Books: Umberto Eco and me - translation
Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation
by Umberto Eco
Published in the UK by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on November 13th;
North American and Australian publication date early 2004 (not yet
Here and there in the pages of Just
Above Sunset readers will come across passages in French. These are usually not translated.
I am not assuming everyone reads French. Hardly anyone does
these days, and would not admit to such a thing anyway, given the current political climate. (Joke.) Am I being
lazy in not providing a careful translation? Perhaps. By providing French text am I just being a show-off and
a smart-ass? Well, perhaps there's a little of that too, mixed with some anger at the calumny directed at anything French
these days - and I do have French friends and do get to Paris when I can. I like my friends, and I like the French,
and I like Paris (and Aix and Avignon and Arles). So anger has a bit to do with it. But in addition to all this
I'm not good at translation, and not sure it's really possible.
I read items in French without a dictionary by my side, trying to
get a feel for what is being said in that language, not mine. After I cast a passage in English, I'm not sure it means
the same thing.
Umberto Eco has a new book on translation that has just been published
in the United Kingdom, and will be published here sometime next year. Last week the Guardian published extracts from this and Eco hits on some problems that are interesting.
Eco deals with the puzzle that "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."
Here's a passage -
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.
The issue this raises, for me, of course, is this: I can give you
my "sense" of a passage but it may not be accurate, or really true. I can give you what the words "literally" mean,
with alternatives for particular words, but lose these "sense" of the thing entirely - that is, I could lose the tone
and all the important implications. Neither alternative makes me happy.
Eco gives this example and its implications:
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
... 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
My example has to do with my cat, Harriet. Sort of.
When I was teaching English back in the seventies, and also teaching
an elective in sociolinguistics, one assignment for my students was designed to illustrate this "translation of the sense
of the thing versus a purely accurate, literal translation that ignores the overtones" problem.
I told them to give me a translation of a Baudelaire sonnet, Les
Chats, from Les fleurs du mal. They had all had many years for French classes.
It shouldn't be too hard - even if they did have to match the fourteen line structure, the general rhythm, and try to match
the tone of the thing.
The sonnet opens up:
Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants
et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires
Fervent lovers and austere scholars
Love equally, in their ripe season,
Powerful and gentle cats, the pride
of the house,
Who like them are sensitive to cold and like them sedentary.
Or would that be...
Who, like the former, are easily chilled and, like the latter, sedentary.
And is there a better more common term than "fervent?" Impulsive? Ardent? Passionate?
Then there is this:
Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l'horreur des ténèbres;
L'Erèbe les eût
pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S'ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.
Well, how about:
Friends of science and fleshly delights,
They seek silence and the horror of the shadows;
have made them his funereal chargers,
If they could have bowed their pride to servitude.
Hey! Fleshly delights? Bah. Surely there is a
better term. Something that gives a sense of the opposite of austere science - the joys of hot and heavy sexual
passion. But in one word? Well. That's a problem, as is this business with "coursiers" being "chargers" -
proud, noble horses pulling the hearse of the god of the underworld, Erebus. I have no clue how to manage to get
The sonnet ends with:
Leurs reins féconds sont plein d'étincelles magiques
parcelles d'or, ainsi qu'un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.
Which might mean:
Their fecund loins are full of magical sparks,
(particles? small specks?) of gold, like a fine sand,
Sparkle faintly like stars in their mystical eyes.
Well fécond isn't exactly fecund - but more like fruitful,
or bountiful, or even luxurious. But "loins" is better than, literally, "kidneys." Baudelaire was a bit wacky,
but didn't mean that. And "Etoilent" is one word, a verb, which demands maybe four words in English - "Sparkle
faintly like stars." Why don't we have a verb in English that in one word means "shining-little-stars-metaphorically-in-the-eye."
So I don't translate much. Sorry.
Film: A follow up on the Jessica Lynch movie,
with a nod to Gene Kelly and MGM
A follow up to last week's column on the television movie regarding
the "rescue: of Jessica Lynch. See November 9, 2003 Reviews on Saving Jessica Lynch: 9 p.m. Sunday November 9 on NBC.
