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Is Localization a Mouse or a Rat?

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Arle Lommel, LISA Publications ManagerMany of us know Umberto Eco for books such as The Name of the Rose and Foucalt’s Pendulum, both of which were international best sellers, translated into dozens of languages. Aside from his career as an author of best sellers, Eco is professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and one of the best-known thinkers about language and literature. Recently, Eco turned his attention to translation with Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (2003, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Mouse or Rat? is an entertaining and informative look at the role of negotiation in translation, with a focus on Eco’s experience with the translation of his own fiction and scholarly works. The examples Eco cites are, in some cases, mind-numbingly complex (how many times do we have to preserve subtle allusions to medieval literature in a dozen different languages?), but there is a certain clarity to be gained by looking at extremes. The issues Eco sees in stark clarity represent the same sorts of things we deal with, often without realizing that we are dealing with them. For fans of Eco, this book is a must read. While the book does not achieve the profundity of some of Eco’s other scholarly work, it is well worth the cover price and will introduce many important concepts in a way that can help readers understand the intricacies of localization and translation.

The title of Mouse or Rat? refers to the dilemma of a translator trying to translate rat from Italian into English. At first glance, it might seem an easy issue: rat = ratto (as apposed to mouse = topo), but the issue really isn’t so simple, for while ratto may denotatively mean the same thing as rat, the connotations are different. Take the case of a translator facing How now? A rat? in Hamlet. Here Hamlet has detected Polonius hiding behind a curtain and cries out that he has detected a contemptible person or a spy, but also plays with the idea of someone being startled by the appearance of an unwelcome rodent guest in a bedroom. If we just take the rat = ratto route, we would end up with the translation Cosa c’è? Un ratto?; however, every Italian translator Eco knows of has translated the phrase as Cosa c’è? Un topo? or (literally) How now? A mouse?. In this case, Eco says, topo is, in fact, the proper translation of rat, because it evokes the idea of an unwelcome rodent that frightens people, that is speedy, etc. The size of the rat doesn’t matter, but other aspects such as speed, propensity to frighten people, etc. do.

On the other hand, even though ratto is not the term generally used for rat in Italian (topo is used for both mice and rats in general parlance), if one is translating Camus’ La peste, ratto is obligatory since the distinction between a mouse and rat is vital in discussing the Black Death in Europe (the plague was spread by rats, as distinct from mice).

In each case, a decision of which word to use is made that requires some information to be lost (size of the rodent, distinction from other similar rodents, etc.), while other information is preserved in the translation. It is in this sense that Eco uses negotiation: something must be lost for something else to be gained, and the basis for the negotiation is generally not within the text itself, but rather in factors external to the language of the text. Although in the Globalization, Internationalization, Localization and Translation (GILT) industry we are generally dealing with texts that try to control language, such issues are never entirely eliminated, and we frequently deal with materials, such as marketing collateral, where these issues are at the forefront. What might seem like theoretical pondering on Eco’s part can have real impact on how we conduct business. Not least, an awareness of the negotiated nature of all translation can help us get past the “localization = just as if it were created in the target locale” mantra that we state far too often. When we localize, we are interested in preserving certain aspects of a text, such as content meaning, but we are not really interested in completely rewriting an American-style manual to suit Japanese, Arabic or Chinese rhetorical structure.

To illustrate the fact that most of what is negotiated is not fundamentally linguistic in nature, Eco takes the now obligatory step of showing examples from on-line MT systems (using the beginning of the book of Genesis from the King James English version of the Bible and translating it into various languages) and then discussing why they fail or succeed:

If one received the different versions of Genesis provided by Babelfish, one would guess that they were translations of the King James text – and not, let us say, bad versions of the first adventure of Harry Potter. And if someone who had never heard of the Bible read these versions, I think that even such a naive reader would in some way realise that these texts deal with a God who created a world (even if it would be very difficult to understand what the hell He actually made).

Eco’s conclusion, which is hardly revolutionary (having been made by Alan Melby in The Possibility of Language, for example) is that “in order to translate, one must know a lot of things, most of them independent of mere grammatical competence.” This conclusion, however, leads Eco to view the real task of translation as not just making a text say the same thing as another text (whatever that may mean), but rather the task of negotiating a position within intertextual and intercultural space:

Between the purely theoretical argument that, since languages are differently structured, translation is impossible, and the commonsensical acknowledgement that people, in this world, after all, do translate and understand each other, it seems to me that the idea of translation as a process of negotiation (between author and text, between author and readers, as well as between the structure of two languages and the encyclopaedias of two cultures) is the only one that matches our experience.

Controlled language, terminology lists and many other language technologies are attempts to minimize the negotiative aspects of translation, and they work by effectively pre-negotiating many issues before translation begins—items subject to debate are decided before they become an issue so they do not need to be dealt with as unique cases in every instance. For example, if we were localizing a text on plague prevention and fixed a terminology list with rat = ratto, we would have simply decided in advance that we wanted to emphasize certain possibilities for rat, and this pre-negotiation would keep the issue from becoming a problem. So, although in the GILT industry we may be tempted to say that we don’t face the same issues of negotiation as our colleagues doing literary translation, we do in fact deal with them. Our substantial investment in ways to control them tells us how vital effective negotiation is for our efforts.

As mentioned before, the basis for most negotiation is not in language itself. This allows us to distinguish between errors and problems that aren’t errors, but which may still need consideration. Eco uses the following as an example of an error:

Another time, in the translation of a psychology book, I found that, in the course of an experiment, “l’ape riuscì a prendere la banana posta tuori dall sua gabbia aiutandosi con un bastone”, that is: a bee succeeded in grasping a banana lying outside its cage with the help of a stick.

In this instance, English ape was simply transferred across to Italian as ape ‘bee,’ clearly an error. This would clearly be an error in any localization, and the client would be quite right to demand that the text be fixed at the translator’s expense, and, if such errors were endemic, to withhold payment on the grounds that the translation was simply wrong. However, in most cases when someone is dissatisfied with a localization, it is not on such simple grounds, but rather due to problems with style, tone, or similar characteristics. This is where Eco’s topic becomes especially useful to those of us in the GILT industry—by understanding the negotiated nature of much of what we do, we can be fix problems before they occur. If we all took time to specify what we expect of our translated texts, and to make sure those expectations match reality and our needs, we would see fewer disputes. Every time a client asks for a “perfect” translation or a vendor promises “perfection,” without specifying what this means in practical terms, we run the very real risk of disagreement about whether the results meet the standard of perfection that was requested and promised.

Mouse or Rat? is an enjoyable read that raises questions vital to the work we do in the GILT field, but which we far too often ignore. Written with Eco’s characteristic wit and erudition, the book may not be revolutionary in its implications, but taking its premise seriously would lead to better localizations with less stress and less disagreement.

Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation is available online from Amazon UK and at booksellers in the U.K. A U.S. edition has not been announced as of the time of this review.

Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
18 February 2004, Volume XIII, Issue 1.2.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider:, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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