Guest Blog: Seven Things to Remember When Translating a Foreign Classic into English
By David Gibbons
The early English translations of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel I promessi sposi are in many ways an object lesson in how not to do things. The six versions published between 1828 and 1845 are valiant attempts, but all of them include some pretty major clangers. Based on years spent looking, and laughing, at them, here’s a tongue-in-cheek list of tips I have compiled for aspiring translators.
1. Use the dictionary judiciously. The first of my translators, Reverend Charles Swan, when bemused by the Italian word “ceto” (meaning “social class”), did what most of us would do under the circumstances: he looked it up. Unfortunately Baretti’s dictionary gives only a secondary definition for the term, related to the more common “cetaceo” in Italian, which is … “whale”. Hence when Swan’s readers are informed that “besides having recourse to other methods, he assumed the livery of some potent family, some leviathan, whose vanity or interest was then gaged in his defence”, they should be advised that Manzoni was not in fact having a random Moby Dick moment. Honest
2. Remember that different languages have different rules about word order. It is not just words that differ between two languages, it is also the way in which those words are put together. Specifically, not every language has the subject-verb-object word order that English has; in the Romance languages the subject can quite happily come after the verb. Our friend the Reverend sometimes forgot this, however; which is why, when Manzoni writes that “the fairest moonlight was shining” (“batteva la più bella luna del mondo”), Swan’s “he battered the finest moon in the world”, doesn’t, erm, quite capture the full significance …
3. Don’t rely uncritically on other translations. At one point the anonymous translator responsible for the version published by Longman in 1845 adds a note saying: “Here, in the original, is an untranslatable play upon the word pulizia, which signifies both police and cleanliness”. Whoever was responsible for this translation copied the note word-for-word from the first French translation of Manzoni’s novel by Rey Dussueil in 1828. Unfortunately, though, no such play on words exists; and the putative connection between cleanliness and the police force is – only in this limited sense, of course – entirely spurious.
4. A single letter can make a large difference. Similar in some ways to the example above, the same translator failed to look closely enough when she/he found the phrase “il sedicente Ambrogio Fusella” in Manzoni, thinking the term “sedicente”, or “self-styled” was in fact “seducente”, or “seductive”. Okay, it was only one vowel that was different; but if you ever happen to read this translation, and come across the passage which says that “this seducing Ambrogio Fusella was, as our host had said, a disguised informer”, do bear in mind that the original was not quite as James Bond as it might sound.
5. Choose carefully what edition you use. Another anonymous translator, whose version was published by James Burns in 1844, generally speaking did a very good job, producing the most faithful and accurate of the early translations of Manzoni’s novel. Unfortunately, though, he/she used a pirate edition of the novel, published by Baudry in Paris in 1827. This would not matter, were it not for the fact that this unauthorized edition contains certain variants which the author himself then revised before the official publication; Manzoni had passed the manuscript to his French translator before it was finished, to allow him to progress with the work so the novel could be published in Paris and Milan more or less simultaneously. The translator, though, handed them straight to Baudry, who brought out his own edition without compunction. Hence if you read in this version that the superintendent of provisions, whose house was under siege during the 1628 Milan food riots, heard the furious mob relentlessly approaching and “at last, in absolute despair, […] sank down upon the floor, and remained terrified and almost insensible, expecting his own death”, don’t expect to find anything of the kind in the authorized version of the original.
6. If you have to leave things out, choose carefully what to omit. The second translation, traditionally ascribed to Andrews Norton and published in the United States in 1834 (then revised and published by Bentley in London the same year), is an abridgement as well as a translation. Hence the translator excises large chunks of material, raising interesting questions as to the centrality or otherwise of what was thought to constitute a digression (a question which considerably exercised Manzoni himself). However, many of the phrases located between brackets were felt to be expendable for the same reason, when they in fact contain the narrator’s ironic asides, cudgelling and cajoling the reader towards the conclusions he wanted them to reach. In this way, one of the main characters in the novel – the omniscient narrator – emerges considerably reshaped and downsized.
7. Think twice before adding comments of your own. Often a translator is tempted to add the odd note of their own, to explain certain references or occasionally venture an opinion. Reverend Swan shows commendable restraint in this sense throughout most of his translation. When confronted with a particular proverb, though (“would you find many to help you? stand in no need of them”), he can help himself no longer. A fateful asterisk sends us to the bottom of the page, where we find the following astonishing outburst: “This proverb ought to be the first that the infant utters. It should be burnt into his heart with a red iron; stamped upon his hands, and brow, and upon every conspicuous part of his body. His gingerbread should smack of it; and his toys all be contrived to speak it. Cram him, till his ‘gorge rises.’ If he forget for a single moment, flog him; flog him till the blood run. Better that he should weep then, than lament all his future life!”. Perhaps he would have done better to keep his own counsel.
David Gibbons is a translator and researcher based in northern Italy. His publications include a book on Metaphor in Dante (Legenda, 2002), and he was one of the main translators of Leopardi’s Zibaldone, recently published by FSG and Penguin. He writes what he likes, when he likes at http://scribblingforfun.wordpress.com/.