Umberto Eco wrote his short, satirical piece “Come viaggiare con un salmone” (“How to travel with a salmon”) in 1986; the piece was later included in his Secondo diario minimo (Bompiani Club, 1992) and other collections; and later translated and published in the volume How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays (Harvest Book, September 1995).

The piece tells about complications that arise when the narrator, apparently Eco’s alter ego, tries to stuff a piece of smoked salmon into the mini-bar of his hotel room in London. I happened to read it in English, especially enjoying the tense finale, when the narrator gets into a heated discussion with the hotel staff and asks for a lawyer, but they bring him an avocado and this was supposed to be funny. But was it?
(Text: I asked for a lawyer, and they brought me an avocado.)

Then I realized that, in order for this otherwise cryptic joke to work, the reader must know that lawyer in Italian is avvocato, which sounds very similar to avocado in both Italian and English; and then assume that the obviously Italian narrator has asked – in English – for an “advocate” or “avocate” or even an “avvocato” having a lawyer in mind; at which point the hotel staff, who speak English only, must have assumed the guest is asking for an avocado.

With this interpretation in mind, which seemed quite clever to me, I went to check the original Italian version of the piece and see how Eco had put the pun in Italian. To my astonishment, I found that, what had been rendered as avocado in English had actually been a mango in Italian:

Ho chiesto un avvocato e mi hanno portato un mango.

Now, given that the exchange narrated in Italian by Eco is presumably taking place in English, in a hotel in London, it isn’t clear why the hotel staff will bring the mango to someone asking for a lawyer, or even for an avocado.

At this point I realized that what I found so funny, in the English version, was in need of an explanation, because the English text wasn’t mirroring or otherwise conveying any pun in the Italian source, given that such a joke didn’t exist in first place.

To ask for a lawyer and to be given a mango isn’t such a great joke – there is no special relationship between lawyers and mangoes; and there is certainly no pun to be found.

On the other hand, the English version that plays on the relationship between the Italian word avvocato and the Italian and English word avocado is quite funny; but it relies on the assumption that the reader of the English text knows that the lawyer in Italian is called avvocato.

It looks as if the English translator added to Eco’s text an element of wordplay that would only have worked, if it had existed in the original as well, or against an “Italian” background. Since the original has no such thing – we have to deal with a singular pun in English that only works if the reader assumes that it has come up in the source language (even though, as we already saw, it hasn’t); or, alternately, if the reader assumes that the narrator is Italian and, as such, likely to call the lawyer “advocate” or with a similar word, a false friend, in order for the hotel staff to get confused. In both cases, the English text seems to expect a bit too much from the English reader, because it refers to a phantomatic discursive incident, which is located neither in Italian, nor in English, but in the relational space between the two languages.

After I looked at the French translation of the same piece (at Comment voyager avec un saumon, Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1997), and found that, there too, the hotel personnel seemed to have confused the lawyer with a mango (J’ai demandé un avocat, on m’a apporté une mangue), I was at least able to come up with a few – admittedly conjectural – explanations of this unusual occurrence.

Quite possibly the avocado in the English version was added by the translator William Weaver, because he found the related pun irresistible; and maybe after asking for Eco’s permission (he passed away two years ago, so I cannot ask him directly; but Eco is known to stay in touch with the translators of his works and allow for changes in the source, if he finds these changes reasonable).

Another possible explanation would be that the joke was invented by Eco in Italian, but his avocado got replaced, at the last minute, by an overzealous copyeditor, who hadn’t heard of avocados or who thought that the fruit should be called mango in Italian – after all, avocados weren’t that much known in Italy in 1986, when the piece was published for the first time.

Eco could then have learned about this confusion later and “corrected” the text as it was being translated into English; whereas the French translated it directly from the Italian copy and left the mango in place. However, the French version of this piece makes the first explanation more likely.





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