Tuesday, December 18, 2007


According to Umberto

On the subject of over-confident non-native speakers (post before last), I see that Umberto Eco was pulled up recently by Language Log for repeatedly using the unidiomatic phrase "according to me" in a BBC interview. The underlying Italian phrase ("secondo me") is identified as the culprit in a later post on the same site.

Eco has written a number of books on translation, including Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation (2003). The book is not itself a translation although it's sometimes hard to tell.

Take that word negotiation, for example, which appears in the title and is the book's primary theme:
(...) it seems to me that the idea of translation as a process of negotiation (between author and text, between author and readers, as well as between the structure of two languages and the encylopaedias of two cultures) is the only one that matches our experience.
If the book were a translation, that word negotiation would strike me as one that hadn't been translated very well. According to me, a different word is needed there, something like trade-off.

Consider this googled example, also produced by a non-native, saying much the same thing in a more specific context:

What requirements should a translation of a Apache documentation meet, if there were a trade-off between fluent readability and exact words translation?
To replace trade-off with negotiation in that sentence would render it opaque and portentous. Which is just what you expect from an "intellectual" like Eco, some might say. But that wouldn't be fair. His regular column in the news weekly L'Espresso is highly readable and he doesn't normally tend to obscure his ideas in verbiage.

I suspect it might be just his Italian leaking into his English. The Italian cognates of negotiation have a much more concrete sense of trade and exchange than the English word as normally understood. Negozio, for example, is the word for a shop.

In any case, I can't help feeling that if English were his first language he'd have chosen some other word.

Then again, maybe I just don't get it. What can possibly be meant, for example, by a negotiation - or even a trade-off - between author and reader? Don't they both want exactly the same thing?

Here's a nice short piece by Umberto Eco on the season that's in it.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Wise guys

Reported in yesterday's Financial Times:

The panel, initially dubbed a "wise men's committee", will be approved by European heads of government at the December 14 summit in Brussels, but it will instead be officially known as a "reflection group".

This follows expressions of concern from some governments and EU commissioners that the term "wise men" implied an absence of women on the panel.

As it would. So why, in this post-phallocratic age, would anyone suggest calling it that in the first place?

Of course nobody did. The unwanted implication is entirely the result of the inept transposition into English of a French expression, comité des sages, which itself does not imply any such "absence of women".

In French, gender does not follow sex in the same way as in English. The feminine pronoun elle can perfectly well refer to a man and the masculine il to a woman, where the gender of the antecedent noun so requires.

Similarly, the fact that "sage" is a masculine noun doesn't imply that the wise ones have to be male. So translating "sages" as "wise men" isn't even literal.

(Earlier post on bizarre effects of retaining German gender in English translation).

The equivalent of the French sages in international English would appear to be Eminent Persons.

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