The art of translation

TranslationEvery translation is an act of negotiation.

-Umberto Eco

I only recently saw this quote from the recently deceased Italian novelist, Umberto Eco. He would certainly have known about this first-hand, as his novels, especially his most famous, The Name of The Rose, were translated into numerous languages.

But Eco was also a linguist and semiotician, so he would have especially understood the complexities of taking a work of literature and transforming it into another language. I love his having likened this extremely difficult challenge to an act of negotiation. How true does the translator stay to the original? How may times do choices in translation change the sense of the story? How much back and forth should there be when translators have doubts?

As for me, I am always impressed when I read a beautifully translated novel. I’m glad to see there are so many translators out there skilled in the art of negotiation as they carry out their work.

What do you think, readers and writers?


  1. papershots on November 25, 2016 at 11:43 am

    they used to say that every translation was some sort of “betrayal” of the original, playing on the meaning of the word in Latin. Negotiation is a much better alternative. It’s true anyway that you have to learn to compromise, particularly when you’re translating works of literature, be they prose or poetry.

    • kimberlysullivan on November 28, 2016 at 9:14 am

      Well, yes, betrayal might be harsh (although there are certainly examples of where this was true). But I agree I like the idea of negotiation. Goodness, I didn’t even address poetry – prose is tough enough for translation, but I have no idea how someone can tackle translating poetry and still stay faithful to the original.My hat off to translators of verse… I would never even try.

  2. papershots on November 28, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Translating poetry is tougher but not impossible. and you’re right, hat off to those who try. I attended a workshop years ago on translating poetry and it mainly came down to two things: either you save the musical quality of the original poem (melody, metric, intonation, etc) or, instead, go with its sense and meaning. In very rare cases can a translation save both. And at times it’s the translator’s “genius” or experience that can do the trick; at other times, it really all depends on the two languages and how close or distant they are to each other. Fascinating anyway 🙂

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