Umberto Eco, Lost (and Found) in Translation

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK: HOT WARS AND MEDIA POPULISM By Umberto Eco Harcourt, 369 pages, $27 Umberto Eco, the Italian

By Umberto Eco
Harcourt, 369 pages, $27

Umberto Eco, the Italian medievalist, novelist and semiotician—“generalist,” if I may be so crude—has spent some time of late thinking about, and through, translation. Successful translation, he argued in Mouse or Rat? (2004), is a matter of negotiation, of bargaining away certain aspects of the original’s meaning as the necessary expense of preserving favored others. In Turning Back the Clock, a collection of charming, bite-size missives from the millennial trenches of “Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi,” the good-faith give-and-take of the conscientious translator becomes “the very base of cultural life”—it’s what allows us to “bring our diverging interpretations to a point of convergence … that enables us to deal with a Fact.”

This view of translation as negotiation (and negotiation as translation) is admirably catholic (like Christopher Hitchens’ small-“p” protestantism, Mr. Eco’s religious predilections are all the more pious for being unsullied by God), but it also rather misses the point illuminated by Turning Back the Clock. Indeed, more than mere metaphor for our multicultural, hyperlinked, dual-cored world, what translation does most reliably is apply a certain patina of profundity to everything it touches. The logic is, in its own way, unassailable: Text worth turning into another language must contain meaning that’s, well, meaningful.

William Weaver—by all accounts the greatest English–Italian translator of our time—was sadly too ill for the job, so Alastair McEwen inherited the task of anglicizing the 40-odd newspaper columns that comprise Turning Back the Clock. An essay titled “On Political Correctness” from an October 2004 issue of La Repubblica gives some sense of the work cut out for the translator: “Wikipedia,” writes Eco (via McEwan), “observes that in some African American juvenile gangs the kids make brazen use of the term nigger, but naturally you’re in trouble if you use it when you’re not one of them—a bit like jokes about Jews, Scots, or the Irish, which can only be told by Jews, Scots, or the Irish.”

Oh, dear, those juvenile gangs and their brazen use! It seems hardly worth noting that no English-speaking Left intellectual of Mr. Eco’s public stature would get away with committing such insipid obviousness to paper; those who do—I’m thinking here of Stanley Fish’s recent cringe-inducing Times jeremiad against Starbucks—get their comeuppances swiftly and humiliatingly and sometimes even on blogs.

And that, in a tall hazelnut half-caf, is the power of translation: Mr. Eco’s utterly pedestrian conclusion—that American-style p.c. proprieties obscure real inequities and are just as likely to be redeployed by the Right—gains all sorts of appeal precisely because the translation reveals him as an Italian curious about us (and presumably wikipeding the term “nigga”). Like any adolescent civilization, we’re fascinated by looking glasses, even if they’re funhouse-distorted.


TURNING BACK THE Clock is among the season’s sprightlier works of nonfiction. Originally written between 2000 and 2005 for a general (Italian) audience, its sometimes says those post-9/11 things still taboo in our own papers of record: “Kamikazes and Assassins,” for instance, is among the cleanest arguments yet that suicide bombing is, at base, a mental-health issue. But the New World reader may ultimately find Mr. Eco most reassuring when he turns to his own country’s buffoonery. In his telling, Silvio Berlusconi sounds like some Frankenstein amalgamation of Bush, Murdoch and Trump—and yet they’ve gotten rid of him, haven’t they? Perhaps, then, “turning back the clock” (a reference to this decade’s resurgence of real territorial wars and Crusader rhetoric) is just an aging historian’s wishful/morbid thinking, notably reminiscent of the sad-sack academics who just missed ’68 in Foucault’s Pendulum, Mr. Eco’s masterwork, first published nearly 20 years ago.

The only irredeemably weak section of the new book is “Foreigners and Us,” a series of L’espresso articles that really are quite embarrassing, however you translate them. “Bush doesn’t know,” Mr. Eco wrote in 2005, “that in Italy people say out of politeness ‘Call me, and we’ll get together’ or ‘Next time you’re in the neighborhood come for dinner,’ when they have no intention of seeing that person again. Berlusconi promised him something, and Bush thought he meant it, while our prime minister was just talking, working on the principle that verba volant.”

Right. Americans are simple and sociable and keep all their vague promises. Maybe for his next book, Professor Eco should skip Wikipedia and poke around Facebook.


Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens. Umberto Eco, Lost (and Found) in Translation