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.

Getting to grips with translation theory: A (very) brief introduction.

Given that my previous post delving into the world of translation theory (5 mini reviews) saw a fair amount of interest, I decided that it would be worthwhile to keep writing on the topic, and what better place to start than from the beginning?!

Translation studies as a discipline, though relatively small, can still appear daunting when first taking the plunge. This is where the introductory literature (much of which was mentioned in my reviews) proves to be useful, but I also wanted to write a brief introduction of my own just to provide a point of orientation for anyone currently lacking the time or inclination to wade into a more thorough exploration of the subject.

While there is an undoubted void between translation theory and practice and an elitism that sees the translation of literature and poetry researched much more than the practical texts which make up the working translator’s staple diet – both of which will no doubt deter many already-established freelancers from making the effort to explore translation theory, arguing that they can work perfectly well without it – I am of the firm conviction that a good understanding of the ground that has been covered throughout the history of translation is extremely beneficial to the practicing translator.

As such, there are a few key progressions that I will briefly detail, followed by suggestions for further reading, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to provide more detailed explanations in the future.

As thought on translation has developed over the centuries, there have always been prevailing ideas of the correct level of translation and correct method of translation and first of all we will cover the level of translation.

The passage from word to culture

From the idea of translating ‘sense-for-sense’ over ‘word-for-word’ put forward by Jerome (the patron saint of translators) which replaces the individual word as the unit of translation with the phrase, dualistic oppositions have often featured prominently in translation theory.

The bipolar ‘free vs. literal’ translation for example, which questions whether a translated text should remain close to the source text or be rendered in flowing prose, is widely known and Eugene Nida’s idea of formal equivalence vs. dynamic equivalence (which roughly equates to retention of original form (FE) against naturalness of expression (DE)) follows along similar lines.

Today, the most widely cited theoretical idea is Lawrence Venuti’s thought based on deviation from domestic norms. This sees him develop a methodology in which he attempts to overturn the standard translation practice of ‘domestication’ – making a text fit in with the dominant norms of the target culture – with a method labelled as ‘foreignisation’ which involves avoiding standard usage and allowing the ‘foreignness of the text to shine through’.

In this way translation theory has moved from the level of the sentence to the level of text or indeed culture as a whole, emphasising context, and this ‘cultural turn’ is the area of preoccupation for many contemporary scholars.

Origins of the discipline and different theoretical stances

The discipline name ‘translation studies’ was first coined by poet and translator James Holmes, who was one of the first scholars to really explore the science of translation. His precocious and comprehensive map of the discipline is still quite widely used in translation literature today due to its wide scope and its accuracy in addressing both practical and theoretical issues. Indeed, his ‘Applied translation’-‘Translation Aids’ designation still provides one of the only links between translation theory and modern translation technology.


Moving on from this general map of the discipline as a whole, scholars have tended to focus their attention on specific areas of translation, each pertaining to certain established schools of thought. There are those who focus on linguistic ideas, seeing the way that language works as the key to understanding the process of translation. Meanwhile, there are others who follow Gideon Toury’s descriptive translation studies with its ideas of polysystems (which is praised for taking social contexts into account) and translation norms, claiming that the methodological study of translations over a period of time and within particular contexts will show patterns that can lead to a better understanding of the translation process.

The other major school of thought in translation theory is that of functional translation which takes a more practical view of the translation task and is most applicable to the work of freelance translators. With its key idea of Skopostheorie developed by Hans Vermeer and Katharina Reiss, which assigns a ‘skopos’ or aim to a particular translation (rather like a translation brief), it forces translators to consider the consequences of their decisions and to carefully think about the purpose of their translation in order to make more informed decisions.

Finally, it is worth considering the increasing influence of philosophical ideas on translation theory with Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist concepts of ‘différance’ and ‘deconstruction’ widely mentioned in contemporary translation theory. These ideas, which emphasise the pivotal role of context in the act of translation and the unstable nature of meaning, prove to be very attractive to the translation scholar but ultimately tell us very little about how to actually translate.

Overall this can be seen as one of the main issues with translation theory as much research tends asks more questions than it answers and, in spite of all that has been written to date, the question remains to what extent do we really know how to translate better due to theoretical knowledge?

Or, as Eliot Weinberger put it: ‘Translation theory, however beautiful, is useless for translating. There are laws of thermodynamics, and there is cooking.’

Suggestions for Further Reading

One great series which cover most ideas in translation theory is St Jerome publishing’s ‘Translation Theories Explored’ (Nord’s Translating as a Purposeful Activity – covering the functional approach – is a personal favourite)

Meanwhile, for a discussion of more practical topics which apply only the relevant amount of theory, their ‘Translation Practices Explained’ series has many great titles.

The best introductory texts are listed in this blog while Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility is an excellent next step.

For linguistically-focused theory try Hatim and Mason’s Discourse and the Translator.

Finally, for descriptive translation studies Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies: and Beyond is a good place to start while Gentzler’s Contemporary Translation Theories adequately covers this area while also starting to examine philosophical contributions.