THE NAME OF THE ROSE was the fiction debut of the Italian author Umberto Eco. A murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, it’s one of the most popular books ever written. More than fifty million copies have been sold worldwide, and it was made into a very successful film starring Sean Connery.

‘Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ – Eco was an eminent professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, so it’s unsurprising that his novel is multi-layered, multilingual, and full of intertextual allusions to other works and writers, notably Jorge Luis Borges and Sherlock Holmes. The central premise [*spoiler alert* – death by poisoned book] also features in Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel LA REINE MARGOT, and in the Chinese erotic classic JIN PING MEI (translated by Clement Egerton and Lao She in 1939 as THE GOLDEN LOTUS, and by David Tod Roy in 1993 as THE PLUM IN THE GOLDEN VASE).

Eco’s linguistic interests also extended to translation. His lectures on the subject are collected in EXPERIENCES IN TRANSLATION (tr. Alastair McEwen), and MOUSE OR RAT? TRANSLATION AS NEGOTIATION, for which no translator is named, so we must assume that Eco wrote these Oxford lectures in English. Eco also translated two books from the French: SYLVIE (Gérard de Nerval) and EXERCISES DE STYLE (Raymond Queneau).

We’ve already met the distinguished William Weaver, translator of THE NAME OF THE ROSE, in #TA60 1981 (with Italo Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER). Weaver earned substantial royalties from translating Eco; they enabled him to build an extension to his farmhouse in Tuscany which he called his ‘Eco chamber’.


How many children’s books have (for better or worse) changed the course of political history? JENNY LIVES WITH ERIC AND MARTIN, written by Susanne Bösche and illustrated by Andreas Hansen, was probably the first children’s book to feature openly gay parents. Bösche has said she wrote the book, in which a patchwork family is depicted leading a perfectly normal life, ‘because I became aware of the problems which some children face when meeting family groupings different from the ones they are familiar with’. Louis Mackay’s English translation, from the original Danish, was published in the UK in 1983.

Three years later, inaccurate newspaper reports that children were being allowed to access the book in a school library led to it being branded homosexual propaganda, condemned in Parliament, and cited in the passing of the controversial Section 28 law. (In fact, only one copy had been purchased by one school, and this was available only to teachers.) Section 28 stated that local governments and schools should ‘not intentionally promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Council libraries were unable to stock books and films with LGBT+ themes, and teachers were prohibited from talking about same-sex relationships. Section 28 remained in force for fifteen years before it was finally repealed across the UK.

A final notable entry for 1983: WOMAN AT POINT ZERO by the Egyptian author, psychiatrist and feminist activist Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata. The novel is based on a series of encounters between el Saadawi and Firdaus, an inmate in Egypt’s largest women’s prison, while the author was researching a non-fiction work about women and neurosis. Firdaus was condemned to hang for murdering a man. El Saadawi’s retelling of her story highlights the oppression and subjugation of women in Egyptian society.

I leave you with a quote from Michael Hofmann’s review of Eco’s MOUSE OR RAT? :

‘In the English-speaking world (ha!), there is very little empathy with translators. Most readers don’t have any experience of translating, or indeed of another language at a serious level. […] The background of such ignorance and lack of experience has left an odd nimbus or whiff around translation. People don’t know how to talk about it, and so they don’t like to talk about it. Translation is perceived either in terms of clarity and faithfulness (Eco does it too), or in terms of mistakes, which is banal, because everyone makes mistakes. […] But really, there is no mystery. If you have a good time with a book, praise the author; if you have a good time with a paragraph, praise the translator (as well).’






SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH was selected by the Arab Literary Academy as the most important Arab novel of the 20th century, and is frequently cited as one of the most important post-colonial works in any language. Eminently readable for its beautiful prose and narrative intensity, the metaphorical exploration of the relationship between colonial powers and their victims and the politics of desire between black men and white women invites comparison with Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS and the work of Frantz Fanon.

The Sudanese author, Tayeb Salih, also worked as a journalist and broadcaster. He was fluent in both English and Arabic, and wrote SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH in Arabic. Published in Beirut in 1966 to immediate acclaim, it appeared in English in 1969 in a translation by Denys Johnson-Davies, whom Edward Said described as ‘the leading Arabic-English translator of our time’. Over the course of his 70-year career, the indomitable Johnson-Davies championed many great contemporary Arab authors, introducing them to anglophone publishers and readers for the first time. You can read more about his life and work here and in his memoir, MEMORIES IN TRANSLATION.

The unnamed narrator of SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH returns to his home village in Sudan after seven years of study in England. He is intrigued by a new villager, the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, who speaks good English. Gradually Sa’eed relates the story of his murky past, including his calamitous and sometimes deadly relationships with women. The book was banned in Sudan for several years from 1989 because of its graphic sexual imagery.

Another great gift to the English-speaking world in 1969 was the first of the Asterix comics, ASTERIX THE GAUL, superbly translated from the French by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The ASTERIX series, created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, has had phenomenal international success, thanks in no small part to the ingenuity of its translators. The albums are available in more than 100 languages and dialects, including Sinhalese, Esperanto and Swabian. Most volumes have been translated into Latin and Ancient Greek, with accompanying guides for language teachers.

Bell and Hockridge are widely acclaimed for their skill in rendering the puns and wordplay of the original French into English, often finding solutions that are even funnier than the original, as with the renaming of the characters. The little dog Idéfix (idée fixe) transforms satisfyingly into Dogmatix, while the druid Panoramix is unforgettably reincarnated (at the height of hippy culture) as Getafix. Meanwhile, in Italian (tr. Marcello Marchesi, Luciana Marconcini, Alba Avesini et al.), Obelix’s famous mantra ‘These Romans are crazy’ becomes ‘Sono pazzi questi romani’ – which, presumably, was why Roman legionaries bore the standard ‘SPQR’. 😉