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User profiling in audio description reception studies: questionnaires for all

By Irene Tor-Carroggio & Pilar Orero (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain)

Abstract & Keywords

Defining disability is not an easy task due to its multidimensionality. This paper begins with a revision of some of the most common models to define disability. The second part of the article examines end user profiling in articles, European funded projects and PhD thesis’ related to one of the media accessibility modalities: audio description. The objective is to understand the approach taken by researchers. The final part of the article will propose a new approach in the study of end users in experimental research in Translation Studies, Audiovisual Translation, and Media Accessibility. This new approach gives a response to the International Telecommunication Union’s suggestion of leaving the biomedical approaches behind. Our suggestion is based on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, which has not yet been applied to user profiling in media accessibility studies. The article finishes by illustrating how this approach can be applied when profiling users in media accessibility questionnaires.

Keywords: media accessibility, capabilities, models of disability, audio description

©inTRAlinea & Irene Tor-Carroggio & Pilar Orero (2019).
"User profiling in audio description reception studies: questionnaires for all"
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1. Introduction

Defining disability is a daunting task given its connotations when applied to human conditions: physical, cognitive and social. Disability holds a human element in regards to a medical condition, associated with social and financial backgrounds that cannot be measured or simplified by one single definition or theoretical model (Albrecht et al. 2001). Theoretical models are useful and necessary, although it is important not to overlook the fact that they are simplistic and imperfect (Albrecht et al. 2001). Yet, models and definitions facilitate the task of researchers, as they offer a theoretical background and a methodology to work with. There are several models disability can be framed by, the medical one being among the earliest. Nonetheless, since studies into Disability began in 1994 at Syracuse University, there has been a radical, academic departure from it. This change of mindset has facilitated the emergence of other models that see disability as the result of a plethora of factors that have little or nothing to do with the person’s impairment.

This paper is divided into five sections. First, it will present some of the most popular models of disability. Second, it will look at research performed using these models. Third, it will describe a new approach from which to investigate disability within Media Accessibility (MA) studies. Fourth, some examples on how to apply this new model will be provided. Finally, some conclusions are drawn.

1.1. Models of disability

Fisher and Goodley (2007) explain the medical approach to disability:

A growing preoccupation with ‘normality’ meant that illness and disability became separated from everyday life and were constructed as forms of individual pathology. In this process the medical profession came to exert almost complete jurisdiction over the definitions of normality and abnormality (Fisher and Goodley 2007: 66).

The Medical Model is still dominating research in general. This is reinforced by our following of its linguistic composition, with the prefix “dis” changing the meaning of the word “ability”. In line with this, the lack or limitation on the capability of a person is classified by their condition. The Medical Model focuses on a biological reality being the cause of the impairment and it sees impairments as a personal condition that needs to be prevented, rehabilitated, or taken care of (Marks 1997). Despite its popularity, this model has been criticized on different grounds by activists and academics, for its failure “to acknowledge the defects in the environment” (Marks 1997: 87).

In contrast, the Social Model shifts the focus from health to society. It was mainly developed by Michael Oliver, who “sees disability, by contrast with impairment, as something imposed on disabled people by oppressive and discriminating social and institutional structures” (Terzi 2005: 201). This model has at least nine different versions (Mitra 2006) and deals with human diversity (Edler 2009). Disability is not the result of having a physical impairment, but the failure of society to consider individual differences (Bøttcher and Dammeyer 2016). Therefore, disability is not an attribute of the individual, but an environmental, social creation (Mitra 2006). However this model is not exempt from drawbacks. On one hand, and according to Shakespeare, “the simplicity which is the hallmark of the social model is also its fatal flaw” (Shakespeare 2010: 271). This author claims that the denial of impairment is an important factor in many disabled people’s lives and that the unrealistic concept of a barrier-free utopia, in which all barriers are removed are among the weaknesses of this model. On the other hand, Terzi (2005) considers there to be an aspect of over-socialization of sources and causes of disability, as well as the model overlooking the complex dimensions of impairment.

Even though these two models are paradigmatic, there are others worth mentioning. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was initially drafted as a human rights convention that aimed to substitute the Medical Model for the Social Model. Yet, according to Degeners (2016), the drafters went beyond the Social Model and wrote a treaty based on a new approach: the Human Rights Model of Disability, to be implemented by the CRPD. It encircles many human rights: political, civil, economic, social and cultural. It goes beyond the anti-discrimination rights of disabled persons (Degeners 2016). Regarding its weaknesses, Berghs et al. (2016) underline that lack of enforcement has been issue and in turn, the lack of defined penalties. This is true for some world regions, but is not the case for the US, Australia or Europe, where laws have been enforced through heavy penalties applied by the CRPD. The Netflix caption lawsuit is a good example. In June 2011, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed suit against Netflix for their lack of closed captioning for video streaming as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge ruled in favor of the NAD and Netflix was ordered to provide captions in its video streaming library in 2014, and to continue captioning content published from that moment on, along with having to pay a hefty sum for legal fees and damages.

The Nagi Model (Nagi 1991) has a dynamic approach based on the differences between four different but interrelated concepts: active pathology, impairment, functional limitation, and disability. Disability is an “inability or limitation in performing socially defined roles and tasks expected of an individual within a sociocultural and physical environment” (Nagi 1991: 315). These roles and tasks are organized into spheres of life activities, such as work, education, family, etc. For instance, think of a 10-year-old girl with a severe hearing impairment who does not attend school but stays at the farm where she lives with her parents helping with farming chores. If she lives in a society where young girls are not expected to go to school, then she cannot be labelled as “disabled” under this model. Conversely, she will be labelled ‘disabled’ if she lives in a place where girls her age go to school, as she is therefore not performing her socially expected role.

The Biopsychosocial Model is a response to the over-medicalisation of the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH). The UN World Health Organisation in 2001 published the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). The ICF was intended to complement its sister classification system, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) (Brown and Lent 2008). The ICF Model sees disability as the result of a combination of individual, institutional and societal factors that define the environment of a person with an impairment (Dubois and Trani 2009). It is set in motion by the World Health Organization Disability Assessment Schedule II (WHODAS II), and covers all types of disabilities in various countries, languages and contexts, which makes it suitable for cross-cultural use. Dubois and Trani (2009) consider the ICF to be limited in its scope and use, since its primary purpose is classification. They believe the complexity of disability requires a wider and more comprehensive analytical view. Ellis (2016) also raised this issue, highlighting the difference between disability and impairment.

In 2017, the UN agency International Telecommunication Union (ITU) released a report addressing access to telecommunication/ICT services by persons with disabilities and with specific needs that stated the following:

Besides the more commonly used “medical model of disability”, which considers disability “a physical, mental, or psychological condition that limits a person’s activities”, there is a more recent “social model of disability,” which has emerged and is considered a more effective or empowering conceptual framework for promoting the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. Within this social model, a disability results when a person (a) has difficulties reading and writing; (b) attempts to communicate, yet does not understand or speak the national or local language, and (c) has never before operated a phone or computer attempts to use one – with no success. In all cases, disability has occurred, because the person was not able to interact with his or her environment. (ITU 2017: 2)

Contextualised within the realm of research in MA; this implies that simply knowing whether or not the person has a hearing or a visual impairment is of little to no use. The ITU is calling for a new approach that analyses different aspects of each individual that might have an influence on what researchers are testing. This has already been found relevant in previous studies (Romero-Fresco 2015). Romero-Fresco (2015) pointed out that reading subtitles was related to a person’s educational background rather than to their hearing impairment. This is the point from which we depart. How to approach the question of demography among persons with disabilities when the objective of the study is not to restore their sensory impairment.

2. Approaches followed by previous researchers on audio description (AD)

User profiling is often carried out through questionnaires which gather demographic information. How to formulate questions is very often related to the model of disability adopted (Berghs et al. 2016). The following 14 publications, which focus on user-centred research in AD, have been analysed: Fernández-Torné and Matamala 2015; Szarkowska 2011; Szarkowska and Jankowska 2012; Walczak 2010; Romero-Fresco and Fryer 2013; Fresno et al. 2014; Fryer and Freeman 2012; Fryer and Freeman 2014; Szarkowska and Wasylczyk 2014; Udo and Fels 2009; Walczak and Fryer 2017; Walczak and Fryer 2018; Walczak and Rubaj 2014; Chmiel and Mazur 2012a. Three experimental PhD dissertations were also included in the analysis (Fryer 2013; Cabeza-Cáceres 2013; and Walczak 2017 (framed within the EU-funded project HBB4ALL), as well as other research results from major/extensive/wide-scale projects such as DTV4ALL,[1] ADLAB,[2] the Pear Tree Project (Chmiel and Mazur 2012b), OpenArt (Szarkowska et al. 2016), and AD-Verba (Chmiel and Mazur 2012).

The studies in question show different approaches to the profiling of users with disabilities as part of the demographic questionnaire prior to any test. There are two questions common to all: gender and age. When asking about gender, there is always a choice between “male”/”female” but the option of not answering the question or selecting another option is never offered. In relation to age, it is often asked by offering intervals; although in some cases it can also be an open question where a figure has to be entered.

Most questionnaires also query level of education. This is presented in various forms: items can be very detailed (Fernández-Torné and Matamala 2015), with a choice of three options (primary education, secondary education, and higher education) (Szarkowska 2011) or contain a moderately detailed list (primary, vocational, secondary, college/university student, university degree) (ADLAB project).

As for the occupation of the participants, it is not generally asked for but with the exception of one study (Fernández-Torné and Matamala 2015).

With regards to the language participants generally use, the majority of questionnaires do not refer to it. The exceptions are the questionnaires in DTV4ALL and the Pear Tree project.

Technology and AD exposure of participants were asked in most questionnaires. The objective of such questions was to corroborate whether the participants were familiar with a given technology and service, how well they knew it, and how frequently they used it. Information about participant habits regarding consumption of audiovisual content was also a point in common for all questionnaires, by means of closed or multiple-choice questions.

Regarding how disability is profiled, researchers take two approaches: self-reporting (Szarkowska ahd Jankowska 2012, Walczak and Fryer 2017) or responding to a question regarding physical condition (Fernández-Torné and Matamala 2015; Fresno and Soler-Vilageliu 2014). How the condition is classified also has three different approaches:

  1. Using WHO binary classification: blind and low sighted (Fernández-Torné and Matamala 2015; Fresno and Soler-Vilageliu 2014, Szarkowska and Jankowska 2012).
  2. Adopting RNIB classification (Szarkowska 2011, TV3 in the DTV4ALL project, and the AD-Verba Project):[3] “Which of these best describes your sight with glasses or contact lenses if you normally use them but without any low vision aid? Imagine you are in a room with good lighting and answer yes, no or uncertain to each part, please. Can you see well enough to: Tell by the light where the windows are?/ See the shapes of the furniture in the room?/ Recognise a friend across a road?/ Recognise a friend across a room?/ Recognise a friend if he or she is at arm’s length?/ Recognize a friend if you get close to his or her face?/ Read a newspaper headline?/ Read a large print book?/ Read ordinary newspaper print? (Possible answers: ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘uncertain’)”.
  3. Beyond WHO and RNIB, Walczak and Fryer (2017) included:
    • self-reported sight loss (mild, considerable, complete) and visual acuity specification;
    • age when registered as visually impaired;
    • and the medical name of the visual condition.

Also, all researchers requested information regarding the origin of the condition. In most cases the question of whether the sight loss is congenital or acquired was included, sometimes by giving two options (congenital/acquired), and other times (less often) by giving more options, such as intervals (e.g. from birth/for between 1 and 10 years, etc.).

After analysing the most recent experimental research with end users in the field of AD, it can be said that all demographic questions follow the medical approach when profiling. Although other sociological oriented questions are also present, still the ultimate matching of disability and technology proficiency is performed by an inductive inference by the researcher.

3. The Capabilities Approach

Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate economist, developed the Capability Approach, which has been used as a framework to analyse different concepts in welfare economics (Mitra 2006). It was later complemented by philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Terzi 2005). This approach can be useful in other disciplines, such as Disability Studies (Mitra 2006). The Capabilities Approach revolves around two main concepts:

  1. “capabilities”, which are seen as a person’s “practical opportunities”, such as having the chance to eat something if you feel hungry, and
  2. “functionings”, viewed as “actual achievements”, such as actually eating. In Sen’s words:
Functionings represent parts of the state of a person–in particular the various things that he or she manages to do or be in leading a life. The capability of a person reflects the alternative combinations of functionings the person can achieve, and from which he or she can choose one collection. (Sen 1993: 31)

Sen (1993) claims the interaction between these concepts can have an impact on peoples lives. This author illustrates his point through an example, contrasting the two terms: two women have the same functioning (not being well nourished) but very different capabilities. One has the capability, this is, the opportunity to be well nourished but decides to starve for her religious beliefs, whereas the other cannot afford to buy any food. It can, therefore, be seen that a person’s capabilities and functionings are influenced by external factors (in that particular example, religious beliefs), which can be grouped into three categories: commodities, personal characteristics and structural factors (see figure 1 for a simplified version of how the Capabilities Approach works).

Figure 1. A simplified version of Sen’s Capabilities Approach (Mitra 2006: 240)

Sen (1993) emphasized the plurality of purposes for which the capability approach can have relevance. Mitra (2006) suggests applying the Capabilities Approach to Disability Studies to define “disability” on a conceptual level:

Under Sen’s approach, capability does not constitute the presence of a physical or a mental ability; rather, it is understood as a practical opportunity. Functioning is the actual achievement of the individual, what he or she actually achieves through being or doing. Here, disability can be understood as a deprivation in terms of capabilities or functionings that results from the interaction of an individual’s (a) personal characteristics (e.g., age, impairment) and (b) basket of available goods (assets, income) and (c) environment (social, economic, political, cultural). (Mitra 2009: 236-237)

Mitra (2006) understands that disability may occur when there is a health impairment, but also other factors that result in a deprivation of capabilities or functionings. If a person is deprived of practical opportunities because of an impairment, Mitra believes we are talking about what she calls “potential disability”, whereas if the person’s functionings are restricted by the impairment we are talking about “actual disability”. The difference between these two types of disability can be seen through an example. If an 18-year-old visually impaired person wants to attend college but lacks the opportunity, they can be seen as a “potential” disabled person in comparison with someone who has a similar background. In this case it can be seen that health impairment reduces a person’s practical opportunities, and this can lead to disability. A person is actually disabled if they cannot do something they value doing or being, which, in this example, would be going to college.

The Capability Approach contributes to a new and useful insight on disability by differentiating between the two levels of the problem: the capability level and the functioning level. It proves to be a different approach because, for instance, unlike the Social and Medical Models, it provides a comprehensive account of the variety of factors that might lead to deprivation. In contrast to the Medical Model, the impairment is not always the cause of disability, and, unlike the Social Model, the environment is not always the reason for disability (Mitra 2006). The ICF, although initially thought of as an integration of the strengths of the two main models, it fails to achieve its objective and could benefit from becoming open-ended. It should also recognise that not all dimensions of life may be specified and classified, and thus the classification does not, and cannot be expected to offer an exhaustive account of the lived experience of health deprivations (Mitra 2018). It can therefore be concluded that this new disability approach conforms to what the ITU has recently required and can be applied to studies dealing with disability, such as those working on MA.

4. Applying the Capabilities Approach

The Capability Approach developed by Sen is a useful framework for defining disability and understanding its consequences (Mitra 2006). Its usefulness in defining disability and formulating disability policies was considered by Mitra (2006) but to date no applications regarding the methodological approach have been followed in MA studies. This is what this section will deal with.

The way to implement this model in any discipline is by drafting a list of capabilities and functionings that are relevant to the object of study:

The full range of the disability experience can then be covered, by shifting the focus away from the restricted view of identifying types of impairment. The fact that each individual is asked about the level of difficulty he/she experiences in functioning in the various dimensions of well-being makes it easier to assess the level of disability in a comprehensive manner. [...]However, specific information is required to assess and measure disability within this paradigm. Data are related to individuals’ potentialities, the possibilities that they can “be” what they wish to be, their aspirations and what they value. It also entails gathering information about vulnerability, which expresses the risk of suffering a reduction of the capability set, measured by the probability of falling to a lower state of well-being. Finally, it requires information about the opportunities offered by the environment. (Dubois and Trani 2009: 198).

Sen’s theoretical Capability Approach proposal is open. It does not offer an application model since it does not make a complete list of capabilities functionings, personal characteristics, commodities and environmental factors (Mitra 2006). Sen does not propose a prescriptive method to rank capability sets (Mitra 2006; Terzi 2005). This voluntary incompleteness makes the capability approach difficult to implement operationally, but in turn allows for adaptation to every scenario. For example, in the field of Media Accessibility, it should be adapted to the tested technology. The capabilities and functionings may vary according to relevant personal factors, resources, and structural factors. It will also vary depending on the object of study. Therefore, the demographics of the study should be adapted to the study characteristics.

In the field of MA, researchers could implement the following steps:

  1. Think of an access service that could prevent one or more groups of persons from being potentially or actually disabled whilst accessing audiovisual content. Measuring disability is perhaps an impossible task, but for research purposes, where the focus is not on how to restore medical conditions, selecting relevant capabilities or functionings to form an “evaluative space” is needed (Mitra 2006). What needs to be done is drafting a set of functionings (or capabilities) that our access service can provide.
  2. Carefully analyse the group or groups of persons that could benefit the most from this service. This should be achieved by not only taking into account their sensorial impairments, but also the personal, structural and environmental factors. For example, a person with sight loss may not be able to access a TV series because the menu EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) is not accessible and they cannot activate the AD function. The same situation can occur for someone with reduced motor skills such as dexterity, or a person with learning disabilities who finds it challenging to interact with the TV remote control. The final result is that neither the person with sight loss, learning disability nor dexterity can enjoy a TV programme.
  3. Carry out, for example, some focus groups in which all the target groups are represented to confirm which particular service could amplify their capability set and, therefore, avoid disability from occurring or from being a possibility. These occasions should also be used to elicit more information regarding what features the service requires in order to offer a better and more enhanced experience. Listing relevant functionings and capabilities should be a user-centered activity. However, members of groups may be so deprived in specific dimensions that they lack self-critical distance. A good example is the addition of subtitles in some opera theatres (Oncins 2015). While sighted people enjoy subtitles, people with sight loss may have an audio description but not audio subtitles. Blind and partially sighted audience members may not be aware of the existence of subtitles and subsequently do not request the service.
  4. Develop the service according to what the target groups have requested.
  5. Test the service to ensure that what has been developed complies with what users require so that they are no longer disabled in that particular field or occasion. Obviously, the users taking part in the tests should come from all the various target groups that were considered initially.

It is precisely in this last stage that questionnaires should reflect the variety of users taking part in the tests and, therefore, the need to mainstream accessibility. This can only be done by expanding the section that contains the demographic questions. Were this to be done, the plethora of factors leading to disability could be better observed. As we have seen, MA research tends to include questions regarding physical impairments but does not always consider other factors that could cause or are already causing a person to be disabled. This is precisely what needs to be solved but, again, we cannot provide a one-fits-all solution because the questions depend on the object of study, i.e., on the particularities of the technology or service tested.

Questions asked in focus groups or questionnaires should not mix health issues with impairments, functionings and capabilities because they would reduce the empirical relations between the different concepts of the Capabilities Approach. The question “are you limited to the number of movies you can watch due to a visual impairment?” would be an example of the type of question that should be avoided. Also, in MA studies, there is no reason beyond statistic to ask for gender-related information, unless a capability falls under a cultural or religious category. Regarding age, most studies request age as with gender, in order to have a statistically comparable representative group. In some cases, requesting age was associated to the origin of the condition, for the researcher to assume some impact on the object of study. According to Sen’s model, requesting age will have a direct implication on questions such as: “do you consume AD?”.

The EU-funded EasyTV project (https://easytvproject.eu/) aims at easing the access of audiovisual content and the media to the functionally diverse and to the growing ageing population of Europe. This will be achieved by developing new access services, such as customised subtitles, subtitles for colour-blind users and a crowdsourcing platform with which videos in sign language can be uploaded and shared. These access services are expected to grant an equal and better access to audio-visual content in terms of both choice and quality. The project was started off by discussing with users precisely what capabilities they would like to have when consuming audiovisual content. For the initial focus groups, “super end users” were recruited. Not all of them suffered from a physical impairment. In addition to being regular users, they had some knowledge on the technologies that would be tested. This knowledge was deemed crucial since they were requested to advance their expectations to match the innovation. It would have made no sense to consult end users with no prior knowledge or experience of functional diversity or technological background because at that stage what we required was not their acceptance of the final service, but issues related to technology development. This allowed us to apply Sen’s theory to a concrete case. During the focus groups carried out at that stage, the following list of questions were drafted:

  1. How is your current experience using TV?
    “It is not easy to access the TV”.
    “It is very difficult to use the remote control”.
  1. Which modalities do you use to interact with the TV?
    “Using the remote control is very difficult without audio feedback”.

The response to the difficulty to access TV elicited possible technologies and the following opinions.

  1. For image magnification two important issues emerged:
    - “It would be useful to magnify a specific portion of the screen (for example objects that need to be recognized) or overlaying text that is not clear, so I can read it better”.
    - “It is important to stop playing the image to let me magnify the screen or a portion of it”.
  1. For audio narratives the following features are considered crucial for blind and low vision persons:
    -“It is useful to have this service available both automatically (without user interaction) and manually (using the remote control or speech commands) to manage the volume of available audio tracks”.
    - “For example, when listening to opera I am only interested in the music, so I should be able to lower the volume of the audio description”.
    - “During live programs, it is very useful to know what is happening and what the TV is showing during silent time. When I am with my family they tell me what is going on, but when alone, nothing can be done”.
  1. Regarding the speech interface to control TV functionalities, blind people consider voice control and audio feedback to be very important when using the remote control. It is also very important to export content (audio and video) into a mobile device.

The above are all practical opportunities (capabilities) that end users would like to have and should be taken into account by developers. The beneficiary of these solutions is not isolated to the collective of persons with disabilities, since these solutions will be of great help also to the ageing population, people with reading issues, and by default to all. This universal approach has already been accepted with subtitles, which are no longer for the deaf and hard of hearing community, but also for the 80 per cent of people who watch media content in public spaces with the volume turned off.[4]

Testing in Easy TV has profiled the user requirements of people with sensorial disabilities: deaf and hard of hearing and visually impaired. Yet, results from tests do not correspond to sensorial disabilities. An example is the use of Smart TV functionalities and access to set up controls. Expectations and needs defined by user interaction with Smart TV are in fact related to age or behaviour, rather than disability. This real example extracted from test results in the EasyTV project show the need to adopt the Capability Approach. If it were to be implemented, in future stages, for each capability detected, a list of demographic factors surrounding it should be drafted. Another good example suggested while testing object-based audio (OBA) was to develop audio description on 360º video. It was found that OBA will benefit audio description since layers of information are added regarding sound directionality (Orero, Ray and Hughes forthcoming). Since OBA can be mixed by the audience, it turned out that people with hearing loss enjoyed OBA as mixing the dialogue track with the sound track allowed for a better dialogue intelligibility, producing a clean audio effect. This goes to show that a technology developed for one group was also beneficial for another group, something that would have never been tested if users were selected on the basis of their disability. 

5. Conclusions

MA research has been using the medical model to profile end users for their experimental research. This is probably due to research being framed within the UN CRPD, where accessibility is considered a tool towards achieving a human right (Greco 2016). The UN convention CRPD motto “nothing about us without us” has also conditioned participants for accessibility tests. After a decade following this research approach, results point towards the need to consider a wider audience for testing. Ellis (2016) has already clarified the difference between impairment and disability. Research data gathered from visually impaired persons apply to society in general. By applying the Capability Approach, research will not consider disability/health conditions as individual attributes. Focusing on impairments resources, structural and personal factors should yield data closer to the research objective than to a medical solution of health restoration. Failure to use an interactional model may generate an unnecessary focus on prevention/rehabilitation through the Medical Model or social oppression through the Social Model (Mitra 2018). The Capability Approach can be used by MA researchers and technology developers, since they need to find out what capabilities and functionings users would like to have. They also need to verify whether the technology they develop provides opportunities the target groups that are currently missing. This approach is also interesting for them as they can start recruiting users with a more varied profile and not just people with physical impairments. MA academic researchers are also within the stakeholders, since they are often the ones in charge of testing access services within projects or PhD thesis’ and need to be aware of the fact that sometimes the results yielded are due to the informants’ personal or environmental factors rather than them being partially sighted.

The Capability Approach will also work towards solving a negative feature in most existing research: the low number of participants. Profiling beyond medical prognosis opens participation to a wider audience and a higher potential participation. This Capability Model will also do away with the user representativeness required for statistical validity. For example, the number of blind people in a country will no longer have to be taken into consideration to determine the number of users needed in the tests. Mainstreaming accessibility will have an impact not only in research but also in its application to industrial sectors working within investment frameworks. MA services are valid to society and especially to persons with disabilities. This reduced sector should be the gatekeeper for quality, since in some cases access marks the threshold to deprivation.


This paper was funded by the EasyTV project (GA761999), RAD (PGC2018-096566-B-100), and ImAc (GA 761974). Both researchers are members of the research group TransMedia Catalonia (2017SGR113).


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About the author(s)

Irene Tor-Carroggio is a Ph.D student in Translation and Intercultural Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and is also a member of the research group TransMedia Catalonia (2017SGR113). She holds a B.A. in Translation and Interpretation from the UAB (2013) and also an M.A. in International Business from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (2017). She is part of the EU-funded project EasyTV, http://easytvproject.eu.

Dr. Pilar Orero, (http://gent.uab.cat/pilarorero), PhD (UMIST, UK), teaches at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain). Member of TransMedia Catalonia research group (2017SGR113). Recent publications: Anna Maszerowska, Anna Matamala and Pilar Orero (eds) (2014) Audio Description. New perspectives illustrated. Amsterdam. John Benjamins. Anna Matamala and Pilar Orero (eds) (2016) Researching Audio Description. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Leader of numerous research projects funded by the Spanish and Catalan Gov. Participates in the UN ITU agency IRG AVA http://www.itu.int/en/irg/ava/Pages/default.aspx Membe.r of the working group ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 35. Member of the Spanish UNE working group on accessibility. Led the EU project HBB4ALL http://pagines.uab.cat/hbb4all/ Leads. the EU projects ACT http://pagines.uab.cat/act/ and UMAQ (Understanding Quality Media Accessibility) http://pagines.uab.cat/umaq/ She i.s the UAB leader at the 2 new H2020 projects EasyTV (interaction to accessible TV) http://easytvproject.eu and ImAc (Immersive Accessibility) http://www.imac-project.eu 2017-2021. She is an active external evaluator for many worldwide national agencies: South Africa, Australia, Lithuania, Belgium, Poland, Italy, US, and UK. Co-founder of the Media Accessibility Platform MAP http://www.mapaccess.org

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©inTRAlinea & Irene Tor-Carroggio & Pilar Orero (2019).
"User profiling in audio description reception studies: questionnaires for all"
inTRAlinea Volumes
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This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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Translating Echoes

Challenges in the Translation of the Correspondence of a British Expatriate in Beresford’s Lisbon 1815-17

By António Lopes (University of the Algarve)

Abstract & Keywords

In 1812 the Farrer family established their wool trading business in Lisbon. Samuel Farrer and, a couple of years later, James Hutchinson remained in regular correspondence with Thomas Farrer, who owned a textile mill in the vicinity of Leeds, then centre of the wool trade in England. Their correspondence, spanning the period 1812-18, offers a vivid account of life in Lisbon and its hardships and troubles in the aftermath of the Peninsular War. Those letters mirror the turbulent politics of the time and articulate an attempt to narrate otherness and the way it kept challenging their gaze. The translation of the letters has posed some challenges, especially on a stylistic level. In order to confer a sense of historical authenticity on the target-language text and to attend to the stylistic features of the source-language text, the translator has been forced to revisit the Portuguese language of the period as it was spoken and written by the urban middle class in Lisbon. In this article I discuss some of the issues, both theoretical and practical, that have arisen in the course of the translation process.

Keywords: travel writing translation, commercial correspondence, private sphere, estrangement, displacement, double disjuncture, Peninsular Wars

©inTRAlinea & António Lopes (2013).
"Translating Echoes Challenges in the Translation of the Correspondence of a British Expatriate in Beresford’s Lisbon 1815-17"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translating 18th and 19th Century European Travel Writing
Edited by: Susan Pickford & Alison E. Martin
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Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1967

1. Introduction

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
Saint Augustine

During my research for the British Travellers in Portugal project – an ambitious initiative that has been carried out for almost three decades by the Anglo-Portuguese Studies group at the Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (Lisbon and Oporto) –, I chanced upon a rather curious collection of letters housed at the National Archives in Kew.[1] Written by James Hutchinson Jr. (1796 - ?), a young Yorkshire merchant working in Lisbon, and addressed to his brother-in-law, Thomas Farrer, who headed the family’s wool business back in Farnley, Leeds, these letters span a period of approximately two and a half years (from 22 July, 1815 to 29 November, 1817), at a time when Portugal was struggling hard to stand on its feet after the scale of destruction caused by the Peninsular War.

Originally, the primary purpose of my undertaking was to contribute to an anthology of translated accounts of the city of Lisbon by British travellers. This meant that a considerable portion of the original text, most of it dwelling on private affairs or matters of commerce, would have to be excised in order to leave only those passages where explicit references were made to the Portuguese capital. However, it soon became evident that the scope of the content of these letters called for a differentiated approach and so the editor commissioned me to translate the complete set. The investment in an unabridged translation would give readers the opportunity not just to satisfy their curiosity about Lisbon, but above all to gain a sense of the complexity of the historical, social and economic issues with which the letters engaged, all the more so because translation is not about impoverishing the original, but about giving it a new lease of life: translation is not just a question of making a text accessible to another community of readers by acquiring a new linguistic and cultural dimension, but above all of allowing the letters to transcend their immediacy and the original purpose for which they were written, and inscribing them in new discursive practices.

