On Translating Eco

By Geoffrey Brock

Featured Art: Handkerchief by Oriental Print Works

Despite the Italian adage traduttore/traditore, which equates translation with betrayal, nearly all translators I know claim fidelity as their goal (while also admitting the impossibility of perfect fidelity); it was certainly my goal as I set out to translate Umberto Eco’s 2005 novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. But what does “fidelity” mean to literary translators? Faithful to whom or what? There is less agreement on that score. The question is complex even with regard to what might be called vanilla prose; it’s deeply vexed with regard to most poetry or any prose that features puns or other word-play, or that contrasts its language with that of one of its dialects, or that relies on allusions that would be clear to source-language readers but opaque or even misleading to others—and so on. In such cases, liberties will often be taken at the expense of semantic fidelity but in the service of broader and arguably more important fidelities. In this piece, I will look at three such cases from Eco’s novel.

In the third chapter of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the novel’s main character, Yambo, who has suffered a stroke that has caused him to lose his autobiographical memory but not his “encyclopedic” memory, plays a game of Scrabble with his friends. Eco describes several of Yambo’s plays—the particular words, how they interconnect on the board, and in one case how many points a play is worth:

Ho passato molte sere con Gianni, Paola e le ragazze a giocare a scarabeo, dicono che era il mio gioco preferito. Trovo facilmente le parole, specie le più astruse come acrostico (attaccandomi a un acro) o zeugma. Incorporando una I e una U ballerine in apertura di due parole verticali, partendo dalla prima casella rossa della prima riga orizzontale ho raggiunto la seconda, realizzando enfiteusi. Ventun punti moltiplicati per nove, più cinquanta di premio per avere usato tutte e sette le mie lettere, duecentotrentanove punti in un colpo solo. Gianni si è arrabbiato, e meno male che sei smemorato, gridava.

As a Scrabble-playing translator, I found this passage deliciously puzzling. The first question is whether to translate the words at all. We know these char- acters are Italian (though we suspend our disbelief when we read their dialogue in English), and the particular semantic value of the words played is irrelevant to the story, so why not have them playing Scrabble in Italian? What could be more natural?

The first problem with that solution is that, while the particular semantic value of the words is indeed irrelevant, their general character—erudite and literary, like Yambo—is significant. Much of that character might come through even if we left the words in Italian, since zeugma is the same word in both languages and acrostico is an obvious cognate. Enfiteusi, however, would remain mysterious; it is quite obscure in Italian, and its cognate, “emphyteusis,” is both less obvious and more obscure. Did I really want readers stumbling here, wondering what that word meant, with no easy way to find out? Also, and perhaps more important, did I want to draw attention at this point to the fact that these characters speak Italian not just when playing Scrabble, but all the time, and that reporting their dialogue in English is a sort of legerdemain, no matter how conventional? Leaving the words in Italian calls attention to the fact that the rest of the translation is a translation, which threatens to break the spell of the whole fiction.

Having decided, then, to translate the words into English, I considered the Scrabble implications. “Zeugma” and “acrostic” were fine, but “emphyteusis,” again, presented problems. It is a virtually impossible play in English Scrabble, and in any case the specific meaning of the word, as I’ve said, is irrelevant—I simply wanted a very esoteric word, ideally nine letters long. And since the value of words in Scrabble is of course not semantic but numeric, I decided, whimsically, to pursue numeric fidelity, seeking a word that produced exactly the same score in the English version of the game that Yambo’s word produced in the Italian version (which has a different point system):

I have spent a number of evenings with Gianni, Paola, and the girls playing Scrabble; they say it was my favorite game. I find words easily, especially esoteric ones like ACROSTIC (by adding on to TIC) or ZEUGMA. Later, incorporating an M and an H that were the first letters of two words going down, I start from the first red square in the top row and go all the way past the second, making AMPHIBOLY. Twenty-one times nine, plus the fifty-point bonus for playing all seven of my letters, two hundred and thirty-nine points in a single play. Gianni got mad, thank god you’re an amnesiac, he yelled. (p. 63)

Perhaps you’re thinking that the notion of “numeric fidelity” here is absurd. If so, you’re probably not a Scrabble player.

The sixth chapter contains another group of words whose primary value  is not semantic. Yambo rediscovers his childhood dictionary, the 1905 Nuovissimo Melzi, and reels off a list of words that had enchanted him then—not for their meanings, which were obscure, but for their sound: they “tasted like magic words.” Indeed their obscurity makes him (and us) more conscious of their sonic texture, and of their mystery.

Quante parole so perché le ho imparate lì? Perché so anche ora, con adamantina certezza, e in barba alla mia tempesta cerebrale, che la capitale del Madagascar è Antananarivo? Lì ho incontrato termini dal sapore di una formula magica, avvittolato, baciabasso, belzuino, caccabaldole, cerasta, crivellaio, dommatica, galiosso, granciporro, inadombrabile, lordume, mallegato, pascolame, postemoso, pulzellona, sbardellare, speglio, versipelle.

