Literary Voices Coming From Italy

During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session titled Translating Dialect Literature. It was presented by a panel composed by Gaetano CipollaJohn DuVal, and Florence Russo and moderated by Joseph Perricone.

During the introduction, Mr. Perricone clarified that "dialect" wasn't an accurate word because it had some negative connotations, as if each dialect were a corrupt version of the main language. "They are languages in their own right," he argued, and the panelists nodded in agreement before talking about their respective specializations.


The first one to present his material was Mr. Cipolla, expert in Sicilian language, who commented on his translations of poet Giovanni Meli (Palermo, 1740-1815) in Favuli morali, available in English in "Moral Fables and Other Poems." He highlighted L’aquila e lu reiddu and explained how the word reiddu indicates both a type of bird from Sicily, which translates into "kinglet" and also "young king," as in reuccio.

Giving the audience some context, as he had already explained in his book "Siciliana: Studies on the Sicilian Ethos," Mr. Cipolla said that the fable is about electing a new king among birds. Candidates would be tested on intelligence and other qualities, but the eagle proposed a strength test, convinced that it would win because it is the most powerful of the group. It was then agreed that the new king would be the one that flew the highest. However, without anyone noticing, a tiny kinglet had nested comfortably on top of the eagle's head, and technically ended up being the bird that had flown highest, thus being declared the winner.

In his translation, Mr. Cipolla superbly combined the idea of the bird becoming the king by rhyming "kinglet" with "king elect." Still, he assures that coming to such a solution wasn't simple and, in fact, it took some time for him to successfully achieve both meaning and sound.

READ MORE: Andrea Camilleri and Tullio de Mauro's Il dialetto è cosa seria [Dialect is a Serious Matter]

Next on the panel was Mr. DuVal, who presented Er giorno der giudizzio a sonnet by Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863). He read the Romanesco version, followed by three translations in English. He said Harold Norse's version, found in "The Roman Sonnets of G. G. Belli," had a "New York accent," while Miller Williams' translation in "Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli" was flawless from a grammar perspective. Williams also seems to be more "politically correct" by avoiding the terms "black souls" and "white souls" by referring to them as "bad souls" and "good souls."

He concluded his reading with an English translation of "A Clockwork Orange" author Anthony Burgess, found in "Abba Abba." The writer made use of his poetic license, translating the meaning and rhyming, while being free with sentence structure, adding onomatopoeia and keeping Bona sera at the end of the poem.

Then it was Ms. Russo's turn to speak, and she opened her part of the session by emphasizing that the Italian dialects presented "are not corruptions of Italian and, by historical accident, are wrongly classified as such."

She then presented three other versions of Belli's Er giorno der giudizzio, which appeared in a section called "Dueling Translators" in the Journal of Italian Translation edited by Brooklyn College. She read the work of her colleagues Peter D’Epiro and Charles Martin, as well as her own, explaining that she decided to forego rhyme to highlight an accurate meaning in her version.

Before concluding the presentation, Ms. Russo read some Neapolitan poetry by Antonio de Curtis, aka Totò (1898-1967), a multi-faceted Italian entertainer. Ms. Russo said that, while he is best known for his comedy work, he was also a great Neapolitan author who deserves recognition in translation. After she read the original verses of La filosofia del cornuto, Mr. Cipolla read his English translation of the poem and explained his struggles to accurately render all the colorful comedy Totò created around the figure of a cuckold.

READ MORE: Gloria Bianchi's review of this very same session, in Italian, for the ATA's Italian Language Division (ILD)

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).