Umberto Eco eulogized his translator and friend, William Weaver, in an article that was published on 3 December, 2013 in L'Espresso.
This is not only an affectionate tribute to a great translator, but wonderful advice that I hope everyone who is translating one of my books into another language will keep in mind. It is always il senso profondo del testo that comes first, not il testo literale.After ninety years, the last ten of them reduced to a quasi-vegetable state, William Weaver is no more. He was a great translator, and one could say that it was primarily through his merits that our contemporary literature is known and loved in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Born in Virginia, a conscientious objector but unable to ignore the grand conflict that was underway, he enlisted in the Second World War as an ambulance driver. He served with the English forces throughout the entire Italian campaign, facing danger without ever holding a rifle in his hands. From Naples to Rome, he made friends with many Italian writers of the era, and from then on, he never left our country.Thus it was that he came to translate Pirandello (One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand and The Late Mattia Pascal), Zeno's Conscience by Svevo, That Awful Mess and Acquainted with Grief by Gadda, two-thirds of Calvino's works, The Monkey's Wrench and If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi, The Sunday Woman by Fruttero and Lucentini, History and Aracoeli by Elsa Morante, Incubus by Berto, A Violent Life by Pasolini, as well as Cassola, Calasso, De Carlo, Malerba, La Capria, Parise, Soldati, Alba de Cespedes, Festa Campanile. He also translated A Man and Inshallah by Oriana Fallaci.
In addition, from 1981 to 2003 he translated four of my novels and many of my essays. For twenty intense years, it was a splendid collaboration, in which we could spend afternoons, or exchange two or three letters, on a single word. If the culture has lost a great writer, I have lost a friend. Weaver was a great translator, not only because he sought to accurately render the fluidity, the rhythm, the lexical richness, and the sound of the text. (From my perspective, he sometimes improved upon my original.) He was a great translator because he also knew that to translate the meaning, one must dare to reject the literal translation in order to conserve the effect or the deeper sense of the text. For reasons of space, I am limited to relating one amusing memory, of a time in which we tore the text apart in order to render a simple play on words, a wordplay that was already difficult for Italian readers.
Bill was translating my Foucault's Pendulum. He arrived at a point in which two protagonists, obsessed with the world of the occult, found a mysterious symbol tied to the transmission system in automobiles. To demonstrate, in an ironic manner, their propensity to think that every aspect of the world, every word written or spoken, does not have the sense it appears, an allusion to the axle of the Sephirot of the Kabbalah was made.For the English translator this allusion presented difficulties from the start, because in English there is a difference between a “tree” (vegetable and cabalistic), and the axle (automobile), but after foraging through the dictionary, Weaver discovered that the expression “axle-tree” was legitimate. Nevertheless, he found himself in a predicament when the two characters then engaged in a certain word play that involved the gnostic pneumatics, (the spirits opposite the somatics, that are immaterial), and the pneumatics of a car. It was a joke, but the protagonists were simply making jokes.However, in English, the rubber upon which an automobile's wheels roll are not “pneumatics”, but rather, “tires”. What to do? Weaver, as he recounts in his translation diary, Pendulum Diary, was struck by a brilliant notion when he remembered the name of a celebrated brand of tires: Firestone. It occurred to him that one might draw an association between that name and the English expression “philosopher's stone” of alchemic lore. The solution was found and the English text therefore describes how the sightless occultists did not succeed in finding the true connection between the philosopher's stone and Firestone.As one can see, he turned the gag into something different than the original. The translator must render the deeper sense of the text, one that is not “the protagonists speak of tires”, but rather, “the protagonists are students who play foolishly with the universal knowledge”.As the Prince of Laughter once said, translators are born. And Bill was a born translator.
Speaking of translations, I've translated eleven or twelve of Eco's online articles that aren't otherwise available in English. If you are a fan of his, you can find them here.