So, instead of publishing excerpts of the letters in the anthology, both the editor and I decided to publish the complete set in two issues of the Revista de Estudos Anglo-Portugueses (CETAPS, Lisbon) (see Lopes 2010). This would allow us to preserve the integrity of the letters and, given the fact that the Revista is aimed at a scholarly readership (historians, philologists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and so on), to invest in a more detailed and in-depth approach, marked by philological accuracy and by a consciousness of the challenges posed by the hermeneutical inquiry. This would also give me the opportunity to set my own translation agenda, not just in terms of style and method, but also in terms of the future of this project. As a matter of fact, the files contain dozens of other letters and papers written by other members or friends of the family which, in view of their historical value, are also worth translating. I decided to amass all of them with the aim of publishing the whole collection in one single volume. That work is now underway.

Since translation is necessarily always a reflexive process (in more than one sense: on the one hand, the translator has to speculate about the meanings that the source text does not immediately disclose and about the readers’ responses to his/her choices; on the other, the target text always presents itself as a mirror image of the source text), the task of rendering this piece of nineteenth-century English prose into contemporary Portuguese prompted a series of theoretical and empirical questions which I set out to explore in the present article. The next section seeks to set the letters in their political, social and economic context. The meanings they contain are rooted in a specific historical setting, which has to be revisited so as to enable the text to function simultaneously as a piece of documentary evidence and as an instance of resistance: in the case of the former, substantiating that which historiography has already validated; in the case of the latter, defying or even rebutting historical theories. The third section (‘An Englishman in Lisbon’) touches on issues of estrangement, displacement and the quest for a sense of belonging, all of which are central to travel writing. The fourth section (‘Prying into a Gentleman’s Private Correspondence’) discusses the ethics and the challenges of translating the intimacy and confidentiality of private correspondence, and how the author’s objectivity gives the translator a foothold in the factual validation of his translation. The last full section (‘Translation as a Double Disjuncture’) focuses on issues of spatiality, temporality, representation and re-representation, as well as on some of the solutions to the problems posed by the historical dimension of the texts (modes of address; anachronisms; outdated terminology; formulaic language; and the need for historical research).

2. The Letters in Context: Portugal and her British Ally 1809-20

The Farrers were one among many of the local families whose lives revolved around the woollen and worsted manufacture and trade in Yorkshire. The success of their business went hand in hand with the economic growth and technological development of the period, a process which would leave an indelible mark on the landscape of the Midlands and the North of England. These developments led to major changes in the social structure, with a generalised phenomenon of rural-urban migration meeting the industry’s need for labour (Fletcher 1919: 77-84). The Yorkshire region soon became the chief export centre for manufactured woollen goods. In a world of cut-throat competition, those who succeeded in business were of an unrelenting entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit that often looked beyond the confines of Britain.

Industrial expansion forced traders to look further afield and open up new markets; Portugal swiftly became a key destination. Since Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, decreed in 1806, was firmly in place, the first industrial nation found itself in a worrying predicament. Portugal, where Britain’s commercial stakes ran high, was also left particularly exposed. It was only through Lisbon that it was possible to gain access to the Brazilian market, which had long become the mainstay of the intensive southern Atlantic economy, responsible for the capitalisation of the European market in the Early Modern period. Besides, the Portuguese could not afford to lose the support of the old ally, whose navy provided protection for the trade routes between the metropolis and its colonies. The French invasions of Portugal pushed it to the periphery of the very empire it had founded. If the demise of both commerce and industry had a terrible impact on the economy, the destruction the war wrought in the provinces proved no less damaging. Looting, extortion and massacres left a trail of blood, hatred and revulsion across the whole nation that was to remain unabated for generations. Wellington’s scorched earth policy – aiming to deprive the French troops of victuals and other supplies – aggravated the situation even further. Agriculture and husbandry practically ground to a halt and farmers were unable to produce the foodstuffs required to feed the urban centres. Famine set in and with it a period of demographic stagnation.

Freeing Portugal from the chains of Napoleonic imperialism was not without its costs. Unable to overcome such complete vulnerability, the nation was at the mercy of British interests. Certainly a significant part of the Portuguese economy had for a long time depended on Britain. Whether Portugal benefited from this trade relationship or not is a matter of controversy (Borges de Macedo 1963; Bethell 1984; Maxwell 2004; Pijning 1997; Pardo 1992). However, at least since the Methuen Treaty (1703) Britain had been undermining the Portuguese industry with a substantial influx of cheap manufactured goods undercutting all competition. In January 1808 the opening of the Brazilian ports to Britain represented a fatal blow. Two years later, the protective mechanism of customs duties was removed precisely when the Portuguese economy was most in need of it. The prospects for the manufacturing sector grew dimmer as British cotton and wool cloths flooded the Portuguese market.

The political power that William Carr Beresford, commander-in-chief of the Portuguese troops during the invasions, held during this crucial period in the country’s history played a decisive role in protracting this position of economic subordination. He ended up gaining considerable ascendancy over the representatives of the Prince Regent. In the post-war years he headed the military government, a position which rapidly eroded his earlier prestige as a war hero. People started protesting against the way public funds were being squandered to pay for the presence of British troops on national territory. Portuguese officers likewise harboured deep-seated resentment towards the British officers, who were now apparently being granted all sorts of privileges and promotions (see Glover 1976). Beresford’s radical intransigence in politics led to the repression of those who advocated a more liberal agenda, namely those who were suspected either of sympathising with the ideals of the French Jacobins, or of defending a constitutional monarchy. As a stern defender of Tory absolutism, his views were in line with the ones shared by two other Anglo-Irish potentates, namely Wellington and Castlereagh (Newitt 2004: 107). His absolutist values, along with his thirst for power, left him isolated in a world riven by deep-rooted hatreds. The revolutionary clamour heard in Oporto on 24 August 1820 was to put paid to Beresford’s ambitions. Paradoxically, partly thanks to the influence of the British officers, the British tradition of liberalism ended up taking root in a country lacking in ideological coordinates to define its political future.

When James Hutchinson first set foot in Lisbon, the country was going through a period of economic depression. His letters mirror the upheavals and the social unrest of the period and therefore help to shed light on historical processes, since they testify to the way in which individuals perceived reality and (re)acted accordingly. Popular reactions to the new king, news of the uprising in Pernambuco (Brazil), political persecutions, and hangings are well documented elsewhere,[2] but here we are given a view from the inside. Moreover, rather than just affirming the picture that the extensive historiographical literature on the subject has already established, the letters also disclose new facets. They prove that, despite the impressive growth of Britain’s exports in this period, British trade did not run smoothly in Portugal. Hutchinson could hardly be said to be the definitive model of the successful businessman. His efforts, nonetheless, were mostly undermined by factors that lay beyond his reach. General poverty, scarcity of money, shortages of food and other essentials, and rationing, for example, became recurrent, if not obsessive, subjects in his letters, betraying his sense of frustration and underachievement. Moreover, Hutchinson was forced to deal with fierce competition within the Portuguese market and the incompetence of the Customs officials, not to mention liabilities and bad debts, marketing obstacles and, curiously enough, an increasingly demanding clientele, all of which imposed psychological costs he found ever more difficult to cope with. And although he was not so forthcoming in discussing political issues, such as Beresford’s repression, his fears and silences about the persecutions are no less telling.

Each letter contains, as it were, the very essence of history and, through the picturesque and sometimes disconcerting episodes they feature, they help us recreate a reality long buried by time. Precisely because this is a genuine voice that has remained hidden amidst other archival material for almost two centuries, unscathed by later misappropriations or misinterpretations, we are able to salvage pristine fragments of the historical experience and to retrieve for our collective memory some of the particularities and singularities that are usually overlooked in the construction of the historical grand narratives of the nation. In a letter dated 18 October 1816, for instance, Hutchinson speaks of the funeral ceremonies of Queen Maria I and clearly enjoys recounting the peculiar causes of the accidental fire that burned down the church where those ceremonies were being held. In a later letter (22 October 1817), he provides a first-hand testimony of the horrendous hanging of the men who followed Gomes Freire de Andrade in his revolt against Lord Beresford’s roughshod rule. Elsewhere he laments the shortage of foodstuffs and the rise in prices which mercilessly strike the poor (letter dated 25 January 1817), but he cannot help relishing the story of a woman arrested for stealing bodies from the cemetery to produce black pudding to be sold to the local shops (9 August 1816). In another letter he speaks of an earthquake that threw the city ‘into the most dreadful alarm’ and the scenes of panic that ensued, while rejoicing at the fact that he remained ‘during the whole of the night in a sound slumber’ (3 February 1816).

3. An Englishman in Lisbon: Estrangement, Displacement and the Quest for Belonging

Notwithstanding the rapid decline of the Portuguese economy during and after the Peninsular War, British traders rapidly resumed their investments in the country. Samuel Farrer & Sons were amongst them. Samuel Farrer Jr. established the family’s business in Lisbon in 1812. The family’s entrepreneurial effort must have paid off somehow, for upon his death, in February 1815, they decided to keep on investing in their Portuguese venture. It would be up to young James Hutchinson Jr. to take up the business. His inexperience notwithstanding, James was not entirely at a loss. The need to account for every transaction and to keep his brother-in-law posted about how business was being conducted resulted in a correspondence of considerable length, which lasted until his departure from Lisbon at the end of 1817. The letters were permeated by the young man’s comments, remarks and anecdotes about life in the Portuguese capital. Being an outsider in customs, language and feelings, Hutchinson tried hard to accommodate himself to his new setting.

In his letters, however, the affectionate attachment he exhibits towards his sister and the other members of his family indicates that his stay in Lisbon was, emotionally speaking, hard to bear. He often complained about her silence and the fact that she now seemed to have forsaken him altogether. But then, it was not just the separation from his loved ones that threw him into a state of melancholy. His life in the Portuguese capital was infused with a sense of estrangement he was unable to overcome. He felt uprooted and disengaged.

It becomes all too apparent that his gaze is that of an outsider, of someone struggling to succeed in a strange, disturbing world, whose social and political environment contrasts in many respects with that of his native land. He soon realised it would not be easy to fit in. Despite the support that other British expatriates residing in Lisbon gave him, he complained to his family about living conditions there. Blatantly ironic, he confessed that he ‘suffer[ed] very much from the Muschetos [sic], Bugs & other filth with which this sweet City so much abounds’ (11 August 1815).

His difficulty in understanding the Portuguese is particularly visible when he is faced with the lack of patriotic fervour of the man in the street, a fervour one should expect from a nation that had been recently freed from the Napoleonic terror:

On Saturday last the King was proclaimed throughout the City and Sunday was appropriated for the acclamation.—The Troops were reviewed by Marshal Beresford, yet never did I witness their going through their manoevres [sic] in such an inanimate manner:—never was such a Viva given by the Portuguese to their Sovereign; scarcely did one Soul open his mouth, excepting the Marshal and his Staff Officers:—it was a complete ‘Buonapartean Viva’ a forced shout of applause dying away in a groan. (11 April 1817)

Since most of the time he was consumed by work, it becomes difficult for the contemporary reader to detect such feelings of estrangement in the midst of commercial jargon and ledger accounts. He sought to be meticulous in his book-keeping and reports and sensitive to changes in market conditions, especially as far as fashion, trends, tastes and purchasing power went. He struggled to prove himself worthy of the trust and respect not just of his brother-in-law, but also of other foreign merchants who had already established their names in the Portuguese market. He even got carried away by the idea of opening his own establishment in order to fend off competition and to tackle the problem of low bids, which often forced him to keep the bales in store for unusually long periods of time.

In order to perceive how displaced he felt, one has to read between the lines. When his enthusiasm waned or his health gave way, an undeclared anxiety and irritation would surface. His less than flattering comments on Portuguese customs officials and the tone of his replies to his brother-in-law whenever suspicion of laxness or mismanagement hung in the air prove the point. He became impatient when ships from Brazil, New York or Falmouth were unduly delayed. He was unnerved by the negligence of long-standing debtors, who often turned a deaf ear to his entreaties. Besides, in spite of the considerable sums of money that passed through his hands, James was far from leading an easy and comfortable life. In a sense, it was through his own body that he first measured the degree of his maladjustment. He was constantly ill, poorly dressed, and found his lodgings uncomfortable. The weather did not suit him and he feared death might creep up on him. For some time he had to resign himself to ‘a Bed Room fitted up for me in the Warehouse, without any other convenience or sitting room’ (11 April 1817). He would wear the same clothes for months on end, winter and summer alike. Disease would take hold of him and he would be confined to bed for several weeks. His neat copperplate handwriting would then degenerate to illegible scribbling. In the spring of 1817 he would confess that ‘I have suffered very materially in my health since I came here’. Convinced that he was no longer fit for the job, he would then ask Thomas to let Ambrose Pollett, a friend of the family, replace him in the firm. His physical condition would not let him endure another winter in Lisbon. In his last letter, dated 29 November, he once more complained about his health, saying that the cold weather caused him to ‘spit blood in considerable quantities from the lungs’ and that he was afraid he would never be able to return to his homeland again ‘since I fell [sic] persuaded I shall never get better of the severe illness I had in the Spring of the year 1816’. To him Lisbon, thus, ended up representing the proximity of death, that ultimate moment of displacement. His fears, however, were unfounded and he went back to England where he remained in convalescence, before returning to Portugal. But once more the climate did not agree with him. His health worsened, especially after hearing the news of his nephew’s death in December 1818, and he was compelled to leave Lisbon one last time.[3]

In the course of his stay, James was badly in need of a focal point to keep things in perspective and letter writing served such a purpose. More than anything else, it allowed him to keep his sense of belonging alive. These letters ended up being the only bridge not just to his origins, but above all to his own identity. He felt so helpless when his sister failed to reply to his letters that ‘it even grieves me to the heart when I reflect upon it’ (17 February 1816). This sentimentality towards his family is in marked contrast with his attitude as an observer. Although Hutchinson cannot entirely detach himself emotionally from what he witnesses, there is a kind of Verfremdungseffekt in his writing, a journalistic objectification of the topics he covers, whereby the distance between himself and the other is never to be entirely spanned.

4. Prying into a Gentleman’s Private Correspondence: Issues of Intimacy, Confidentiality and Objectivity in Translation

Translating something as intimate and confidential as private letters has the potential to border on voyeurism. It raises issues that concern the ethics of translation, since the translator, unlike the casual reader, is supposed to leave no stone unturned in his struggle to reach communicative effectiveness. His labour consists in unveiling all meanings, in ransacking the secrets of the author’s mind, and, if necessary, in exposing the frailties of his body. The innermost thoughts are not fenced off from the translator’s dissecting tools. In this sense, translation is to be viewed as an act of intrusion and, simultaneously, of extrusion (in other words a disclosure and a close examination of that which pertains to the private sphere). The former constitutes a form of violation, of disrupting that which belongs to the realm of the confessional and becoming, to borrow the words of St. Augustine, ‘privy to the secrets of conscience’; whereas the latter manifests itself in the form of violence, destroying the integrity of the textual body, vivisecting it and exhibiting it to the public gaze. Nevertheless, such violence is mitigated by the transmutational properties of time. Over time, these texts have acquired the status of archaeological evidence, which does not necessarily mean that in this respect the position of the translator is less delicate. After all, he was not the addressee of the letters and that fact alone poses some problems. An outsider may find it difficult to penetrate the referential fabric of the letters. Unlike travel accounts or autobiographies written for publication, these texts were not intended for a wide readership. They were personal in tone and content, and the writer knew what responses to expect from his only reader living across the English Channel. The writer did not project an ideal or fictional reader to whom he might grant full right of access to the world recreated in his prose. As a consequence, his world remains sealed off from a larger audience and the translator is forced to break into the textual space like a trespasser. Implicatures lie hidden within this corpus of letters but they can never be entirely unravelled: whatever inferences the translator may draw, he or she will always lack the necessary background knowledge to establish their validity. Such implicatures, one must not forget, are a symptom of the close relationship existing between the two correspondents. Implicit meanings result from a common experience, excluding other readers. Fortunately, the text in question is generally far more objective and factual than one would suppose, and this alone gives the translator significant leverage over the hidden aspects of the correspondence. It is in the terrain of factuality and narrativity that the translator moves free from major constraints, although it is certain that the faithfulness of the representation can never be taken for granted (see Polezzi 2004: 124).

Of course one cannot expect to find in such letters a precise and exhaustive portrait of Beresford’s Lisbon, systematically organised in such a way as to cover all possible angles. What we get instead is a myriad of disparate images that can hardly be coalesced into one single picture. The reason is obvious: the stories he tells do not follow any thematic pattern, other than the fact that all of them revolve around the city itself. Apart from the town of Sintra, a popular tourist resort in the nineteenth century, where he spent some time ‘for the benefit of my Health which, thank God I have recovered beyond my expectation’ (14 June 1816), he never set foot outside of the capital (or at least there is no archival evidence of him doing so) and therefore he apparently did not know what was going on in the rest of the country. His letters lack the ‘horror and pity’ William Warre experienced as he crossed the country chasing after the fleeing French army and encountering ‘many people and children absolutely starving and living upon nettles and herbs they gathered in the fields’ (Warre and Warre 1909: 222). Not even Sintra, that ‘glorious Eden’ with its ‘views more dazzling unto mortal ken than those whereof such things the Bard relates’, as Byron wrote in his celebrated Childe Harolds Pilgrimage (1812), succeeded in enrapturing our author, who preferred to remain faithful to whatever notable occurrences Lisbon had to offer the outsider’s gaze.

Hutchinson’s short narratives appear scattered throughout the letters in a rather random way, and it is their reading as anecdotal collages, rather than as a set of tightly-woven, interrelated stories, that allows the reader to gain a taste of the spontaneity of the narration and the ingenuousness of the narrator. Although the anecdotal episodes themselves are self-contained and refer only to fragments of both individual and collective experiences in early nineteenth-century Lisbon, they play an important part in the process of historiographical reconstruction of the past. The historiographical value of the letters lies in the fact that they contain accounts that were neither censored nor doctored: no one ever scrutinised or edited the stories, which were simply committed to paper without any concern for accuracy, trustworthiness or factuality. The ensemble of letters forms a sort of scrapbook containing clippings or mementos that were never meant to be published. Such moments, however, were bound together by a common genetic code: they all emerged out of the drive for novelty, a drive partly explained by the way the processes of cultural displacement affected the author.

However, when it comes to Hutchinson’s values and ideological assumptions, they are not readily easy to detect. He preferred to position himself as an observer rather than as a commentator, and avoided getting entangled in elaborate considerations. If the translator wants to gain a glimpse of his ideas and opinions, then he/she must proceed by engaging in a symptomatic reading of the letters, observing, for example, the way he framed and skewed the subject matter, or how he got himself more or less emotionally involved with the events he narrated, or simply how he refrained from passing judgement on what he saw. Far from highly opinionated, the letters nonetheless give us the chance of peering into his personality, albeit obliquely.

Sometimes, however, he felt compelled to take sides, such as when he dared to air his own opinion on Beresford:

...being the weaker power & finding himself defeated in all his projects, it is reported that he is about leaving [sic] the Country, which in my opinion is the wisest step he can take, else a worse fate may attend him. (11 April 1817)

Such explicitness was rare. Shortly after the rebellion in Pernambuco, Brazil, Hutchinson censured himself for letting slip his views on the political turmoil that had gripped the country and decided to not to return to the issue for fear of reprisals:

You are well aware that it is necessary to be very cautious how we treat upon political subjects in this Country, for which reason I avoid any thing of this nature, only sofar [sic] as I suppose it may be connected with the interests of Mercantile Affairs. (4 July 1817)

His fears over the consequences of political dissent were not wholly misplaced. The horrific hanging of the Conspirators he watched on 22 October 1817, shortly before his departure, left a lasting impression on him:

[C]uriosity led me to be one of the spectators of this awful scene & however disgraceful hanging may be in England I can assure you it is not less so here. The Executioner is obliged to ride astride the shoulders of every man he hangs.—It was about four O’Clock in the Afternoon when the Prisoners arrived at the foot of the Gallows & was about midnight when this melancholy scene closed.—After the Execution of all 7 out of the 11 were burnt on a Funeral Pile on the spot.

Here, his voyeurism matched his horror as he came to the full presence of death—that dark character that kept resurfacing in his writing.

5. Translation as a Double Disjuncture

As we have seen, what was once private acquires, over time, an archaeological value: the status of artefact is conferred on language as privacy metamorphoses into historical evidence. In translation, chronological distance is of the essence: one might even argue that every translation has embedded in its genes an indelible anachronism. In sharp contrast with our contemporary world, where synchronous forms of communication and instantaneous access to information seem to have taken hold of the way we communicate with each other, the art and craft of translation necessitates the slow transit of time. It is a painstaking process of problem-solving, reflection and maturation. It takes time and perseverance. And when it involves the representation of past historical phenomena, as in the present case, the temporal dimension acquires critical significance. On the one hand, the translator cannot help excogitating his own condition as a historical subject: he becomes conscious of the relativity of values, of the differentials separating lifestyles, habitus (in the Bourdieusian sense) and Weltanschauungen. On the other, the target text ends up constituting the representation of a representation and, as such, it is, as Althusser once stated of ideology, a representation of an ‘imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (Althusser 1971: 162). And here, in the translation process, the time gap separating source and target texts functions not so much as a thread linking both acts of writing along a historical continuum but rather as a lens, generating several simultaneous optical effects, where light shifts in unsuspected ways and where appearance must be understood in its composite and elusive nature. The world of the (author’s) ‘present’ can never be reconstructed as such in the target text. The translator necessarily operates in the time gap between two ‘presents’ (his/her own and the author’s). That is why the translator’s labour must be that of a conscious re-representation of history. This, of course, entails much scrupulous work of detailed historical research, as well as the ability to articulate it within the translational process.

The crux of the matter lies in being able to dwell in the interstices between two languages, two cultures and two historical periods. This is the translator’s privilege and the source of many of his tribulations. To be able to lay claim to the ability to contemplate the insurmountable differences that separate not only languages but also cultures, one is required to perceive how far one’s own consciousness depends not only on λόγος and on the chains of meanings that help one make sense of the world, but also on the points of rupture of discourse, those points where signifiers and signifieds (regardless of the language) can no longer encompass those phenomena that keep resisting appropriation, including the culture of the other. In other words, one must learn to come to terms with the undecidability which undermines the certainties offered by our ingrained logocentrism.

As the translator shifts, in the course of the translation process, from one logosphere (in the Barthesian sense) to another, he realises that the movement itself does not (actually, cannot) entail the loss or gain, subtraction or addition of meanings. Meaning does not constitute some sort of universal currency (that is, manifestations of a universal language common to all human beings) that can be subjected to a process of direct exchange or transaction. Meanings cannot migrate freely from one language to another. I can only subtract meanings within the system they belong to. Languages weave their own networks of meanings and the exact value of each meaning, if it can ever be assessed, is to be determined only symptomatically by the effects generated by its presence or absence in one particular social and cultural context. To believe in the transferability of the meaning and its capacity to survive as a whole in two distinct linguistic and cultural environments (as in a process of ecesis) is not to realise something that Derrida pointed out: that even within the same language meanings not only differ (a problem of spacing), but are forever deferred (which is the condition of their temporality). One of the main problems of translation, therefore, is not just spatiality but also temporality, particularly the historical condition of the texts.

And this, I think, poses an obstacle far more difficult to overcome, since it has to do with the impossibility for the translator to render two externalities compatible in one single (target) text. Just as Hutchinson was compelled, as an expatriate, to come to terms with the social and cultural reality of his host country[4] (which is, for all purposes, a question of spatiality), so the translator, like a migrant travelling through time, is forced to come to grips with an ancient world governed by laws long forsaken and now irretrievable (the question of temporality). And since both writer and translator are forever barred from a fully unmediated contact with the unconsciously lived culture of the Other, both seeing it as something external to themselves, though not necessarily negative, their attempts to assimilate cultural elements and national idiosyncrasies can only take place on the terrain of the imaginary, which enables them to crop, select, filter and reshape elements and idiosyncrasies in order to discursively tame the otherness. It is when the translator is trying to tackle texts of this nature that he feels – to allude to one of Derrida’s most quoted metaphors, borrowed from Shakespeare – that ‘time is out of joint’, namely that he is supposed to take up the writer’s voice, but without being able to adjust either to the discursive and ideological framework within which the texts once gained their coherence, or to the past ‘structure of feeling’ (to use one of Raymond Williams’s concepts of cultural analysis) that informed the emotions, thoughts and actions of the original writer (Williams 1965: 64-6).

Translators of travel writing therefore have to operate on a double disjuncture. On the one hand, they have to deal with the cultural gap that exists between the author and the people he visits (Hutchinson and the Portuguese), a gap which over-determines the perceptions, constructs, responses and projections of otherness of the British expat, but which -- since it is barely made explicit in the text -- can only be detected by means of a symptomatic reading. On the other hand, translators have to negotiate the disjunction that will always separate them from the time and the concrete conditions under which the texts saw the light of day -- a disjunction that is further amplified by the impossibility of mapping the exact location of the intersection of cultures which gives the letters their characteristic intercultural tension (see Cronin 2000: 6). Therefore, the translator is left with no choice but to try to overcome these two disjunctions, both of which constitute distinct moments of resistance to interpretation.

The translator’s path is strewn with obstacles, for the minute he or she starts translating the text that distinction is no longer clear: the two moments overlap and the barriers between them become blurred, since his or her gaze is constructed in and through the gaze of the expatriate. How can we then circumvent the limitations to translation that such a double disjuncture imposes? Of course a careful, detailed investigation into the empirical elements offered by the letters and the issues broached therein must always be conducted, but this is not enough: it can only be through a critical awareness of these tensions and resistances that translators may decentre themselves and avoid the pitfalls of identification and idealisation. It is this decentring at the core of translation that ends up being in itself a form of travelling. After all, ‘translatio’ in Latin means ‘carrying across’, ‘transporting’, ‘transferring’, and, in contrast to what we may think, it is not the source text that is ‘carried across’ to a target culture. It is rather the translator and his reader who are invited to venture across a frontier -- the frontier that sets the limits to their identities, values and representations, and that is both spatial and temporal.

In fact, the main challenges to the translation of these letters were posed by the problem of temporality, that is, by the difficulties of bridging the time gap. The first issue to be tackled was the stylistics of the Portuguese target text. It was not just a matter of finding the best equivalents and transferring contents from the source text into the target language without major semantic losses. It was also a matter of finding a style and a register that could somehow match the original ones. In order to do that, I compared the letters to similar archival and bibliographical sources in Portuguese. Two manuals of commercial correspondence proved invaluable: Arte da correspondência commercial ou modelos de cartas para toda a qualidade de operações mercantis [The Art of Commercial Letter Writing or Letter Templates for all Sorts of Trade Operations] (Anon.; 1824) and Monlon’s Arte da correspondência commercial ou escolha de cartas sobre o commercio [The Art of Commercial Letter Writing or a Selection of Business Letters] (1857), the only key style manuals of the day in this area still available for consultation in the Portuguese National Library. The analysis of the examples of letters allowed me to determine the way in which the target text was to be drafted.

One of the most complicated aspects I had to deal with was choosing the mode of address: the original letters invariably start with ‘Dear Brother’, and then the addressee is always referred to with the second person personal pronoun ‘you’. In Portuguese, this is not so linear. In the early nineteenth century, modes of address would have varied according not only to social class, age or degree of familiarity, but also to written language conventions. ‘You’ could be translated either as ‘Tu’ (too informal; the verb is conjugated in the second person singular), ‘Você’ (slightly more formal; the verb is conjugated in the third person singular), ‘Vossa Mercê’ (idem), or ‘Vós’ (more formal; verb conjugated in the second person plural), among several other possibilities. Back then, a relationship with a brother-in-law, close as it might have been, did not necessarily imply the use of the informal ‘tu’, since informality and closeness are not synonyms. The way Hutchinson closed the letters (‘Your ever Affectionate Brother’) bears witness to such emotional proximity, but it is far from being indicative of a relaxed, informal manner. The solution to the difficulty in ascertaining whether we were dealing with informality or politeness was partly given by the 1824 manual. The plural ‘Vós’ is used when addressing both singular and plural persons, but in some cases all we have is the initial ‘V—’, which could stand either for ‘Vós’, ‘Você’ or ‘Vossa Mercê’. When the ‘V—’; form occurs, the verb is conjugated in the third person singular, midway between formality and affable politeness. This was the form I resorted to throughout.

Another difficulty had to do with wording. The manuals proved useful in guiding my lexical choices. I wanted to give the translation a distinctive period flavour to represent the historical dimension of the original letters. For example, ‘company’ could be translated either as ‘sociedade’ or ‘empresa’, but these words barely appear in the 1824 manual, especially when referring to one’s own company. Instead, the commonest word is ‘caza’ [House] sometimes ‘caza de commercio’ (dated spelling), which I decided to adopt. Many more old-fashioned or outdated Portuguese words that appear in the manual were likewise retrieved: ‘embolço’ [imbursement]; ‘estimar’ [to believe; to guess];  ‘fazer-se de vella’ [to set sail]; ‘governo’ [management]; ‘sortimento’ [assortment]; ‘sortir’ [to sort; to provide]; ‘praça’ [exchange or financial centre; market]; ‘rogar’ [to beseech]. The manual was equally useful in providing formulaic language that was pretty close to some passages in Hutchinson’s letters: ‘Sacámos hoje sobre vós pelo importe da factura (…) L... a 60 dias á ordem de…’ [Today we drew on you for the sum of £… at sixty days]; ‘Vosso reverente servidor’ [Your very Obedient Servant]; ‘Por esta confirmamos a nossa circular de (…) desde a qual ainda não tivemos a satisfação de receber alguma vossa…’ [Without any of your Favors since mine of the … I have now to inform you…].

Another challenge was related to the commercial jargon both in English and in Portuguese. Nowadays commercial terminology in both languages is much more complex, but most of the neologisms that currently exist in Portuguese are English words. Back then, that influence was more tenuous. In any case, the search for the right equivalent would have always been time-consuming. ‘Bill’ alone, for instance, could be equivalent to as many things as ‘letra’, ‘letra de câmbio’, ‘saque’, ‘promissória’, ‘papel comercial’, ‘título de comércio’, ‘factura’, or ‘facturação’. If we multiply this by the wide spectrum of nomenclatures related to those areas of economic activity Hutchinson was directly or indirectly involved in, we have an idea of the complexity of the task.

