Translating Women in Early Modern England: Gender in the Elizabethan Versions of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso

Selene Scarsi (2010)

Ashgate Publishing Ltd.: Farnham, pp. 218, £55.00

Reviewed by: Stefania Arcara

Selene Scarsi's Translating Women in Early Modern England: Gender in the Elizabethan Versions of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso is a scrupulous, well-organized, in-depth and detailed scholarly study offering a valuable contribution to the field of Translation Studies and to that of Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies, in whose Ashgate series the volume is appropriately placed. On the other hand, it would be problematic, despite its curiously misleading title, to situate this book in the area of Gender Studies. Extremely accurate close text readings, comparing the verses of the three Italian poets with their Elizabethan translations constitute the main substance of the volume. The criterion for selecting the passages to be compared is that they relate to female characters, mainly Ariosto's and Tasso's female knights; the author also deals with the theme of eroticism in passages from Boiardo's Innamorato and examines various translations and adaptations of Ariosto's story of Ariodante and Ginevra.

As is to be expected in a study focusing on close textual reading, considerable emphasis is placed on formal aspects, linguistic elements and stylistic choices. The aims of this methodical and meticulous textual operation, and the conclusions that are drawn from it, are many and diversified: comparing different translating strategies and techniques; evaluating to what extent a translation is "faithful" and even "beautiful"; determining if, and how, a translator has caught, respected or conveyed what Scarsi repeatedly calls the "spirit" of the original. Scarsi's analysis also points to the fact that "the borders between translation and creative imitation/adaptation are ... blurred" (p. 3), thus confirming the notion of translation as re-writing. This notion - as is well known from decades of Translation Studies - goes in the direction of overcoming the rigid "original" vs "copy" dichotomy. In the first Part of the volume, devoted to the textual analysis of Sir John Harington's Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse and his treatment of the figures of Bradamante, Marfisa and others, Scarsi compellingly demonstrates the extent of the translator's misogyny (revealed by his innumerable additions, modifications and omissions), thus confirming once more how translation as re-writing often means ideological manipulation.

The uncovering of the misogynistic aspects of Harington's translating strategies is the place in the book where Scarsi comes closest to offering a contribution to Renaissance Women's Studies. The section on Harington's Furioso is indeed the volume's most original achievement: through the evidence of her extensive line-by-line comparisons, Scarsi is able to challenge the myth of Harington's "faithfulness". She convincingly proves that Ariosto's irony is blatantly misunderstood by his translator throughout the text and she also engages with, and successfully contests, some recent Anglo-American Renaissance criticism whose tendency is to read Harington as the original text, sometimes with little or no knowledge of Ariosto's Italian masterpiece. In the second Part of the volume the author offers, to use her own words, "a thorough comparison" of the translating techniques of two other Elizabethan translators, Carew and Fairfax, both engaged with Tasso's Liberata. This analysis, also carried out on passages relating to female characters in the poem, serves to prove the quality or the weakness of the translators' differing methods, while showing as well the mediating influence that Spenser had on Fairfax. As the author interestingly points out, this influence reveals the extent and complexity of intertextuality in Elizabethan literature. Scarsi also touches upon a lesser known aspect of Renaissance translation: the fact that translations served at times as tools for language learning, which may have been the case, she argues, with Carew's five-canto translation of the Liberata, published in a parallel text edition. In Part Three, with the Chapter "Spenser's Ariosto", this study also throws light, again with a wealth of evidence from textual readings, on Spenser's creative ability in his imitative process and in his adaptations of Ariostean elements in the Faerie Queene.

s we proceed from the first part of the volume, dealing with Harington's Furioso, through the second part, centred on Tasso's translators, to the third and last part - mainly, but not solely, devoted to Tofte's Boiardo, and Tofte's and Spenser's Ariosto - the focus on translation as ideological manipulation (and the attempt to culturally contextualise the translators' representation of female characters) seems to weaken, and the aim of the analysis increasingly shifts to that of evaluating the "quality" and "faithfulness" of one translation/adaptation/imitation as compared to another; and more emphasis is placed on the aesthetic value of certain stylistic choices over others (verses translated more or less "beautifully" - to use the author's terminology). Towards the end of the volume, Scarsi illustrates how Ariosto's irony, completely lost, or suppressed in Harington, is instead picked up and elaborated upon by another of Ariosto's translators, Tofte. She does this by analyzing, among others, passages that contain no female character (pp. 149-151).

