Sunday, December 08, 2013

Umberto Eco on the death of William Weaver

Umberto Eco eulogized his translator and friend, William Weaver, in an article that was published on 3 December, 2013 in L'Espresso.

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.
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.

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.

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Anonymous Susan December 08, 2013 10:33 AM  

Words mean things. A basic and simple truth that is being lost in the rotten and poor way our children are being deliberately taught in the government indoctrination centers. Because to know words and their meaning, to understand their fullest implication, is to truly know how to think. Our government just won't stand for that. RIP Mr. Weaver.

Anonymous Susan December 08, 2013 10:43 AM  

Mr Weaver is why I prefer books to reading off a computer. To feel that actual book in your hand, his labor of love, gives you a feeling of pleasure that Kindle, etc just can't achieve. But then I am probably considered "old school" on the subject.

Anonymous TJIC December 08, 2013 10:47 AM  

One of my favorite books is Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hoffstaeder. If you like the way that the pneumatic joke was turned into the philosopher's stone / Firestone joke, you'll be enchanted by the book.

Anonymous jack December 08, 2013 12:00 PM  

Thanks Vox.
I purchased Foucault's Pendulum several weeks ago and am working up to it. I picked up Warbound by Correia when it came out and still have not gotten to it.
Am reading The Harbinger by Rabbi Cahn right now, and its interesting.

Your translations of Eco's works will give me a quick read of the man and his works.
I have yet to sample Eco and look forward to that.

May Mr. Weaver RIP. His eulogie by one such as Eco gives full respect for the man and his scholarship.

Anonymous VD December 08, 2013 12:48 PM  

I purchased Foucault's Pendulum several weeks ago and am working up to it.

Foucault's Pendulum is one of my all-time favorite books. That being said, it starts VERY slowly. Just stick with it. The payoff is worth it. However, I would highly recommend starting with The Name of the Rose. That is just as intelligent and somewhat more accessible.

Eco is a bit of an acquired taste. You will either fail to get him or you will love him. He's the greatest writer of our time, but he is not easy. Not in Italian and not in English. Weaver's translations are superlative.

Anonymous stevev December 08, 2013 12:51 PM  

Great. That's why I come here. To remind myself of my intellectual shortcomings. I've never had a more difficult slog than reading Foucault's Pendulum, and I grew up reading Lewis, G. MacDonald, Tolkien, etc.
Still, a moving tribute to Weaver.
Slinking away... :-)

Blogger Andre B December 08, 2013 1:02 PM  

I remember that during college I acquired a deep emotional distaste for Eco due to one of my teachers' constant praise of him in class. That teacher was also an ardent atheist and every class was little more than a series of excuses to arrive at his favorite subject: Christianity was false. Foucault's Pendulum was his favorite book.

Anonymous VD December 08, 2013 1:10 PM  

I remember that during college I acquired a deep emotional distaste for Eco due to one of my teachers' constant praise of him in class.

Read this bitchslapping of Stephen Hawking. Then this lovely article on humans being religious animals. And then judge him by his own words, not by those of one of his many fans.

I would be horrified if anyone judged Eco by my words, and he has few bigger fans than me. One of the greatest moments of my life was about six years ago when I met him for the second time, in Milano, and he looked at me and said, in Italian: "You didn't speak Italian before. When did you learn it?"

Anonymous jack December 08, 2013 1:30 PM  

The Name of the Rose.
Yes, I will take that advice and dial up Amazon on the keyboard later today. And, of course, your translations. Thanks.

Anonymous bob k. mando December 08, 2013 1:49 PM  

jack December 08, 2013 12:00 PM
I purchased Foucault's Pendulum several weeks ago and am working up to it.

Foucault's Pendulum being concerned with secret societies and the esoteric, you might want to dip your toe by reading some of the books that Eco quotes as chapter headings.

i had read "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" about six months prior to my first reading of Pendulum and it adds a whole layer of depth and interest when you understand the fully expressed lunacy which Eco is critiquing.

there are portions of Blood/Grail in which the authors engage in mutually exclusive conspiracy theories ... on facing pages. it's actually a good read in itself. just not in the way that the authors had intended.

Anonymous Maximo Macaroni December 08, 2013 1:58 PM  

Has anyone ever produced a comprehensible translation of Joyce's Ulysses in Italian? I can't understand or appreciate it in English, so I was hoping it might make some sense in another language.

Anonymous bob k. mando December 08, 2013 2:52 PM  

you might want to consider the commentary of Robert Anton Wilson.

as well, Wilson's "Illuminatus" trilogy is also great prep for reading Foucault's Pendulum. Wilson's knowledge of conspiracy and esoterica is as encyclopedic as the Blood/Grail authors, but he's playing it for laughs.

take everything Wilson says with a grain of salt though:

Blogger Andre B December 08, 2013 4:07 PM  

Thanks for the links, VD. I have actually bought The Name of the Rose and started reading it. Foucault's Pendulum actually seems to be funny without the shadow of mockery that always followed with my teacher's constant praise.

OpenID herenvardo December 08, 2013 4:56 PM  

That bit about translating the joke is just genius!

Apparently, something similar was done by the people who translated the Asterix books into English. The puns are utterly different, but identical at the same time.

Anonymous bob k. mando December 08, 2013 5:02 PM  

do you have any opinion on Alexander Del Mar?

Anonymous VD December 08, 2013 5:10 PM  

do you have any opinion on Alexander Del Mar?

No, I do not.

Anonymous Sensei December 08, 2013 6:22 PM  

It is always il senso profondo del testo that comes first, not il testo literale.

Yes yes, they beat this into our heads during translation classes and I have come to more or less fully agree. Of course when you take this attitude and approach Bible translation it gets complicated very quickly..

I haven't done any intellectually engaging reading since Antifragile, this may be a good time to delve into some Eco.

Anonymous scoobius dubious December 08, 2013 7:37 PM  

"Foucault's Pendulum is one of my all-time favorite books."

Heh. And this guy rattles on and on about literature.

Anonymous automatthew December 09, 2013 1:38 AM  

Vox, is it likely that liking Calvino would translate to loving Eco? I somehow got the impression that Eco is ponderous, where Calvino was frothy. I found If on a winter's night a traveler… brilliant, but ultimately frivolous.

Anonymous Daniel December 09, 2013 2:17 AM  

The first novel I wrote was titled Embracing the Axle-span, which is a play off of The Dream of the Rood in Old English, which is where Weaver undoubtedly tracked down his unworkable "axle-tree" (Dream of the Rood, not my stupid book, obv.) It has its origins in the cross of Christ's crucifixion, and so had to be absolutely tantalizing for Weaver.

The fact that he continued to press beyond the delicious, if oblique, axle-tree, following that up with the far more difficult connection to Firestones is brilliant. Not that I'm surprised. Everything of Eco's I have read in translation. Weaver was a gift.

What can I possibly say? Remarkable.

Likewise for your story of your second encounter. Keep the wife, the view, the empire: the thing I'm green over are your run-ins with Eco. You do realize that the next encounter, your third, is destined to result in your initiation into the Diabolicals, don't you?

The real miracle is how Weaver ended up succeeding so well with Foucault's Pendulum without going mad... or being vanished by Jesuits or Masonic counteragents (aka Amway)...

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