To start with, there were the inner workings of the wool trade business. I had to unwind the ball of yarn of the English wool and worsted industry, including all the details concerning the different stages of the manufacturing process: recognising the provenance and differences in quality of the raw wool available in both the Portuguese and Spanish markets, the various patterns of the warp and weft, the way the cloth should be cut or dressed, specific types of woollen cloths, their designs and colours, and so on. One particular stumbling block was the enigmatic ‘37 R., 6 F., 4 S., 1 T. & 11 A.’ (letter dated 9 August 1816). It took me a while before I learnt from a magazine published in London in 1804 (Tilloch 1807: 239-42) that the initials did not stand for any English or Portuguese words, but for Spanish ones. They referred to the way Spanish wool (which also included Portuguese wool) was classified: Primera or Refina (R.), Fina (F.), Segunda (S.), Tercera (T.) and Añinos (A.).

Moreover, since conducting business ventures overseas back then was not without its risks, I had to acquaint myself with the idiom used in cargo and shipping insurance, learn about risk-assessment, shipping deadlines, storage conditions, bills of lading, types of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic, and so on. But then there are also taxes and duties, customs procedures and the requirements of port authorities, the valuation of the bales in the Cocket,[5] goods lodged at the Custom House not yet dispatched -- all of this wrapped up in a language of its own, which has to be patiently disassembled, explored, digested, and then reassembled and fine-tuned in the translation process. In order to penetrate that language I had to resort to historical research once more. I visited the ‘Torre do Tombo’ (the Portuguese National Archives) and consulted the records from the customs houses that existed in Lisbon at that time: the ‘Alfândega Grande do Açúcar’, the ‘Alfândega das Sete Casas’, the ‘Alfândega da Casa dos Cinco’ and the ‘Casa da Índia’, the first of which provided invaluable information about the duties on wools and worsted, the classification of wools and of all sorts of cloths, their quantities and provenance, and so on. In the records of the ‘Casa da Índia’, the inventory of the cargo of the French ship Le Commerciant [sic], seized in the summer of 1809, reminds us of the risks faced by merchants like Hutchinson.

I adopted a domesticating approach to a certain extent, adding explanatory footnotes whenever words, phrases or referents might challenge the modern reader’s understanding of the target text. However, since the Revista de Estudos Anglo-Portugueses is aimed at a scholarly readership, it proved unnecessary to insist on the explanation of cultural or linguistic aspects that they are supposed to be already acquainted with. Differences in style between early nineteenth-century and early twenty-first-century Portuguese are noticeable, but they do not make the text less intelligible. In any case, stylistic conventions should not pose a problem for all the scholars who are used to working with documents of that period. So I kept the footnotes to a minimum. The future publication of a book containing the complete correspondence of the Farrer family, this time aiming at a more general readership, will entail a different explanatory methodology, but not a different stylistic treatment.

6. Conclusions

Writing narratives of displacement and travel is in itself a translational act, where the author is always seeking to translate into his mother tongue the manifestations of the culture of the other.[6] The translator of travel writing, in turn, operates on a double disjuncture – the gap between the author and the visited culture, on the one hand, and the gap between the translator and the author, on the other – threefold if you include the inevitable temporal disjuncture. In the process, the translator is forced to question his identity, values and the representations of his own nation and people, especially if the original text is non-fictional and therefore stakes a claim to the immediacy and truthfulness of the experience. The translator thus has to achieve a tour-de-force in bridging all three gaps and rendering the text accessible to the contemporary reader. However, the meanings in the target text will always have but a spectral relation with the ones in the source text: they are constructed at the same time as a re-apparition of a former presence (that does not present itself as full presence) and as the apparition of a new presence –a new text in its own right. This distance between the source and target texts becomes more difficult to span when historical time – fissured as it has been, in this particular case, over these past two centuries by sudden ruptures and discontinuities – keeps eroding the paths that could render the source text recognisable to the reader: hence the importance of the translator’s historical consciousness and the necessity of articulating historical research with the translation process, since any translation of historical material that disregards the intelligibility of historical processes lacks the authority to stake claims to accuracy and credibility.


Althusser, Louis (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans B. Brewster, London, New Left Books.

Bethell, Leslie (1984) Colonial Brazil, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Borges de Macedo, Jorge (1963) Problemas da História da Indústria Portuguesa no Século XVIII, PhD diss, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Casas Pardo, José (ed.) (1992) Economic effects of the European expansion, 1492-1824, Stuttgart, Steiner Verlag.

Cronin, Michael (2000) Across the Lines: Travel, Language, Translation, Cork, Cork University Press.

Fletcher, J. S. (1919) The Story of the English Town of Leeds, New York, Macmillan.

Gentzler, Edwin (1993) Contemporary Translation Theories, Clarendon, Multilingual Matters.

Glover, Michael (1976) “Beresford and His Fighting Cocks”, History Today 26, no. 4: 262-8.

Lopes, António (2009) “Cartas inéditas de um jovem burguês 1815-1817” (1.ª parte) [“Unpublished letters of a young bourgeois 1815-1817” (1st part)], Revista de Estudos Anglo Portugueses, no. 18: 93-133.

--- (2010) “Cartas inéditas de um jovem burguês 1815-1817” (2.ª parte) [‘Unpublished letters of a young bourgeois 1815-1817’ (2nd part)], Revista de Estudos Anglo Portugueses no. 19: 175-204.

Maxwell, Kenneth (2004) Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750-1808, London, Routledge.

Newitt, Malyn (2004) Lord Beresford and British Intervention in Portugal, 1807-1820, Lisbon, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais.

Pijning, Ernst (1997) “Passive resistance: Portuguese diplomacy of contraband trade during King John V’s reign (1706-1750)”, Arquipélago – História 2, no. 2, 171-191.

Polezzi, Loredana (2004) “Between Gender and Genre: The Travels of Estella Canziani” in Perspectives on Travel Writing, Glenn Hooper and Tim Youngs (eds), Aldershot, Ashgate: 121-37.

Tilloch, Alexander (1807) The Philosophical Magazine: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures and Commerce. vol. 27. London, R. Taylor.

books.google.pt/books?id=fp9JAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed 15 April 2011)

Warre William, and Edmond Warre (1909) Letters from the Peninsula, 1808-1812, London, John Murray.

Williams, Raymond (1965 [1961]) The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin.


[1] Ref. No. E 140/34/1. Records of the Exchequer: King's Remembrancer: Exhibits: Farrer (and another) v Hutchinson (and others). Scope and content: Letters to Thomas Farrer from his brother-in-law, James Hutchinson (Jnr.), in Lisbon. Covering dates: 1815-1817.

[2] Manuel J. G. de Abreu Vidal. Análise da sentença proferida no juízo da inconfidencia em 15 de Outubro de 1817 contra o Tenente General Gomes Freire de Andrade, o Coronel Manoel Monteiro de Carvalho e outros... pelo crime de alta traição. Lisboa, Morandiana, 1820; José Dionísio da Serra. Epicedio feito, e recitado em 1822 no anniversario da sempre lamentável morte do General Gomes Freire de Andrade. Paris, 1832; Joaquim Ferreira de Freitas. Memoria sobre a conspiraçaõ [sic] de 1817: vulgarmente chamada a conspiração de Gomes Freire. London, Richard and Arthur Taylor, 1822.

[3] He outlived Thomas (who died circa 1820) and was appointed executor of his brother-in-law’s estate.

[4] A process E. Gentzler (1993: 37) calls ‘domestication’.

[5] A customs office in Britain where detailed records of exports were kept.

[6] On the relation between travel and translation see Lesa Scholl (2009) “Translating Culture: Harriet Martineau’s Eastern Travels” in Travel Writing, Form, and Empire: The Poetics and Politics of Mobility, Julia Kuehn and Paul Smethurst (eds), London, Routledge; Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere (1998) Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters; and Susan Bassnett (2002) Translation Studies, London, Methuen.


About the author(s)

Antonio Manuel Bernardo Lopes, PhD in English Culture, MA in Anglo-Portuguese Studies (specialty in English Literature) and BA in Modern Languages and Literatures
(English and German), is Senior Lecturer (Professor-Adjunto) in English Studies with the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the School of Education
and Communication, University of Algarve, where he teaches English language, literature and culture, literary analysis and supervises ELT postgraduate projects. He is
also the director of studies of postgraduate programmes in ELT and translation. He is a researcher at the Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies
(FCHS/UNL and FLUP), working with the following research groups: Anglo-Portuguese Studies; Literature, Media and Discourse Analysis; British Culture and History. He
has also participated in several European-funded projects related to teacher training and computer-assisted language learning. He is currently the EUROCALL
representative in Portugal. His doctoral dissertation is entitled The Last Fight Let Us Face: Communist Discourse in Great Britain and the Spanish Civil War.

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Discourse against Discourse: The Early Reception of Sartrean Existentialism in Iran

By Marzieh Malekshahi and Ali Khazaee Farid (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran)

Abstract & Keywords

Marxist discourse and its leading propagandist in Iran, the Tudeh (Mass) Party, played such a leading role in the Pre-Revolutionary Iran that any account of the reception of other discourses in that period should include an analysis of its relation to it. Existentialism was the most important rival intellectual movement for Marxist discourse in Pre-Revolutionary Iran, both challenging Marxist discourse and being overwhelmed by it. However, the conflict between these two discourses, especially in the early stages of Existentialism’s reception, has never been fully investigated. The present paper aims to investigate, through related translations and indigenous writings, the early reception of existentialist discourse in Iran from 1941 to 1953 (from the fall of Reza Shah to the 1953 Coup), a period which coincides with the establishment of the Tudeh party, the zenith of its power and prestige and then its drastic repression. To this end, the article offers an account of the socio-political context of Iran from the 1940s (the beginning of the introduction of Existentialism in Iran) to the early 1950s with a focus on the role of the Tudeh party. An overview of the Persian translations of Sartre’s books and indigenous material on Existentialism in this period and translators’ and other agents’ profiles shows that Sartrean Existentialism, imported with different and sometimes contradictory purposes, was received mainly as an individualistic, nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy which posed a threat to the then dominant Marxist- Leninist ideology.

Keywords: Sartrean Existentialism, marxist discourse, Tudeh party, Iran, history

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1. Introduction

Knowledge, discourses and theories are produced in different ways: whether they are constructed within the borders of a culture, or imported from a different culture through the channel of translation or other forms of rewriting (e.g. original writing on the imported discourse). When discourses are imported, the process is generally thought to be easy and unobstructed. However, as Edward Said (1983: 226) states, the transfer of knowledge and theory to the new environment is by no means easy and discourses undergo many transformations during the process. Said observes a recognizable and universal pattern in the transfer of theories and claims that each idea or theory goes through three or four stages in the process of its importation. First of all, there is a starting point, or what seems to be a starting point, a set of initial conditions in which an idea is born or enters into a discourse. The second stage is the distance which the theory or idea travels to find a new significance in its new environment. In the third stage, there are sets of conditions that are called reception or resistance conditions encountered by the immigrant idea or theory. In the fourth stage, an idea that is now completely or incompletely assimilated undergoes many transformations and finds new applications (Said, 1983: 226-227). Said’s report on the migration of theories, however, is taken to task by Susam-Sarajeva (2006) on account of the fact that it totally ignores the role played by the translations and translators, as if theory could be transferred without being translated. 

Venuti (2006: 106) also refers to the neglect of translation in philosophical research and states:

philosophy does not escape the embarrassment that faces contemporary academic disciplines when confronted with the problem of translation. In philosophical research widespread dependence on translated texts coincides with neglect of their translated status, a general failure to take into account the differences introduced by the fact of translation.

According to Venuti (2006: 106), philosophical thinking has long created concepts based on the native versions of foreign texts, but these native versions are generally considered to be transparent, and the influence of native culture and language on the created concepts has been ignored.

Despite the general neglect of translation in many fields of study, over the past few decades, migration of theories and discourses through translation has attracted many researchers from the field of Translation Studies. Some of these scholars have sought to propose new approaches to address the migration of discourses, while others have foreshadowed the pattern of transmission and reception of these discourses. Some others, like Susam-Sarajeva (2006) have tried to account for the migration of theories through conducting (multiple-) case studies within the framework of Descriptive Translation Studies. Since it is not possible to address all these studies in present paper, two examples will be provided.

Robbins (1994: 408-409) puts forward a model for the transmission and reception of discourses through translation, and believes that the target culture may adopt a different stance towards the discursive elements of the alien. In his view, if when confronting with a new discourse, the otherness is ignored, the target culture has an imperialist position. If otherness is acknowledged but transformed, the target culture or discourse has a defensive stance. If the target culture or discourse does not prevent the entrance of foreign discourses, the target culture is said to have a trans-discursive stand. And finally, if the target culture encourages the introduction of new discourses, it has a defective stance and is in the position of weakness.

Dangchao (2014) proposes an approach for studying the migration of theories, which he believes is new from three perspectives: first, unlike many studies on the transfer of theories which mainly focus on the moving theories, in this approach the reception of the theories in different times and places is emphasized. Second, in this new approach, in addition to discursive issues emphasized by the previous approaches, the relation between discursive conditions and material conditions is also explored, so that in addition to the study of translated texts, the interaction between discourse and practice is also studied. Finally, in this new approach, the complexities of power relations affecting the transfer or non-transfer of theories are also examined. According to Dangchao (2014), there are powers at work that facilitate the transfer of certain theories and prevent the transfer of some other theories.

Despite recent international focus on the role of translation in the migration of theories, in Iran modern discourses and theories are often discussed without any reference to the role of translation and translators in constructing them. In Iran, many modern discourses and theories are products of translation. This does not mean that some elements of these discourses have not been previously present in Persian literary and philosophical works, but it means that such discourses and theories as coherent sets of knowledge, philosophy and theory and with a specific purpose and worldview are products of translation and importation from different cultures. However, few studies have been carried out in this regard and even in those few studies the role of translation in introducing and constructing new discourses has been totally ignored. For example, in a book called Existentialism and Modern Persian literature (2013), which explores the introduction of existential discourse into modern Persian literature, there is no mention of translators and translations as a channel through which this discourse has been introduced and represented. To overcome this shortcoming, the present paper aims to study the early reception of Sartrean Existentialism in Iran with a focus on the role of translation.

Following Rundle’s distinction between historical and scientific methods in Historical Translation Studies (Rundle 2012), the present study aims to study the reception of Existentialism as a specific historical phenomenon and avoid yielding a general account of the role of translation and translators in the immigration of the theories by applying the pre-prepared theories and hypotheses which defy the purpose of history which is seeking the specific in any situation. Thus, as Rundle suggests the results may interest a wider range of audience, historians as well as Translation Studies scholars.

Existentialism is one of the major foreign discourses that dominated the intellectual life of Iran for decades. In Iran, Existentialism is mostly associated with the name of Sartre, so much so that from the very beginning of Sartre’s importation to Iran, he was hailed as the father of Existentialism. One of the first articles to introduce Existentialism was “Sartr va Falsafeh-ye Jadid” [Sartre and the New Philosophy] published in the journal Sokhan in 1946. As the title suggests, Sartre was introduced to Iranian readers as the founder of this philosophy. As Susam-Sarajeva (2006: 1) states, ‘‘theories do not travel on their own, but often under the name of well-known writers.’’ This was also the case with Existentialism when it reached Iran. Although in the years after the Existentialist boom in Iran, Iranian philosophers and theologians took an interest in other branches of this philosophic movement including Heideggerian and religious Existentialism, what dominated the minds of many Iranian writers and intellectuals was French and, in particular, Sartrean Existentialism. The purpose of this article is to explore the reception of this branch of Existentialism which proved to be an important intellectual movement in Iran for more than three decades.

In order to understand Existentialism in Iran, we must first understand the important role that Marxist discourse and its leading propagandist, the Tudeh party, played in pre-revolutionary Iran. The conflict between these two discourses in Iran, especially in the early stages of Existentialism’s reception, has never been fully investigated. This article aims to investigate the early reception of Existentialist discourse in Iran from 1941 to 1953 (from the fall of Reza Shah to the 1953 Coup), a period which coincides with the establishment of the Tudeh party, its rise to popularity with intellectuals and, finally, its severe repression.

2. The Socio-political Context of Iran from 1941 to 1953

The Importation of Sartrean Existentialism to Iran goes back to the second half of the 1940s, in the early years of Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. Mohammad Reza came to power during World War II following his father, Reza Shah, who was dethroned by Anglo-Soviet forces. This period coincides with “the sudden rise to public prominence of French Existentialism as an intellectual movement in the 1940s” (Baert 2011: 619).

During the sixteen years of Reza Shah’s rule, power was exclusively in the hands of the king, but during the following twelve years, from the fall of Reza Shah in 1941 to the 1953 Coup, where Mohammad Reza Shah, in collaboration with the British and American governments, overthrew the democratically-elected Prime-minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, power was held by five pillars of the establishment, each with their own internal conflicts: the court, the parliament, the cabinet, foreign embassies and the public (Abrahamian 1982). During these 12 years, the country experienced many social changes and political crises.

As a result of the relative freedom of the period 1941-53, various parties were established and various periodicals emerged. Among the many parties that had been active in these years, only six continued to operate in the following years as national organizations. These parties included the Tudeh party, which mostly appealed to the intelligentsia and the urban working class; Hezb-e Hamrahan [the Comrades Party]; Hezb-e Iran [the Iran Party]; Hezb-e Adalat [the Justice Party]; Hezb-e Etthad- Melli [the National Union Party]; and Hezb-e Vatan, [the Fatherland Party] (Abrahamian 1982). Among these parties, the pro-Soviet Tudeh party soon became very influential by recruiting members transversally from different social classes and became the main political party in Iranian society challenging Mohammad Reza Shah’s government with its Marxist-Leninist ideology.

At the beginning, the Tudeh party was a democratic and popular front. Until 1946, the Party leadership was a combination of Marxist and Social-Democrat elements, with its Marxist members exerting much more influence. Since the party supported democratic and popular aspirations and since the popularity of the Soviet Union was increasing at that time, the party managed to recruit many young and educated people. But perhaps the most important attraction of the party for the young and educated was its capability for publishing new European ideas. The party was the focal point for those who were interested in these ideas (Katouzian 1992). The party recruited not only a relatively broad spectrum of white collar workers and craftsmen, but also many prominent intellectuals who enjoyed a high status in Iranian society (Abrahamian 2010). Ehsan Tabari (1948a: 3), a founding member and theoretician of the Tudeh party, said at the time:

Our party [...] not only sees itself as an initiator of a social, political, and economic resurrection, but also, and rightly so, as an initiator of a great spiritual resurrection. This spiritual and intellectual resurrection, like the social resurrection, is achieved only as a result of a serious struggle on all ideological fronts including philosophy, art and science. There should be no impartiality in this spiritual and intellectual struggle, as in the social, political, and economic struggle.[1]

Although, from the very beginning, Socialist Realism, the official literary and artistic school of the Soviet Union, attracted the Tudeh party members, it was not until 1947 that it dominated most of its literary productions. In the early years of the Tudeh party’s activity, the advocates of various literary and artistic schools were allowed to freely write about their favorite schools in its periodicals even when they were banned in the Soviet Union (Khosropanah 2010). According to Mir-Abedini (2001: 132), “in the early years of its activity, [the party] offered the pages of its publications to anyone willing to cooperate.” This meant that the publications of the party did not just host Russian socialist realism but other literary currents as well. In fact, it can be claimed that the Tudeh party, while using intellectual writers and translators to promote its ideology, also provided them with an opportunity to publish their own ideas. However, in the later years of its activity, the party’s publications were mainly focused on an ideology that served the interests of the Soviet Union.

The Tudeh party’s unconditional support for the Soviet Union in the later years, especially in the events of Azerbaijan, led to widespread dissatisfaction on the part of many intellectuals and writers. A crisis broke out when the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, Tudeh’s sister party, was suppressed by the central government of Iran following an attempt by the party to form an independent state in the north west of Iran. After the defeat of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party in 1945-46, a split occurred in the Tudeh party and a group of intellectuals led by Khalil Maleki left the party in 1948 and some of the party leaders had to move abroad (Behrooz 2001; Katouzian 1992).

The crisis that followed the suppression of the soviet-supported revolt in Azerbaijan and the reorganization of the party in 1946, which led to its severe ideologization, along with the greater restrictions imposed by the Soviet Communist Party on writers and artists from 1944 to 1948 undermined literary and artistic pluralism in the Tudeh party and strengthened socialist realism. Gradually the principles, criteria and foundations of socialist realism were accepted by a large number of party members, and eventually socialist realism not only became the artistic and literary ideology of the Tudeh party of Iran but, with some adjustments, it became the theoretical basis of literature and revolutionary and popular art in Iran for four decades (Khosropanah 2010). The political and cultural ideology of the Tudeh party and the Soviet literature it advocated, affected the literary production of many Iranian writers and poets such as Abdul-Hossein Noushin, Mahmoud Etemadzadeh (Behazin), and Siavash Kasrai. However, this impact was ambivalent; on the one hand, it supported and promoted a new type of literature, but, on the other, it prevented the development of a free literature due to its ideological nature (Akbariani 2010).

In 1948, the Tudeh party faced another crisis, which led to the dissolution of the party by the government. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was the victim of an assassination attempt during a ceremony at the University of Tehran that year. The government blamed the Tudeh party, which was dissolved and forced to go underground. Since many of its leaders were arrested and the party had little experience in underground activities, the crisis posed a serious threat to its survival. However, since the government was not strong enough at the time to impose a brutal repression, the party soon managed to reorganize by creating a number of front organizations and publications in order to compensate for its inability to function openly. After that, the Tudeh party became a full member of the International Communist Front. (Behrooz 2001; Katouzian 1992).

With the start of the Oil Nationalization Movement led by Mosaddegh, a prominent parliamentarian and prime minister from 1951-1953, the Tudeh party became one of the main actors in the political scene in Iran. The party’s opposition to some of Mosaddegh’s views played an important role in the movement. After public protests that led to the re-election of the prime minister Mosaddegh, who had resigned because the Shah had refused to give him the control of the Ministry of Defence, the party changed its course and supported Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh’s government was overthrown in the wake of the 1953 Coup believed to be plotted by Mohammad-Reza Shah in collaboration with the United Kingdom and the United States (Behrooz 2001). The Tudeh party failed to take effective action against the coup. In the aftermath of the coup, the government suppressed the party’s organizations, arresting, torturing and executing some of its members (Behrooz 2001). Consequently, many party leaders were forced to leave Iran. They fled to the Eastern bloc, many of them staying there until the Islamic Revolution in 1979 (Behrooz 2001; Katouzian 2004). According to Abrahamian (2010:224), “Mohammad Reza Shah praised the 1953 coup as a bloodless revolution by the courageous people of Iran in support of their king. The American President, Eisenhower, […] told Americans that the “people” of Iran had “saved their country” as a result of their “intense aversion to communism” and their “lasting and deep love for their king”.

As observed by Baqer Momeni (2012), a historian and former member of the Tudeh party, the impact of the Tudeh party on the political and cultural atmosphere of Iran was so great that even after seventy years, it is acknowledged by writers and scholars from various, even opposing, intellectual and social fronts. Momeni (2012) states:

one of the reformists and journalists of the Islamic Republic who believes that after seventy years the Tudeh party of Iran has turned into a “historic subject” and “is almost dead” writes, “but the Party continues to be the theme of our time because the mind and language of Iranian society are heavily influenced by Tudeh language and literature, and from 1940s to 1990s Tudeh intellectualism has dominated the intellectual discourse in Iran.” While he believes that “Marxism is more than foolish in its essence,” he acknowledges the history of the Tudeh party of Iran not only as “the intellectual history of the leftist discourse, but also the intellectual history of Iran”.

As already mentioned, the period described coincides with the boom of Existentialism in France after World War II. In this period, Sartre and Existentialism were introduced to Iranians both through translations and indigenous writing.

3. Sartre's Reception from 1941 to 1953

During these 12 years, five fictional works by Sartre were translated and published in Iran and a book entitled Makateb-e Falsafi: Existancializm [Philosophical Schools: Existentialism] was written in 1948 by Hossein Kasmaie. The number of articles published on Sartre and Existentialism was small. Table 1 provides a complete list of Sartre’s works translated in this period.



Date of publication
of the translation

Persian title

Date of publication
of the original

Original title

Sokhan Journal

Sadeq Hedayat




“Le Mur” in “Le Mur” collection

Mardom Journal

Abdul-Hossein Noushin


Ruspi-ye Bozorgavar


La putain respectueuse

Farhang-e Iran

Amir-naser Khodayar




“Érostrate” in “Le Mur” collection


Mustafa Farzaneh




Huis clos


Jalal Al-e Ahmad


Dastha-ye Aludeh


Les mains sales

Table 1: list of translations of Sartre’s works 1941-53

During this period, it seems that Sartre’s works were selected and translated in a rather unsystematic way. However, a closer look at the list of translators and publishers suggests that Sartre was imported with specific political and cultural agendas. Unlike later periods, in this period the translators of Sartre’s works were mostly intellectuals or writers with clear socio-political orientations. A study of the professional profile of the translators and other agents will clarify the motivations underlying the importation of Sartre’s ideas, and provide a better understanding of the conflict between Existentialist discourse and the Marxist-Leninist discourse propagated by the Tudeh party, a conflict which becomes clearer with the wider translation of Sartre’s works after the Coup. It also responds to the recent calls in Translation Studies to focus on translators, e.g. Pym 1998. In his book, Method in Translation History, Pym (1988: ix) argues that “the central object of historical knowledge” should be the translators not the texts of the translations or the contextual systems “since only humans have the kind of responsibility appropriate to social causation”.

Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951) who is regarded by many as the father of modern Persian fiction, was the first to introduce Sartre to Iranian readers by translating one of his short stories called “le Mur”. Amenkhani (2013 ) sees the kinship of Hedayat’s thoughts with the writings of existentialist writers and the popularity of existentialist writers in European intellectual circles during Hedayat’s life as the main reasons underlying Hedayat’s attention to existentialist writers, including Sartre, and says: “So it should not be a surprise that the most modern author of our country isn’t indifferent to the works and writings of the most modern writers and philosopher of his time” (Amenkhani 2013:46).

The socio-political situation in which this translation was carried out as well as the professional profile of Hedayat and his association with the Tudeh party, leads us to attribute some other motives to him. There are various accounts of the relationship between Hedayat and the Tudeh party, but in almost all of these, there is agreement that despite his initial sympathy with the Tudeh party, Hedayat was never a member of the party, regularly criticizing its leaders and policies. In his book called Chehar Chehreh [Four Portraits], Khamei (1989: 167) says:

In those years, from 1941 to 1946, Hedayat was somewhat inclined to the Tudeh party and the Leftist Movement and was at the same time mistrustful of Fascism and Nazism, hence his celebration of the victory of the Allies in the war. In spite of huge pressure from the Tudeh party leaders to join the party, he did not do so. He did not join any party or group in all his life. He hated everything related to political parties and refused to compromise his individual freedom whatever the cost.

At a time when the hegemony of the Tudeh party attracted intellectuals from a variety of spheres, Hedayat was often considered to belong to an intellectual current that, although very small at that time, had a more philosophical and profound approach to social affairs, a current which was perhaps initiated by Hedayat himself through his translations of works by Kafka and Sartre. So, it is not unlikely that one of his intentions in introducing Sartre was to introduce ideas which could challenge the ruling ideology of the Tudeh party. As Ehsan Tabari[2] (n.d.) argues:

Hedayat was never a member of the Tudeh party of Iran. His philosophical vision was close to those of Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was fond of Franz Kafka, the German speaking Czech writer. He was inherently pessimistic, calling life a kind of biological imposition of nature […] However, due to his hatred of the Pahlavi family, he was interested in our party as a party which was against the monarchy [...] after the failure of the democratic movement in Azerbaijan, some people provoked him strongly against the party, and succeeded in making him write an introduction to a translation of Kafka’s book by Hassan Qa’imian, explicitly reproaching socialism.

The story of Le Mur is full of existential themes such as despair, death and emptiness. Existentialist ideas such as the random nature of life and the absence of causal relationships in the world, as are evident in this story, are strongly opposed to the Marxist- Leninist ideas prevalent at that time.  Even if we doubt that Hedayat’s intention in introducing Sartre was to challenge the communist ideas of the party, his work ultimately came to perform this function. In an article written in the form of a dialogue between a disillusioned intellectual (intended to represent Hedayat) and a party member, entitled Guft-o- gu ba yek Roshanfekr-e Ma’ious [A Talk to a Disillusioned Intellectual], Ehsan Tabari attributes the melancholic thoughts of the disillusioned intellectual who has given up fighting to the pessimistic philosophy of Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and says:

Your thoughts are a collection of those decadent thoughts which have flourished in the old world, the recent deteriorating world. The philosophy of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre […] and so on, all stem from one thing, and that is the belief that the current system of society has fallen into disrepair. Only those who have found the way to a better and superior system, to a better future are optimistic. All those who do not believe in another way and who remain in the prison of today, since they do not see anything except chaos and futility around them, believe in futility and chaos. These thoughts are not the truth, but a reflection of the state of the present time (Tabari 1978: 266-7).

In the article, the author refers to the classifications and changes of the human society based on definitive party formulas; a future which, according to Tabari (1357/1978), is not contemplated in the absurdist philosophies such as Existentialism, due to their excessive attention to the current disrupted state of society. In Tabari’s view, only a better and superior system, such as the Marxist-Leninist intellectual system, can help people out of the current situation. The party member speaking in the article then invites the disillusioned intellectual to abandon Existentialism and convert to Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and says:

Do not adhere to a philosophy which is the child of the same sentimental feelings that have nurtured the parasites of the society and has given birth to many betrayals and much mischief. Follow a philosophy that brings down the wall of despair and ignorance which has obstructed our path towards the future and which creates a truly lovely thing called justice. Let’s walk in this great temple of justice with faith and without any devilish doubt (Tabari 1978: 272).

Tabari was well aware of the challenge that the “pessimistic” philosophy of Existentialism, which he as an ideologue of the Tudeh party attributed to Hedayat, posed against partisan thinking. In fact, Tabari’s stance against Existentialism was the crystallization of a deep-rooted conflict between Marxism and Existentialism in general, the former enjoying a hegemonic status in Iran during that time and defining the latter in terms of its own formulas.

