Eco on Translation
July 30, 2004

I came upon a fantastic Eco portal focusing in on the various writings of Umberto Eco. The one I wanted to bring up was an excellent explanation of the problems of translation and especially quotation. Eco originally wrote it for The Guardian. In it he points out the problems of translating a passage in which the passage's meaning only makes sense in connection to some other text. His example is a person describing a vista in connection to a famous poem.

The quotation appears at that point not because I wanted to tell the reader there was a hedge anywhere nearby, but because I wanted to show how Diotallevi could experience the landscape only by linking it to his experience of the poem. I told my translators that the hedge was not important, nor the reference to Leopardi, but it was important to have a literary reference at any cost. In fact, William Weaver's translation reads: "We glimpsed endless vistas. Like Darien," Diotallevi remarked..." This brief allusion to the Keats sonnet is a good example of target-oriented translation.

Why is this interesting? Well, if you read the whole article you'll note that the translator translated by quoting or paraphrasing an existing poem to capture the role an Italian poem had on the passage. What is so interesting though is that the translator chose not to the poem Eco referenced - Leopardi's "L'infinito" which would be unknown to an American audience - but to a Keats sonnet.

This ought to bring up the obvious issue of apparent quotations in the Book of Mormon to the New Testament before the New Testament was written. i.e. paraphrases of John or Paul. The traditional apologetic explanation is that Paul is himself paraphrasing or quoting some tradition that goes back to the period of Lehi. The example of Eco suggests that in following a "target" translation, the translator may indeed translate by reference to a text the audience may be familiar with but which wasn't the original text referenced.


Posted by: Clark | August 02, 2004 04:17 PM

I just discovered that Eco has a whole book on the topic. Experiences in Translation looks very interesting and likely very relevant to how we view and critique Joseph Smith.

On a perhaps related note over at Dave's Mormon Inquiry there is a thread somewhat related to this. The issue is, as quaintly put by Dave, what did Joseph know and when did he know it? Of course Eco is dealing with more traditional translation where in the translator must know both languages and to some degree both cultures. In this case we have the much more difficult problem wherein someone likely only knows half of that.

Perhaps, if I might be so bold, the fundamental problem is that we can't quite shake off our bias by traditional translations. We assume that Joseph has extra knowledge that makes the translation possible. We listen to his interpretations because we don't consider them the interpretations of "just an other reader" but of an author. We assume that there is some authorial insight we can glean, much as we might listen to Eco speaking on The Name of the Rose looking for insights into that book. But if one buys into the idea of a miraculous translation then there are two translators and Joseph is but one of them. Further one might see Joseph not as an active translator, but as a source trying to help the real translator have a sense of the context to translate the text into. That's not to deny an active role for Joseph, merely move the activity into providing target context. And that is, as I think Eco's essay suggests, anything but a trivial matter.

Posted by: Clark | August 02, 2004 04:24 PM

Oh, one other link that is of worth. Anthony Pym has a good review of Eco's book, suggesting its content and where it goes beyond the above essay. He has an other essay on translation that is also quite interesting, relative to say uses of the sn-sn text to produce a much longer text of Abraham.

Posted by: William Morris | August 02, 2004 05:28 PM

Interesting idea, Clark. I'd never thought of the translation of the Book of Mormon in terms of two translators.

Clearly, the Book of Mormon itself shows that Joseph provided target context [i.e. the New Testment phrasings]. But as you mention, Joseph doesn't know the source language/culture. So the question becomes not only what did he know, but also how did he know it? In what way did he interface with and understand the source text/context (and how deeply immersed was he in it)?

As someone who has translated a couple of texts, I've become well-acquainted with two translation difficulties:

1. Knowing what the words mean on the basic [source word=target word] level -- the 'literal' translation -- both in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but being unable to figure out what they really mean because I lacked the appropriate context.

2. Knowing what the meaning of a text is, but being unable to render them into the target language because the individual words don't quite make sense -- not being able to grasp them and the grammar when I'm trying to break them into syntactical units that would aid with the translation.


So here's a question:

If Joseph Smith was translating by reference, does that change the effectiveness of chiasmus and other Hebraic forms in the text? Couldn't one claim that Joseph picked up those forms by reading the Bible?

Posted by: Clark | August 02, 2004 06:36 PM

That's actually why I liked the poetry quotation that Eco brings up in his essay. It is there that a knowledgeable reader in the target language is so important. Now Eco isn't the best example since he knows English and is well read in it. However consider an equivalent translation effort where the translator has limited faculties in the original language and the author limited faculties in the target language. Now how would they go about translating passages where the meaning has as much to do with a familiar quotation being familiar as it does the words.

With Joseph, perhaps some structural forms that FARMS sometimes brings up as evidence of Hebrew origins are there precisely because the translation needs something to be Biblical in form. Of course while that might explain short fragments, I think extended structures are far more likely to be in the text. So some of the classic examples of Chiasm probably are present in the original Book of Mormon text. Of course I don't personally see chiasms as a particular compelling evidence for BoM origins. But I think they are present and can tell us about the the meaning of the text.

2: Posted By: d-m-c | January 18, 2007 01:27 PM

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