To judge by its premise, the respected Professor Eco wrote one of the most brilliant books. Many authors before him (George Orwell, e.g.) and including him (Eco, 'On Literature') attempted to answer the question 'how I write', but hardly anyone asked themselves 'How am I being translated into foreign languages, and what do I think about it'. Admittedly, to ask this question one needs to be able to answer it, and without Eco's knowledge of foreign languages it is impossible. If, however, like him, a reader knows at least one more language, apart from his native one, then 'Mouse or Rat?' will be an engaging, at times merely hilarious, reading. Bearing in mind Eco's long-standing research into semiotics of language, literature and philosophy, this monograph of his is at times a curious self-assessment of Eco the linguist, philosopher, writer and, in fact, translator.
This 'personal' aspect must always be remembered. In spite of drawing general conclusions, the book is often an analysis of Eco's own experience in engaging with professionals who translated his works. Eco argues - powerfully and convincingly - that translation is a negotiation between two cultures, and not merely two linguistic systems, which thesis cannot, of course, be regarded as the new word in Translation Studies. Strictly speaking, he does not attempt to formulate any new ideas, and shows great respect to Steiner's `Before the Babel'. His main goal is therefore to illustrate the application of different translation techniques (ekphrasis, rewriting, foreignising and domesticating of the source text, adapting for screen, etc.) to a variety of texts and then to analyse the results from the point of accuracy and equivalence.
As I indicated above, if a reader commands at least one foreign language, then Eco's book will be an interesting reading, not to mention the fact that the reader's awareness of the limitations and opportunities of his first and second languages may become more acute. However, bearing in mind his belonging to the so-called Joycean tradition in literature, one cannot help thinking at times, how much each of Eco's readers benefited from the author's availability for consultation and advice, as it is evident how many gems of the Master's unrivalled erudition could be lost (or, indeed, were lost).
Among the book's most inspirational and engaging passages are the analysis of Joyce's extract from 'Finnegans Wake' and its translation into French and Italian; the analysis of a poem `A Silvia' by Leopardi and its rendering into French; the exploration into the pains of a translator working on Dumas's novels, etc. The only problem the reader may encounter is the layout of the book, mainly the alteration between regular and bold fonts and italics, for purposes of highlighting various instances of translation.
Nevertheless, for an unexperienced reader 'Mouse or Rat?' will possibly be one of the best introductions to Translation and Language Studies, and even to Litetary Criticism. Despite its complexity and the monstrous abundance of examples, its basic idea is terribly simple - besides the knowledge, the key to a successful translation (and, in fact, writing) is one's sensitivity to language. This ability to 'sense' the opportunities and limitations of the source language and of the target language, so as to achieve the best possible equilibrium, makes a translator a true diplomat, a messenger between his own cultural milieu and that of the source text.