The publication of the translation of Le Mur in the journal Sokhan confirms the hypothesis that Existentialism was introduced as part of an effort to challenge the ideology propagated by the Tudeh party. The aim of the journal was to help promote the development of Persian literature, literary criticism, literary research, and to introduce foreign writers and poets through translation (Sadeqzadeh-Ardobadi 2013). Specifically, the journal Sokhan, which was published for 27 years, showed an increasing interest in Existentialist philosophers and thinkers as the modern writers of the era. Khanlari, a professor of Persian literature at the University of Tehran, established the journal in 1943. In contrast to the Tudeh party’s periodicals, which mostly promoted Russian socialist realist literature, Sokhan mainly promoted French literature. Khanlari seems to have been attracted to the Tudeh party until the events of Azerbaijan in 1946, but he was never a member of the party.

An examination of the content of this journal with its emphasis on French literature in a period in which Russian literature and the Soviet communist system were praised and promoted by many Iranian intellectuals reinforces the previously mentioned hypothesis that the introduction of existentialist writers in this period was also initiated in order to pose a challenge against the dominant ideology of the Tudeh party. In 1946, the journal published an article entitled “Sartre va Falsafe-ye Jadid” [Sartre and a New Philosophy]. Written by Fereydoun Hoveyda, the article was probably the first article on Sartre and Existentialism in Iran. The title of the article reflects the author’s attempt to introduce Sartre as the initiator of a new philosophy. Although the article is apparently not written to contest leftist discourse, it does challenge it. The article begins as follows:

In France, more than any other country, new literary and philosophical trends have always followed the great revolutions and social transformations. After the extinction of feudalism in the late 16th century, the classical style was popularized. After the 1789 revolution, romanticism flourished; realism arose in the aftermath of the war of 1870 and the Commune revolution, and after the 1918-1914 war, surrealism appeared. Now, in a period of peace, a new philosophical and literary style has appeared which the French call the philosophy of existence or Existentialism (Hoveyda 1946 :58).

From the very beginning, the author suggests that France has a great potential for the development of great intellectual schools when compared to other countries, and perhaps creates an opposition in the mind of the reader between France as a Western European country and the Soviet Union, which was a promised land to many intellectuals of that time. The emphasis on the emergence of these great schools after the great revolutions and transformations is also a reminder of the socio-political conditions in Iran at that time. Hoveyda (1946) speaks of the passion and emotion that Sartre had created in France and other countries, including the United States, Western and Asian countries, and adds “there has not been such a significant literary movement since the rise of Surrealism in the 1920s and philosophical discussions have not been so intense since Bergson’s ideas were first published” (Hoveyda 1946: 58). It can be argued that this article tends to promote rather than just introduce Sartre and his philosophy at a time when the Marxist-Leninist discourse was the dominant intellectual discourse in Iran.

La putain respectueuse was the second work by Sartre which was translated into Persian in 1946. The play was translated by Abdul-Hossein Noushin, a playwright, theater director and a leading member of the Tudeh party. He was one of the first to import Western theatrical works into Iran, and his translation of Sartre was part of this initiative.

However, considering the association of Noushin with the Tudeh party and the attitude of Party officials towards Existentialism and Sartre, the publication of this play in the official journal of the party may seem strange at first. An examination of the Party’s activities in the early years sheds some light on this issue. It seems that, in the early years of its activity, the party would resort to any conceivable means to promote its cause. Mirabedini (2001:132) speaks of the collaboration of certain people with the Party who previously were “proponents of Reza Shah’s Ideas”:

Of course, intellectuals are not alone in violating the principles, the party also, in the first years of its activity, offers the pages of its periodicals to anyone willing to cooperate.

Although the Tudeh party advocated socialist realism in literature and art from the outset, it did not boycott the poets and writers who followed other artistic currents, even writers such as Sartre and Kafka, who, at that time, were banned and considered decadent in the Soviet Union (Khosropanah 2010).

After the split in the Tudeh party in 1948, this literary pluralism was gradually abandoned, so much so that in 1948 Ehsan Tabari and his followers denounced the artistic and philosophical schools which they saw as capitalist and decadent. They did this through a series of aggressive essays published in Mahname-ye Mardom [People’s Monthly], the Tudeh party’s main literary and political journal. The titles of some of these essays are revealing enough: for example, Inqilab va Enhetat-e Honary (1948) [Revolution and Artistic Decline], Tozihati Chand Darbare-ye Maghale-ye Engheleb va Enhetat-e Honari (1948) [Some explanation on the essay “Revolution and Artistic Decline”], Jebhe-haye Inqilabi va Enhetati Honar (1948) [The Revolutionary and Decadent Fronts of Art]. In these essays, Sartre and his philosophy of Existentialism, which were previously introduced and advocated in the Tudeh party periodicals, were harshly criticized.

As was mentioned, in the early years of the party’s activities, the Tudeh publications, while placing emphasis on Russian literature and the Marxist-Leninist discourse, also embraced other discourses, though on a smaller scale. By doing this, the Party pursued two goals: to attract a variety of intellectuals from different fronts, and to co-opt other influential discourses to advance its goals. The latter seems to have been one of the reasons underlying the translation of La putain respectueuse by Noushin and its publication in the party’s periodical. The selection of this particular book for translation, and the translator’s preface suggest that the translator’s goal was not to promote Existentialism but to promote the political ideas of the Tudeh party. Unlike many of Sartre’s works which have a clearly philosophical theme, showing the general condition of mankind in the world, a theme which did not appeal to the Tudeh party, La putain respectueuse, has a very clear political theme: American racism. So, not only did the content of the play not challenge the anti-imperialist ideology of the Tudeh party, but it also helped to promote its cause. Nevertheless, Noushin (2537/ 1978) does not mention this in the preface of the translation; rather, by exploiting Marxist discourse, he claims that Sartre’s aim is to scorn bourgeois ethics, an ethics that is also heavily criticized by Marxism.

The third work by Sartre to be translated was a short story in the Le Mur collection entitled “Érostrate”. Amir-Nasser Khodayar (1923-2005), a translator, writer and journalist, translated it into Persian in 1948. Like many intellectuals of the time, Khodayar was initially interested in the Tudeh party, and worked closely with people like Abdul Hossein Noushin and Khalil Maleki. Later, due to further contact with Khalil Maleki, he joined Niro-ye Sevvom [Third Force], a group led by Maleki that broke away from the Tudeh party, and became a critic of the Tudeh party’s policies (Rasoulipour 1384/ 2005). The selection of a short story from the Le Mur collection previously introduced by Hedayat signals the significance of Hedayat as an initiator of a discourse on Sartre and Existentialism, a discourse which was gradually developed by other intellectuals of the time to both challenge and help define the dominant discourse of the Tudeh party.

The fourth work by Sartre to be translated into Persian was Huis clos in 1948, the same year as “Érostrate”. Unlike the other translators of Sartre, the translator of this work, Mustafa Farzaneh, was a young and novice translator who had the opportunity to meet and co-operate with Sadeq Hedayat. He later wrote a memoire of his friendship with Hedayat entitled Ashenaie ba Sadeq Hedayat (1988) [My Acquaintance with Sadeq Hedayat]. Being a disciple of someone who introduced Sartre into Iran encouraged Farzaneh, who translated short texts for different periodicals at the time, to translate a play by Sartre. According to Farzaneh (1988), Hedayat reviewed the translation and the translator’s preface. Although Hedayat only managed to translate one of Sartre’s works, by introducing Sartre to Iranians for the first time, he created a path for other translators to follow. The name of Hedayat and Sartre were linked so closely at the time that following Hedayat’s disputes with the Tudeh party, Ehsan Tabari attacked The Blind Owl - Hedayat’s most famous novel - and the French Existentialists. This attack clearly shows that at that time the Tudeh party identified Hedayat with the Existentialist movement, a movement which his student and close friend, Mustafa Farzaneh, also aligned himself with by translating Huis clos.

Farzane’s introduction to the translation can help us clarify the conflict between these two discourses. Like Hoveyda, Farzaneh (1948) identifies Existentialist philosophy with Sartre in his introduction, and from the very beginning tries to emphasize its novelty, which he sees as a privilege. By emphasizing the “newness”, “uniqueness” and “popularity” of Sartre’s philosophy he was challenging the dominant Marxist-Leninist intellectual discourse. Farzaneh goes on to say that Sartre does not believe in “Art for Art’s sake”, a remark which was intended both to guard against possible attack from the ruling discourse, which saw literature and art in the service of ideology, and to introduce another discourse favoring a committed from of literature. Farzaneh then introduces and interprets the play, raising a series of points that are clearly in opposition to the dominant Marxist-Leninist discourse.

The translator’s emphasis on the experiences of the individual, portraying him in a hostile society surrounded by other people who not only limit his freedom but also see each other as objects creating a hell-like situation from which there is no escape, was in sharp contrast to the historical materialism supported by the Tudeh party. Historical materialism has a different approach to the relationship between individual and society and sees mankind as an inherently social being. For Marxists, the individual is a kind of abstraction, and all human achievements are the result of collective action, and as a result of this collective effort society can reach its final stage after going through different temporary phases (Novack 1966). In his book entitled Darbare-ye Seresht va Sarnevesht-e Ensan [On the Nature and Fate of Man], Ehsan Tabari (n.d.)  refers to Existentialism as a pessimistic philosophy which depicts a tragic destiny for man and argues that, “Marxism dismisses these pessimistic views and believes that man is not an absurd, despicable, inferior creature with a tragic destiny, but […] the peak of the evolution of the organic world, possessing a huge capacity for growing and evolving to overcome difficulties, to pave the way for victory” Tabari (n.d.:18-19).

The fifth and the last work by Sartre to be translated into Persian before the 1953 coup was Les mains sales. This play was translated by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, a writer, intellectual and a former member of the Tudeh party. Following the events of Azerbaijan and the split in the Tudeh party, Al-e-Ahmad also separated from the party in 1948 along with Maleki and became one of its severest critics. One of the reasons he left the Party was its support for the Soviet Union (Al-e-Ahmad 1978). According to Amenkhani (2013: 48) the reason for Al-e-Ahmad’s interest in Existentialist ideas was his frustration with the Tudeh party and – any kind of collective activity:  

One of the main characteristics of Existentialism is its emphasis on individualism. Though, the “other” is also considered, [...], it must be admitted that Existentialism, especially its French branch, begins with individualism, and if it pays attention to the other, it is for the sake of studying the individual. Al-e-Ahmad also turned to individualism after his frustration with the Tudeh party and collective activities. For this reason, after he left the party in 1947, he translated many works by Existentialist philosophers such as Camus and Sartre, and writers who deal with Existentialist ideas, such as Dostoevsky and Gide, because their individualism appealed to him. 

Despite what Amenkhani claims, after leaving the Tudeh party Al-e-Ahmad did not completely dismiss politics and collective activities, but he first joined Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan (the Party of the Hardworking) and then Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan-e Melat-e Iran (the Party of the Hardworking People of Iran).  It was after leaving this last party in 1953 that he withdrew from all political activity. So, in 1952, when he translated Les mains sales, he had not yet abandoned political activities and was active in a party opposed to the Tudeh party.

Les mains sales is one of Sartre’s political plays which explicitly criticizes and attacks left-wing parties, especially the pro-soviet Communist parties. Considering the political orientations of Al-Ahamad at the time it is reasonable to suppose that his decision to translate an anti-communist work by Sartre was at least in part motivated by a desire to challenge the dominant ideology of the Tudeh party.

As we have seen, the importation of Sartrean Existentialism into Iran can be interpreted in three ways: First, it can be considered part of the uninterrupted effort by Iranian intellectuals since the Constitutional Revolution to import the knowledge, philosophy and literature of the West into Iran (as it is true of almost all other Western writers). Second, it can be regarded as an attempt by non-leftist intellectuals to confront the dominant Tudeh discourse by introducing an assumed non-left-wing Western discourse (as in the case of Hedayat, Farzaneh, Khanlari and Al-e-Ahmad). Third, it can also be seen as an attempt by intellectuals and advocates of leftist discourse to advance their goals by appropriating another emerging discourse (as in the case of Noushin, and other Tudeh intellectuals).

4. The Role of Translations and Translators in Creating a Pessimistic Image of Existentialism in the 1940s in Iran

Susam-Sarajeva (2006) argues (and rightly so) that the selection of texts (not) to be translated, the timing of the translations, and the professional profiles of the translators are among the factors influencing the reception of foreign discourses and writers.

 The translations of Sartre published in this period, the professional profile of the translators and the indigenous material written on Sartre and his philosophy in Iran show that his reception was more focused on the social and political application of his thinking than on its philosophical implications. The arrival of Sartre’s works in Iran in the 1940s coincided with a phase in his development in which he was re-elaborating his original Existentialist ideas, under the influence of such nonmaterialist thinkers as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, as a challenge to Marxism. It was in the late 1950s that Sartre changed his mind and embraced Marxism, declaring that Existentialism had become a subordinate branch of Marxism with the aspiration of enriching and renewing it (Novack 1966). From his early reception in Iran in the 1940s to his later popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, this paradoxical development of Sartrean Existentialism allowed intellectuals from different political currents to focus on those aspects of his philosophy which best suited their purpose. It could be argued that Sartre was a thinker who consistently provided Iranian intellectuals and literati with that which they had been seeking over the course of decades and in various social and political conditions: first, a philosopher who wrote stories; second, a novelist who was also a philosopher; third, a famous philosopher who was a critic of Marxism; fourth, a non-Marxist intellectual who had Marxist tendencies; fifth, a Marxist-affiliated  intellectual who had turned away from Marxism; sixth, a philosopher who supported revolutionaries. Each intellectual group illuminated and appropriated one aspect of Stare’s thinking, in line with their literary or socio-political agendas.

In the period under study, Existentialism was mainly understood as an individualistic, nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy. This image was created by the working together of different factors, the most important among which were the efforts of the Tudeh party. By reducing Existentialism to a pessimistic and disillusioning philosophy which merely sought to maintain the status quo and serve capitalism by addressing “subjective and unrealistic issues” and strengthening “anxiety, despair and defeat” in man (Tabari 1948b: 5), the Tudeh party tried to define its own identity in opposition to it. In rejecting Existentialism, the Tudeh party was merely echoing soviet and Western criticisms of Existentialism. This was mainly done by translating anti-Existentialist articles in Mahname-ye Mardom [people’s monthly], the main literary journal of the Tudeh party.  The anti-Existentialist ideas translated in this journal soon found their way into the indigenous material. One of the main translated articles published in the Mahname-ye Mardom in 1948 was entitled “Existancializm yek Falsafeh-e Zed-e Democracy” [Existentialism: An Anti-democratic Philosophy] which introduced Existentialism as merely a vogue which was nurtured by Imperialism and supported by the bourgeoisie, an idealist philosophy which led to ignorance, immorality, decadence and suicide, an anti-Marxist philosophy which deceitfully sought to replace Marxism and finally a populist philosophy which tried to align Marxism with Fascism (Angran, 1948). The ideas propagated in the article were immediately picked up by Iranian intellectuals and writers leading to the publication of a series of indigenous articles in the subsequent issues of the journal. The selection of anti-Existentialist articles for translation played both an indicative role, showing the local concerns and the prevailing attitudes towards Existentialism, and a formative role, shaping and transforming the images of Sartre and Existentialism. Translations of anti-Existentialist writings mainly by the Tudeh party created a strong narrative which was both adopted and criticized, in the following years, by variously affiliated intellectuals and writers, ranging from Marxists to Islamists. As was discussed earlier, during this period some largely unsuccessful efforts were made to change the reductionist narrative of the Tudeh party, efforts which were resumed in the later phases of Sartre’s reception in the post-coup period.

The image of Hedayat, the first translator of Sartre in Iran, as a “disappointed intellectual”, created mainly by the Tudeh party, and finally his much-discussed suicide had an undeniable effect on the reception of Existentialism as a nihilistic philosophy. As Susam-Sarajeva (2006) contends, “Translator’s identity and agenda can easily put a mark on the reception of the work(s) they translate – especially, in cases where they have a certain acclaim as writers, scholars, and critics other than being ‘just translators’.” This is exactly the case for most of Sartre’s translators in Iran, especially Hedayat, in the period under study. Hedayat’s translation of Sartre, though merely a short story from a collection of stories, linked his name to Sartre in the intellectual circles of the 1940s in Iran, when there was little information on Sartre and Existentialism.   For more than three decades “in Iran, both lay people and the specialists, have repeatedly considered Hedayat’s suicide to be the outcome of his Existentialist beliefs” (Katouzian 1993:176). Ehsan Tabari and many of the writers affiliated with the Tudeh party divided Hedayat’s life into three periods: hopelessness, hope and disappointment, and attributed his disappointment to his growing interest in “desperate” and “devious” writers such as Sartre. Undoubtedly, Hedayat was influenced by many writers whom he had studied or translated and Sartre is no exception, but a bio-bibliographical survey of Hedayat prevents us from adopting a narrative that attributes Hedayat’s despair, pessimism and suicide to his acquaintance with Existentialist philosophy. Nevertheless, the Tudeh party’s narrative of the influence of Existentialism on Hedayat, due to its undisputed domination in the intellectual arena of Iran in the 1940s, and relatively less in the following decades, became a repetitious narrative in the works of Iranian critics. Hedayat’s suicide after a period of severe depression helped strengthen the narrative. The Tudeh Party, which, following the Soviet Communist Party, described Sartre’s works as degenerate, absurd, and hopeless, found the best example of this degeneration and despair in Hedayat who, by translating Sartre for the first time, had opened the gates of the country wide to this “decadent” philosophy. This was how the Tudeh Party was able to first introduce and then condemn Hedayat as the ultimate product of the “pessimistic “ philosophy of Existentialism, a product that represented its alleged producer for more than a decade. It could be argued that it was Sartre’s image in Iran who, haunted by his first translator’s image, appeared more pessimistic to the Iranian intellectuals of the time (see Katouzian 1993; Tabari 1948b).

The pattern of books (not) translated in this period was another factor influencing the reception of Existentialism as a nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy. By 1953, Sartre had published almost 20 books (15 fictional, 4 philosophical and 1 critical book), 5 of which (all fictions) had been translated in Iran. Sartre’s reputation as a nihilist writer was, to a great extent, the result of his fictional works which mostly depicted melancholic characters. To defend himself against the charge of pessimism in his fictional works, Sartre wrote:

If people condemn our works of fiction, in which we describe characters […]as weak, cowardly and sometimes even […] evil, it is not […] because those characters are base, weak, cowardly or evil. […] the existentialist, when he portrays a coward shows him as responsible for his cowardice. (Sartre, 1960: 42-44)

The fact that the only works by Sartre translated in this period were his works of fiction can, to some extent, account for his reception as a pessimistic writer. This translation pattern, which created a pessimistic image of Existentialism strengthened the defensive attitude of its opponents, mostly Marxists, in Iran by supplying them with material which was clearly opposed to the socialist-realist ideas propagated by them.

Among the works not translated in this period, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946), a book originally delivered as a lecture, could have contributed to defy the image of Existentialism as a pessimistic philosophy. In this book, Sartre (1960: 23) “offers a defense of Existentialism against different reproaches that have been laid against it”, one of them being that Existentialism invites people “to dwell in quietism of despair” and states:

[…] You have seen that it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of quietism, since it defines man by his action; nor as a pessimistic description of man, for no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself. (Sartre, 1960: 42-44)

The non-selection of this book for translation in this period, a book which was later translated, retranslated and reprinted more than any other Sartre’s books in the 1960s and 1970s, had implications far beyond the translations. This book was first translated into Persian in 1344 (1965) with a time-lag of almost 19 years. It could be argued that this book was left untranslated in this period because its translation would defy the dominant image created partly by the achronological and highly selective translations of Sartre’s works.

5. Conclusion

It would seem, then, that discourses are not transferred and received as simply and as innocently as might appear. Discourses are not transferred to merely fill a gap in knowledge or produce something that the target language and culture lacks, but are often transferred to serve given purposes. By breaking off the prior intertextual relations and forming a network of new relations, discourses often find new meanings and intentions in their new destinations, which may contradict their original meanings and purposes. Translation, together with other forms of rewriting, plays a very important role in the transfer of discourses. As Susam-Sarajeva (2006: 1) points out, translation plays both an indicative and a formative role, that is, it both allows insights into the workings of a given system and influences the receiving system. The early reception of Sartrean Existentialism clearly shows this dual role of translation. Translator and translation patterns of Sartre’s works both revealed the forces at work in the receiving system and at the same time shaped and transformed the receiving system’s image of Sartre and Existentialism to serve political agendas.  

With the fall of Reza Shah’s dictatorship in 1941, a new chapter in the political and cultural life of Iran began which promised a better and freer future. During this period, many newspapers and periodicals were established and many parties and organizations were formed. The Marxist-Leninist discourse of the Tudeh party became the dominant intellectual discourse. However, the Party’s support for the Soviet Union soon led many intellectuals to leave it. It was during this period that Sartre and Existentialism were introduced for the first time.

The confrontation between Russian Marxism and Sartrean Existentialism, which was evident in the position of the Soviet Communist Party towards Existentialism and in the early works of Sartre, was used both by the Tudeh Party members (such as Noushin and Tabari) to promote Marxism and by anti-Marxist intellectuals and translators (such as Hedayat and Al-e-Ahmad) to challenge it. The symbiotic working together of the different factors (including the pattern of translations and the profile of the translators of Sartre and the attempts of the Tudeh Party to establish itself as an unrivaled discourse) constructed an image of Sartre and Existentialism which continued into the following Decades. In this Period, Sartrean Existentialism was mainly received as a nihilistic and imperialistic philosophy which posed a threat to the then dominant Marxist Ideology and its revolutionary ends. The images of Sartre and Existentilism constructed in this period served as a foundation for later receptions of Sartre.  Although Sartre had successfully defended his philosophy against the accusation of being nihilistic and had revealed his Marxist tendencies by the late 1940s, in the 1950s Iran, a nihilistic image of Existentialism and a narrative of the contrast between Marxism and Existentialism constructed in the 1940s were still holding sway. It was only in the 1960s that some efforts were made by the translators of Sartre’s works to both acquit Existentialism of the charge of being nihilistic and pessimistic and establish a more peaceful, yet complex relationship between Marxism and Existentialism to use Existentialism as a leftist political ideology to challenge the Shah’s regime.

The professional profile of the translators of Sartre and other agents in this period and the political ends they pursued prevents us from assigning the fragmented picture of Existentialism in 1940s and the contradictory purposes it served to its poor application in Iran. The translators of Sartre’s works in this period were mostly intellectuals or professional writers who actively engaged in the translation of Sartre’s works or works on Existentialism as a sort of political activism to challenge or endorse the dominant political ideology of the time, Marxism. In fact, Sartrean Existentialism was mainly discussed and translated for purposes other than its mere understanding and introduction.


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[1] All translations from Persian are by the author unless otherwise stated.

[2] In Didar-ha va Guft-o-gu-haie Man ba Sadeq Hedayat [My Visits and Talks to Sadeq Hedayat]

About the author(s)

Marzieh Malekshahi received her BA in English Language Translation from Shahid Chamran University of Ahwaz in 2007 and her master’s degree in Translation Studies from Shahid Beheshti University of Tehran in 2009. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. Her academic interests include literary Translation, Translation History, and the modern history of Iran.

Ali Khazaee Farid is associate professor of translation studies at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran. Dr. Khazaee Farid has been the founder and editor of the quarterly Motarjem (The Translator) published since 1993. His major interests are the practice and theory of literary translation.

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Humour et jeux de mots dans l’œuvre d’ Eugène Ionesco et ses traductions en grec

By Maria Constantinou (University of Cyprus, Cyprus)

Abstract & Keywords


This article aims to investigate how humour is translated in two theatrical plays by Eugene Ionesco (La Cantatrice chauve and Les Chaises) into Greek. The study explores three different Greek versions of the two theatrical plays. On the one hand, it seeks to consider humorous effects within the original plays, and on the other hand, it investigates the challenges involved in transposing verbal humour and the strategies used to translate or even reinforce humour in the translated texts.

If incongruity is an indispensable humour - provoking parameter, translators should also seek to mobilize the same cognitive mechanism in the translated texts. It is argued that even if a more literal translation is not always privileged or even possible, what is of importance is the humorous effect, otherwise the perlocutionary force of the translated humour on the target audience. However, the humorous effect in the translated text should be assessed through the lens of the author’s ethos and ideological positioning. In this context, an integrated approach to translation of humour is proposed, able to consider the linguistic realization of humour, the author’s ethos, the text genre, along with the cultural elements and shared knowledge within the target culture.


Cet article a pour objectif d’étudier la façon dont l’humour, dans deux pièces de théâtre d’Eugene Ionesco (La Cantatrice chauve et Les Chaises), se déploie en grec. En  prenant pour objet d’analyse trois versions de ces pièces de théâtre, notre contribution vise, d’une part, à étudier les effets humoristiques tels qu’ils se manifestent discursivement dans l’œuvre originale, et d’autre part, elle examine les défis et pièges inhérents à la transposition de l'humour verbal ainsi que les stratégies adoptées par les traducteurs pour rendre et parfois renforcer l'humour dans le texte cible.

L’incongruité étant un paramètre indispensable pour provoquer l'humour, les traducteurs sont censés mobiliser le même mécanisme cognitif lors de la traduction. En ce sens, nous avançons l’idée que même si la traduction sémantique n’est pas toujours possible ou privilégiée par les traducteurs, le plus important est la restitution de l’effet humoristique dans le texte traduit. En d’autres termes, le texte traduit doit avoir plus ou moins le même effet perlocutoire que le texte original sur le public cible. Cependant, la force perlocutoire de l’humour dans le texte traduit est à évaluer à la lumière de l’éthos de l’écrivain, et de sa position idéologique. Dans ce contexte, cette étude propose une approche intégrative de la traduction de l’humour prenant en compte, outre l’éthos de l’écrivain, le genre textuel, la réalisation linguistique de l’humour, ainsi que les éléments culturels et les savoirs partagés au sein de la culture cible.

Keywords: humour, wordplay, pragmatic equivalence, Ionesco, Greek, French, jeux de mots, équivalence pragmatique, français, grec

©inTRAlinea & Maria Constantinou (2019).
"Humour et jeux de mots dans l’œuvre d’ Eugène Ionesco et ses traductions en grec"
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L’humour, phénomène universel et inné à l’homme (Raskin 1985), s’avère néanmoins une pratique conditionnée par les langues voire plus largement par les cultures. En effet, comme les différents systèmes linguistiques ne présentent ni symétrie ni isomorphisme entre eux, l’humour paraît rétif à la traduction et demeure l’un des plus grands défis et pièges des traducteurs. Ainsi la complexité de l’humour a attiré l’attention de plusieurs chercheurs en traduction (Tymoczko 1987 ; Laurien 1989 ; Vandaele 1999, 2002, 2011 ; Zabalbeascoa 1994, 2001 ; Asimakoulas 2004 ; Kourdis 2009 ; Chiaro 2010 ; Zanettin 2010 ; Zeynaligargari et Alavi 2011 ; Tsai 2015 ; Constantinou 2018). La problématique de la traduction de l’humour, souvent liée à celle de la culture, s’explique par le fait que l’humoriste puise ses sujets dans des situations et des contextes qui présupposent la mise en œuvre des savoirs partagés, tels que l’histoire, la religion, l’actualité, les hommes politiques, les comportements d’un groupe ou bien la littérature. L’inscription de l’humour dans un contexte spatio-temporel implique donc une connaissance approfondie de la société et de la langue et plus largement de la culture, en vue d’appréhender la manière dont celles-ci interagissent pour créer de l’humour. En effet, l'humour verbal, et notamment celui qui repose sur des jeux de mots, résiste à la traduction, touchant ainsi les limites de l’intraduisible (Vandaele 2001) comme dans le cas de la poésie (Diot 1989 : 84). En dépit du pessimisme affiché par bien de traductologues, l’humour continue à être traduit ou du moins à être transposé d’une langue-culture à une autre pour faire rire, divertir ou même faire réfléchir. C’est par exemple le cas de la traduction de la caricature politique (Kourdis 2009 ; Constantinou 2018), de la bande dessinée (Zanettin 2010) des films (Mogorron Huerta 2010 ; Zabalbeascoa 2010 ) ou de la publicité (Quillard 2001).

Cette contribution qui s’inscrit dans le sillage de nos travaux sur la traduction de l’ironie du même auteur (Constantinou 2010) se propose d’élargir le corpus d’analyse, en focalisant l’attention sur l’humour verbal et notamment sur les jeux de mots et la répétition des éléments linguistiques ayant un effet humoristique. En effet, le corpus d’exploration est constitué de deux pièces de théâtre d’Eugène Ionesco : La Cantatrice chauve et Les Chaises. La première a été traduite par Errikos Belies (2007) et Giorgos Protopapas (1987) et la deuxième par Errikos Belies (2007) et Yiannis Thivaios  (2011). A ce corpus nous avons ajouté les adaptations radiophoniques réalisées par Kostas Stamatiou pour le compte de ERT   accessible sur YouTube . Ces versions proposent des techniques et stratégies différentes pour rendre l’humour ionescien. Compte tenu de la difficulté de transposer l’humour dans une autre langue, ce travail soulève une série de questions dont, entre autres:

  • Comment traduire l’humour et faire rire un public qui ne partage pas les mêmes savoirs, le même contexte socioculturel dont l’auteur et son public source sont imprégnés ?
  • Quelles stratégies et quels procédés les différents traducteurs mettent-ils en place lors de leur travail traductif  ?
  • Quels cadres théorique et méthodologique conviennent-ils pour aborder le problème épineux de la traduction de l’humour ? 

Dans le but de comprendre et d’expliquer l’humour ionescien et les différents procédés mis en place par les traducteurs, nous proposons une réflexion préalable sur l’humour et son inscription dans l’œuvre ionescien. Ceci nous permettra de cerner les enjeux de la traduction tels qu’ils se posent.

Humour ionescien : quelle approche théorique ?

