamin).

En plus des nouvelles traductions française et anglaise de «Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers », on trouve dans ce numéro spécial deux articles consacrés à la réception de l’essai sur la traduction de Benjamin: l’article d’Alexis Nouss, consacré au domaine français, et celui de Susan Ingram, consacré au domaine anglais. Le numéro comprend aussi deux essais critiques sur la pensée traductologique et la philosophie du langage chez Benjamin, soit l’article de fond de Laurent Lamy et le non moins intéressant, quoique plus court, article de Steven Rendall. Enfin, en plus de sa nouvelle traduction et de son article critique, Rendall propose, sous forme de notes éparses, une lecture de « certains problèmes posés par la traduction faite par Zohn ».

Un des grands mérites de la traduction française de Laurent Lamy et d’Alexis Nouss, c’est qu’elle comporte un imposant appareil de notes explicatives dont plusieurs viennent éclairer certains passages souvent jugés obscurs chez Benjamin. En ce qui concerne la démarche épistémologique des traducteurs, les lecteurs qui connaissaient déjà l’essai de Benjamin dans ses versions traduites de 1968 ou de 1971 seront sans doute étonnés du choix de Lamy et Nouss d’avoir rendu (dans le titre mais non toutefois dans le corps du texte) le terme Aufgabe par « abandon » plutôt que par le plus prévisible « tâche » (pour lequel la version de Rendall opte aux deux endroits, à l’instar des traductions précédentes). Au fil de la soixantaine de notes, le lecteur saisit bien en quoi cette nouvelle version se veut « critique », en ce sens qu’elle ne se contente pas d’expliquer brièvement les raisons ayant motivé tel ou tel choix traductologique ou interprétatif, mais qu’elle contribue activement au « débat critique » sur l’essai de Benjamin en faisant intervenir les lectures, entre autres, de Paul de Man, de Jeanne-Marie Gagnebin, de Jacques Derrida et de Carol Jacobs. C’est au grand bénéfice du lecteur français qu’on doit désormais compter la traduction critique de Lamy et Nouss parmi les interprétations les plus éclairantes de la pensée traductologique et de la philosophie du langage de Benjamin.

Dans son article sur la réception de l’essai de Benjamin, Alexis Nouss fait remarquer qu’on a trop souvent eu tendance, dans le domaine français, à associer la pensée traductologique de Benjamin à un certain gnosticisme (duquel dériverait l’appui benjaminien à un littéralisme inconditionnel) et, par conséquent, à évacuer ce que Nouss appelle très justement le « souci historique » ou l’« historicité de la pensée langagière » du philosophe allemand.

Quant à l’ambitieux article de Laurent Lamy, intitulé « La déshérence du clandestin : les rites de l’interprétation autour de l’essai sur la traduction de Walter Benjamin », il cherche à illustrer en quoi la pensée benjaminienne, notamment en ce qui a trait aux questions langagières, demeure en cette fin de siècle en « état de déshérence ». Lamy montre comment cette pensée se distingue des grands courants de la théorie de la réception (Jauss, Iser) et de l’herméneutique contemporaine (Gadamer).

Pour ce faire, Lamy traite en détail des liens entre l’essai sur la traduction et l’essai de Benjamin intitulé « Sur le langage en général et sur le langage humain » de 1916. Comme Nouss avant lui, Lamy insiste sur le fait que, chez Benjamin, « l’ordre du vivant […] ne saurait être conçu en faisant abstraction de l’histoire ; de façon plus précise, c’est à partir de l’histoire que la sphère de la vie reçoit sa pleine et entière détermination » (p. 90-91), et donc que « [l]a visée du traducteur n’est autre que celui de l’historien, mais n’opère qu’à l’affût d’une tangence furtive, absolument passagère, qui vise l’affinité supra-historique des langues » (p. 146), ou encore « l’être-langue des langues » (p. 139), soit « à communiquer cela même qui ne se communique pas : la communicabilité » (p. 125). Reprenant les propos d’Éliane Escoubas, Lamy souligne que le refus de Benjamin de concevoir la traduction de façon « extensionnaliste et référentielle » est en fait une « critique de la raison communicative » (p. 138-139).

