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22 - Equivalence seen from the author's point of view - first part


«Basta con que alguien introduzca un 'como si' en su relato; aún más, basta con que haga un símil o una comparación o hable figuradamente [...]»1.

"All anyone has to do is introduce an "as if" into the story, or not even that, all you need to do is use a simile, comparison or figure of speech [...]"2.

We have seen, in the previous units of the course, how some common notions in translation studies - literality, fidelity, equivalence - had moments of success and moments of harsh criticism depending upon their historical periods and the related points of view. These translational trivialities now remain mostly in the vocabulary of non-technicians, in those approaching translation in a superficial and ephemeral way, while "translation scientists" usually prefer the use of terms giving greater assurance of their definability.
  The publication of a new essay by Umberto Eco gives us the means to face the question under a different light, listening to the opinion of a man who is at the same time both a widely translated novelist and a semiotician dealing with translation from a theoretical point of view. This essay, entitled "Translating and being translated", unites the usual pleasantness of Eco as a novelist and essayist with his scientific sharpness: his twofold, and therefore particularly rich, point of view.
  The departure is a practical example, taken from William Weaver's English version of Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum. The original sentence is:

Diotallevi - Dio ha creato il mondo parlando, mica ha mandato un telegramma.
Belbo - Fiat lux, stop. Segue lettera.
Casaubon - Ai Tessalonicesi, immagino3.

The English version of this passage interprets the two latest interventions in a way different from a translation - meant in a more traditional way - of the denotative sense of the Italian sentences:

Diotallevi - God created the world by speaking. He didn't send a telegram.
Belbo - Fiat lux, stop.
Casaubon - Epistle follows4.

William Weaver thought to uncover in this exchange a dominant of the prototext not coinciding with the denotative meaning of the words that form it. Otherwise, as Eco himself comments, he could have easily translate "Fiat lux, stop. Letter follows. / To the Thessalonians, I guess»; I presume to say that the last mentioned version would have cost Weaver much less effort, above all as far as abductive inferences are concerned on Eco's intentions, and on the hypotheses of its rendering in Italian. Interrogative comment by Eco:

Can we say that this is a faithful translation of my text?5.

Moreover, Eco questions himself about the literality of that version. These questions are asked while Eco, in his role as original's author's, explains to the readers that this version by Weaver is, in his opinion, snappier still than his own original, and that he might decide to inspire himself on it for the Italian version in the case he decides to prepare a second revised edition of his novel. All this serves to say that the question of fidelity and literality has no intention of sounding like a question in which "faithfulness" and "literality" implicitly wear positive or negative connotations of "good translation" or "bad translation". They are, so to say, "neuter" questions aiming mostly at the effort to understand - as we often do in this course as well - what sense can (if they do make sense) categories like "faithful", "literal" etc. make in the semiotics of translation.
  The answer that Eco, all considered, gives himself is this:

The above translation can be defined as 'faithful', but it is certainly not literal6.

One should not be surprised that Eco speaks of "faithfulness" as if it were a scientifically acceptable category. The reader should not be fooled by hypotheses on the supposed naiveté of Eco (we know very well that he is not at all naive) nor on his hypothetical free use of more or less pertinent words. The fact is that, with this temporary conclusion, Eco creates the doubt in the ingenuous reader that a text can be faithful but not literal, i.e. he opens a preliminary breach in the popular conviction of many non-technical speakers that both "faithful" and "literal" are positive features of a translation and that, moreover, they often go one with the other. How is Eco's judgment is argued? The first explanation, this falsely ingenuous too, is that Weaver's version preserves the, quote, "sense" of the text, a sketchily defined sense, that is, diverging from literal meaning. This is like saying that a translation can be faithful even if the reference of the prototext (what in Peirce's triad is the "object") is different from the metatext's reference. A strong statement, that must, therefore, be justified. Eco himself feels the need to do so, and recurs to the notion of "connotation".

One could say that a good translation is not concerned with the denotation but with the connotation of words7.

Of course, the reader of this course knows the notion of "connotation", and many a time examples in that sense were made. Here Eco refers particularly to Barthes' connotation, that we have not yet examined. Here it is:

[...] connotation, that is, the development of a system of second-order meanings, which are so to speak parasitic on the language proper . This second order system is also a 'language', within which there develop speech-phenomena, idiolects and duplex structures. In the case of such complex or connoted systems (both characteristics are not mutually exclusive), it is therefore no longer possible to predetermine, even in global and hypothetical fashion, what belongs to the language and what belongs to speech (Barthes 1964).

Even Barthes' definition is not exact with regard to the spectrum covered by a connotative meaning. He explains that, in a parasitic way, connotation draws part of its sense from the primary signification (denotative) system adding another part, but it is not possible to define precisely what semantic spectrum covers connotation. Just that is also Eco's conclusion, and he states that:

The word connotation is an umbrella term used to name many, many kinds of non-literal senses of a word, of a sentence, or of a whole text [...] but the problems are (i) how many secondary senses can be conveyed by a linguistic expression, and (ii) which ones a translation should preserve at all costs8.

If we ever will be able to all agree that the problem of translatability (does anyone wish to risk saying "of equivalence"?) must be transferred from denotation to connotation, we would be probably starting down the right track, but all the same in a very vague field. Less sophisticated arguments end here, stating with some enthusiasm that the equivalence sought by all is not lexical equivalence, but "equivalence in meaning". For Eco, however, this is just the beginning of the trouble, because

Equivalence in meaning cannot be taken as a satisfactory criterion for a correct translation

first of all because the notion of "equivalence in meaning" is obscure, then because the ingenuous idea that equivalence in meaning is provided by synonymy is unacceptable "since it is commonly accepted that there are no complete synonyms in language"9. In the next unit, we will observe the development of Eco's argumentation that, as ever, is very intriguing.


Bibliographical references

BARTHES R. Éléments de sémiologie, 1964, English translation Elements of semiology, London, Cape, 1967.

ECO U. Translating and being translated, in Experiences in translation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8020-3533-7, p. 3-63.

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

1 Marías 2000, p. 10.
2 Marías 2001, p. 8.
3 Cited in Eco 2001, p. 6.
4 Cited in Eco 2001, p. 7.
5 Eco 2001, p. 8, added bold.
6 Eco 2001, p. 8.
7 Eco 2001, p. 8.
8 Eco 2001, p. 9.
9 Eco 2001, p. 9.