L’humour ionescien, à la fois absurde et engagé, occupe une place importante dans la vie et l’œuvre du dramaturge. La formule « Où il n’y a pas d’humour, il n’y a pas d’humanité, où il n’y a pas d’humour, il y a le camp de concentration », témoigne que Ionesco accorde une attention particulière à l’humour qui occupe tous les compartiments de son œuvre comme une arme de résistance à l’injustice sociale, à l’absurdité politique et au fascisme. L’humour ionescien exprime l’absurde, l’anormal, l’illogique et l’inattendu ; il s’appuie sur la déformation, le renversement des rapports sémantiques des mots pour se moquer des valeurs socialement acceptables, dans le but d’ébranler le pouvoir. Son humour orienté idéologiquement vise un certain groupe de personnes, un ensemble d’idées et de situations qui sont considérées comme inférieures. Sous cet angle, la condition préalable à l’humour c’est l’existence d’une cible : le conformisme, toute forme de pouvoir, la petite bourgeoisie, les conventions sociales, le cliché. En effet, Ionesco, dans ses Notes et contre-notes souligne les effets abrutissants du cliché sur la mentalité de la “petite bourgeoise” :

[L]e petit bourgeois n’est pour moi que l’homme des slogans, ne pensant plus par lui-même, mais répétant les vérités toutes faites, et par cela mortes, que d’autres lui ont imposées. (Ionesco 1966 : 109)

A ses yeux, c’est cette mentalité conformiste qui a favorisé la montée des régimes totalitaires du XXe siècle (Sprenger 2004). D’un point de vue théorique, l’humour ionescien relèverait des théories psycho-sociales qui associent ce phénomène au sentiment de supériorité et d’agressivité (Gruner 1997). C’est en effet rire ou bien faire rire pour montrer du doigt (Chabanne 2002) et s’en détacher. Cependant, l’humour chez Ionesco a aussi un effet d’apaisement et de soulagement.  Ses propos en sont révélateurs :

Nous sommes comiques. C’est sous cet aspect que nous devrions nous voir. Rien que l’humour, rose ou noir ou cruel, mais seul l’humour peut nous rendre la sérénité. (Ionesco dans Journal en miettes, cité par Ioani 2002)

Par ailleurs, l’humour ionescien se pose comme une prise de conscience de l’aberration et de l’impasse de faire autre chose que de continuer à vivre dans un monde absurde (Ioani 2002). Pour Ionesco, membre du Collège de Pataphysique, le théâtre est le lieu de tous les possibles. Le non-sens, l’excentricité, les jeux de mots et de sonorités occupent une place très importante tout au long de son œuvre. D’un point de vue linguistique, et en particulier, dans la perspective de la Théorie Générale de l'Humour Linguistique[3] (Attardo et Raskin 1991 ; Attardo 1994, 2001) l’humour chez cet écrivain relèverait aussi de l’incongruité, vu qu’il est susceptible de mobiliser des règles cognitives impliquées dans la résolution de l’incongruité (Raskin 1985 ;  Attardo et Raskin 1991 ; Meyer 2000).  Selon cette approche théorique, à part l’existence d’une cible, ce qui conditionne l’humour c’est l’existence de deux scripts qui s’opposent ou sont incompatibles, mais qui finissent par se réconcilier selon un paradigme de base tel que vrai versus faux, normal versus anormal et possible versus impossible. A travers son œuvre, Ionesco tente de résoudre l’incongruité de la réalité qu’il perçoit comme absurde ou immorale, en mettant sur pied des idées opposées, inconciliables ou des mots qui se ressemblent phonétiquement mais s’éloignent sémantiquement (voir les exemples ci-dessous) pour attaquer une cible.

Nous appuyant sur une classification du comique (Bouquet et Riffault 2010), dans le théâtre ionescien, à part l’humour lié au comique de gestes dont l’actualisation dépend également du goût du metteur en scène, on peut distinguer : a) le comique de situation : tel que les coïncidences absurdes, les surprises, ou les rebondissements ; b) le comique de caractère (traits moraux propres aux protagonistes ionesciens, tels que leur attitude absurde, leurs vices, et leurs défauts) ; c) le comique de mœurs, dont l’effet est produit par les usages de la petite bourgeoisie ; d) le comique de mots : jeux de mots basés sur la polysémie ou l’homonymie de mots, grossièretés, prononciation de certaines unités lexicales ; e) le comique de répétitions : scènes, ou gestes répétées, répétition de mots, de syllabes, de morphèmes, de phonèmes et de graphèmes. Il convient de noter que les trois premiers ainsi qu’une partie du cinquième relèvent de l’humour référentiel. En revanche, les jeux de mots, la répétition de mots et d’autres éléments linguistiques appartiennent à l’humour verbal ou linguistique.

Tout comme l’ironie (Lievois 2006 : 84), l’humour verbal qui repose sur la répétition des éléments linguistiques et les jeux de mots paraît plus rétif à la traduction que l’humour exprimé sous des formes plus diffuses. Par conséquent, comme dans le cas de l’ironie, cette catégorie d’humour requiert une traduction plus libre qui reproduirait les effets humoristiques à travers des moyens similaires (Constantinou 2010).

Considérant les principes de la Théorie Générale de l'Humour Linguistique (Attardo 2001) nous avançons l’idée que tout énoncé humoristique à traduire dans une autre langue-culture n’est pas à réduire à sa microstructure, c’est à dire au niveau local de sa réalisation linguistique, mais il est à penser sur le plan de sa macrostructure, ce qui requiert la prise en compte du paratexte et des autres textes de l’auteur. Cette approche permet au traducteur de mieux appréhender les traits inhérents à l’humour ionescien, les moyens et les techniques mis en place pour mieux déjouer les pièges lors du processus de traduction. L’humour, comme le rire, étant l’expression et la production des codes collectifs (Mercier 2001 : 13), les éléments culturels sont à prendre en considération pour mieux transposer l’effet humoristique de l’original. Dans le cas de la traduction théâtrale, Morávková (1993 : 35) note que « chaque œuvre dramatique se situe par l’intermédiaire de sa traduction, à l’aide du médiateur - le traducteur - dans un contexte culturel nouveau.» Ce nouveau contexte permet de répondre aux attentes du public cible.

Partant de la thèse que l’humour ainsi que les jeux de mots sont traduisibles ou bien transposables dans d’autres langues-cultures (Henry 2003 ; Quillard 2001), nous plaidons pour une approche intégrative de la traduction de l’humour pouvant prendre en considération le processus cognitif de l’humour (Attardo et Raskin 1991), le genre, la finalité de la traduction (Vermeer et Reiss 1984), l’univers littéraire et l’ethos du dramaturge (Constantinou 2007 ; Constantinou 2010) ainsi que les particularités de la langue et de la culture cible. Nous proposons ainsi une analyse contrastive, en empruntant quelques outils développés au sein de la sémantique interprétative (Rastier 1987) et en nous appuyant sur la Théorie Générale de l'Humour Linguistique (Attardo et Raskin 1991 entre autres).  

Étudier comment les effets humoristiques chez Ionesco s’interprètent sous la plume de trois traducteurs différents implique par définition la problématique de l’adéquation de la traduction de l’humour en grec et donc la question de l’équivalence. L’équivalence, on le sait, est une notion qui est différemment définie selon les écoles en traductologie. Par exemple, alors que l’équivalence linguistique ou formelle présente une homogénéité sur le plan linguistique entre le texte original et sa traduction (Nida 1964), l’équivalence fonctionnelle désigne entre autres « le rapport optimal entre le texte traduit et le texte original » (Kufnerová 2009, cité in Raková 2013 : 57). L’équivalence stylistique a trait à une relation fonctionnelle entre les éléments stylistiques du texte de départ et du texte d’arrivée afin d’assurer une identité expressive ou affective entre l’original et sa traduction, sans altérer le sens de l’énoncé. L’équivalence sémantique se situe au niveau des mots et non du paragraphe ou du texte dans son ensemble. Elle suppose que le terme en langue source et son équivalent en langue cible partagent un champ sémantique identique. Cependant, pour rendre compte des effets humoristiques il faut considérer la force perlocutoire de l’énoncé. Dans ce cas, l’équivalence pragmatique ou perlocutoire (Hickey 1998) qui se rapproche de l’équivalence dynamique ou fonctionnelle (House 1997) semble opératoire pour cette étude. L’effet perlocutoire du texte traduit vise à produire chez le lecteur de la traduction les mêmes effets et les mêmes réactions (le rire) que le texte original produit chez son lecteur (Margot 1979). Or, comme le note Hickey (1998), le plus grand obstacle à surmonter dans l’obtention de l’équivalence pragmatique ou perlocutoire, provient du fait qu’il n’existe pas de relation directe entre le texte et l’effet qu’il produit. Cependant, l’équivalence perlocutoire semble opératoire, dans la mesure où nous étudions l’effet humoristique dans les textes traduits par rapport aux choix lexicaux, syntaxiques, stylistiques et pragmatiques faits par les trois traducteurs.  Nous nous focaliserons sur l’humour verbal et notamment sur la répétition de sons et de mots ou d’autres éléments morphologiques ainsi que sur des jeux de mots reposant sur la polysémie ou l’homonymie (Attardo 2001). Notre démarche consiste également à considérer l’humour verbal dans les traductions même si dans les textes originaux cela relèverait plutôt de l’humour référentiel que de celui basé sur la langue.

Analyse des exemples

L’un des procédés récurrents dans l’œuvre ionescien consiste à mettre en relation cotextuelle des signifiants proches phonétiquement mais avec un effet de contrariété sur le plan sémantique ou représentant des idées diamétralement opposées ou contradictoires ; par exemple, lors d’un dialogue vide et absurde entre le vieux et son épouse dans Les Chaises, l’assonance du phonème ([ɑ̃] dans présidents, marchands) ou la répétition des mêmes morphèmes (-aires dans prolétaires, fonctionnaires, militaires, révolutionnaires, -iers dans policiers, postiers, banquiers, chaudronniers, ou dans -istes, aubergistes, artistes, etc.) dans la dérivation des noms désignant des métiers ou des statuts différents crée à la fois une série d’allitérations et d’assonances et favorise l’absurdité du dialogue. Par ailleurs, l’interférence insolite des mots désignant des objets ou autres entités tels que bâtiments ou chromosomes intercalés entre les noms de métiers et de statuts crée une rupture d’hypéronymie et surprend l’esprit du spectateur dans une sorte de contrariété et de contraste, ce qui a pour effet de renforcer la connivence humoristique :

LA VIEILLE : Alors, c’est vraiment pour ce soir ? Au moins les as-tu tous convoqués, tous les personnages, tous les propriétaires et tous les savants ?
LE VIEUX  : Oui, tous les propriétaires et tous les savants.
LA VIEILLE : Les gardiens ? les évêques ? les chimistes ? les chaudronniers ? les violonistes ? les délégués ? les présidents? les policiers ? les marchands ? les bâtiments? les chromosomes  ?
LE VIEUX  :  Oui, oui, et les postiers, les aubergistes et les artistes, tous ceux qui sont un peu savants, un peu propriétaires !
LA VIEILLE : Et les banquiers ?
LE VIEUX :  Je les ai convoqués.
LA VIEILLE : Les prolétaires ? les fonctionnaires ? les militaires ? les révolutionnaires ? Les aliénistes et leurs aliénés ?
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, pp. 148-149)

L’humour se déploie dans le désaccord, l’incompatibilité entre les traits sémantiques distincts tels que /profession/ vs /statut/ou /qualité ou état/ (marchands vs savants, fonctionnaires vs révolutionnaires, aliénistes vs aliénés), /qualité matérielle/ vs /qualité non matérielle (propriétaires vs savants), /supériorité sociale/ vs /infériorité sociale/ (présidents vs marchands) ou bien / humain/, /animé/ vs /non humain ou /non animé (bâtiments, chromosomes), etc.  En ce qui concerne les textes grecs, Thivaios a recours à une traduction littérale de l’original, qui s’appuie essentiellement sur une équivalence formelle. Stamatiou[4], dans son adaptation radiophonique, omet de rendre la dernière phrase qui contribue à la création de l’humour ionescien. En revanche, Belies, agissant plutôt en tant que tradaptateur que traducteur met en avant la structure signifiante du texte cible. Il opte ainsi pour une traduction couverte (House 1997), tout en essayant de reproduire l’humour à l’aide des moyens linguistiques et stylistiques similaires à ceux de l’original. 

ΓΡΙΑ: Και τους κάλεσες όλους; Όλους τους σημαντικούς ανθρώπους; Τους σοφούς,  τους κουφούς, τους αδελφούς, τους ροφούς;
ΓΕΡΟΣ: Ναι όλους. Και όλους τους χαφιέδες, τους βαλέδες, τους κουραμπιέδες[5], τους μιναρέδες.
ΓΡΙΑ : Ωραία. Κάλεσες κι όλους τους ταξινόμους, τους αγρονόμους, αστυνόμους, τους παρανόμους;
Γέρος: Ναι.  Και όλους τους προλετάριους, τους βιβλιοθηκάριους, τους κομισάριους, τους ιμπρεσάριους.
Γριά: Ωραία. Και όλους τους ιδιοκτήτες, τους τραπεζίτες, τους μητροπολίτες, τους φρονιμίτες;
[…] Θα έρθουν όλοι. Έχω καλέσει κι όλους τους δικαστικούς, τους αναρχικούς, τους σπαστικούς, τους παρακρατικούς.
(Ionesco 1952, Les Chaises, traduit par Belies 2007, pp. 129- 130)

[Traduction inversée : LA VIEILLE : Et les as-tu tous convoqués ? Toutes les personnes importantes ? Les savants, les sourds, les frères, les mérous ?
LE VIEUX : Oui, tous.  Et tous les corbeaux, les valets, les gâteaux secs, les minarets.
LA VIEILLE : Bien. As-tu convoqué tous les classificateurs, les agronomes, les policiers, les clandestins ?
LE VIEUX : Oui. Et tous les prolétaires, les bibliothécaires, les commissaires, les imprésarios.
LA VIEILLE : Et tous les propriétaires, les banquiers/ dents molaires, les métropolites, les dents de sagesse ?
[...] Tout le monde viendra. J'ai appelé tous les juges, les anarchistes, les spastiques et les quasi gouvernementaux. ]

A y regarder de plus près, la traduction / adaptation proposée reproduit le jeu ionescien basé à la fois sur la ressemblance phonique et morphologique et l’incompatibilité sémantique des mots et des idées qu’ils expriment pour mettre en avant un effet de supériorité par rapport aux conventions sociales et au conformisme. En effet, l’interférence des séries des éléments incompatibles, comme procédé théâtral qui déclenche le rire et largement utilisée par Ionesco pour surprendre l’attention du spectateur, semble être reproduite avec brio par Belies. Ce traducteur, s’éloignant du contenu sémantique des unités lexicales utilisées par Ionesco, a recours à des séries de mots partageant les mêmes suffixes -άριους, -ίτες, -ικούς. S’inspirant de la technique ionescienne, Belies a recours à des mots incompatibles au niveau sémantique afin de mettre ensemble des idées totalement opposées ou inconciliables. Par exemple, dans la première série, « Les savants, les sourds, les frères, les mérous ? », l’emploi du signe « mérous » représente un type de poisson qui s’oppose sémantiquement aux autres unités lexicales désignant des êtres humains, ce qui renforce le non-sens et l’incompatibilité de la réplique.

Le même traducteur exploite l’homonymie des unités lexicales en grec et crée ses propres jeux de mots qui ne s’éloignent pas, à notre avis, de l’esprit ionescien. Par exemple, le jeu sur l’homonyme τραπεζίτες, qui signifie à la fois « banquiers » et « dents molaires », et la présence du mot φρονιμίτες « dents de sagesse » ayant également le même suffixe que les autres mots dans la même série, favorise la rupture et le non-sens voulu dans l’original. Le mot métropolites, élément culturel propre à la société grecque, désigne un certain titre de l’église orthodoxe, et réincarne la voix ionescienne contre l’hypocrisie et le pouvoir. Par ailleurs, comme nous le verrons dans les exemples suivants, des jeux de mots avec le mot pape sont aussi utilisés par Ionesco pour créer de l’humour. Dans les autres répliques, le traducteur joue sur les mêmes morphèmes dans l’intention de dénoncer toute forme de pouvoir : par exemple, le morphème nomos qui signifie en grec « loi » paraît dans une série de mots désignant des professions de nature différente, qui malgré l’apparente homosémie au niveau du morphème sont encore une fois inconciliables.

Cependant, l’incompatibilité sémantique voire morale qui retient le plus l’attention du public est l’opposition entre policiers (censés maintenir l’ordre) et « clandestins » ou « illégaux ». Elle sert de cadre pour mettre en balance la légalité et l’illégalité au sein de la société. Ce binôme légal vs illégal est renforcé dans la dernière réplique par l’emploi du nom de métier δικαστικούς, signifiant « juges » et d’autres mots se terminant en -ικούς, tels que αναρχικούς « anarchistes » ou παρακρατικούς « quasi gouvernementaux ». Bien que cette proposition de traduction s’éloigne sémantiquement du texte original, nous pensons qu’elle répond à l’intention générale de l’humour ionescien qui vise à se moquer du pouvoir. A travers ce procédé, le traducteur renforce la stratégie de déconstruction de toute forme de pouvoir car il place tous les métiers, qualités et défauts au même niveau, ce qui est d’ailleurs compatible avec l’absurdité ionescienne en particulier et le théâtre de l’absurde en général. Cependant, pour des raisons d’économie scénique, le même traducteur omet de traduire certaines phrases qui contribuent à renforcer l’effet humoristique. On peut citer en exemple le cas de « Les aliénistes et leurs aliénés ? » transposé plus ou moins fidèlement par Thivaios. Ce dernier, comme Stamatiou, opte pour une traduction plutôt sémantique que sonore. A notre avis, un tel choix réussit également à rendre les effets humoristiques du texte original et à répondre aux intentions de l’écrivain même s’il y a plus ou moins perte au niveau phonétique : 

Και τους προλετάριους, τους υπαλλήλους, τους στρατιωτικούς; Τους επαναστάτες; Τους αντιδραστικούς; Τους ψυχιάτρους και τους ψυχοπαθείς τους;
(Ionesco 1952, Les Chaises, traduit par Thivaios 2011, pp.  67-68)

[Traduction inversée : Et les prolétaires, les fonctionnaires, les militaires, les révolutionnaires, les réactionnaires ? Les psychiatres et leurs psychopathes ?]

Le jeu sur la répétition des sons continue dans la page suivante de la même pièce théâtrale, ce qui donne à la suite de mots une allitération et une assonance qui créent une rupture sur le plan sémantique et pragmatique, participant ainsi à intensifier l’absurde de l’œuvre ionescien :

Le Pape, les papillons et les papiers.
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, p. 149)

La coprésence des mots partageant les trois ou quatre premiers phonèmes est réalisée pour rendre ces idées compatibles dans leur succession par association sonore (Ioani 2002 : 97). En particulier, ces unités lexicales sont du point de vue sémantique incompatibles car elles contiennent des traits sémantiques distincts, tels que /+humain/, /-objet/ pour Pape, /-humain// ±animé/ ou / ±objet/ pour papillons et /+ objet/ (ou /-animé/) et /-humain/ pour papiers. En plus, l’unité lexicale Pape contient d’autres sèmes afférents tels que /+prestige/, /+statut/, /+pouvoir/ et sa présence dans une série de mots qui lui sont sémantiquement incompatibles semble participer à l’affaiblissement voire à la contestation du statut et du rôle du Pape dans la société. En ce qui concerne les traductions grecques, dans l’adaptation radiophonique de Stamatiou, ce jeu de mots est effacé, alors que Thivaios et Belies proposent des traductions similaires :

Θα έρθουν κι ο πάπας, η παπαδιά και το παπαδάκι.
(Ionesco 1952, Les Chaises, traduit par Belies, p. 130)
[Traduction inversée : Le pape, la femme du prêtre et son enfant]

Ο Πάπας, οι παπάδες και  οι παπαδιές;
(Ionesco 1952, Les Chaises, traduit par Thivaios, p. 68)
[Traduction inversée : Le Pape, les prêtres et leurs femmes]

Jouant sur la similarité sonore des mots qui appartiennent au champ sémantique de la religion, les deux traducteurs ne rendent pas de la même manière la rupture produite dans l’original. Cependant, une rupture est introduite au plan culturel dans la mesure où le Pape et les prêtres orthodoxes ne sont pas compatibles car ils n’appartiennent pas à la même église et ne partagent pas le même dogme. 

Il convient de noter ici que de tels choix expressifs ne sont pas aléatoires chez Ionesco. Une lecture intertextuelle de son œuvre permet de constater que les jeux de sonorité avec le mot pape se déploient également dans La Cantatrice chauve, ce qui reflète l’intention de l’écrivain de contester toute forme de pouvoir mais aussi de pointer le problème de la communication parmi les gens :

M. SMITH : Le paperape! Le pape n’a pas de soupape. La soupape a un pape.
(Ionesco 1950/ 1991, La Cantatrice chauve, p. 41)

ΚΥΡΙΟΣ ΣΜΙΘ: Ο πάπας ξεπατώθηκε! Του πάπα χρειάζεται τάπα. Η τάπα τι να τον κάνει τον πάπα.
[Traduction inversée : Le pape a été exténué ! Le pape a besoin d'un bouchon. Le bouchon n’a pas besoin du pape.]
(Ionesco 1950/ 1991, La Cantatrice chauve, traduit par Protopapas, 1987, p. 193)

Alors que ni Stamatiou ni Belies n’ont traduit ce passage absurde, Protopapas est le seul à reproduire ce jeu de sonorités, ainsi que les allusions intertextuelles dans l’ensemble de son œuvre. Ce procédé se retrouve également dans d’autres endroits de la même pièce théâtrale :

Madame Martin : Excusez-moi, monsieur le Capitaine, je n’ai pas très bien compris votre histoire. A la fin, quand on arrive à la grand-mère du prêtre, on s’empêtre.
Monsieur Smith : Toujours, on s’empêtre entre les pattes du prêtre.
(Ionesco 1950/1991, La Cantatrice chauve, p. 35)

Protopapas opère une traduction sonore en mettant en avant la rythmique du texte cible. Ainsi, entretient-il la répétition des mêmes mots de façon à ce qu’ils riment, ce qui permet de maintenir en partie la continuité du sens ou bien du non-sens du texte original :

ΚΥΡΙΑ ΜΑΡΤΙΝ: Να με συμπαθάτε κύριε Πυροσβέστη, αλλά δεν κατάλαβα μερικές λεπτομέρειες της ιστορίας σας. Στο τέλος όταν φτάσατε στη γιαγιά του παπά, μπέρδεψα και τα λοιπά, κι όταν είπατε για την δασκάλα, εμπέρδεψα και τ’ άλλα.
ΚΥΡΙΟΣ ΣΜΙΘ:  Πάντοτε μπερδεύεσαι παπά σαν ερωτεύεσαι και αν είναι και δασκάλα βάλ το αμέσως στην τρεχάλα.
(Ionesco 1950/1991, La Cantatrice chauve, traduit par  Protopapas 1987, p. 185)

[Traduction inversée : MADAME MARTIN: Excusez-moi, monsieur le Pompier, mais je n’ai pas compris certains détails de votre histoire. A la fin, lorsque vous êtes arrivé chez la grand-mère du prêtre, j’ai confondu les autres choses, et quand vous avez parlé de l'enseignante, j’ai confondu le reste. 
MONSIEUR SMITH : Tu confonds toujours tout, mon prêtre, lorsque tu tombes amoureux, et si c’est une institutrice, tu te mets tout de suite à courir.]

Belies, de son côté, fait passer la confusion des répliques des personnages fictifs et y ajoute un jeu de mots, en puisant une nouvelle fois dans la culture grecque et la polysémie de l’adjectif σκοτεινό. Εn effet, ce mot désigne quelque chose ou quelqu’un d’obscur, ou bien quelque chose qui manque de lumière. Il peut également actualiser selon le contexte la signification « noir », comme dans la collocation σκοτεινό δωμάτιο « chambre noire ». L’incongruité est créée par l’actualisation de deux significations de la même unité lexicale, mécanisme auquel le spectateur ne s’attend pas :

ΚΥΡΙΑ ΜΑΡΤΙΝ : Συγγνώμη, κύριε λοχαγέ, αλλά δεν κατάλαβα κάτι στο τέλος. Μπερδεύτηκα εκεί με τον αδελφό του παπά. Κάτι μου είναι σκοτεινό.
ΛΟΧΑΓΟΣ : Προφανώς τα ράσα του, που είναι μαύρα.
(Ionesco 1950/1991, La Cantatrice chauve, traduit par Belies, 2007, p. 53)

[Traduction inversée : MADAME MARTIN : désolée, monsieur le capitaine, mais je n’ai pas compris une chose, à la fin. J’ai été confuse avec le frère du prêtre. Il y a quelque chose d’obscur.
CAPITAINE : De toute évidence ce sont ses vêtements qui sont noirs.]

En effet, cette incongruité est due à l’emploi ambigu de l’adjectif, dont la signification courante est interdite dans la chute de ce dialogue absurde et humoristique. Comme le mot en question n’est jamais utilisé pour décrire la classe de vêtements (σκούρα ρούχα « vêtements foncés » et non * σκοτεινά ρούχα « vêtements obscurs »), cette transgression sémantique met en avant le non conformisme ionescien tout en renforçant les réseaux intertextuels visant le pouvoir de l’église. Il est également pertinent de noter que l’église orthodoxe, au sein de la communauté grecque, sert souvent de source d’inspiration pour les humoristes et les satiristes.

L’humour chez Ionesco repose également sur la « scalarité » des faits et des contenus sémantiques des mots. Dans le passage qui suit, le pompier dont le rêve est d’éteindre des incendies, parle d’un incendie qui va se produire dans un temps précis à l’autre bout de la ville. Cependant, en dialoguant avec le couple Smith, l’incendie finit par se transformer en un petit feu de cheminée et ensuite en une petite brûlure d’estomac :

LE POMPIER : Ecoutez, c’est vrai… tout ça c’est très subjectif…mais ça c’est ma conception du monde. Mon rêve. Mon idéal…et puis ça me rappelle que je dois partir. Puisque vous n’avez pas l’heure, moi, dans trois quarts d’heure et seize minutes exactement j’ai un incendie, à l’autre bout de la ville. Il faut que je me dépêche. Bien que ce ne soit pas grand-chose.
MADAME SMITH : Qu’est-ce que ce sera ? Un petit feu de cheminée ?
LE POMPIER : Oh même pas. Un feu de paille et une petite brûlure d’estomac.
(Ionesco 1950/ 1991, La Cantatrice chauve, p. 38)

Cette gradation descendante basée sur le contenu sémantique des mots crée une rupture de continuité et provoque le rire chez les spectateurs. Les traductions grecques interprètent et rendent différemment ce paradoxe. Protopapas propose une traduction plus ou moins fidèle et reproduit ainsi l’humour référentiel identifié dans le texte original :

ΠΥΡΟΣΒΕΣΤΗΣ: Συμφωνώ, δεν αποκλείεται να’ χετε δίκαιο… όλα αυτά είναι τελείως υποκειμενικά… Αλλά εγώ τον κόσμο, κάπως έτσι τον καταλαβαίνω. Το όνειρο μου… το ιδεώδες μου… και ύστερα μου θύμισαν ότι έχω κάποιο ραντεβού. Αφού εσείς δεν μπορείτε να μου πείτε τι ώρα είναι,  εμένα σε τρία τέταρτα  και δεκάξι δευτερόλεπτα ακριβώς με περιμένει μια πυρκαγιά στην άλλη άκρη της πόλεως. Πρέπει να βιαστώ, αν και  η πυρκαγιά είναι ανάξια λόγου
ΚΥΡΙΑ ΣΜΙΘ :  Άραγε τι θα’ ναι ; Η πυρκαγιά καμιάς φουφούς;
ΠΥΡΟΣΒΕΣΤΗΣ: Μακάρι, αλλά δεν νομίζω.  Ίσως κανένα αχυράκι θ’ αρπάξει φωτιά ή το πολύ καμιά καούρα στομαχιού. Είναι τρεις μέρες που με ειδοποίησαν.
(Ionesco 1950, La Cantatrice chauve, traduit par Protopapas, p. 188)

[Traduction inversée : LE POMPIER : Je suis d’accord, il n’est pas impossible que vous ayez raison… tout cela est tout à fait subjectif … mais moi le monde je le comprends plus ou moins comme ça. Mon rêve… mon idéal… et  puis on m’a rappelé que j’ai un rendez-vous. Puisque vous ne pouvez pas me dire quelle heure il est, moi, dans trois quarts d’heure et seize secondes exactement un incendie m’attend à l’autre bout de la ville. Je dois me dépêcher, même si le feu ne vaut pas la peine d’en parler…
MADAME SMITH : Qu’est-ce que ce sera ? L’incendie d’une chaufferette ?
LE POMPIER : je l’espère mais je ne le pense pas. Peut-être une petite paille qui prendra feu ou bien une petite brûlure d’estomac. Il y a trois jours qu’on m’a prévenu.]

Belies prend une nouvelle fois plus de liberté et joue non seulement sur la polysémie, en y ajoutant un jeu de mots inexistant dans le texte source mais il propose une nouvelle stratégie narrative, relatant l’histoire différemment pour intensifier la surprise chez le spectateur :

Μπορεί. Άλλωστε, όλα είναι υποκειμενικά. Βέβαια, εγώ τον κόσμο έτσι τον καταλαβαίνω. Να τι είναι  εμένα τ’ όνειρό μου, το ιδεώδες μου, η κοσμοθεωρία μου. Όμως, μια που είπα όνειρο, θυμήθηκα πως έχω δουλειά. Αφού εσείς δεν μπορείτε να μου πείτε τι ώρα είναι, σας λέω πως σε τρία τέταρτα και δεκαέξι δευτερόλεπτα ακριβώς πρέπει να βρίσκομαι στην άλλη άκρη της πόλης και να σώσω κάποιον από βέβαιο κάψιμο.
Δηλαδή, τι; Θα πιάσει φωτιά η σόμπα του;
Δεν ξέρω. Μπορεί να είναι κάτι πολύ απλό, ένα κάψιμο στο στομάχι του απ’ το πολύ φαΐ. Αλλά πρέπει να πάω, με έχει ειδοποιήσει πριν τρεις μέρες.
(Ionesco 1950, La Cantatrice chauve, traduit par Belies 2007, pp. 60-61) 

[Traduction inversée :
C’est possible. Après tout, tout est subjectif. Bien sûr, moi le monde je le comprends ainsi. Voici mon rêve, mon idéal, ma vision du monde.  Mais, comme j’ai dit rêve, je me suis souvenu d'avoir un travail. Puisque vous ne pouvez pas me dire quelle heure il est, je vous dis que dans trois quarts d’heure et seize secondes exactement je dois être de l'autre côté de la ville pour sauver quelqu'un d’une brûlure certaine.
C'est quoi alors ? Est-ce que son poêle va prendre feu ?
Je ne sais pas. C’est peut-être une chose très simple, une brûlure à l’estomac après avoir beaucoup mangé. Mais je dois y aller, il m'a prévenu il y a trois jours]

Plus précisément, ce choix traductif qui repose sur le mot polysémique κάψιμο signifiant « brûlure », « mise à feu », « feu » ou « grillage » élimine des éléments ‘ informatifs’ servant à ‘avertir’ le spectateur du texte original de la non gravité de l’incendie annoncé plus haut : c’est là où le pompier lui-même atténue le degré de l’urgence avec l’énoncé « Bien que ce ne soit pas grand-chose ». A notre sens, l’effet de surprise est renforcé tant par le choix de ne pas traduire cette formule que par l’insertion des jeux de mots ; outre le jeu de mot basé sur la polysémie du mot κάψιμο, le traducteur procède au défigement να σώσω κάποιον από βέβαιο κάψιμοpour sauver quelqu'un d’une brûlure certaine’ de l’expression figée σώζω κάποιον από βέβαιο θάνατο ‘sauver quelqu’un d’une mort certaine’.   

