The Guardian has an excerpt from Umberto Eco’s new book Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation; I heartily agree with the opening sentence, “I frequently feel irritated when I read essays on the theory of translation that, even though brilliant and perceptive, do not provide enough examples,” and I am pleased that most of the extract is taken up with the proper use in translations of the Italian word topo, which can mean both ‘mouse’ and ‘rat.’ The link comes via the always interesting Open Brackets, whose entry Echo goes on to quote various reviews of the new Proust translation, finishing up with a hilariously snide comment by Alain de Botton and a nicely dry retort by Gail (the blogatrice).


  1. In Taiwan I found that squirrels are called “pine rats” in Chinese (“song-shu”). It’s hard to argue with, except that squirrels don’t have a reputation for nastiness.
    To make it more confusing, I have been afflicted with a “bushy-tailed wood rat” or packrat, which is in between the two — half-nasty, with a somewhat, but not very bushy tail. He had rather good taste — he gnawed seriously on my New Directions version of Eugenio Montale.

  2. This reminds me, one of these days I need to post my list of Latin names for small mammals.

  3. Language Hat: I’m curious what you thought of Douglas Hofstadter’s book on translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot which came out a few years back. I actually had a class or two with Hofstadter back at the time he was writing that book and his translation of Eugene Onegin – definitely an interesting experience to talk with him about those issues as he tackled Pushkin.

  4. I haven’t read the book, I’m afraid. I read and loved Godel Escher Bach, and I looked at this one in the bookstore, but as interesting as I’m sure I’d find many of his points, I don’t get the feeling he understands what makes poetry poetry, and I’m afraid reading his playful take on something I take extremely seriously would irritate me. I do want to take a longer look at it at some point, though.

  5. Something Eco doesn’t mention, in this extract at least, is how this impacts on translation for business clients – specialy when the client has an office in the country where the translation is being targeted at….
    You can always be sure someone in the office will complain, loudly, that you have not produced a literal word-for-word translation, and point out that a word used in an equivalent expression “is not in the original!”.

  6. My favorite business-translation story: a pharmaceutical piece being turned into Spanish contained the phrase “Christmas disease” (which is named for a Mr. Christmas). It came out as “enfermedad de Navidad.” Gave me a good laugh.
    (Incidentally, in Chile and Peru ‘Christmas’ is apparently Pascua, which elsewhere means ‘Easter.’ I wonder how that happened?)

  7. My favorite was some cleaning(?) product marked SAFE (i.e. not harmful) on one side and CAJA FUERTE on the other.

  8. I have to admit, I’m (almost) always disappointed to read books about translation–even Kelly’s much-cited “True Interpreter” proved to boil down to just another rehash of literal vs. idiomatic rendering. No matter how much you cut the pie, theorists don’t seem to get beyond this fundamental divide… another much-cited example is Eugene Nida’s ‘dynamic / formal equivalence’ distinction, which is much the same as far as I can tell. The best book by far on translation that I’ve read, meanwhile, remains Steiner’s “After Babel”. Any thoughts on that one, Hat?

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