Dans l’article qui suit sa traduction de «Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers » (traduction qui s’intitule «The Translator’s Task »), Steven Rendall confronte la notion de « traductibilité » à celle d’« itérabilité » (Derrida) à partir des liens inhérents qui existent entre la traduction et la citation. Rendall explique, par exemple, en quoi la citation constitue un mode de répétition idéal, un modèle de traduction mot-à-mot d’un original. C’est sous cet angle que Rendall entreprend de montrer pourquoi Benjamin privilégiait, sur le plan théorique, la méthode interlinéaire, qui, « en reprenant l’ordre des mots de l’original, libère ces derniers de leurs attaches logiques, syntaxiques et sémantiques » (p. 183), libération donnant lieu à son tour à une décontextualisation où la traduction, comme la citation, en vient à nommer ou à mentionner le texte de départ et, de ce fait, en traduit le mot plutôt que le sens.

Les deux derniers articles de ce numéro spécial consacré à Benjamin et à son essai sur la traduction sont «Notes on Zohn’s translation of Benjamin’s “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” » de Steven Rendall et « The Task of the Translator : Walter Benjamin’s Essay in English, a Forschungbericht » de Susan Ingram. Dans ses « notes », Rendall exprime essentiellement ses réserves face à la traduction de Zohn de certains passages clés, puis aborde en conclusion deux problèmes liés (dont le difficile et très commenté « die Art des Meinens ») à sa propre traduction, problèmes pour lesquels Rendall avoue ne pas être entièrement satisfait de ses solutions. Quant à l’article de Susan Ingram, il analyse la réception de l’essai de Benjamin dans le domaine anglais, depuis la parution de la traduction de Zohn en 1968 jusqu’aux plus récents travaux en traductologie. L’auteur présente le phénomène, qui s’étend sur une trentaine d’années, de la façon suivante : d’abord, la sortie du texte de Benjamin de l’obscurité à la suite de la publication d’After Babel de George Steiner ; puis, le « déluge théorique » qui succède entre autres à la lecture déconstructionniste de «Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers », dont les essais critiques, eux-mêmes déjà « canoniques », de Jacques Derrida et de Paul de Man ; enfin, la série de textes parus depuis 1992 (année du centenaire de la naissance de Benjamin), parmi lesquels on observe une quantité non négligeable de traductions anglaises soit d’ouvrages sur Benjamin (où sont abordées les questions de la traduction et de la philosophie du langage chez le philosophe allemand), soit d’ouvrages en traductologie qui font une place importante à la pensée de Benjamin en matière de traduction (Ingram signale notamment la parution en 1992 de The Experience of the Foreign : Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany, traduction anglaise de L’épreuve de l’étranger d’Antoine Berman, paru en 1984).

En terminant, j’aimerais souligner que ce numéro spécial est dédié à la mémoire de Robert Larose (1951-1997), co-fondateur de TTR, auteur des Théories contemporaines de la traduction (1989) et professeur de traduction à l’Université de Montréal. Je n’ai jamais eu l’occasion, malheureusement, de faire la connaissance de Robert Larose. Je sais toutefois qu’autour de moi, chez ceux et celles qui ont eu cette chance, son absence se fait encore vivement sentir.

Marc Charron

Université du Québec à Hull, Hull, Canada


Leneide Duarte

A difícil tarefa do tradutor 

[Jornal do Brasil,
Idéias, 25.11.2000]

     Benjamin, Derrida e outros filósofos e lingüistas aprofundaram o estudo das versões de um texto 

Imagine-se o livro mais lido do mundo, a Bíblia, best-seller incontestável, acessível apenas em sua versão original: o Antigo Testamento, em hebraico e aramaico, e o Novo Testamento, em grego. Não é preciso dizer que o público leitor tenderia a vir diminuindo através dos séculos e a história do mundo, em particular do mundo ocidental, seria outra. Foram as traduções sucessivas, em 1435 línguas e dialetos – das cinco mil línguas e dialetos existentes -, que fizeram a mensagem da Bíblia acessível a chineses, suecos, árabes e a praticamente todos os povos há mais de 20 séculos.