Cette technique qui consiste à explorer la polysémie des mots pour renforcer l’humour et déclencher le rire est très fréquente chez Belies. Dans l’exemple qui suit, l’humour dans l’original est référentiel, vu qu’il est lié à l’absurdité des gestes et des habitudes des personnages fictifs comme dans le cas où le frère du vieux lui rend visite pour lui laisser une puce :

LA VIEILLE : […] Tu t’es disputé avec tous tes amis, avec tous les directeurs, tous les maréchaux, avec ton frère.
LE VIEUX : C’est pas ma faute, Sémiramis ; tu sais bien ce qu’il a dit.
LA VIEILLE : Qu’est- ce qu’il a dit ?
LE VIEUX : Il a dit « Mes amis, j’ai une puce. Je vous rends visite dans l’espoir de laisser une puce chez vous
LA VIEILLE : Ça se dit, mon chéri. Tu n’aurais pas dû faire attention. Mais avec Carel, pourquoi t’es-tu fâché ? C’est sa faute aussi ?
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, p.147)

Contrairement à Stamatiou[6] et Thivaios qui rendent l’humour référentiel de Ionesco sans y ajouter de jeu de mots,  Belies explore la polysémie du mot ‘puce’ en grec, et crée un jeu de mots, renforçant davantage l’incongruité du texte notamment au niveau verbal :

Αλλά είχες τη συνήθεια να μαλώνεις με όλους! Μάλωσες με όλους τους φίλους σου, όλους τους διευθυντές, όλους τους δημοσιογράφους και με τον αδελφό σου.
Εκείνος έφταιγε, Σεμίραμις. Θυμάσαι τι είπε;
Όχι καλά.
Είπε «Έχω ψύλλους και ήρθα στο σπίτι σας ν’ αφήσω μερικούς».
Δηλαδή, για ψύλλου πήδημα μάλωσες με τον αδελφό σου. Καλά. Και με τον Καρέλ γιατί μάλωσες; Πάλι εκείνος έφταιγε;
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, traduit par Belies, p. 127)

[Traduction inversée : Mais tu avais l’habitude de te disputer avec tout le monde !  Tu t’es disputé avec tous tes amis, tous les directeurs, tous les journalistes et même avec ton frère.
C’était sa faute, Sémiramis. Tu te souviens de ce qu’il a dit ?
Pas très bien.
Il a dit “J’ai des puces et je suis venu chez vous pour en laisser quelques-unes.”
C’est-à-dire, pour un saut de puce / pour un rien que tu t’es disputé avec ton frère. Bon. Et avec Carel, pourquoi tu t’es disputé ? C’était encore sa faute ?]

C’est en effet au moment où Sémiramis, la femme du vieux, lui dit qu’il s’est disputé avec tous ses amis, les directeurs et même avec son frère ; c’est le moment choisi par le vieux pour raconter que son frère lui a rendu visite pour lui laisser une puce. Le même mot paraît en grec dans l’expression idiomatique για ψύλλου πήδημα (littéralement « pour le saut d’une puce »). Cette expression que l’on traduirait en français par « pour un rien », « pour des broutilles », sert à parler de quelqu’un qui se fâche ou se vexe facilement. Dans le texte, ce mot, tel qu’il est employé dans le contexte, subit une resémantisation et fait syllepse dans la réplique de la vieille car il actualise les deux sens : le sens littéral « pour le saut d’une puce » et le sens figuré « pour un rien ».

L’humour tout comme le comique chez Ionesco repose non seulement sur l’aberration des gestes et des usages des personnages (le fait de rendre visite à quelqu’un pour lui laisser une puce, par exemple) mais aussi sur l’« interdiction » des certains mots dits « inappropriés », qui ne sont pas prononcés mais suggérés, comme dans la dernière réplique de l’extrait suivant :

LA VIEILLE : Ça se dit, mon chéri. Tu n’aurais pas dû faire attention. Mais avec Carel, pourquoi t’es-tu fâché ? C’est sa faute aussi ?
LE VIEUX : Tu vas me mettre en colère, tu vas me mettre en colère. Na. Bien sûr, c’était sa faute. Il est venu un soir, il a dit : Je vous souhaite bonne chance. Je devrais vous dire le mot qui porte chance ; je ne le dis pas, je le pense. Et il riait comme un veau.
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, p. 147)

Il va de soi que le personnage fictif évite le mot scatologique ‘merde’ qui est utilisé en français pour souhaiter bonne chance. Par contact des langues, ce mot a fini par entrer dans la langue grecque et notamment dans le cercle théâtral pour souhaiter bonne chance. Il convient de noter que cet emprunt sémantique n’a pas encore été lexicalisé ; le recours aux dictionnaires grecs, comme ceux de Babiniotis (2008) et de Triandafillides[7] (1998)   n’attestent pas de cette acception. Comme les trois traductions ont été réalisées dans des périodes différentes, il est intéressant de voir comment cet extrait a été rendu :

ΓΕΡΟΣ: Θα... θα  με κάνεις να θυμώσω,  Σεμίραμις και θα με κάνεις να θυμώσω άσχημα. Και βέβαια αυτός έφταιγε. Ήρθε ένα βράδυ και μου είπε  «Ήρθα να σας χΑΙ:::::ρετίσω. Θα έπρεπε να πω το άλλο ρήμα, αλλά δεν το λέω το σκέφτομαι.»  και χαχάνιζε σαν να του καθαρίζανε αυγά.
ΓΡΙΑ: Ο άνθρωπος το είπε στ’ αστεία,  μωρό μου, για να γελάσουμε. Στη ζωή δεν πρέπει να είναι κανείς μη μου άπτου.
(Ionesco, Les Chaises traduit par Stamatiou)

 [Traduction inversée : LE VIEUX : Tu...tu me mettras en colère, Sémiramis et tu me mettras gravement en colère. Mais bien sûr, c’était sa faute. Il est venu une nuit et  il a dit: « Je suis venu vous SAAL:::::uer.  J'aurais dû dire l'autre verbe, mais je ne le dis pas, je le pense. » et il riait comme si on lui écaillait des œufs.
LA VIEILLE : L’homme a dit ça pour plaisanter, mon petit chou, pour rire. Dans la vie, on  ne doit pas se vexer facilement.]

Dans la traduction proposée par Stamatiou, le rire provient du jeu entre implicite et explicite. Le mot sous-entendu et à moitié prononcé est le verbe χέζω « chier » ; en effet, ces deux premiers phonèmes lors de l’adaptation radiophonique sont oralement prolongés pour permettre au public radiophonique d’établir l’association cognitive entre les deux verbes χέζω « chier » et χαιρετίζω « saluer ». Le traducteur, puisant dans le système de la langue grecque, exploite la ressemblance phonique de deux premiers phonèmes en vue d’établir une équivalence fonctionnelle pour une adaptation orale et non pas écrite de l’œuvre de Ionesco. Ce choix traductif serait moins opératoire pour une version écrite car le phonème E est écrite différemment dans les deux verbes.

La traduction de Thivaios prend en compte l’évolution sémantique du mot σκατά en grec grâce au contact de deux langues, ce qui lui permet d’effectuer une traduction littérale mais à la fois actuelle. Bien évidemment, cela n’aurait pas été possible dans la version antérieure de Stamatiou car ce mot n’avait jusqu’alors pas été utilisé dans un tel contexte.

Ο ΓΕΡΟΣ: Θα με νευριάσεις πάλι, και θα νευριάσω άσχημα. Και βέβαια έφταιγε αυτός.  Ήρθε ένα βράδυ και είπε: «Σας εύχομαι καλή τύχη. Άλλη λέξη έπρεπε να πω που φέρνει τύχη· αλλά δεν τη λέω, την έχω στο μυαλό.» Και γελούσε σαν βόδι.
Η ΓΡΙΑ : Αστεία το είπε, αγάπη μου. Στη ζωή δεν πρέπει να είμαστε μυγιάγγιχτοι.
Ο ΓΕΡΟΣ:  Αυτά τα αστεία εμένα δε μου αρέσουν.
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, 2011 traduit par Thivaios, pp. 65-66)

[Traduction inversée : LE VIEUX : tu vas m’énerver, et je serai très énervé. Mais bien sûr c’était sa faute. Un soir, il est venu et a dit : « Je vous souhaite bonne chance. Je devais dire un autre mot qui porte chance, mais je ne le dis pas, je l'ai dans ma tête ». Et il  riait comme un veau.
LA VIEILLE : Il a dit cela pour plaisanter, mon amour. Dans la vie, il ne faut pas être mauvais joueur.
LE VIEUX : Je n'aime pas ces blagues.]

Belies propose une autre narration, en ajoutant d’autres éléments sans pour autant s’éloigner de la thématique scatologique du texte original. Cependant, ce remaniement ne permet pas aux lecteurs de saisir l’allusion et le jeu implicite inhérents au texte original. Par ailleurs, ce choix semble participer de la transgression de la norme et des conventions sociales de la politesse, ce qui n’est pas le cas dans l’original. De ce fait, cette liberté du traducteur rend le texte plus discourtois et grossier aux yeux du public hellénophone :

ΓΕΡΟΣ: Θα με κάνεις να θυμώσω, Σεμίραμις, κι εγώ θυμώνω άσχημα! Φυσικά εκείνος έφταιγε! Είπε « Ήρθα και το στομάχι μου είναι γεμάτο αέρια».  Κι εγώ θυμήθηκα τον αδελφό μου και του  απάντησα «Και ήρθες στο σπίτι μας για να αφήσεις μερικές πορδές
Τον άρπαξες από τα μούτρα, καλέ μου. Γιατί παρεξηγιόσουνα με το παραμικρό; Αστείο έκανε ο άνθρωπος.
Ναι, αστείο έκανε. Δεν μ’ αρέσουνε τ’ αστεία!
(Ionesco 1952/1991, Les Chaises, traduit par Belies, p. 127)

[Traduction inversée : LE VIEUX : Tu vas me mettre en colère, Sémiramis, et je suis très en colère ! Bien sûr, c’était sa faute ! Il a dit “Je suis venu et mon estomac est plein de gaz. Et je me suis souvenu de mon frère et j'ai dit : « Es-tu venu chez nous pour nous lâcher quelques pets ?  »
LA VIEILLE : Tu l’as agressé, mon chou. Pourquoi tu prenais mal tout trop facilement ? Il a juste fait une blague.
LE VIEUX : Oui, il plaisantait. Je n'aime pas les blagues !]

L’analyse des exemples précédents met en évidence plusieurs procédés et stratégies qui consistent à rendre l’humour ionescien. Ainsi le traducteur peut procéder à une traduction sémantique, ce qui donne lieu à une perte des jeux de mots, basés sur la structure sonore des unités lexicales et des morphèmes (équivalence formelle sans équivalence stylistique ou rythmique). En revanche, selon notre corpus, le traducteur a aussi la possibilité d’opter pour une traduction sonore sans équivalence sémantique. Ce choix peut déboucher sur une équivalence pragmatique ou perlocutoire, susceptible de créer des réactions similaires auprès du public cible, notamment grâce à la mobilisation des éléments culturels propres à la culture cible. Plus rarement une traduction littérale, là où les langues-cultures le permettent, peut donner lieu à une équivalence à la fois linguistique et pragmatique comme dans le cas de la traduction implicite du mot merde suggérant « bonne chance » proposée par Thivaios. Dans d’autres cas, l’ajout des jeux de mots basés sur la polysémie ou l’homonymie peut renforcer l’effet humoristique (notamment les choix proposés par Belies). Le traducteur a également la possibilité de reproduire des jeux de mots susceptibles de mobiliser un effet similaire au niveau perlocutoire chez le public grec sans toutefois mettre en place les mêmes moyens linguistiques (par exemple le jeu basé sur l'homonyme τραπεζίτες signifiant « banquiers » et « dents molaires »). Cette option est susceptible d’affecter l’équivalence référentielle sans nécessairement nuire à l’adéquation de l’effet humoristique par rapport à l’ethos du dramaturge. Or les ajouts ou stratégies narratives susceptibles d’exagérer, trahir ou bien pervertir l’humour ionescien, comme le dernier exemple proposé par Belies, s’avèrent inutiles dans la mesure où elles ne répondent ni aux attentes du public cible ni à l’univers littéraire de l’auteur.


Tout au long de cette réflexion, nous avons essayé de montrer que si l’humour ionescien se propose de dénoncer l’absurde de son époque, le non-sens, l’absence de communication, qui se déploie différemment, donne lieu à plusieurs interprétations en grec. Les traducteurs peuvent mobiliser plusieurs moyens pour faire passer l’humour au public cible. Toutefois, la transposition de l’effet humoristique s’effectue par le biais de l’incongruité, l’illogique, le désaccord, du point de vue du contenu sémantique des mots, de leur structure sonore et de la situation à laquelle le texte se réfère. Par-delà le verbal, élément constitutif de l’humour, d’autres paramètres sont à prendre en considération dans toute opération de traduction ou tradaptation de l’humour. En effet, la contextualisation du corpus repose sur l’univers littéraire et l’éthos idéologique de l’écrivain, bref la dimension spatio-temporelle dans laquelle l’œuvre a été produite ainsi que la langue et la culture d’accueil, autrement dit les éléments culturels et linguistiques pouvant être mobilisés pour susciter l’humour chez le spectateur. Par ailleurs, les libertés que s’accordent les traducteurs par rapport au texte original doivent viser les mêmes réactions chez le public cible sans ignorer ou trahir l’idéologie, les valeurs régissant l’ensemble de l’œuvre du dramaturge. Une lecture intertextuelle et paratextuelle s’avère également utile voire nécessaire pour mieux comprendre la nature, l’intention et la cible de l’humour propre à l’auteur. Pour transposer l’humour, le plus important est l’efficacité communicative de sa traduction, car l’essence de l’énoncé humoristique, la raison de son existence, repose sur sa perception comme une blague (Attardo 2001, 32-33). Il en résulte ainsi que son interprétation par le destinataire doit s’accorder avec celle du destinateur.


Sources primaires

Ionesco, Eugène (1991) La Cantatrice chauve, in Théâtre complet d’Eugène Ionesco, E. Jacquart (éd.), 9-42, Paris, Gallimard. (Œuvre originale publiée en 1950 et 1952)

Ionesco, Eugène (1991) Les Chaises, in Théâtre complet d’Eugène Ionesco, E. Jacquart (éd.) 139-183, Paris, Gallimard. (Œuvre originale publiée en 1952)

Ionesco, Eugène (1987) Η πείνα και δίψα / Η Φαλακρή Τραγουδίστρια. Giorgos Protopapas. (Traduit en grec. Original français : La soif et la faim / La cantatrice chauve, 1950), Athènes, Editions  Dodoni.

Ionesco, Eugène (2007) Η Φαλακρή Τραγουδίστρια/ Το Μάθημα/ Οι Καρέκλες. Erikkos Belies (Traduit en grec. Originaux français : La Cantatrice chauve, 1950 ;  La leçon, 1970 ; Les chaises, 1973), Athènes, Editions Kedros.

Ionesco, Eugène (2011) Το μάθημα/ Οι καρέκλες, Yiannis Thivaios, (Traduit en grec, originaux français : La Leçon, 1970; Les Chaises, 1973) - Athènes, Editions Bilieto.

Adaptations radiophoniques, textes traduits par Kostas Stamatiou.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YP4GYe-x3wE (La Cantatrice chauve, 1976) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL_FRCBE1Qk (Les Chaises, 1971)

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Asimakoulas, Dimitris (2004) “Towards a Model of Describing Humour Translation : A Case Study of the Greek Subtitled Versions of Airplane! and Naked Gun”, Meta 49, no.4: 822–842.

Attardo, Salvatore (1994) Linguistic Theories of Humor, Berlin/New York, Mouton de Gruyter.

Attardo, Salvatore (2001) Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Humor Research Series, 6, Berlin/ New York, Mouton de Gruyter.

Attardo, Salvatore, et Victor Raskin (1991) “Script Theory Revis(it)ed: Joke Similarity and Joke Representation Model Author”, Humor 4, no. 3-4 : 293-347.

Bergson, Henri (1959) Le rire, essai sur la signification du comique, Paris, PUF.

Bouquet, Brigitte, et Jacques Riffault (2010) “L'humour dans les diverses formes du rire”, ERES, « Vie sociale » 2 : 13- 22.

Chabanne, Jean-Charles (2002) “Registre : Le Comique”, Chapitre extrait de Le comique, collection La Bibliothèque-Textes et dossiers « Registre », Gallimard.

Chiaro, Delia (éd.) (2010) Translation, Humour and The Media. Vol. 2, London, Continuum. 

Constantinou, Maria (2007) “Traduire l’ironie : L’exemple de l’oeuvre de N. Kazantzaki et ses traductions française et anglaise”, Linguistik Online 31, no.2 : 3–15.

Constantinou, Maria (2010) “Transposer l’ironie théâtrale dans la langue de l’Autre. Le cas de La Cantatrice chauve de Ionesco en grec”, in Katrien Lievois, et Pierre Schoentjes (éds. invités) Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series - Translating Irony.  Belgium, University Press Antwerp: 151-171.

Constantinou, Maria (2018) “Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons in question : stances, translational narratives and identity construction from a cross-linguistic perspective”, Social Semiotics: 1-30.

Diot, Roland (1989) “Humor for Intellectuals: Can it Be Exported and Translated? The Case of Gary Trudeau’s In Search of Reagan’s Brain”, Meta 34, no.1 : 84-87.

Henry, Jacqueline (2003) La traduction des jeux de mots, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle.

Hickey, Leo (1998) “Perlocutionary equivalence: marking, exegesis and recontextualisation”, in Leo Hickey (éd.) The Pragmatics of Translation, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters: 217-232.

House, Juliane (1997) Translation quality assessment. A model revisited, Tubingen, Gunther Narr.

Gruner, Charles, R. (1997) The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Ionesco, Eugène (1966) Notes et contre-notes, Paris, Gallimard.

Ioani, Monica (2002) “Bergson et la thérapie du rire chez Ionesco”, Annales Universitatis Apulensis 2 : 95-102.

Kourdis, Evangelos (2009) “La sémiotique de la traduction de l’humour. Traduire la caricature de la presse française dans la presse grecque”, Signes, Discours et Sociétés 2: 1-10. 

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Margot, Jean-Claude (1979) Traduire et trahir. La théorie de la traduction et son application aux textes bibliques,  L’Age d’Homme.

Meyer, John, C.  (2000) Humor as a double-edged sword: Four functions of humor in communication, Communication Theory 10: 310-331.

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Mogorron Huerta, Pedro (2010) “Traduire l’humour dans les films français doublés en espagnol”,  Meta 55, no.1 : 71-87.

Nida, Eugene, A.  (1964) Toward a Science of Translating, Leiden: Brill.

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Raskin, Victor (1985) Semantic mechanisms of humour, Dordrecht, D. Reidel.

Rastier, François (1987) Sémantique interprétative, Paris, PUF.

Reiss, Katharina, et Vermeer, Hans, J. (1984) Towards a general theory of translational action: Skopos theory explained, traduit par  C. Nord, 2013, Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.

Sprenger, Scott (2004) “Ionesco anthropologue: mimésis et violence dans Les chaises”, Lingua Romana.  http://linguaromana.byu.edu/2016/06/02/ionesco-anthropologue-mimesis-et-violence-dans-les-chaises/

Tsai, Claire (2015) “Reframing Humor in TV News Translation”, Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 23, no. 4 : 615–633.

Tymoczko, Maria (1987) “Translating the Humour in Early Irish Hero Tales: A Polysystems Approach”, New Comparison 3: 83–103.

Vandaele, Jeroen (1999) “‘Each Time We Laugh’. Translated Humour in Screen Comedy” in  Translation and the (Re)location of Meaning, Selected Papers of the CETRA Research Seminars in Translation Studies 1994-1996, Jeroen Vandaele (ed.), Lovain, Catholic University of Lovain : 237-272.

Vandaele, Jeroen (guest ed.) (2002) The Translator (Special Issue): Studies in Intercultural Communication – Translating Humour, Manchester, St.Jerome Publishing, Vol. 8 (2).

Vandaele, Jeroen (2010) “Humor in translation”, in Handbook of Translation Studies, Yves Gambier (éd.), Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Vol. 1 : 147-152.

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Zabalbeascoa, Patrick (1996) “Translating Jokes for Dubbed Television Situation Comedies”, The Translator 2, no. 2 : 239–258.

Zabalbeascoa, Patrick (2010) “Woody Allen’s Themes through his Films, and his Films through their Translations” in Translation, Humour and The Media,  Delia Chiaro (éd.),Vol 2. London, Continuum: 153-174.

Zanettin, Federico (2010) “Humour in Translated Cartoons and Comics” in Translation, Humour and The Media, Delia Chiaro (éd.),   London, Continuum,Vol 2. : 34-52. 

Zeynaligargari, Sevil, et Alavi, Farideh (2011) “L’art de la traduction de l’humour dans la littérature pour enfants : la traduction du Petit Nicolas en persan”, Traduire [En ligne], 224 | 2011, mis en ligne le 03 février 2014, consulté le 01 avril 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/traduire/243


[1] Il s’agit de la chaîne de télévision publique grecque.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YP4GYe-x3wE    (La Cantatrice chauve, 1976). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL_FRCBE1Qk (Les Chaises, 1971).

[3] Selon cette théorie les autres paramètres sont le mécanisme logique, la situation, la stratégie narrative, la cible et la langue. Le paramètre de supériorité a été ultérieurement intégré et développé par Attardo (1996, voir aussi Asimakoulas 2004) dans le cadre de sa théorie.   

[4] Par commodité et pour faciliter la lecture par les non hellénophones, nous avons opté de ne pas inclure dans tous les exemples les trois versions et de nous limiter à leur description et / ou analyse.  

[5] Il est à noter que le mot κουραμπιές est polysémique ; il peut selon le contexte actualiser les sens suivants: a) gâteau sec produit en particulier à Noël, b) (péjoratif) soldat n’ayant jamais participé à une bataille de guerre c) (insulte) lâche, qui manque de courage. 

[6] Stamatiou fait une traduction plus explicite qui, à notre avis, provoque plus de rire que celle proposée par Thivaios. 

About the author(s)

Maria Constantinou received her Ph.D. in Language Sciences from the University of Franche-Comté in 2006. She taught foreign languages and communication-related courses in private academic institutions of Cyprus (2007-2012), and since January 2012, she has been teaching linguistics, (critical) discourse analysis, semiotics and translation (both theory and practice) at the University of Cyprus. She has also collaborated with the University of Nicosia within a master’s degree programme and has been working for the Law Office of the Republic of Cyprus as a freelance translator since 2008. She is particularly interested in issues related to metaphors, ideology, emotions, humour, discourse, society and identity construction. She has published on Kazantzakis and Ionesco, focussing mainly on the phenomena of intertextuality, metaphor, humour and ideology. Her recent research includes journalistic and political discourse, CMC (forums, blogs) and media and institutional translation and pays particular attention to the interplay between image and text. She has participated in various conferences and published articles and chapters on (and in) English, French and Greek mainly from a contrastive, cross-cultural and translational perspective in refereed and peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes.

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A Translational Continuum

The Multiform Migration of the Iconic Song 'O sole mio

By Anna Fochi (Cardiff University, UK)

Abstract & Keywords

The manifold interface between music, migration and translation can foster challenging research, especially when translation is metaphorically approached as a continuous journey and migrating condition of people and forms. In this regard, the on-going translational evolution of a well-known popular song from Naples (‘O sole mio) is paradigmatic. By definition, a Neapolitan song (as ‘O sole mio is usually described) is rooted in multiple interconnections between heterogeneous materials and Naples itself has always given signs of being an open-air workshop on resistance and cultural hybridization. Moreover, this song has been crossing an unbelievable number of geographical, temporal and artistic boundaries, often intertwined with actual stories of Italian-American migration. The case study focuses on some relevant moments in this amazing journey, observing the successive layers of meaning created by its many incarnations.  Starting from its encounter with prestige opera audiences, thanks to great tenor Enrico Caruso (1916), the case-study follows the radical re-working and domestication that favour the full entrance of the song into the mainstream Anglo-American market (There’s no Tomorrow, 1949, sung by both Tony Martin and Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley’ hit It’s Now or Never, 1960), and finally focuses on the more recent return journeys to Naples and New York by Pino Daniele (2005) and Mario Bellavista (2011). By approaching this progress as a translational continuum, rather than a series of detached episodes of transformation, the analysis can highlight striking episodes of creative hybridization, which underscore positive feelings of transcultural intimacy and point to a “shared we”. The case study fully confirms that broader perspectives are crucial when studying the migration of popular songs. Monolithic notions, such as authenticity, cultural specificity or musical genre, as well as narrow distinctions between song translation proper, intralingua translation, non-translation and adaptation do not easily engage with this context. Thus, flexibility is the only viable answer. It is a stimulating field for both Music and Translation Studies, calling for more challenging approaches and greater contamination from both research areas.

Keywords: popular song, song translation, domestication, creative hybridization, ‘O sole mio, It’s Now or Never

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Music as a migrating art

Music is a migrating form of art. Being a universal language (Minors 2013: 1), it can spread and migrate much more easily than people, thus establishing contacts and interacting with a variety of cultural influences. As Kapelj synthesizes  (in Proto Pisani 2011), music is a migrating art par excellence.

It comes as no surprise that stimulating contributions have recently appeared, showing that studies on music and migration can be promising allies (in particular, see Kapelj in 2009 and Kiwan and Meinhof 2011). Similarly, the articulate interface between music and translation has started to attract increasing academic attention, becoming the focus of a growing number of thought-provoking studies[1].

The intersection of translation and music can be a fascinating field to explore. It can enrich our understanding of what translation might entail, how far its boundaries can be extended and how it relates to other forms of expression. Research into this area can thus help us locate translation-related activities in a broader context, undermining more conservative notions of translation and mediation. (Susam-Saraeva 2008: 191)

Susam-Saraeva’s allusions to conservative notions evoke the last two decades of debates and dramatic change within Translation Studies. Since “the cultural turn has held sway in translation studies” (Munday 2001:127), contributing to the outlining of the “cultural translation paradigm” (Pym 2010: 144), challenging research has kept “undermining the more limiting conception of translation as meaning transfer” (Susam-Saraeva 2015: 7). The focus on translation has been shifted towards cultural processes, with increasing emphasis on new modes of mobility and transcultural sociability born across multiple borders and boundaries. Translation is seen as a continuous journey, a metaphor for the migrating condition of people and forms.

In our age of (the valorization of) migrancy, exile and diaspora, the world ‘translation’ seems to have come full circle and reverted from its figurative literary meaning of an interlingual transaction to its etymological physical meaning of local disrupture; translation seems to have been translated back to its origins. (Bassnett and Trivedi 1999: 13)

Given the fact that music can foster multidimensional and multidirectional cultural processes, the question is whether, and to what extent, it can also contribute to boosting the inner nature of translation, showing it as an “ongoing site of creativity”, rather than as a process imprisoned between the fixed oppositional poles of source and target (Glick Schiller and Meinhof 2011: 21). To approach translation as an “ongoing site of creativity” opens up fascinating perspectives for research. Thus, focussing on the relationship between music and translation and spotlighting popular song translation, this article chooses the multifaceted American journeys of an iconic song from Naples, Southern Italy: ‘O sole mio. Far from being images of straightforward translational transfer, the multiple single and return journeys of ‘O sole mio rather show how the song undergoes various transformations. After examining the 1916 classical performance of ‘O sole mio by a world-famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, the case-study then follows the full entrance of the song into the Anglophone musical market by means of a radical reworking in 1949, There’s no tomorrow, by both Tony Martin and Dean Martin. A few years later, Elvis Presley’s greatest hit, It’s Now or Never, turns it into an amazing commercial product, which fully complies with the Anglo-American mainstream musical market, thanks to a relevant process of domestication. Nonetheless, Elvis Presley’s hit has not stifled the migrating strength of the song. In fact, It’s Now or Never has been an exceptional sustaining force for ‘O sole mio. It has fostered its translational vitality: from its 1962 courageous encounter with the twist rhythm, in Franco Verna’s Facimel’a twist (‘O sole mio), to the rich cultural intimacy of two outstanding return journeys, Pino Daniele’s It’s Now or Never (2005) and Mario Bellavista’s jazz version of ‘O sole mio  (2011).

Each time some meaningful layers have been added, both problematizing and enriching the migration of this song. However, these steps can be better understood only if read as parts of a complex process still in progress, rather than a series of detached translational episodes. Therefore, the aim of the article is to offer a downside-up contribution to the debate on song translation through a paradigmatic case study. The analysis of a concrete example of a multifaceted translational process is a way to confirm and stress the relevance of more comprehensive and extended theoretical foundations within cultural translation studies.

Overcoming boundaries in the study of popular song translation

Translation Studies have often overlooked popular songs, especially their semiotic complexity. Yet, paradoxically, it is their very multidimensional nature that makes studying them so challenging and promising at the same time. This is confirmed by the growing attention devoted to songs within research on translation and music: from relevant contributions in both the 2008 special issue of The Translator (by Davies and Betahila, Öner, McMichael) and in Minors’ volume in 2013 (by Newmark, Low, Kaindl) to stimulating articles by Low (2013b) and Fernández (2015).

