A review of Mouse or Rat by Umberto Eco

Serious enough to engage its target audience of translation students, but entertaining and broadly focused enough to also interest the serious reader, this is a book which belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in the creation of meaning through words.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Mouse or Rat?
Translation as Negotiation
by Umberto Eco
Weidenfield & Nicholson (Orion)
Jan 2004, hardback, 200pages, RRP A$35

If you consider the complexity involved, it is a wonder that anyone is able to produce an adequate translation at all. Umberto Eco is so clear thinking and erudite – a true Renaissance Man – that it would seem he can turn his mind to any subject at all, and produce insights which are wholly new, and even seminal in their impact while keeping his prose entertaining and lighthearted. His latest book on the difficulties of translation is no exception. The ultimate message of Mouse or Rat, is that translation is so much more than the conversion of one language into another, but rather, a subtle negotiation between texts – so that the meaning of one reflects the meaning of another. If that sounds trite, believe me, this book is anything but. One of the world’s most eminent Semioticians, as well as an author of fiction and non-fiction, and a translator, Eco understands intimately how difficult the notion of “meaning” is, and carefully proves the interplay between author, reader, and translator, working within the shifting context of culture, time, linguistic and social mores, and place. Serious enough to engage its target audience of translation students, but entertaining and broadly focused enough to also interest the serious reader, this is a book which belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in the creation of meaning through words.

Many of the essays in this book have been taken from the Weidenfeld Lectures given at Oxford University in 2002, and cover topics such as the nature of equivalence in meaning, where Eco uses AltaVista’s Babelfish to prove the impossibility of translating without a human context or thought processes, the idea that all forms of translation will involve a transformation which is a kind of loss, the importance of reference and context, the difficulties between a source from one culture and a target in another, hypotyposis, or the why in which a text needs to render a visual scene, the re-creation of the deep sense of a text and the importance of interpretation, transmutation and adaptation, and the suggestion of a working philosophy based on a perfect language. Throughout the writing is rich, often funny, pointing out some classic mistakes in translation, always pithy, and strives, as do all of Eco’s writings, to put the ideas in the broadest context possible. It isn’t always easy, since the book carefully toes the line between speaking to a technical and extremely literate audience (those who, perhaps, reach towards an Eco-like erudition), and making the work globally interesting. For the casual reader, as with any reader of a work in translation, there will be passages which have to be glossed over. Many of Eco’s examples move through translations in a variety of language, and, for example, readers who can’t read French, Italian, German, and Spanish will miss some of the more complex points which Eco is making. It is still possible to get some semblance of what he is saying by reading the English and imagining the differences, but the real subtleties will be lost. This is nevertheless a pithy way of proving his point.

Examples are taken from a very wide variety of work, both classic as in Shakespeare and Dante, and modern, with many examples from Eco’s own work and translations, as well as references as broad as Walt Disney, Woody Allen, The Bible, Nicole Kidman, Eliot, Joyce, Rabelais, Homer, Melville, Goethe, and Bly, to name just a few. The writing, done in English in this case, is elegant and beautiful in itself, and the sentences are tight enough to warrant multiple readings:

Perhaps there are source texts that widen out in translation, and the destination text enriches the source one, making it enter the sea of a new intertextuality; and there are delta texts that branch out in many translations, each of which impoverishes their original flow, but which all together create a new territory, a labyrinth of competing interpretations.” (102)

Fans of Eco’s considerable fiction oeuvre, will also enjoy his deconstruction of multiple versions of his own work, and the insights into his own creative process, as there are many accounts and anecdotes from the translation processes of works like The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before. Eco also doesn’t skirt the big and difficult philosophical question that sits behind much of what he says, about whether there is really a reality that language refers to – something which we must find whenever we are doing a translation:

It is curious to remark that, while so many philosophical discussions have cast doubt on the very possibility of translation, since each language represents an incommensurable structure, it is precisely the empirical evidence of translation that challenges the philosophical assertions about the dependence of world views on language. Thus translation re-proposes to philosophy its everlasting question, namely, where there is a way in which things go independently of the way our languages make them go.(182)

Eco refers to his own phenomenal work which addresses just this issue, Kant and the Platypus, albeit in a slightly different context. For those who are themselves translators, or writers who intend to have their works translated, this book is sure to become the kind of classic primer which will be referred to again and again, not just for the lessons which Eco makes so clearly, but for the thought provoking clarity of his arguments. For anyone else who loves words, this delightful work will repay the effort required, as above all else, Eco’s arguments are based on a similar passion: “Among the synonyms of faithfulness the word exactitude does not exist. Instead there is loyalty, devotion, allegiance, piety.” (192). Who could argue with that. Eco’s depth of knowledge, his sense of playfulness, and his clarity of expression makes his work as pleasurable as it is important.