The variety of achievements and the wealth of information contained in Translating Women are difficult to summarize, but suffice it to say that this book will be of interest for Translation Studies and Anglo-Italian Studies scholars. On the other hand, Gender Studies are not the methodological framework of this study - as a glance at the book's bibliography will confirm - and gender issues find only a marginal place, if any, in the conclusions that are drawn. As the author herself declares in the Introduction, the female figures "act as a trait d'union" (p. 3). This is, in fact, what female characters do in this book: they seem to function primarily as a unifying element for putting together various text analyses - a role, one suspects, that could have been equally taken up by "nature descriptions" or "the representation of landscape". More than the focus of a discussion on gender, female figures appear as the author's starting point for addressing the book's central concerns: 1) the study of Elizabethan translation strategies, with a strong emphasis on close textual comparison; 2) Anglo-Italian literary relations and intertextuality in the Renaissance.

The assumption in this book, made explicit in the title, that talking about female literary characters is automatically equivalent to talking about "women" and, more importantly, that "gender" is merely synonymous with "women", is distant from the theoretical basis and critical practice of Gender Studies. The themes of female knights, Amazons, cross-dressing, homoeroticism, associated with ideas of androgyny and hermaphroditism, are among the most fascinating features of Renaissance literature and art. As is well known, these themes and ideas have long been the object of intense interdisciplinary research and very lively discussions in the area of Gender Studies, not to mention Queer Studies. For instance, the enormous centrality of Italian Neoplatonism - imported, of course, through translation - in shaping Elizabethan conceptions and representations of gender could, by itself, have taken up several pages, but is ignored in Translating Women, where it is even absent in the Introduction. (The book's Introduction provides instead an overview of "Renaissance Translation Theory", with no reference, however, to the issue of gender and translation). Similarly, the treatment of transvestism, homoeroticism and same-sex desire, recurrent in English and Italian Renaissance epics, is another formidable gender issue that remains undeveloped and is only briefly touched upon in Translating Women, where, for instance, the comparison between the Ariostean homoerotic episode of Bradamante and Fiordispina with the Spenserian equivalent of Britomart and Malacasta is limited to establishing whether the authors view their characters positively or negatively. Ariosto's metaliterary reference, in the Furioso, to women's writing and to chivalric romances (even leaving aside, as Scarsi does, the thorny theoretical question of the Italian poet's supposed protofeminism) and its translation by Harington could have also led to crucial connections with the literary context of Renaissance England: a mere mention of contemporary women writers/translators of romances such as Mary Wroth and Margaret Tyler (and their female characters), would have been highly relevant. Similarly, through Scarsi's textual comparison between Ariosto's and Harington's Furioso we are enlightened on the interesting subject of the translator's misogyny, but we remain in the dark about his conception and treatment of gender. Also, from a Gender Studies perspective, interconnections between translation and gender could have been explored: given Harington's intense misogyny, for instance, it would have been interesting to discover something about his own gendered positioning as a translator of romance, in the Renaissance context of the "femininity" of romance, as well as the "femininity" of translation, famously theorized by Harington's contemporary, John Florio, in his often quoted assertion that "all translations are reputed femall".

To explore all this in one book, of course, would have required an extremely wide interdisciplinary approach, that would have been arduous, if not impossible, to combine, even for mere reasons of space, with such extensive, in-depth linguistic and stylistic textual analysis to which, instead, this volume devotes most of its pages. It is no demerit of this book if the gender perspective is not particularly relevant, simply because the author's interests, intentions and finalities, throughout her detailed work, are oriented towards issues other than gender. This is, of course, a methodological choice as valuable as any other. It may however, leave potential readers - whose expectations are raised by the terms "women" and "gender" conspicuously featuring in the book's title - somewhat puzzled.

©inTRAlinea & Stefania Arcara (2011).
[Review] "Translating Women in Early Modern England: Gender in the Elizabethan Versions of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso", inTRAlinea Vol. 13
This review can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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