Undoubtedly, an element of its complexity is the fact that the genre called song is a verbal-musical hybrid (Low 2013b: 237). 

Words set to music are an instance of what Jacques Derrida called the supplement, an added element which is nonetheless integral to the whole  […] These supplements come in different forms, but they always present the paradox of belonging and being separate at the same time. (Chanan 2013)

However, this paradox is only one of the elements of complexity in songs. Kaindl describes popular song as “a semiotically complex form of aesthetic communication perceived as part of popular culture” (Kaindl 2005 and 2013: 151), or, more synthetically, a plurisemiotic artefact. Thus, still in Kaindl’s words, songs are “polyphonic texts”. The three main dimensions in song are music, voice and lyrics, but, of course, there are other components to be taken into consideration (Kaindl 2013: 151−2). As a matter of fact, songs are made up of both textual and extra-textual materials: linguistic and musical elements create a dialogue between themselves as well as with aural and visual materials (Fernández 2015 and Bosseaux 2013).

[Sung popular music] consists of linguistic, musical and visual elements which are transmitted by one person or a group, either by audio-visual or audio means, in the form of short narrative independent pieces. […] The visual presentation (live performances, music videos and album covers) is strongly connected to the dissemination and commodification of popular songs. The physique of the performers, their facial expression and gestures, their costumes, hair, and make-up, as well as dancers, lighting and possible props, merge into the song. (Kaindl 2013: 152−3)

The methodological complexities and challenges involved in the study of popular song translation are thus evident. The study of song recordings and videos should rely on a vast area of expertise. A combined competence, in Translation Studies, Music as well as Semiotics, is unfortunately not easy to find. However, even when moving on from mere criticism of single texts, researchers need to adopt new frameworks when studying music and translation (Susam-Saraeva 2008: 190). To start with, greater flexibility is crucial, since rigid distinctions could be misleading. In this regard, this article offers different perspectives, for example, from Low’s, who instead argues the need for clear definitions in song translation criticism. Since “definitions need boundaries (Latin fines)”, he deliberately urges “ a narrow view of what should be really called ‘song translation’” (2013b: 241, 243), to be distinguished from both “adaptation” and “replacement text”. The present author rather shares the view that distinctions are better seen as blurred in post-structuralist thought (Van Wyke 2014: 240). This opinion is even more appropriate in the case of translation of non-canonized music, such as popular song translation. Susam-Saraeva stresses that

[…] in non-canonized music, such as popular or folk songs, it is often impossible – and in my opinion, undesirable – to pinpoint where translation ends and adaptation begins […] such boundaries may become totally irrelevant. (Susam-Saraeva 2008: 189, highlighting added)

This case study will show how a long series of different transformations can receive greater significance if approached as a continual translational story. However, this approach inherently requires the overcoming of narrow definitions and boundaries between translation proper, adaptation and re-writing.

‘O sole mio and collective identity building

Scholars have stressed the crucial role played by popular music in helping people “define their relationship to local, everyday surroundings” (“narrativization of place”), as well as its part in articulating “notions of community and collective identity” (Bennet 2004: 2−3 and Fernández 2015: 271). Understandably, the impact of music and in particular of songs is even more intense on migrant communities (Susam-Sarajeva 2008: 188). All this is both confirmed and problematized by ‘O sole mio, the prime example of Neapolitan song culture becoming a global phenomenon.

Since its composition in 1898 (lyrics by Giovanni Capurro, music by Edoardo Di Capua, published by Edizioni Bideri, Naples), the song has spread rapidly and is still crossing an impressive, unbelievable number of geographical, temporal and artistic borders and boundaries. Del Bosco opens his monograph on ‘O sole mio by stating that the song is the best known song in the world, and if this were not enough, even in the whole universe (Del Bosco 2006: 5). At any rate, it cannot be denied that its popularity has been exceptional, and this is fully confirmed by the Neapolitan Song Sound Archives in Naples, a recent foundation by RadioRai (the Italian state radio) together with Naples Municipality and Campania Regional Council. For example, from the Archives we learn that ‘O sole mio has been extensively translated and interpreted by international opera singers, orchestras, artists and bands, as well as famous solo players. Equally striking is the variety of musical instruments used to interpret it, from violin, piano, trumpet, guitar, mandolin to electric guitars, Hammond organs, saxophones, and even the ukelin (a combination of the violin and the Hawaiian ukelete, made popular in the 1920’s in the USA).

Such worldwide circulation soon contributed to turn ‘O sole mio into a sort of Italian national anthem, thus starting to link it to narratives of national identity. Eloquent proof of this is that on August 14th 1920 in Antwerp, at the opening of the first Olympic Games after World War I, when the band conductor realized that no score of the Italian Royal March was available, he chose to play 'O sole mio, a tune that all his musicians could play by ear, and the song was greeted with great enthusiasm by all those present (Del Bosco 2006: 6). Even more surprisingly, since ‘O sole mio has deep local and regional roots, it is recorded that, at least in 1954, the song was regularly performed as the Italian National Anthem throughout the American continent, from Canada to Latin America (Del Bosco 2006: 23).

As already noted, ‘O sole mio is usually classified as a Neapolitan song. However, although Italy is a relatively young nation within Western Europe, since it was unified only in 1861, and internal regional differences are still great, in the world of song, what is usually referred to as Neapolitan has often been considered an emblem not only of “Neapolitanness” but even of “Italianness”.

[la canzone napoletana] è un’espressione musicale che metonimicamente “significa” e rappresenta una città, quando non l’intero Paese. (Pesc and Stazio 2013: 11)
[As a music form, Neapolitan song is a metonymy for a city, and sometimes even for the whole country.]

It is an eloquent example of narrativization of place. However, any claims to regard City and Country as monolithic entities remain suspect. We must acknowledge that urban cultures are by their very nature the result of multiple intersections and layers, and similarly local and national cultures are seldom so homogenous as to be conveyed by a single song, or music form, although they may serve as identity emblems. Naples is no exception, of course, though it has a few very distinctive traits. One of them is the persisting presence of a type of musical production with strong identifying factors since the 19th, which complicates and problematizes what has just been observed. On the other hand, an important issue to weigh in is that, paradoxically, this musical form is a sort of hybrid, and has been so since its very beginning.

What is usually labelled as Neapolitan song is very far from being a uniform musical genre. In fact, it is a much more complex and multifaceted cultural phenomenon than one might expect. “La canzone napoletana è praticamente indefinibile” [it is practically impossible to define Neopolitan song] (Del Bosco 2006: 9). The beginning of the classical season of Neapolitan art songs is identified with the closing decades of the 19th century, but the actual origins of this musical form are vague and should be traced back to the 14th century, and probably even earlier. Neapolitan polyphonic roundelays (with lute or calascione accompaniment[2]) had already become quite popular between the 14th and the 15th centuries; their matrix had been the villanelle alla napolitana, a very popular song genre in Neapolitan dialect especially between 1537 and 1652, which also attracted important composers, like Claudio Monteverdi.

 [...] per quanto riguarda la canzone napoletana sono accomunate sotto una stessa dizione forme espressive prodotte in momenti diversi e in modalità produttive differenti [...] affonda le radici in processi di interpenetrazione fra materiali eterogenei (canti contadini, frammenti operistici, estrapolazioni dalla letteratura di colportage, cultura musicale tradizionale cittadina, ecc. ) in cui trovavano espressione fenomeni come la ininterrotta immigrazione a Napoli da altre province del Regno e il continuo, quotidiano, pendolarismo dei cafoni fra la città e le campagne circostanti. Questo “laboratorio”, dunque, ha cominciato a funzionare molto tempo fa, e possiede una vitalità che pare inesauribile. (Pesc and Stazio 2013:11, 21)
 [Actually, Neapolitan song is an umbrella term for a number of expressive forms produced at different times and in diverse ways […] it is rooted in the interpenetration of heterogeneous materials, such as farmer folk songs, opera fragments, extrapolation from colportage literature, urban music traditions, etc. It also reflects complex phenomena, from the steady migration into Naples from other areas in the Realm, to the continual daily commuting of so-called cafoni, common louts, from the surrounding countryside. Thus, this “workshop” has been working for a long time, and still shows hard-won vitality.]

Naples and its multi-layered cultural background, therefore, can be seen as a vital crucible of multiple encounters and interfusions, a space for manifold “in-migration” and “out-migration “. This is the key to interpreting the transmuting life of ‘O sole mio. Its migration begins almost immediately, as portrayed in a well-known episode of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It is the episode called "Séjour à Venise" (La fugitive, or Albertine disparue, posthumously published in 1925), where Marcel refuses to go to the train station with his mother and remains on the hotel terrace listening to a gondolier singing ‘O sole mio[3]. Although fiction is not to be taken as an accurate reflection of real life, this episode evokes a plausible dislocation of the song from Southern Italy to Venice, popular enough to be sung even by a gondolier. Venice and Naples had belonged to different states only a few decades before, in pre-Unification Italy. This means that important cultural and linguistic borders had still to be crossed within the Italian peninsula. We can presume that Proust’s gondolier singing ‘O sole mio would be likely to speak only the Venetian dialect, while ‘O sole mio is not even written in Italian. In point of fact, its lyrics, even nowadays, can be only partially understood by native Italian speakers not fully acquainted with the Neapolitan dialect. That is the reason why Del Bosco’s monograph, like most Italian webpages on the song, displays the lyrics alongside a literal translation into Italian (Del Bosco 2006: 119).

An eventful mistranslation

The evocative lyrics of ‘O sole mio are by a minor Neapolitan poet, Giovanni Capurro (1859-1920). Structurally and rhythmically, the text is characterized by regularity and constant alternation of rhymed stanzas and chorus. Repetition (words, phrases and whole lines) is the key figure throughout the poem. Moreover, each four-line stanza is framed by the recurrence of the same line. It’s a perfect introduction to the lyrical and melodic explosion of the chorus, which clearly carries the song’s impact and message.

‘O Sole Mio

Il sole mio

My own sun




Che bella cosa ‘na jurnata ‘e sole,
N’aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa
Che bella cosa ‘na jurnata ‘e sole

Che bella cosa una giornata di sole,
Un’aria serena dopo la tempesta!
Per l’aria fresca pare già una festa…
Che bella cosa una giornata di sole!

What a wonderful thing a sunny day
The cool air after a thunderstorm!
The fresh breezes banish the heavy air…
What a wonderful thing a sunny day.




Ma n’atu sole
cchiù bello, oi ne’.
‘O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
‘O sole, ‘o sole mio
Sta ‘nfronte a te
sta ‘nfronte a te!

Ma un altro sole
Più bello c’è, o ragazza
Il sole mio
Sta in fronte a te.
Il sole, il sole mio,
Sta in fronte a te
Sta in fronte a te.

But another sun,
That’s brighter still
It’s my own sun
That’s in your face!
The sun, my own sun
It’s in your face!
It’s in your face!




Lùcene ‘ellastre d’’a fenesta toia;
‘na lavannara canta e se ne vanta
E pe’ tramente torce, spanne e canta
Lùcene e ‘llastre d’’a fenesta toia.

Ma n’atu sole

Luccicano I vetri della tua finestra,
una lavandaia canta e si vanta
Mentre strizza, stende e canta.
Luccicano I vetri della tua finestra!

Ma un altro sole

Shining is the glass from your window;
A washwoman is singing and bragging
Wringing and hanging laundry and singing
Shining is the glass from your window.

But another sun,




Quando fa notte e o’ sole se ne scenne,
Me vene quase ‘na malincunia;
Sotto ‘a fenesta toia restarria
Quando fa notte e ‘o sole se ne scenne.

Ma n’atu sole

Quando fa sera e il sole se ne scende,
Mi viene quasi una malinconia…
Resterei sotto la tua finestra,
Quando fa sera ed il sole se ne scende.

Ma un altro sole

When night comes and the sun
Has gone down, I start feeling blue;
I’d stay below your window
When night comes and the sun has gone down.

But another sun,

In the whole poem, a text of only thirty-three lines, the word sole (sun) occurs sixteen times. Presumably this core image is what has helped it overcome linguistic barriers and reach native Italian speakers outside Naples. This is aided by the fact that, although ‘O sole mio is in the Neapolitan dialect, it employs a sort of moderate dialect, somehow diluted and tempered by both phrases and structures taken from standard Italian (Pesc and Stazio 2013: 417). On the other hand, the difficulty for a non-Neapolitan listener to fully understand the lyrics, is confirmed by a mistake in translation, often found in many webpages: the opening line of the chorus “Ma n’atu sole / ‘cchiù bello, oj ne’” means that, although the sun is so beautiful and delightful, there is an even brighter sun. However, to an Italian listener the last two words of the line, “oj ne’”, sound like “non c’è” (‘there isn’t’), which explains the recurrent misunderstanding in webpage literal translations into Italian “Un altro sole / più bello non c’è” (‘but no brighter sun there is’). Yet, with ’no brighter sun there is’ instead of ‘there is an even brighter sun’, the opposite message meaning is conveyed (Del Bosco 2006: 124).

Nonetheless, although it is not a minor mistake, this common mistranslation has paved the way of the migration of the song, at least at the beginning. With many of its colourful details being overshadowed, ‘O sole mio has soon entered the collective national imagination as a sort of irresistible hymn to the sun and to all that it is supposed to mean for those who live in a Mediterranean country. It has become a quintessential synthesis, or rather an epitome of Latin vitality and passionate feeling. The mistaken meaning has even become an important factor in collective identity construction. The statement “another, lovelier sun doesn’t exist” has the logical consequence that beautiful sunshine can be found only in Naples, and, by direct irradiation, in Italy as well. The implicit commonplace is the equation sunshine is Naples and Italy, with two direct corollaries:

  • By right, sunshine belongs to any Italian emigrant’s stock of home-longing feelings.
  • For the most part, sunshine does not exist outside Naples/Italy (Del Bosco 2006: 71).

Migrating Overseas

It is not clear if ‘O sole mio, is even partly indebted for its journey outside Naples to the so-called posteggiatori, since their activity was waning when the song was composed. They were singular figures, street musicians who, accompanied occasionally by a pianino (a portable musical box on a hand-cart), but mostly by a guitar, interpreted all types of popular song, travelling almost all over Europe[5].

What is certain is that the song’s main “leap outside” is connected to the interpretation of the great tenor Enrico Caruso, himself from Naples, and a migrant artist in his own way, too (Naples 1873-1921). Obviously, ‘O sole mio had already reached the USA thanks to Italian migrants. “My grandfather brought his songs from Naples and taught them to his children and they taught them to me”, reports a third-generation Italian migrant living in Massachusets (Tawa 1982: 37). Italians were migrating from different parts of Italy, carrying with them very different cultural backgrounds. However, as we have seen, ‘O sole mio, had quickly found its way across linguistic and cultural barriers within Italy, and this explains why in the early years of the Twentieth Century ‘O sole mio could contribute to the cementing of all Italian communities in North America (Tawa 1982: 19).

Nevertheless, it is thanks to Enrico Caruso that ‘O sole mio reached an unprecedented status and fame. Caruso was the most admired Italian opera tenor of the early Twentieth Century, and certainly the most celebrated and highest paid of his contemporaries worldwide. From November 23rd 1903 his name was associated with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where he opened each season for eighteen consecutive years. When he decided to include ‘O sole mio in his interpretations, he was the first great singer to adopt the song. In 1916, when he was at the peak of his career, Caruso also recorded ‘O sole mio in one of the best studios in New Jersey, accompanied by an opera orchestra[6]. Undoubtedly, this recording itself could be seen as a meaningful form of transformation, through musical reconceptualization, arrangement, performance and singing style.

Caruso’s choice to include the song in his repertoire, together with other Neapolitan melodies, can be read as an implicit affirmation of national and regional identity. Certainly, Italian communities abroad looked up to him. He was a migrant like them, and thus they could idolize him as an emblem of collective Italian redemption. Similarly, thanks to Caruso, a popular song like ‘O sole mio could progress from minor to prominent locations. Opera and great theatres meant higher prestige and greater circulation abroad, well beyond Italian-speaking migrant communities. Its higher musical and social status is confirmed by both Caruso’s decision to record it and the prestigious format chosen. In the wake of the beginning of Western cultural industry, Caruso’s recording of ‘O sole mio meant an undisputable increase in its dissemination, targeting greater audiences and paving the way to its gradual turning into an amazing commercial product.

Most of the listeners in the USA were unlikely to understand the lyrics of ‘O sole mio at all, but the success of the song confirms that “it is after all quite possible to enjoy a sung performance without any knowledge of the language being used” (Davies 2008: 250)[7]. This way, ‘O sole mio gradually turns into a veritable “musicocentric” song, where music, melody and voice are valued more than words[8]. Apparently, this quality of the song was stressed even more by Caruso’s interpretation. His voice had already conquered American opera audiences for its atypical and unorthodox flavour, so “genuine” by comparison with the “spurious and studied” voices of illustrious American predecessors (Gara 1947: 139). In his interpretation of ‘O sole mio, the great tenor’s warm, ardent and vigorous voice amplifies the passionate strength of the melody and creates what is remembered as a legendary performance, with his recording remaining the benchmark by which all others are usually measured.

Surprisingly, however, Caruso’s rendering of ‘O sole mio, which has often been treated as the officially consecrated one, offers a shortened version of the song, completely omitting the second stanza. This way, greater emphasis is placed on the stanzas that are more focussed on the sunshine and easier to understand, being linguistically least dialectical. In the wake of Caruso’s interpretation, ‘O sole mio has been sung by a vast number of great opera singers, but it is Caruso’s shortened version that is mostly privileged. Yet, the fact that Caruso’s interpretation is already a form of transposition, from both a musical and textual point of view, easily tends to be missed. One telling example can suffice: without any explicative note or comment, the website Italamerica proposes the unabridged version of the lyrics to accompany Caruso’s shortened version of ‘O sole mio. In fact, although Caruso’s performance is often nostalgically looked back to as the epitomical model of the classic and pristine rendering of the song, we must acknowledge that it is not the “authentic” ‘O sole mio. Instead it proves how incongruous ideas of authentic interpretations can be.

Displacement and evolution: the encounter with the American market

As a consequence of its increasing success in the USA, ‘O sole mio soon begins to get translated into English. The first recorded version in English sung by American born Charles W. Harrison, My sunshine, dates back to 1915, and is soon followed by similar examples of fairly literal translations, or “singable translations”[9]. Surprisingly, in 1921 ‘O sole mio even evolves into a religious hymn, Down from His Glory, when William E. Booth-Clibborn replaces Capurro’s lyrics and writes a new text to Capua’s ‘O sole mio. However, although interesting, all these cases only affect the textual-linguistic level of the song. A more important departure is the totally new version of ‘O sole mio, musically and verbally re-reworked by Al Hoffman, Leo Corday and Leon Carr in 1949, with the title There’s no tomorrow. It was sung by the American singer Tony Martin as well as by the Italian American singer Dean Martin, who recorded it some years later. Easily perceivable effects of cultural displacement can be spotted in the disconnecting of lyrics and partly of music, too, from the Neapolitan song that had reached the USA. It is a radical rewriting, to start with the lyrics.

Love is a flower that blooms so tender
Each kiss a dew drop of sweet surrender,
Love is a moment of life enchanting,
Let's take that moment, that tonight is granting,
There's no tomorrow when love is new,
Now is forever when love is true,
So kiss me and hold me tight,
There's no tomorrow, there's just tonight[10].

In Tony Martin’s version, the passionate tune of the chorus is made to begin the song, turning the second stanza into little more than transitional reasoning[11]. What is more important, in both Tony Martin’s and Dean Martin’s versions any references to the sunshine have disappeared, thus overshadowing that once important element of national identification. It gives way to a more universal theme, Love, which Love becomes the absolute protagonist of the song. What is retained, however, is the captivating passionate melody of ‘O sole mio. Its warmth and unmistakably Mediterranean flavour are easily seen as the perfect match for a successful message of fervent and sensuous seduction. However, the rhythm is slowed down, more ostensibly so in Dean Martin’s singing. The shift from opera orchestras to variety show bands needs important musical reconceptualization, but voice still plays the main role. Tony Martin’s interpretation is more full-throated and passionate, whereas Dean Martin’s lower and baritone voice underlines sensuousness and intrigue, a characteristic he comically exaggerated in his vaudeville show with Jerry Lewis. In both cases, however, what remains pivotal is the successful match of passionate melody and warm voice.

In particular, Dean Martin stresses the bond between ‘O sole mio and There’s no tomorrow in a number of different interpretations, from parody, in the vaudeville show, to more traditional versions; for example, when he sings There’s no tomorrow as an unbroken introduction to ‘O sole mio, so as to honour the origin as well as the cultural progress of both song and singer (Hoffman 1949)[12]. Unlike Tony Martin, Dean Martin is a second generation Italian American and he accomplishes two objectives, when he sings ‘O sole mio after There’s no tomorrow as one song. On the one hand, he is adding a strong exotic Mediterranean flavour to his performance, thoroughly befitting a passionate seduction song, while, on the other hand, he is sending a strong signal to Italian communities in America. Despite his success in the American song market, he is not denying his origins and, even more important, the audience is invited not to forget that There’s no tomorrow does not only spring from ‘O sole mio, but is still deeply intertwined with it.

At any rate, in spite of the differences in interpretations between Tony Martin and Dean Martin, There’s no tomorrow is the result of an unmistakable process of unequal cultural power relations and domestication[13]. Both musically and textually the Neapolitan song is drastically changed through a translational approach, which minimizes its foreignness to the point of overshadowing it. However, this approach has certainly enforced distribution and the entrance of the song into the Anglophone musical market, since translation makes the song comply with the “conventions that seemed effective in popularizing a composition” (Tawa 2005:15).

A 20th-century concept, which rarely appeared in earlier song but did appear with some frequency from the thirties on, was the possibility of impermanent love. [...] Over the next four decades, the likelihood of loved not being eternal was raised in song. (Tawa 2005: 98)

Therefore, There’s no tomorrow is fully in line with mainstream popular songs of the first half of the Twentieth Century in the USA. It favours love as a theme, although romantic sentimentality gives way to seduction and passion, with a subtle trace of urban cynicism.

Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never

Reportedly, it is through Tony Martin’s There’s no tomorrow that Elvis Presley meets O’ sole mio, during his military service in Germany in 1959. He is won over by the song, especially for its melody that offers great potentiality for “beautiful singing”, the full-throated vocal style which is often roughly identified as bel canto. Elvis Presley commissions brand new lyrics, tailored especially to him, to two expert songwriters, Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold, who present him with It’s now or never, a version of the song in cha-cha-cha rhythm.

When I first saw you with your smile so tender
My heart was captured, my soul surrendered
I'd spend a lifetime waiting for the right time
Now that you’re near the time is here at last.

It's now or never, come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling, be mine tonight
Tomorrow will be too late,
it's now or never, my love won't wait.

Just like a willow, we would cry an ocean
If we lost true love and sweet devotion
Your lips excite me, let your arms invite me
For who knows when we’ll meet again this way.

It's now or never, come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling, be mine tonight
Tomorrow will be too late,
it's now or never, my love won't wait[14].

But Elvis Presley is not satisfied and insists on shifting back to a bolero-rock rhythm, and bolero is, incidentally, the rhythm originally chosen by Capurro for O’ sole mio (Del Bosco 2006: 43 and 83). Moreover, when Elvis Presley records it in 1960, he follows Tony Martin’s model, choosing to begin the song with the winning melody of the chorus[15]. It is immediately a roaring success. It becomes Elvis Presley’s greatest hit and literally takes the world by storm, selling millions of copies and becoming number one in countries worldwide. According to the Wikipedia list of best-selling singles, it is the eighth best-selling single of all time, while other sources exalt it as the best-selling single ever.

Presley’s joyful take showing off his baritone to tenor end range, made number 1 in the US and the UK. Arguably the best selling single of all time, it shifted 30 million copies worldwide (Julie Burns 2011)

Thematically It’s now or never is consistent with There’s no tomorrow, focussing on love and passion, and similarly inviting the beloved to surrender and take the chance. The key words are identical, “surrender”, “now”, “kiss”, “tomorrow”. Yet, although along the same line, Schroeder and Gold’s lyrics sound more emphatic than Hoffman, Corday and Carr’s. The incisive opposition “now or never”, followed by the strong statement “my love won’t wait”, are even a further departure from the sunny sentimentality of Capurro’s lyrics.

Structurally and musically, It’s now or never is a conventional song by early 1960s American standards, too. It consists basically of a 16-bar chorus and verse, both based on a familiar tune, and there is nothing unusual or striking about the melodic or harmonic structure of this song. In the 1960 recording of the song, It’s now or never opens with a brief instrumental introduction. Then Elvis Presley begins his singing with the chorus, in this keeping to Tony Martin’s There’s no tomorrow. As Saffle states, what is really unusual is the way Elvis sings this song, his strikingly handsome and heart-felt performance (Saffle 2009: 13). Elvis Presley was a stunning performer, and although he did not compose any of his music, the ways in which he performed the songs made them always sound new and unique. However, since his powerful stage presence had started to defy the values of more conservative audiences, who began to be suspicious of his glamorous bad-boy appeal and his culturally challenging music, in this song he deliberately adopted a more passionate and less defiant performing style (Saffle 2009: 2).

With It’s now or never, the process of domestication could not be more manifest in the migrating journey of O’ sole mio, showing the compliance of Elvis Presley’s version with American mainstream song norms.  However, market conventions also include the need to stress the Italian flavour as an essential element in a love song of seduction. First of all, Elvis Presley’s full-throated and heart-felt singing style is in line with bel canto. The use of a mandolin in the orchestra accompaniment, an instrument traditionally associated with Italian folk music, is clearly meant to provide local colour, too. However, those are rather superficial “exoticizing” clues, with the foreign being encapsulated, and diluted, in a stereotype. They are perfectly in line with the conventional image of Italy as the country of melody and sensual romance needed for the American market.

An on-going process of creative hybridization

If the American migration of ‘O sole mio’ were to be concluded here, It’s now or never could be mostly studied as one more eloquent example of unbalanced power relations in translational experiences in both literature and music.  

With the post-World War I decades European popular culture embraced America’s popular songs wholesale [...] The process continued for the rest of the century. […] in popular music and popular culture, America now “dictated the world”. (Tawa 2005: 27).

No doubt, the evolution of the Neapolitan song into It’s now or never supports those critical positions in Translation Studies that lament the predominance of domesticating strategies in Anglo-American translation practice and culture (in particular, Venuti 2008: 1-34). However, the case of Elvis Presley’s It’s now or never is more subtle and multifaceted, especially if better contextualized within a prolonged and complex process of translational growth. This American hit has been an exceptional sustaining force for ‘O sole mio, almost igniting its “second life” (Del Bosco 2006: 84). The overseas journey of Capurro and Di Capua’s song overlaps and interrelates with actual human migration. It lives and shares cultural translation experiences, which cannot be understood through a perspective that only allows for binary divisions and dialectical polarization, such as “domestication” vs. “foreignization”. When approached with an alternative optic, the American translational journey of  ‘O sole mio reveals a very interesting form of resistance, “a will to survival [that] presents a way out of the binary dilemmas” (Pym 2010: 145). Tony Martin’s and Dean Martin’s There’s no tomorrow, as well as Elvis Presley’s It’s now or never, are necessary crucial steps in this translational story, since they generate an on-going and complex articulation of difference and negotiation, resulting in multiple forms of hybridization.

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood [...] that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration. (Bhabha 2004: 2)

As we have seen, both There’s no tomorrow and It’s now or never, although fully complying with American conventions and ostensibly rewriting Capurro’s and Di Capua’s song, still preserve the bond with ‘O sole mio, if only for its captivating melody and its “cultural appeal”. It does not matter if this “local flavour” is no longer genuine and sounds somewhat stereotypical and “cross-bred”. What is important is that the song lives on, modified and modifying at the same time. It travels well beyond Italian migrant communities and reaches once unimaginable audiences, who unavoidably receive it according to their specific historical and cultural backgrounds. Accelerated by Tony Martin’s, Dean Martin’s and Elvis Presley’s hits, the process of creative hybridization soon becomes multi-dimensional and multi-directional, challenging national and regional boundaries while also transgressing cultural and music genre categorizations.

Limiting the focus to the American progress of the song from the migrating point of view, namely “the minoritarian perspective”, to say it in Bhabha ‘s words (Bhabha 2004: XVII), an interesting case to be observed is the hybridized version launched by an Italian American singer Frank Verna in 1962, Facimel’a twist (‘O sole mio). It is a thorough rewriting of ‘O sole mio, a striking creolization of both music and language. Its rhythm is accelerated and the Mediterranean melody of ‘O sole mio, with the inevitable addition of mandolins, meet the African American dance craze of the moment, the twist. Not surprisingly, it is also a completely new text, written moreover in the pidgin English spoken by second/third generation Italian immigrants in the USA. “If you should ever go to sunny Italy/you find our paisans there/are singing Facimel’a twist/no tarantella più bella twist...”[16].

The lyrics are in English, but with important Italo-American invasions. First of all, paisans in the second line. As the Urban Dictionary online explains, paisan is a word used with Italians or Italian Americans when they are informally, but in a friendly manner, addressing one another. It means "brother" or "fellow countryman" and is shortened from paisano. In Verna’s song the plural form paisans is used, but it is an English plural form, by adding “s”, not an Italian one (the Italian form would have been paisani): a perfect example of creolization in one single word. The title and refrain, Facimel’a twist (let’s make it a twist), is another example. It is the imperative first person plural form from the Neapolitan language, but it is misspelled. It should be written, and pronounced, with double mm, facimmela, but the phonemic distinction between m and mm is often missed by English speakers. Moreover, as in the preceding example, a rule of English grammar is easily applied to a foreign word. In the refrain Facimel’a twist the Italian personal pronoun la, attached to the Neapolitan imperative verb facimme, is contracted to join the English article a

The song opens with the classic dream of any immigrant, the hope to visit one’s home country, taking up the idea that Italy and sunshine are the same. It is an indirect allusion to ‘O sole mio leading to the refrain with the well-known melody, unmistakable although arranged as a twist. At any rate, the reference could hardly be more evident in a 1962 music video of the song accessible in SonicHits webpage[17]. Here Verna’s Facimel’a twist (O sole mio) openly asserts its source. The video opens on a close-up of the cover of Verna’s 45 vinyl record, with Caruso’s ‘O sole mio as the soundtrack. Caruso’s singing goes on while Verna’s record is replaced by the image of a gramophone; then a hand comes into view pulling the record out of its cover and preparing it to be played by the gramophone. ‘O sole mio finally fades out and Facimel’a twist begins. Unlike Dean Martin, who sings ‘O sole mio as the conclusion of There’s no tomorrow, Verna’s courageous hybridization asserts the connection of Facimel’a twist to ‘O sole mio from the beginning of the video. At the same time, its distance from the source song is equally stressed. If Dean Martin performs There’s no tomorrow and ‘O sole mio as if they were two parts of the same song, although with different texts and in different languages, Verna prefers not to sing ‘O sole mio himself and gives way to Caruso’s 1916 classic recording (a musically and vocally very distant text). However, as we have seen, the American progression of ‘O sole mio between Caruso and Verna has not taken place in a vacuum, but has evolved through important translational episodes. New layers have been added. Such an articulate story of domestication, negotiation and difference is at this point intrinsically part of the substratum of the song and necessarily takes part in its ongoing migration. Thus, alongside Caruso’s ‘O sole mio, other intertextual presences can be detected in Facimel’a twist. It is the case of the stereotypical reference to tarantella as an Italian national feature (Di Capua’s ‘O sole mio is definitely not a tarantella), or the use of mandolins and, above all, an easy-going invitation to enjoy love and not to miss the opportunity. They are all in line with the American translational progression of ‘O sole mio as shown by both There’s no tomorrow and It’s now or never.