A tradução - seja de um texto literário, científico ou religioso - sempre suscitou pesquisas eruditas na academia. De Walter Benjamin a Jacques Derrida, passando por Antoine Berman, grandes filósofos e lingüistas se debruçaram sobre o complexo problema que consiste em tornar um texto compreensível em outra língua que não aquela em que foi escrito originalmente.

Walter Benjamin é autor de um ensaio primoroso, estudado (e traduzido) em várias línguas, chamado A tarefa do tradutor (Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers). Segundo Benjamin, "a tradução, em última instância, tem por fim exprimir a relação mais íntima entre as línguas". E pergunta: "Se nas traduções a afinidade das línguas é de se comprovar, como evidenciá-la a não ser pela ransmissão a mais exata possível da forma e do sentido original?" Para o filósofo, uma tradução, "por melhor que seja, nada significa para o original. No entanto, por sua traduzibilidade, mantém um vínculo estreito com o original".

Ainda segundo Benjamin, no original, conteúdo e língua formam uma unidade determinada, como a do fruto e da casca, enquanto a língua da tradução envolve seu conteúdo, "como um manto real, com dobras sucessivas". 

Nesse mesmo ensaio, Benjamin cita grandes tradutores que, segundo ele, são incomparavelmente mais importantes como tradutores que como escritores, entre eles, Lutero, Voss e Schlegel. O filósofo acrescenta que assim como a tradução é uma forma autônoma, "também se pode compreender a tarefa do tradutor como autônoma e diferenciá-la com precisão da tarefa do escritor". Ele conclui seu texto dizendo que "todos os grandes escritos, em qualquer grau, e a Sagrada Escritura em grau máximo,contêm nas entrelinhas sua tradução virtual. A versão interlinear do texto sagrado é o arquétipo ou o ideal de toda tradução".

Os interessados na tarefa do tradutor e na tradução como um tema a ser aprofundado dispõem agora, em português, de um livro lançado pela Editora Unesp chamado Tradução e diferença. Originalmente uma tese de doutorado, a obra de Cristina Carneiro Rodrigues lança seu foco sobre o trabalho de quatro dos mais destacados e influentes teóricos da tradução em nossos dias: John C. Catford, Eugene Nida, André Lefevere e Gideon Toury. Esses autores foram analisados a partir da ótica desconstrutivista. Ao pressuposto desses pesquisadores de que uma tradução pode apresentar, em outra língua, os mesmos valores do texto de partida, a autora opõe o pensamento de W.V. Quine, S. Fish e Jacques Derrida. 

Como, segundo Jacques Derrida, não se pode alcançar a suposta unidade pré-babélica, o domínio em que as línguas se reconciliariam e se completariam não pode ser tocado pela tradução. Com isso, o filósofo quer dizer que "nunca atingiremos a equivalência, que se situaria nesse suposto reino ideal de harmonia entre as línguas". Ainda, segundo Derrida, a tradução "não é equivalência, não é complemento, é suplemento: uma significação substitutiva que se constrói em uma cadeia de remissões diferenciais como a escritura". A tradução, pois, preenche um vazio e "vai se produzir de alguma maneira como obra original". Segundo o filósofo, cujos conceitos sobre o tema são exaustivamente estudados no terceiro capítulo do livro, a tradução não é, pois, secundária em relação a um todo a ela externo, pois é necessária para a sobrevivência do original.

Citando George Steiner, a autora diz que "em qualquer tratado sobre a arte da tradução que se examine, a mesma dicotomia é colocada: seja entre ‘letra’ e ‘espírito’, e ‘palavra’ e ‘sentido’. Outros usam os termos ‘equivalência formal’ e ‘equivalência dinâmica para falar do mesmo aspecto da fidelidade (literalidade) ou da liberdade da tradução. 