This week Lynch has been interviewed any number of times and seems
puzzled, if not a little put off, by how she has been made into a hero by the press, and it seems she isn't playing the part
some on the right wished to have her play. She sees a lot of this, one gathers, as rather dumb exploitation. One
blogger, BILLMON, followed the chat on the conservative talk radio shows last and had some interesting observations about how Private Lynch has been transformed from "True American Hero" to "a disgrace and proof that women shouldn't
be in the military" in the eyes of many talk radio listeners. "By refusing to go along with the Mighty Wurlitzer's
version of events, she's making some blue state morons who listen to Rush Limbaugh very angry," as he puts it.
Except I forget which states are blue and which red. Are the red conservative right? I don't know.
But I take his point.
One fellow called in and said "Lynch is a disgrace and proof that women shouldn't be in the military."
One caller says he "wanted to punch her teeth out."
One caller just said, "She ain't no hero."
It seems our true-blue hawks, who only a few months ago were insisting Jessica Lynch was an American hero, and that anyone
who doubted her story was a stinking terrorist lover, are now telling us that Lynch is a national disgrace, and that anyone
who believes her is a stinking terrorist lover.
Yes, indeed, that seems to be what is happening, and who knows what to make of Larry Flynt acquiring topless
photos of the woman and then refusing to publish them, to protect her. Everyone is changing sides.
It's a classic example of a story that's been spun so many ways it's lost all narrative coherence -- and is collapsing
back into the disconnected shards of reality from which it was originally created.
What's impressive, though, is the way Lynch herself is emerging from the wreckage of a phony story as a real
person - and a woman who seems determined to be the subject, not the object, of her own life. The finger that pulls the
string, instead of the top that gets spun.
I agree with BILLMON here.
Cool line from his analysis: "This immediately poses a problem for the people who did the manipulating
and the exploiting - and for the people who believed them. Having a pretty blonde soldier (GI Barbie) to dress up as
a war hero is one thing. But having a talking Barbie, and one that doesn't just repeat the little catch phrases burned onto
her chip, is another."
There's an odd line in here too: "If, as Marx once said, anti-semitism is the socialism of idiots, then
clearly, talk radio is the fascism of idiots. (I know, I know - what other kind is there? But even for idiots these people
I think that's clever, but I' m not sure what he means.
But, in the end, this whole thing has spun out of control. The hero of the pro-war folks turns out
to not remember a thing and be a little angry she is being used, and when she says that she is excoriated as a traitor
for not playing the role she cannot remember in events everyone agreed really didn't happen the way we are told, but the pro-war
folkk want to believe. Huh?
In an odd parallel a friend in Montreal sent along some disturbing photos from al Jazeera
showing US troops tying up little children as if they were dangerous terrorists. Not nice. A friend in New York
commented: "Why do I picture Gene Kelly giving French children bubble gum after WWII
Well, things really are different now.
He was thinking of a specific scene in An American
in Paris (MGM, 1951) - 113 minutes, Technicolor.
Credits: Producer, Arthur Freed; Director, Vincente Minnelli; Screenplay, Alan
Jay Lerner; Cinematography, Alfred Gilks and John Alton; Choreography, Gene Kelly; Music Director,
Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin.
Cast: Jerry Mulligan, Gene Kelly; Lise Bourvier, Leslie Caron; Adam Cook,
Oscar Levant; Henri Baurel, Georges Guetary; Milo Roberts, Nina Foch; Georges Mattieu, Martha Bamattre;
Kay Jansen, Anna Q. Nilsson.
That was a fantasy. The scene he recalls is where Gene
Kelly has just returned from his sidewalk spot in Montmartre after selling his first painting, to a rich American woman who
thinks he's hot, even if his paintings are, perhaps, mediocre. She decides to tell him he's a great talent - one gets
the idea this is for "other reasons" - which always happens when women just cannot resist you. Did I mention
this was a fantasy? Kelly seems to be living somewhere on the left bank, but just where is not clear. The locals
are totally charming, even when he can't pay his rent. Did I mention this was a fantasy? In the sequence he
recalls the charming local kids ask him for bubblegum. He starts kidding around with them because they also want
him to teach them some English, and finally he does, by singing and dancing his way through "I Got Rhythm" in English and
in French. Classic stuff. What a great way to learn a new language! Rather unlikely.
Someone at the Pentagon is no doubt studying
this Gene Kelly sequence to figure out how to do a modern equivalent set in today's Baghdad, since the Jessica Lynch song
and dance didn't work out so well. I do recall early in the war seeing a happy young US soldier teaching some charming
local Iraqi kids to rap. Everyone was having a fine time. Even that seems ages ago now.
