Anthony Pym

Experiences in Translation. By Umberto Eco. Translated by Alistair McEwan (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2001) x + 135 pp. $19.95 / 13.00 pounds cloth

© Anthony Pym 2001 
Review written for The European Legacy

Experiences in Translation is based on a series of lectures Umberto Eco gave at the University of Toronto in 1998. The book is divided into two halves. In the first, Eco discusses translation as a matter of personal experience, both as a translator and as a novelist who has been translated. The second half presents a more formal theorization of translation, distinguishing between “translation proper”, “rewriting”, and the more metaphorical types of translation that occur within single languages or move between different semiotic systems or “purports”. In both halves of this short book there is a broad appeal to common sense as the ultimate proof that translation should remain “translation proper”. That is, the translator should ultimately be faithful to something variously described as “the intention of the text”, “the same effect as the original”, or “the ‘guiding spirit’ of the text”. In this, Eco’s experiences run firmly against the trend of contemporary Translation Studies.

Eco’s initial approach works through a series of simple binarisms such as form vs meaning, source vs target, archaic vs modern, in each case using literary examples to indicate that the solutions rarely fall entirely one side or the other. A plenitude of illustrations is similarly used to address questions such as whether a translator can change a story (yes, if for the sake of “the aesthetic goal”), how various partial losses can be recuperated through compensation techniques, and the supreme importance of translating textual rhythm, which in itself constitutes much of the distinction between “translation proper” and modes of interpretation more akin to definition or paraphrase. Since most of these points are argued with reference to translations of Eco’s novels, they more or less preclude debate as to what the “intended meaning” was. Even if Eco places the intention in the text, it is with authorial authority that he does so. Similarly, several long delightful discussions of translation problems in Nerval’s “Sylvie” come from close authoritative experience of the text. Nerval is not around to tell us what he meant, but Eco’s own translation of “Sylvie” is supported by years of reading and analysis, with an attention to detail that bespeaks love if not obsession. Or again, in the final discussions of Finnegans Wake in French and Italian, the effective translator is identified as Joyce himself, who as author had enough authority to go beyond translation when it pleased him to do so. In all these cases, the elusive “intention of the text” is backed up by the authority of some kind of authorship. There is thus little effective liberalism in the Eco who purports to have traded mere “suggestions” with his translators, or learned from them, or discovered details that could become improvements on his texts. Eco the theorist is still legislating what is or is not (good) (literary) translation, without ever really elaborating on the terms we have just put in parentheses. 

On the more theoretical level, Eco’s main points of reference are Hjelmslev and Jakobson; his argument could probably function quite well without citing any text published after 1960. We thus find no effective consideration of the issues that have concerned translation scholars over the past forty years or so: specialized readerships, varying translation purposes, target-culture effects, the translator’s discursive presence, the asymmetric power relations between cultures, culture-bound notions of concepts such as translation or aesthetic value, translation as a relation between people rather than with a text, or critical deconstruction for that matter (written off here as a desire for a cheap pun on the name “Sylvie”). Derrida is cited in the bibliography, precisely the text where he takes Jakobson to task for ambiguously isolating “translation proper”, yet Eco never really addresses Derrida and blithely follows Jakobson, albeit inconsistently. In the parts based on Jakobson and Peirce, Eco believes in semiosis; when he is adapting Hjelmslev and searching for Aristotelian categories, meaning is suddenly fixed and stable. There is no awareness of any contradiction here; categories can be demonstrated by cheap jokes that go beyond them; thus will a list of names-for-things allow common sense to reign above the rest, even when the world is moving with more than reason. Yet if common sense were really common, no one would have to read Eco to know about translation. 

As if to recognize this, Eco’s major product here, the list of names-for-things, the authoritative isolation of “translation proper”, is only justified by the supposition that “the task of semiotic analysis is that of identifying different phenomena in the apparently uncontrollable flux of interpretative acts” (129-130). That kind of analytical hope mostly fails to inspire; it addresses few of the pressing problems facing cross-cultural relations. It could even stand as a tombstone to the institutional failure of semiotics as a discipline. Eco will remain a figure of insatiable inquisitiveness, an amiable novelist who gives good value as a lecturer and whose scholarly humour no doubt carries well in whatever translation. Yet his experiences do not contribute substantially to the current issues of Translation Studies. 


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