Uma tradução literal, explica Cristina Carneiro Rodrigues, a partir de Catford, Nida,Lefevere e Toury, seria aquela "que reproduziria, em outro sistema lingüístico, os padrões formais da primeira língua, uma tradução que supostamente reverbalizaria o texto original em uma segunda língua, de modo que o leitor pudesse fazer uma leitura como o faria o leitor original - uma tradução que se identificasse com a suposta origem. O ‘literal’ seria o que é compreendido objetivamente, o que pressupõe a isenção do sujeito que analisa e implica a noção de que um enunciado pode ter um sentido primordial, independente de sua leitura, mas que pode ser modificado se certas circunstâncias contribuírem para que isso ocorra. Apenas no segundo nível, o da interpretação, o da ‘criatividade’, haveria mediação do sujeito."

Derrida defende a necessidade de substituir a noção de tradução pela de transformação: "transformação regulada de uma língua para uma outra, de um texto para outro".

Na longa discussão sobre tradução, uma coisa é inquestionável: todo "original" depende do tradutor para sua sobrevivência e está em dívida, por antecipação, para com o tradutor.

Essa afirmação só vem reiterar a necessidade que 70 sábios judeus sentiram de traduzir para o grego os livros que compunham o cânone da Bíblia hebraica, hoje conhecida pelos cristãos como Antigo Testamento. Os 70 eruditos judeus de Alexandria produziram a primeira tradução da Bíblia nos séculos 3 e 2 a.C. Essa tradução, que ficou conhecida como Septuaginta, é, até hoje, a mais aceita entre as primeiras traduções do Antigo Testamento hebraico. Recentemente, um outro erudito judeu de origem argelino-francesa, André Chouraqui,’empreendeu o trabalho hercúleo de traduzir do hebraico para o francês os livros do Antigo Testamento e do grego para o francês, os do Novo Testamento. Por essa mais recente tradução da Bíblia – já retraduzida para diversas línguas a partir do francês - Chouraqui recebeu da Academia Francesa a medalha de ouro do prêmio da língua francesa D.D.B, 1974-1977.


N Z Z  Online


Die Aufgaben des Übersetzers

Eva Hesse: Vom Zungenreden in der Lyrik. Autobiografisches zur Übersetzerei. Rimbaud-Verlag, Aachen 2003. 70 S., Fr. 27.-.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 29. November 2003, Ressort Feuilleton

bcn. Der Untertitel der schmalen Publikation führt in die Irre: Nicht von Ereignissen und anekdotischen Einzelheiten aus der Erfahrung der Übersetzerin ist die Rede, sondern von übersetzerischen Prinzipien und Überlegungen. Eva Hesse hat seit Ende der fünfziger Jahre viele wichtige Dichter der amerikanischen Moderne für den deutschen Sprachraum entdeckt und durch ihre Übersetzungen eigentlich erst bekannt gemacht; hier seien genannt: E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore und Ezra Pound. Dass sie dabei auf Widerstand aus den konservativen Reihen der Verleger stiess, lässt sich leicht nachvollziehen, aber auch ihre «subjektive Aneignung» blieb nicht ohne Widerspruch. Konzentriert und kenntnisreich plädiert Hesse, eine Essayistin ersten Ranges, gegen die Wörtlichkeit zugunsten einer nachschöpfenden Übertragung, die besonders dem Element der «Logopoeia» - ein Wort Pounds, das den Transport von Sinn und poetischem Gehalt in die Zielsprache meint - Rechnung tragen solle. Zum besseren Verständnis von Hesses zuweilen eigentümlicher Übersetzungsdiktion hält dieser Essay plausible (Er-)Klärungen bereit.


Article in German language:

Gertrude Durusoy (Izmir): Übersetzungsprozesse als Kulturakte. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002. 
WWW: http://www.inst.at/trans/14Nr/durusoy_kulturakte14.htm. 

On the translation of Russian poetry:

http://www.50connect.co.uk/turner/criticism/criticism04.html .