Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Umberto Eco and the Curious Case of the Chinese Editor
Chinese character Chinese character
Cultures are still divided, but they are populated with people who want to overcome these differences, with people who want to understand what the "others" understand, according to a recent article by Umberto Eco in L'espresso, an Italian weekly magazine.
Eco comes to this conclusion writing in one of his recent regular columns for L'espresso. The November 9 essay is titled Ma che capirà il cinese? (But what will the Chinese understand?). What caused the world renown Italian scholar to arrive at this hopeful perspective? A recent decision by his Chinese editor to translate an old collection of Eco's columns into Chinese.
In La Bustina di Minerva, the name of the column series, Eco writes for an Italian audience about contemporary life and culture.. As he explains in the recent column, his L'espresso writings are often full of references to topical events and situations in Italy and the Western world. He says some of the pieces can become quickly outdated, and even Italian school children might not understand some of his allusions to old movies and other past generational experiences.
Bewilderment resolved
This, therefore, accounted for his puzzlement over the Chinese editor's decision. Eco runs through a list of some Italian idioms and literary references he has used in his column over the years and expresses doubt that non-Western readers would ever be able to fully understand these things. Nonetheless, he writes, if a Chinese editor wants to invest money to translate Eco's book of old L'espresso essays, then that must mean there is at least a small market of buyers for the writings.
In his contemplation of the surprise of this publishing decision, Eco dips into world history to provide some perspective. He offers two anecdotes about events in the mid 1700s -- one complex, one simple -- to illustrate how in past times, there were strong barriers between cultures. So much so, he says, that it didn't occur to people to be interested in another culture, nor did they even find it desirable.
The simple anecdote is humorous. Eco tells about the response of a public official in Texas who was opposed to the introduction of the study of foreign languages in the schools. "If English was sufficient for our Lord Jesus Christ, it will be sufficient also for us," the man said.
Summing up, Eco writes:
The fact that today a Chinese editor tries impossible translations is a sign of a different attitude. On the other hand, even we translate Chinese authors and who knows what we truly understand of what they say. But it's not important, now we know that they also are talking.
So now an American blogger has told you what an Italian scholar is saying a Chinese editor has told him. As long as I don't get sued for violation of copyright, we're cookin' with gas!
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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