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Reviewed by:
  • Experiences in Translation
  • Anne Quinney
Eco, Umberto. 2001. Experiences in Translation. Translated by Alastair McEwen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802035337. Pp. 135. $20.95.

Long invested in the meaning of signs as professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Umberto Eco has devoted himself in this book to exploring the question of translation (who is translating? who is being translated? what gets translated in the process of translation? how do we interpret translations?). Based on the Goggio Public Lectures given at the University of Tor-onto in 1998, Experiences in Translation argues through the use of extensive examples of various kinds of translations that the business of translation involves the interpretation of a text in two different languages, rather than the faithful transcription of lexical and referential items from one language into another. This concern is central to the study of translation and has certainly animated the field of translation studies since its inception.

Divided into two parts, Experiences in Translation provides more theoretical scaffolding in the second half (“Translation and Interpretation”) than in the more experiential first half (“Translating and Being Translated”). In place of offering a tight theoretical model of translation, Eco first approaches this concern and other stakes involved in translation as a practical matter as if making a conscious effort to avoid the highly specialized jargon that has plagued discussions about translation as an already highly theorized domain. [End Page 99] Given that these essays were originally written as public lectures, the presentation of examples before a theoretical focus or engagement with the leading theories of translation that reign today does not seem odd. Some may find this commonsense tactic lacks the excitement of academic rigor while others may welcome the hiatus from abstract speculation in favor of a more hands-on and concrete treatment of the problems, grounded as they are in this book in multiple exemplary cases. A theory of translation does emerge by the second half of the book, it just requires the reader sit through paragraphs of English, French, German, and Italian that Eco includes to precipitate the point he wishes to make. Therefore, knowledge of these languages is essential to appreciating Eco’s methodology and argument. Readers not conversant in the three tongues will surely miss the benefits of his discussion. Drawing on instances of translation of his own and other novels, slang dialogue from film, and Biblical translations, Eco illustrates in the first half of the book his earlier idea that a text is a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations. Even as a translated author, Eco positions himself firmly on the side of the translator for whom the author’s input is irrelevant. He invests the translator with the unique power of interpretation provided that the translator understands her task is one that requires the deep “sense” of the text be preserved and revealed as opposed to its literal meaning. A good translation is not concerned with the denotation but with the connotation of words. We assume that he is speaking here of literary texts over other kinds of texts, technical, scientific, advertising, etc., since the life of the literary depends on inferred or hidden meaning, word play or metaphor, and poetry, whereas a technical text, such as a flight manual, would demand the most literal of translations so as to eradicate the possibility of multiple interpretations.

Eco is keen to acknowledge the contributions of Jakobson and Pierce to the discussion of the linguistic aspects of translation for they introduce his main concern, that “the universe of interpretations is vaster than that of translation proper” (73). Structuralism may function as his starting point, although he certainly goes beyond the study of semiotics of twenty years ago to broadly classify a variety of different interpretive acts as translation. This includes interpretation by transcription, intrasystemic interpretation (with the same natural language as well as within other semiotic systems), performance, intersystemic interpretation, rewriting, and adaptation or transmutation. A plurilingual text such as Finnegans Wake, for example, presents several problems to the translator who must forsake the letter of the original (as “Finneganian” has no translation) in order to convey something of the guiding spirit of the text—a...


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