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.

A "trade-off" is different than "negotiation". Trade-offs involve a balance between mutually exclusive end results. Negotiation is the process by which decisions are made. Negotiation could lead to trade-offs, but not necessarily. According to me (a native English speaker), "negotiation" fits fine in Eco's sentence. To judge whether its a valid model for translation, though, I'd have to read his book. :)
Sure, trade-off and negotiation aren't the same thing and maybe trade-off isn't the right word either but for me negotiation sounds off. Perhaps its because there's only one party actually involved - the translator. Here are the OED's relevant entries for 'negotiation':

2. A process or course of treaty with another (or others) to obtain or bring about some result, esp. in affairs of state
3. The action or business of negotiating or making terms with others

and for 'negotiate'

1. intr. a. To hold communication or conference (with another) for the purpose of arranging some matter by mutual agreement; to discuss a matter with a view to some settlement or compromise.

In every case with another or others. You can't negotiate alone but you certainly translate alone.

There is one final definition for 'negotiation', however, which arguably does apply to translation:

4. The action of getting over or round some obstacle by skilful manœuvring
How about "give and take"? It's more than a trade-off because it suggests each side gets is sometimes advantaged, sometimes disadvantaged, alternately.
I know the crux of this post was the irony of Eco writing about translation and somehow mistranslating in the process, and not finding the mot juste for his book title but, it inspired some thinking. Nice post.
Re "give and take": maybe but I have difficulty with the premise that the author of the original and the reader of the translation are on opposing sides.
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