Music: Paris Tango not heard in Buenos Aires
gets "shown" in Tokyo.
Back in June, Just Above Sunset
reviewed an album by Gotan Project, a Paris-based collaboration that has, as they say "fused the sounds of European
club music with the melodramatic class of Argentina's tango." See June 22, 2003 Reviews for that.
The album mentioned - "La Revancha Del Tango" by Gotan Project - is on their own label, distributed
by Discograph - YAB013 CD. I said then "this is spooky, atmospheric club remix tango - 'trance tango'
if you will. It captures the spirit and also taxes the woofers. Track 3 - 'Chunga's Revenge' - is credited
to Frank Zappa. So you can make a convincing tango from a Zappa tune. Cool. This is good stuff."
Last week, Thursday the 13th, Gotan Project
was preparing to performed in Japan - at Roppongi Hills Arena
- and in case you missed it, a staff writer for the Daily Yomiuri
had an item
discussing them. And if you click on that "item" link, don't worry - the article is in English. What I learned
here is that it seems this group I only know from their music also provides visuals.
A squeeze of melancholic bandoneon blows acoustic life into a brooding environment of reverb-soaked club beats. A female
vocalist appears like an ephemeral spirit lit up from behind a giant sheet of cloth across which projected images of moody
tango dancers ooze. The pale illumination of the moon overhead adds to the other worldly feeling of the moment.
This is not the start of a surreal dream, but rather the planned scenario for this weekend's performance at Roppongi
Hills Arena by Gotan Project, a Paris-based collaboration that has fused the sounds of European club music with the melodramatic
class of Argentina's tango.
"I've very often been disappointed by the live shows of electronic music," says Philippe Cohen Sohal, the French
member of the Gotan Project triumvirate he makes up with Swiss electronica artist Christoph Mueller and Argentinian composer
and guitarist Eduardo Makaroff. "I wanted to do a real concert with really good musicians, but at the same time I wanted
to do a sort of video installation...where the musicians were inside."
Solal goes on to say that the staging is sort of "Ping-Pong between the acoustic musician and the electronic
musician. It's a sort of trip from traditional tango to real techno or sometimes hip-hop. There are a lot of musical
elements. And of course it is also very visual. It's a very complete trip for the people."
Solal claimss he was first inspired by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by that Talking Heads
guy David Byrne and the "sound experimentalist" Brian Eno, and The Man-Machine by German techno innovators Kraftwerk.
Well, even so, I wonder about this. Does this music need the visuals? I listen to the album and
putter around the house, or stare out the window, or... I don't know what. I don't "see" anything. Or I see what
I only I imagine, or want to, not dancers and singers behind scrims a cheesy fake moon rising. Oh well, only classical
audiences go to hear a concert, for the music itself, not caring much what they "see" in images. Most everything else
is "multi-media." Different thing.
Gotan Project performed this same show here in Hollywood in late June at the Universal Amphitheater,
and I suppose it's just as well I didn't go.
And just an additional note - Cohen Sohal on why the group is popular, and has sold 700,00 copies of
this first album...
1.) "It was the first time for all three of us to make music without thinking about success. We decided
to do exactly what we wanted to using only our intuition. So there is 100 percent sincerity, and people, I think, are connecting
2.) "The second reason is that tango is a very strong and powerful music... it touches the hearts and souls
of people everywhere in the world, Paris, London, Vienna, Washington, Tokyo, young people, old people, all different ages.
In tango, you can have so many different emotions, melancholy, sensuality, drama, sadness, happiness - the full range of emotions."
Well, maybe so. Who is to judge item one? Sincerity? Anyone can claim that. Doesn't make
it so. And as for item two? Yes, they seem to connect everywhere. These guys are popular from Paris to the
rest of the western world, and now even in Tokyo. Curiously, the album has not been released in Argentina - there
you have to buy it as an import. Damned traditionalists there don't like trance electro-tango! Oh well.
So... do you find yourself in Japan at the moment? Want to go see Gotan Project?
Too late. Tokyo Moon--Neo Tango Night featuring Gotan Project and DJ Toshio Matsuura, Nov. 15-16, 5 p.m. at
Roppongi Hills Arena, Minato Ward, Tokyo.
It's over. But unless you live in Argentina, I'm sure they'll come your way.
The album is good. Imagine what you will.