Book Review: Experiences in Translation – Umberto Eco

Having recently picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation during one of my all-too-frequent book buying sessions, today I thought I’d share a quick review with you lovely people.

For those of you who have never come across Eco before, he is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, novelist and (most importantly for us) translator. While he is perhaps best known for his 1980 work Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), his list of publications includes many academic texts, essays and even children’s books.

Experiences in Translation is a short book in two halves based on a series of lectures on translation given by Eco in 1998. The first half sees Eco reflect on translation by referring to his own personal experiences (including both him doing the translating and others translating his works) while the second looks at the more theoretical side of things, using Roman Jakobson’s three different types of translation to spark a discussion into what constitutes translation proper.

You would expect any text by such a distinguished writer to read well (I must admit that I haven’t read the Italian original) and Alastair McEwen’s translation into English certainly follows along the expected path. The text is a joy to read, it is witty and concise and provides a welcome change of pace for anyone used to trawling through academic papers where style can often fall a distant second to substance or translators in need of a break after repairing one too many error-strewn source texts.

In addition to this sense of style, the text uses a number of fascinating examples: Eco’s exploration of the French and Portuguese translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ was a personal favourite in a second half that is weaker than the first, often meandering along and flitting from subject to subject, including fanciful (albeit interesting) discussions such as the possibility of translating Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into words.

By towing the line between getting too bogged down in theory and remaining purely anecdotal, the book works as something of a bridge between the lighter discussions found in general works on translation and the serious, often heavy-going business of translation scholarship in a manner reminiscent of David Bellos’ excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Beyond the fascinating examples from Eco’s own work, however, problems are found deeper within the text. While the structure of the book (1st half practice, 2nd half theory) initially suggests that the text will seek to address the divide that exists between theory and practice in the world of translation (something that I wrote about recently on my blog), this impression quickly subsides as Eco outlines his true intentions.

Despite insisting at the outset that theory and practice must be united, stating that all translation scholars should have translated and been translated at some point in their careers, Eco goes on to explain that his ‘practice’ half was placed ahead of the ‘theory’ half in order to demonstrate how translation still goes on unimpeded in a world where only ‘naive’ views of translation are on offer, forwarding a ‘common sense’ approach to the task of translation.

In reality, however, if this common sense approach were a universal asset, it would contradict not only the need for the second half of the book (it seems a bit pointless to dismiss theory’s worth before going on to spend 60 pages discussing that theory) but potentially the text’s very existence. As Anthony Pym puts it: ‘if common sense were really common, no one would have to read Eco to know about translation.’

Furthermore, this show of intent quickly transforms Eco’s text from a laudable attempt to forge a relationship between theory and practice into a veiled attack on translation studies based on the author’s somewhat skewed version of what theory has to offer.

The fact that Eco’s theoretical discussions are founded on ideas from the 1950s/60s and involve an inconsistent use of various strands of thought calls the author’s methodologies and conclusions into question. While translation theory may still be unable to fully guide us through the translation process, Eco’s exploration of the topic does a slight disservice to the amount of helpful material out there.

Instead of attempting to use theory to inform practice or vice-versa, practice takes place in isolation before Eco occasionally tips his hat to various scholars like Lawrence Venuti by labelling certain passages as ‘domesticated’ or ‘foreignized’, for example, wherever it seems vaguely applicable and without adequately justifying whether or why this is the correct choice.

In truth, the method is irrelevant as Eco’s solution has already been fixed as the correct solution (quite easily too, since most of the discussions are argued with reference to translations of Eco’s novels). Eco frequently refers to ideas such as ‘deep meaning’, ‘the intention of the text’ or ‘the guiding spirit of the text’, unfairly ignoring more recent advances in translation theory questioning such notions and simultaneously making his ideas impossible to disprove.

Ultimately, while Eco’s overview of the development of thought upon translation using his own work brings with it some fascinating examples, his theoretical explorations remain unrefined in places. Experiences in Translation represents a worthwhile addition to any bookshelf but will never bring about any profound advances in thought on translation.

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