Eco was scheduled to discuss his new novel Baudolino, but instead delivered a humorous talk on the difficulties of translation, saying that he had not been informed of the lecture’s topic.
Eco began discussing Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but went on to draw examples from his new book.
“Now we come to Baudolino, because I have to do something in order to deserve my salary,” he quipped.
Eco demonstrated his own linguistic proficiency, citing English, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German translations of his work.
He said it is particularly difficult to translate profanities, saying that vulgar expressions involving God or the saints are more common in Catholic countries such as his native Italy than in America or Germany.
“We are on more intimate terms with divinity,” he joked.
Eco noted that he has less control over the translation of his works into languages he cannot speak.
A “pirate” translation into Arabic of his most famous novel, The Name of the Rose, was in circulation under the title Sex in the Monastery, he said.
Eco continued to entertain the audience through the 20 minutes of questions following his lecture.
When asked whether he could criticize his own writing style for the benefit of the audience, Eco replied, “Yes, I can—but for commercial reasons, I abstain.”
He went on to say that he had been unable to criticize either his own or others’ work since he had started writing novels.
“I am not reliable,” he said.
One audience member asked Eco, who is renowned for the frequency of literary allusion in his works, about his choice for the title of The Name of the Rose.
“I put the title to mislead the reader—which is one of my favorite sports,” the author answered.
After taking questions, Eco chatted with audience members while signing copies of Baudolino which were on sale outside the lecture hall.
A crowd remained outside the door to the lecture hall for the first half of the speech, eager to hear the renowned author.
“I’ve been excited for the last week,” said W. Lucien Smith ’03, who secured a spot inside the lecture hall. “It’s the culmination of my Harvard career.”
“He’s a showman,” said Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Lino Pertile. “It was an enjoyable evening.”
Eco, who received his doctorate at age 22, now holds 23 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He was the English department’s Norton Professor of Poetry for the 1992-3 academic year.
Eco’s talk was co-sponsored by the Harvard Book Store.