Here the translator must choose words that are obscure enough and interesting enough in their sounds to have the mysterious ring of magic words. As in the Scrabble example, literal translation would be beside the point; re-creation is called for. Eco himself suggested that his various translators might simply raid a dictionary from their own language in search of suitable words. I chose the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged, and in order to narrow my options, which seemed nearly endless, I decided arbitrarily to pick words that resembled Eco’s words—not semantically, but sonically or graphically.

How many words do I know because I learned them there? Why do I know even now, with adamantine certainty, and in spite of the tempest in my brain, that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo? It was in that book that I encountered terms that tasted like magic words: avolate, baccivorous, benzoin, cacodoxy, cerastes, cribble, dogmatics, glaver, grangerism, inadequation, lordkin, mulct, pasigraphy, postern, pulicious, sparble, speight, vespillo . . . (p. 111-112)

My desire was to present a list of words that looked, at first glance, like cognates of their Italian counterparts, but that on closer inspection reveal themselves not simply as false cognates, but rather as a kind of parody of cognates. It was a way of underlining, for myself mostly (translators must entertain themselves, after all), but also for anyone who bothered to compare the English with the Italian, the meaninglessness of meaning in this passage, which is a kind of ode to the purely physical sounds of words.

The final passage I’ll describe is from the novel’s opening chapter. Yambo is in the hospital, and his doctor, who is trying to determine the nature of his memory loss, hands him pen and paper and asks him to write “whatever comes to mind.” Yambo seizes on the word “mind” and writes a line from Dante that contains that word, followed by a chain of other quotations, each containing, as the link, some key word used in the preceding quotation:

Mente? Ho scritto: amor che nella mente mi ragiona, l’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle, meglio sole che male accompagnate, spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato, ahi vita ahi vita mia ahi core di questo core, al cuore non si comanda, De Amicis, dagli amici mi guardi Iddio, o Dio del ciel se fossi una rondinella, se fossi foco arderei lo mondo, vivere ardendo e non sentire il male, male non fare paura non avere, la paura fa novanta ottanta settanta milleottocentosessanta, la spedizione dei Mille, mille e non più mille, le meraviglie del Duemila, è del poeta il fin la maraviglia.

The problem here is that the link between Yambo’s second and third quotations is a pun—the word sole means “sun” in the first instance and “alone” in the second. Any “faithful” translation would thus break the associative chain, and I was once again faced with the need to translate re-creatively, following of course Eco’s rules for his original chain. I wanted to include a similar blend of quotations, from Dante to popular songs, some of them easily recognizable and others more obscure. And I decided (again with what might be called an Oulipoian sense of arbitrary strictness) to begin and end with the same quotations, even though I had to find a different set of links to join them:

Mind? I wrote: love that within my mind discourses with me, the love that moves the sun and the other stars, stars hide your fires, if I were fire I would burn the world, I’ve got the world on a string, there are strings in the human heart, the heart does not take orders, who would hear me among the angels’ orders, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, tread lightly she is near, lie lightly on her, a beautiful lie, touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, wonder is the poet’s aim. (p. 21-22)

In each of these three cases (and in many others, elsewhere) I resort to what Nabokov dismissed as “meretricious paraphrase” and what I embrace as “re-creative translation.”   The fact is that literary translations, including nearly all translations of novels, are usually surrogates for their originals, meant for monolingual consumption. Eco’s novels, for example, have had millions of readers in English, the vast majority of whom never read them in Italian. Such readers are not looking for scholarly guides to the originals, nor are they looking exclusively, or even primarily, for “meaning.” (There is certainly a place, particularly with poetry, for translations as guides to, rather than surrogates for, their originals, but that is another essay.) Such readers are looking, rather, for the literary experience, a much more polymorphous animal, born not of meaning alone but of the complex cocktail of everything that constitutes a literary experience. It follows, or so it seems to me, that a “faithful” translation ought to try to remake the cocktail, using the ingredients available in the liquor store of English, so that English readers can come as close as possible to tasting what the original readers tasted.

I’ll close with one last quotation, which deploys a completely different metaphor. Near the end of his essay “On Translating a Tamil Poem,” the brilliant poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan, who died in 1993, wrote the following, which is the closest thing I have to a credo of translation:

To translate is to “metaphor,” to “carry across.” Translations are transpositions, re-enactments, interpretations. But “anything goes” will not do. The translation must not only represent, but re-present, the original. One walks a tightrope between the To-language and the From-language, in a double loyalty. A translator is an “artist on oath.” Sometimes one may succeed only in re-presenting a poem, not in closely representing it. At such times one draws consolation from parables like the following. A Chinese emperor ordered a tunnel to be bored through a great mountain. The engineers decided that the best and quickest way to do it would be to begin work on both sides of the mountain, after precise measurements. If the measurements were precise enough, the two tunnels would meet in the middle, making a single one. “But what happens if they don’t meet?” asked the emperor. The counselors, in their wisdom, answered, “If they don’t meet, we will have two tunnels instead of one.”


Geoffrey Brock is the author of two books of poems, the editor of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, and the translator of numerous books of poetry, prose, and comics. His awards include the 2020 Raiziss/de Palchi Book Prize, from the Academy of American Poets, for Last Dream, the selected poems of Giovanni Pascoli. He teaches in the MFA program at Arkansas.

Piece originally published in NOR 13.

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