Last year, during the week that Baudolino was released, I had the opportunity to hear Umberto Eco speak at Harvard’s Askwith Forum at the Graduate School of Education. At the time, I expected him to read from Baudolino and was surprised to find that he barely mentioned his new book at all. Instead, he chose to discuss the problem of translation.

Though The Name of the Rose is very accessible and one of my favorite books, I expected a stuffy, showy, and overly intellectual lecture from the author of Interpretation and Overinterpretation and Foucault’s Pendulum. I should have remembered that he’s also the author of the very funny How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, because I was pleasantly surprised by his warm demeanor, conversational approach, intellectual humility, and abundant humor.

His talk began something like this:

I frequently feel irritated when I read essays on the theory of translation that, even though brilliant and perceptive, do not provide enough examples. I think translation scholars should have had at least one of the following experiences during their life: translating, checking and editing translations, or being translated and working in close cooperation with their translators.As an editor, I worked for 20 years in a publishing house. As a translator, I made only two translations, which took me many years of reflection and hard work; these were from the Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau and Gerard de Nerval’s Sylvie. As an author, I have almost always collaborated with my translators, an experience that started with my early essays and became more and more intense with my four novels.

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.

Of course, I didn’t record his talk, and my memory is not good enough to reproduce it verbatim. This is actually an excerpt from his new book, Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation (see the longer excerpt in The Guardian), which now explains why he chose this as the topic for his talk. By the time Baudolino was released, he’d long since finished working on it, and he’d preferred to discuss something a little more fresh.

Eco’s anecdotes and insights into treating translation as negotiation are enthralling, and his unique perspective on the subject (as a translator, editor, and translated author) keeps it as real as it is interesting. Rather than present a formal treatise, he invites you into a lively, rewarding dialogue. I can’t wait to get my hands on his book, but so far (beginning on November 13) it’s only available in the UK. When will it cross the pond and reach my local bookseller, where I can flip through it before actually buying it?

One last thought/question: was the book written in English, or is this book a translation from the original Italian in which Eco normally writes? Perhaps this is not an important question, though, since even if it’s a translation, it’s surely the result of a successful negotiation.
(Thanks again to Maud Newton for this link.)