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

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
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.
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.