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Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation by…

Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation

by Umberto Eco

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Made me think more about translation - the art and its difficulties - than I had ever before. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
Eco first described a categorisation of translation types that he did not agree with but that had been gaining some acceptance in academia. The lectures he gave at Oxford in 2002, and which constitute the core content of this book, were written with the intention of addressing, "...the exaggeratedly indulgent idea of translation that charmed some of my students and colleagues."

The categorisation was:

Interpretation - which would include paraphrasing

Translation from one language to another

Intersemiotic Translation/Transmutation - e.g. adapting a book to a film, or creating a piece of music to represent a painting

Eco's lectures demonstrate how Interpretation and Intersemiotic Translation cannot be regarded as true translation. With his natural wit and aplomb, Eco produces examples that expose the weaknesses of the arguments for these two activities to be described as translation.

While this description of the book's topic sounds fairly dull, I must say the execution is far from dull.

I was a little concerned that my lack of linguistic skill would be a problem for my reading this book. While the book includes some examples involving English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, these examples did not dominate the text and Eco gave explanations of the points he was making that minimised the amount of meaning I was missing.

The book focuses mostly on the situations that cause difficulties for translators and these are described in often humorous ways. He also discusses the acceptable and unacceptable approaches adopted by translators for addressing such situations.

Eco has a chapter on translating poetry. He described poetry as the touchstone for translation as it contains every difficulty and dilemma a translator will face. Not only does it have the problem of determining what the words mean and what effect the poet was trying to create, but it also brings in issues of rhythm, rhyme, and meter.

It was in the chapter on poetry that Eco referenced Dorothy L Sayers. She would have been pleased at his mention. Rather than being remembered for her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Sayers wanted to be remembered for what she regarded as her greatest achievement: her translation of Dante's Inferno. It is this work that Eco references. She would have been pleased that his mentioned her translation was to express surprise that it had not been included in a famous critical work on the various translations of the Inferno.

As a polyglot, a philosopher, a bibliophile, an expert on semiotics, an author who has had his works translated into many languages, and as a translator of works himself, Umberto Eco was ideally suited to write a book on the difficulties of translation. ( )
3 vote pgmcc | Apr 10, 2016 |
This is a subject I just find endlessly fascinating.

Eco's theme in this book is that translation (particularly literary translation) is a "negotiation" between what you might call the 'letter' and the 'spirit' of the original. For example, the book's title refers to Eco's attempt to translate the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet stabs Polonius behind a curtain, saying "How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!".

Eco says he translated 'rat' as 'topo', which in Italian actually means mouse, because they don't really have a word that means 'rat' in the same sense. Of course, this misses the wordplay of 'rat' as someone who is a betrayer.

The book is mainly a series of similar examples, many taken from translations of Eco's own works. His writing is especially difficult in this respect, since it is full of allusions, both subtle and obvious, to all kinds of other literature and popular culture.

Mouse or Rat doesn't exactly break new ground in this field (Douglas Hofstadter's Le ton Beau de Marot covers similar ideas and also tells an affecting love story at the same time; I recommend it highly), but I could read examples like this pretty much endlessly.

The only problem I had is that you really need a working knowledge of all the languages used to get the full effect, but even my meager knowledge of German/French/Spanish/Italian was enough to get the idea. ( )
  JenneB | Apr 2, 2013 |
A series of lectures reworked as chapters on the problems of translation. Eco's theme of "negotiation" is a very useful one, allowing him to take a less dogmatic path than usually staked out by those who haven't actually tried to translate anything, while still actually saying something about the subject - quite a lot, in fact.
Similar in many ways to Hofstadter's ideas (Le Ton Beau de Marot, the first thing to read for those interested in translation) but much more concise and addressed from, perhaps, another angle. ( )
1 vote kiparsky | Aug 24, 2007 |
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