Back to Naples and onwards

Many years later, the process of creative hybridization remains as strong as ever, opening unexpected and innovative sites of negotiation and collaboration. In his 2005 album Iguana cafè – Latin Blues e Melodie, Neapolitan singer and songwriter Pino Daniele introduces his very personal cover of It’s now or never. Strictly speaking, Pino Daniele is no emigrant and is always aware of his deep personal links with his hometown, Naples. Yet his whole artistic quest is in a certain sense a never-ending migration, until his premature death in January 2015. Since his first album in 1977, Pino Daniele has been a transnational artist, endlessly experimenting and exploring differences in music genres and rhythms, while always preserving its Neapolitan roots, or rather its South Mediterranean nature. His privileged attention is to American music, music of Afro-American origins, rock, jazz, funky and above all blues. This helps him create a personal and innovative musical genre, which he eloquently names tarumbo or taramblù, a creolization of tarantella and blues, chosen as cultural epitomes. However, his artistic migration includes also Caribbean and African music, with an immense number of artistic collaborations, fully confirming that “music might enhance our sense of sociality and community, because of its great potential for providing shared experiences that are corporeal, emotional and full of potential meaning for the participants” (Hesmondagh 2012, quoted by Susam-Saraeva 2015: 37). The transcultural nature of Pino Daniele’s music is already evident in the CD he made before the album Iguana cafè containing his cover of It’s now or never. The CD Medina in 2001, with the contribution of Mali singer Salif Keita and Turkish musician Omar Farouk, stresses how the very concept of “Neapolitanness” can remain meaningful only if understood as part of a continuous cultural evolution. It is quintessentially a multifaceted and transcultural progression, linking and fusing together migrating voices and stories of marginalization from the multifaceted “South of the World”: Naples as the South of Italy, Italy and the Mediterranean countries as the South of Europe as well as of richer Western Countries like North America, and finally, black Africa as the South of all Western Countries, this time including the South of Italy as well.

This gives a unique undertone to Pino Daniele’s It’s now or never. The credits on the CD are worth noticing: “It’s now or never − written by Schroeder, Di Capua, Gold”. If Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold are the obvious credits for Presley’s hit, Di Capua is the lyricist of ‘O sole mio. It makes one wonder why the Neapolitan poet is credited in between the adapters of  Presley’s It’s now or never. The opening is still Elvis Presley’s song. Even its lyrics are not translated. Thus, by “transporting himself into the Other’s language” and lyrics, Pino Daniele leads his listeners to a different place and time. The decision of not translating and singing in “the Other’s language”, is always a meaningful choice for a singer, as thoroughly explored by Susam Saraeva (2015: 39-62). Also Dean Martin had performed in another language, when singing ‘O sole mio as the mirror image of There’s no Tomorrow, but we have seen that his position and objectives were different. In Pino Daniele’s It’s now or never, although the lyrics are not changed, Elvis Presley’s song is subtly worked on: different rhythm, instruments, arrangement, and, above all, an entirely different approach to performing and singing. The admixture is easily perceivable in a 2006 music video[18]. Pino Daniele is sitting and playing a guitar, accompanied by an assorted group of classic and ethnic instruments and musicians. The economic use of instruments and a sober stage design create a deliberately less glamorous atmosphere. Pino sings the first part of It’s now or never, with his singular voice, warm and soft. He then shifts to the opening lyrics and language of Capua’s ‘O sole mio, to finally go back to It’s now or never for the concluding chorus. He thus offers a unique song, which is both homage to Elvis Presley and American blues as well as a powerful response and expression of resistance to Anglo-American mainstream music from this side of the Ocean. A “simultaneous identification and distancing mechanism” is at work, resulting in an interesting case of intimate distance, as the ethnomusicologist Bigenho describes similar  “ways of feeling simultaneously oh so close to and yet still so far from an Other”(Bigenho 2012: 25, quoted in Susam-Saraeva 2015: 51). If code switching in a song is already a meaningful organizational and aesthetic device meant to achieve both localization and globalization (Davies 2013: 248), in this song there is much more, from text and linguistic switching to cultural hybridization and artful music contamination. It is a brilliant example of a culturally heterogeneous song, and a positive testimony to Pino Daniele’s continual efforts in establishing multiple bridges which, however, are never meant to erase all peculiarities, reaching “ultimate sameness or unity” (Susam-Saraeva 2015: 52).

A positive gesture of transcultural intimacy

The concept of transcultural intimacy, a collective intimacy beyond and across nations (a main notion in Susam-Saraeva 2015), opens new perspectives in this research. Pino Daniele’s song clearly contributes to the building of a shared “we”. By bringing together languages, lyrics, rhythms, as well as assorted instruments and musicians, Pino Daniele’s It’s now or never points to a diversified and multifaceted “we”, so as to include people from Naples and the South-Mediterranean as well as Afro-Americans and Anglo-Americans. It opens the way to further development in the same direction of transcultural intimacy, as shown by the following polysemiotic hybridization of ‘O sole mio.

Understandably enough, ‘O sole mio has been co-opted by innumerable jazz singers all over the world. Among them, Mario Bellavista, a jazz pianist from Palermo, should be noted. Bellavista, who is a lawyer by profession, has recently recorded an album entitled O sole mio, which is also one of its eight tracks. The CD was completely recorded in New York on November 30th 2011, with a jazz ensemble of Italian and American artists, Mario Bellavista New York Quintet: Jerry Weldon, tenor sax; Eric Miller, trombone; Mario Bellavista, piano; Harvie S, acoustic bass; Mimmo Cafiero, drums[19]. The album cover is embellished with suggestive paintings by Beatrice Feo Filangeri, images that pictorially evoke the renewed and happy encounter of ‘O sole mio with New York (Jazzy Records 2012). Mario Bellavista’s idea of bringing back the Neapolitan song to New York, involving American artists in the experience, is a conscious step towards a shared we.

Siamo abituati a lasciarci chiaramente influenzare dalle sonorità jazz americane [...] io al contrario volevo importare delle suggestioni tipiche della tradizione italiana, e farle assimilare da musicisti americani [we are used to let us get influenced by American jazz sound […] instead my wish was to import suggestive features from Italian music and get American musicians to absorb them] (Unsigned article 2013).

In a video interview accessible online, Bellavista points out that the three American artists warmly welcomed his proposal and even actively contributed to the arrangements[20]. Naturally enough, all of them are present in the music video dedicated to this jazz version of ‘O sole mio[21]. It is a striking video, following Bellavista’s wanderings through the heart of New York, guided by the melodic jazz version of ‘O sole mio. Bellavista moves around New York by car but he does not do the driving. So he can better observe and enjoy. Although he is often in the video, it is mostly his privileged perspective that guides the camera, which contributes to making these images so personal and incisive.

In this sophisticated music video, ‘O sole mio goes back to New York once again. New York was the port of arrival in the USA for so many Italian migrants and as such it certainly has an important symbolic value in the video. By bringing  ‘O sole mio back to New York, Bellavista inevitably evokes the past migration of his fellow countrymen. However, this jazz version looks back and forwards at the same time. Bellavista’s music video no longer expresses a typical experience of migration. The ‘O sole mio inherited by Bellavista is a popular song that has been through a complex journey to Northern America and through American culture. Thanks to Pino Daniele’s It’s now or never, it has even experienced a return to the home country, which, however, it would be reductive to define as all the way. Along the journey the song has taken on many more layers, opening to Afro-American rhythms and developing transcultural dimensions. Therefore, Bellavista’s musical, visual and symbolic journey through the streets of New York is the result of a process of hybridization that tends to become more complex and intimate at the same time. Through all these layers, however, what has been preserved is the inner soul of ‘O sole mio and the power of popular music to strengthen people’s sense of sociality and community, as shown by the video in its distinctive insistence on street music scenes and innumerable smiling faces. Bigenho observes that “there is something intimate about playing music with others” (2012: 176), which is fully confirmed by Bellavista’s own words:

L’altra parte del mondo a volte è più vicina di quanto non si possa immaginare. Ciò che sembra lontano a volte è molto vicino o addirittura dentro di noi. Grazie a Harvie, Jerry and Eric, che mi hanno fatto sentire più italiano. Grazie a Mimmo che mi ha fatto sentire più americano. [The other side of the world is sometimes closer than you could imagine. What we think to be very far, is very close to us, or even inside us at times. Thanks to Harvie, Jerry and Eric, who have helped me feel more Italian. Thanks to Mimmo, who has helped me feel more American] (Bellavista 2011b: CD cover).

It is an important admission of transcultural intimacy and an implicit acknowlegment of the creative value of translational hybridization.


The opening question of this article, whether music can foster complex processes of cultural translation, finds a compellingly positive answer in the long migration of ‘O sole mio. After all, it is its captivating passionate melody that has mostly driven the translational journey of the song, favouring the multifaceted encounters that mark out its exceptional progress. This opens broader contexts for research in popular song translation, while calling for more challenge-based approaches. To start with, flexibility is paramount. Narrow distinctions between “song translation proper”, intralingua translation, non-translation and adaptation become irrelevant in the articulated transformation of this popular song. And in this regard the article could not agree more with Susam-Saraeva’s statements.

Such a flexible view of translation and music might be unacceptable for many scholars […] [Yet] A broader approach to translation and music might reveal precisely what makes the topic such a fascinating area of research for other scholars (Susam-Saraeva  2008:189).

Focussing on the migrating progress undergone by ‘O sole mio, and the successive layers of meaning created by its many incarnations, the analysis stresses how the vital connection to the Neapolitan song is always preserved, even in its more radical metamorphoses. This leads to a view of the journey as an ongoing process of translational development. Studying this progress as a translational continuum, rather than as a series of detached episodes of transformation, the article highlights the transcultural value gradually acquired by this popular song. The adage that music is a migrant art par excellence is fully confirmed, in all its implications, starting from its hybridizing potentialities and openness to the provocative and inspirational acts of cultural translation we have studied here.

Moreover, the case study offers also a bottom-up endorsement of  core theoretical notions within Cultural Translation Studies. As we have seen, the so-called Neapolitan songs have vague origins and Naples itself has always given signs of being an open-air workshop on resistance and cultural hybridization (Pesc and Stazio 2013: 20). All this convincingly demonstrates that it is crucial “to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities” (Bhabha 2004: 2). Researchers in popular song translation should be aware that monolithic notions such as authenticity and cultural specificity as well as musical genre do not easily engage with their research, as this exemplary story of popular song migration amply confirms. Moreover, the translational evolution of ‘O sole mio problematizes the very idea of migration, first of all by blurring the boundaries between internal and external migration, but also by including what we could call return migrations, leading to further forms of hybridization and transcultural evolution.

Music and Cultural Translation Studies can be precious allies. It is a “fascinating area of research”, but at present it is, for the most part, still uncharted. Stronger contributions and greater contaminations from both study areas can be a way to go beyond traditional research-field boundaries, providing terrain for perspectives and innovative studies. However, we should be aware that high-level expertise and integrated competences in both Music and Cultural Translation Studies are highly desirable, but hard to find. Pioneering collaboration among scholars from the two different fields is therefore to be hoped for as one possible solution. Therefore, the concluding remark of the present article would like to be a deliberate open call for joint efforts in that direction.


All translations are by the author unless otherwise indicated.


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Discography and Videos

Bellavista, Mario and New York Quintet (2012) O sole mio, Piazza Armerina, Enna, Jazzy Records – URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t6d51MqkU0 (Youtube 27 February 2017 – last accessed 29 March 2019).

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Harrison, Charles W. (1915) My Sunshine / O sole mio, Edison Blue Amberol, No 2594 –URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-F6yRzRGgU (Youtube 13 January  2012 – last accessed 29 March 2019).

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[1] Research includes important articles and dedicated chapters, as well as of international conferences inside and  outside Europe (among them, “Theme: Image, Music, Text…? Translating Multimodalities”, Portsmouth University 6 November 2010; “Cultural Translation in Popular Music”, Tennessee University 12-13 April 2013; “Translation in Music”, Cardiff University 25-26 June 2014; “How is Music Translated Today? Intersemiotic, Intralingual and Intersensorial Transfers across Musical Genres”, Europe House, London July 5 2015; “Traduction, Rythme, Musique/Music, Rhythm, Translation”, Université de Lausanne 28-9 April 2016; “Musicult’17”, Istanbul 9-10 June 2017). Important monographs and special issues have also been published on the topic: The Translator, special issue on music and translation (14:2, 2008); Maia – Music & Arts in Action, special issue on music and migration (3:3, 2011); JoSTrans – The Journal of Specialized Translation, special issue on the translation of multimodal texts (19, 2013); finally, Minors’ monograph, Music, Text and Translation (London 2013),  Susam-Saraeva’s Translation and Popular Music – Transcultural Intimacy in Turkish-Greek Relations (Oxford 2015) and Low’s Translating Songs. Lyrics and Texts (London/New York 2017).

[2] Calascione is a guitar or lute with two or three strings, which was used especially in Southern Italy.

[3] On ‘O sole mio in Proust, see Miller 1997.

[4] Capurro’s lyrics, as well as the literary translations into Italian and English, are from Del Bosco 2006: 17, 119 and 125.

[5] The most famous posteggiatore was Giuseppe Di Francesco, nicknamed ‘O zingariello (the little Gipsy), who Richard Wagner brought to Bayreuth in 1879 and for some years to follow.

[6] It was recorded on Victor 87243 (HMV, 5 February 1916) - accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_ybjI6KIcs.

[7] For an exhaustive discussion of the issue of the absence of linguistic mediation in the migration of popular music, see Susam-Saraeva 2015: 39-62.

[8] For a debate on “logocentric” and “musicocentric” songs, see Gorlée 1997 and Low 2013: 72.

[9] On “singable translation”, a form of translation intended to enable an existing vocal text to be performed in a different language, often tarnished by translators’ narrow conception of their task as essentially a linguistic one, see Low 2013a: 73.

[10] Lyrics to There’s No Tomorrow are taken from Del Bosco 2015: 82. 

[11] Videos of Tony Martin’s interpretation can be accessed on line. See in particular https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5KxsUoG83o (last accessed 29 March 2019).

[12] Videos of Dean Martin’s interpretations can be accessed on line. See in particular https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmUwQPM9Ojo (last accessed 29 March 2019), and for the vaudeville show with Jerry Lewis, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkqcZDd1oLI (last accessed 29 March 2019).

[13]For a discussion of domestication in Translation Studies, see in particular Venuti 2008 and Munday 2001.

[14] Lyrics to It’s Now or Never are taken from Del Bosco 2015: 83−4.

[15] There are several Youtube footages and videos of It’s Now or Never by Elvis Presley that can be accessed on line. Among others, for his 1960 recording of the song, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhA1SuNUIZw. For other interpretations where Presley rather follows Schroeder and Gold’s lyrics, without opening the song with the chorus, see the 1976 live footage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqV2BYr_r4E .

[16] Frank Verna’s Facimel’a Twist (‘O sole mio) is accessible on line at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39_ivFf54Ng.

[19] The album is accessible online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t6d51MqkU0.

[20] The interview (Palermo, February 14th 2013), is accessible online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8Du1J5GFg8.

[21] The music video is accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSFZvrlFKDw.

About the author(s)

Anna Fochi, BA at the University of Pisa, Italy; Ph. D.in Translation Studies, University of Glasgow, UK. She is currently co-operating with Cardiff University, School of European Studies, as an Honorary Research Fellow. Main field of interest: translation criticism with special focus on intersemiotic translation (cinema and literature, painting and literature) and poetry translation.  Other fields of interest: English and Italian literatures. Publications: articles in “Translation Studies”, “InTRAlinea” “New Readings”, “Westerly”, “Studi di filologia e letteratura”, “Italianistica”, “Critica letteraria”, “Contesti”, “Lingua e letteratura”, “Educazione permanente”, “Iter”, “Lend”. Editor and translator of an anthology of John Keats’s letters (Oscar Mondadori: Milan).

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Call for participants: Summer School in Translation History

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Le ragioni del tradurre.

Atti del XXVII Convegno dell'Associazione degli Ispanisti Italiani

By Rafael Lozano Miralles (Università di Bologna, Italy)

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Entre el 23 y el 26 de mayo de 2012 tuvo lugar el XXVII Congreso de la Asociación de Ispanistas Italianos (AISPI). El evento se desarrolló en la Universidad de Bologna, y concretamente en el Campus de Forlì, sede entonces de la Scuola Superiore di Lingue Moderne per Interpreti e Traduttori (SSLMIT), hoy en día transformada en el Dipartimento di Interpretazione e Traduzione (DIT).

El título que se le dio - Le ragioni del tradurre. Teorie e prassi traduttive tra Italia e mondo iberico - reflejaba la voluntad de profundizar algunos aspectos de la traducción, oral y escrita, abordándola desde una multiplicidad de perspectivas disciplinares y metodológicas que tuvieran en cuenta el extraordinario desarrollo de la investigación sobre este vasto campo de estudios.

La articulación de las ponencias se pensó no en función de exponer y discutir un simple aspecto o perspectiva, sino que se propuso el ambicioso objetivo de ofrecer un panorama amplio y articulado de la aportación de los hispanistas italianos a un espacio disciplinar cada vez más desarrollado y con múltiples facetas que van desde las primeras traducciones de texto hispánicos al italiano (o viceversa) hasta la retraducción, desde las perspectivas lingüísticas del fenómeno traductológico hasta las reflexiones sobre aspectos determinantes de la oralidad, sin olvidar el tema fundamental de la didáctica de la traducción y de la interpretación, intentando abarcar también el análisis de producciones literarias y traductológicas que espacian por todo el ámbito del iberismo.

Este ambicioso proyecto había sido magistralmente enunciado en la circular n.1 de la AISPI fechada en 2011 y que reproduzco literalmente, pues sintetiza los objetivos y los resultados perseguidos por el XXVII Congreso:


“L’ispanistica italiana si è mostrata particolarmente attenta a questo fenomeno, al quale ha contribuito con significativi apporti che vanno dalla realizzazione di prime traduzioni di testi letterari spagnoli o di nuove traduzioni di opere già tradotte, alla partecipazione al dibattito traduttologico giunto anche alla riflessione sulla traduzione non letteraria e sulla mediazione interculturale, nei suoi molteplici risvolti formativi e professionali. Con il XXVII convegno della nostra Associazione, tuttavia, non ci proponiamo semplicemente di dare un contributo agli Studi di Traduzione da una delle tante prospettive esistenti, quanto piuttosto di operare un’articolata riflessione sul vasto panorama di esperienze maturate negli ultimi decenni attorno alla teoria e alla prassi traduttiva, a partire dal contributo specifico offerto dall’ispanistica italiana. A tale proposito e a puro titolo di esempio, ricordiamo l’attenzione che gli ispanisti italiani hanno rivolto a questo tema in occasione del XV convegno AISPI, Scrittura e riscrittura. Traduzioni, "refundiciones", parodie e plagi (Roma 1993), o del XXIV convegno, svoltosi a Padova nel maggio del 2007, Metalinguaggi e metatesti. Lingua, letteratura, traduzione (Padova 2007), così come in occasione del convegno Interpretar traducir textos de la(s) cultura(s) hispánica(s) (Forlì 1999) o in Modelli Memorie Riscritture (Napoli 2000), e si pensi, infine, al recente convegno Il prisma di Proteo - Riscritture, ricodificazioni, traduzioni fra Italia e Spagna (sec. XVI – XVIII), (Trento 2011). Queste non sono che poche testimonianze di una vasta discussione critica che, nell’ultimo quarto del Novecento, a partire da un denso quadro di contributi fondanti e irrinunciabili (di Jurij Lotman, Octavio Paz, Maurice Blanchot, Henri Mrschonnic, Itamar Even-Zohar e Gideon Toury, per fare qualche esempio), si è svolta all’interno dell’Ispanistica italiana in diversi ambiti metodologici: linguistico, semiotico e intersemiotico, letterario, nonché dell’interculturalità e perfino della filosofia del linguaggio. Un percorso che in anni più recenti, dietro la spinta delle tipologie della “transtestualità” di Gérard Genette (Palimpsestes, 1982, ed. it. 1997) ha permesso un progressivo ampliamento e affinamento delle prospettive e acquisizioni critiche sulla traduzione, come dimostrano i contributi di studiosi quali Steiner, Eco, Mattioli, Buffoni, Osimo, Bonnefoy, Lefevere, Derrida, Torop, Venuti, Pym, Apel, Nord (per citarne disordinatamente solo alcuni), che hanno continuamente innovato sia il pensiero traduttivo sia la prassi e le modalità della traduzione. Il prossimo convegno AISPI, dunque, si propone di affrontare questo vasto panorama nell’intento di rintracciare le linee caratterizzanti (di unità e insieme di disomogeneità) emerse nell’Ispanistica italiana, sulle quali ora più che mai (in un’epoca di sintesi critica e di necessari interrogativi sull’entità, il ruolo e le funzioni della letteratura e degli studi umanistici) è opportuno interrogarci. L’esplorazione sarà estesa anche ai più recenti sviluppi legati all’impiego delle nuove tecnologie, e alla prassi dell’interpretazione e della mediazione interculturale.”


Otros congresos, otras muchas jornadas y reflexiones se pueden añadir desde entonces a las mencionadas en ese texto de 2011, pero sería un intento de colmar un hueco que en esta publicación no se quiere cubrir.

Los artículos recogidos en este Special Issue de Intralinea y que se brindan ahora a los investigadores, son algunos de los textos que, con las necesarias actualizaciones y puesta al día, se presentaron en el lejano 2012 y que mantienen una plena y efectiva vigencia. Se han articulado – de manera más o menos arbitraria - en dos secciones: Literatura y Lingüística, en función de la mayor preponderancia del objeto de estudio. Cierran el Special Issue dos foros de discusión que se celebraron durante el Congreso: uno sobre la traducción en el ámbito del catalán, otro sobre la traducción de Góngora al italiano.

A los autores hay que agradecerles la paciencia y la generosidad que han demostrado, brindándonos a todos la oportunidad de confirmar que las hipótesis, que las investigaciones que en aquel ya lejano 2012 se plantearon siguen teniendo vigor y rigor metodológico.

Este hecho nos confirma que el hispanismo italiano, más allá de modas teóricas pasajeras, es una realidad llena de vitalidad, seria, rigurosa y estructurada metodológicamente para proyectarse en el tiempo.

About the author(s)

Rafael Lozano Miralles is Full Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Bologna. His research focuses on the works of Federico García Lorca (Crónica de una amistad. Epistolario Federico García Lorca-Melchor Fernández Almagro, 2006; Le prime rappresentazioni di Federico García Lorca in Italia, 2005; Impresiones y paisajes, 1994), translation theory and history (Il Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías di García Lorca. Le traduzioni italiane e la versione discografica di Carmelo Bene, 1996), digital and corpus-based literary studies (Edición Crítica Electrónica Integral.Primer Romancero Gitano, 2002; Para una edición virtual de la obra lorquiana, 1998; Hacia la edición de Impresiones y paisajes. Las “Concordancias”, 1986). He is a member of the Scientific Committee of several international journals, including mediAzioni (University of Bologna) and TRANS (University of Malaga), and of the CLUEB “Contesti Linguistici” series.

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Migrating Texts training day

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Shakespeare, Italy, and Transnational Exchange. Early Modern to the Present

By Samanta Trivellini (Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Italy)


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About the author(s)

Samanta Trivellini earned a PhD in 2013 at the University of Parma, with a dissertation on the reception of a story told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses from Chaucer to the
early twenty-first century. She works as an English teacher in Milan and collaborates with the Univeristy of Modena and Reggio Emilia, where she has taught English
Literature and English. Her research interests currently focus on W.B.Yeats, Maud Gonne and fin-de-siècle spiritualism.

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Oleksandr Finkel’ on the Problem of Self-Translation

By Oleksandr Kalnychenko & Natalia Kamovnikova (Karazin National University of Kharkiv, Ukraine; St. Petersburg University of Management Technologies and Economics, Russia)

Abstract & Keywords

The aim of this study is to draw attention to the almost forgotten pioneer works on self-translation by Ukrainian scholar Oleksandr Finkel’. The case-study proves the importance of the spread of knowledge and construction of a unified translation history in order to ensure objectivity of research and fair judgement. The development of a unified translation reflection history can become an important contribution to the field of translation studies and create a common ground for the joint effort of researchers in the development of the discipline.

Keywords: self-translation, literary translation, translation theory, Oleksandr Finkel’, Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko

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1. Introduction

Recent scholarship in Translation Studies has challenged the traditional Eurocentric focus of the field with wider research into alternative translation traditions in Asia and Africa, whereas the countries of Eastern Europe, which have much to offer in this respect, have remained largely ignored in the scholarly literature (see Baer 2011:1; Baer and Olshanskaya 2013a: iii), with numerous key texts in translation studies from that region remaining untranslated into Western European languages. This is the more surprising given the repeated calls by James Holmes, one of the founders of Translation Studies in the West, that scholarship on translation from Eastern Europe should be made more widely available to an international readership. Thus, in his paper “The Future of Translation Theory: A Handful of Theses” presented at the International Symposium on Achievements in the Theory of Translation held in Moscow and Yerevan, 23-30 October 1978, Holmes stated:

Since I do not know Russian, I have read only that small tip of the vast Soviet translation-theory iceberg that juts above the surface of Western thinking by having been translated. Far too little has been translated, far too much has not, and hence the work of a great many theorists, from Čukovskij via Revzin and Rozencveig to Koptilov and Kommisarov (to mention but a few), remains for me little more than hearsay. (1988:99)

At the Tenth FIT Congress in 1984 in his paper “The State of Two Arts: Literary Translation and Translation Studies in the West Today” in memory of Slovak scholar Anton Popovič, Holmes (1988) expressed the regret that so much Eastern European scholarship remained untranslated and so inaccessible. As recently as 2015 Anthony Pym, a major figure in Translation Studies in the West, wrote of his discovery of the work of Russian translation theorists of the 1950s, exclaiming,’could we really have ignored the Russians so completely?’ (Pym & Ayvazyan 2015: 322). ‘[A]nd what applied to Russian, went for other Slavonic languages too’, Mary Snell-Hornby added in 2006 in the hope that with the fall of the Iron Curtain there would be no more barriers to communication with Eastern Europe (2006: 45). Italian scholar Lorenzo Costantino made a similar point:

Ignoring translation theory as it developed in these countries[of Central and Eastern Europe] is also difficult to reconcile with the fact that interest in the field actually arose earlier there than in the West. If an early attempt to address key issues in literary translation could be considered Korney Chukovsky’s Printsipy khudozhestvennogo perevoda (Principles of Artistic Translation, 1919), the first, usually forgotten, book-length study in which the expression “translation theory” appeared in the title was published in Ukrainian as early as 1929 by Oleksandr Finkel’ (also the author of one of the earliest studies of self-translation, in 1962). (2015: 245).

All the above mentioned remains true today, despite the fact that recently we have observed a certain growth in international interest in the legacy of Eastern European translation studies and thefresh look it offers at the prevailing theoretical approaches and translation traditions overlooked in “Western” TIS discourse.We are finally seeing some recognition of the extensive research in the field of translation theories in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from the first half of the 20th century,which were more than those in the West well into the 1950s. This growth can be attested by a series of large-scale conferences (Itineraries in Translation History (Tallinn 2010, 2011; Tartu 2014, 2018); Transferring Translation Studies (Antwerp 2013); Czech, Slovak and Polish Structuralist Traditions in the Translation Studies Paradigm Today (Prague 2013); Translation Theories in the Slavic Countries (Bologna 2014); Going East: Discovering New and Alternative Traditions in Translation (Studies) (Vienna 2014); Some Holmes and Popovič in all of us? ( Nitra 2015)), some collective monographs (Ceccherelli, Costantino and Diddi 2015; Schippel and Zwischenberger 2017), thematic issues in journals of TIS (e.g., Mutatis Mutandis:Revista Latinoamericana de Traducción, 2016/2), and one anthology in English (Baer and Olshanskaya 2013).

Eastern European traditions in translation scholarship and research are not well-known because they have not been translated into the dominant language(s) of international scholarship. To fill this gap we need to make the seminal texts of Central and Eastern European thought on translation available to today’s international readership. Some of the key translation theorists from Eastern Europe have begun, in the last decade, to draw the attention of scholars from across Europe and beyond, as evidenced by a very welcome, though belated, publication of a full-length English translation of Jiří Levy’s Art of Translation (2011), Italian translations of Anton Popovič’s Teória umeleckého prekladu [Theory of Translation] (La scienza della traduzione, 2006), and of  Peeter Torop’s Total’nyi perevod [Total Translation](La traduzione totale),published in 2000 (1st edition) and 2010 (2nd edition).

Meanwhile the scholars of Eastern and Central Europe have produced extensive archival work. Detailed anthologies have been published on the history of translation theory in Czechia (Levý 1957),Russia (Levin, Fedorov and Kuzmichov 1960), Poland (Bukowski and Heydel 2013),Ukraine of the 1920s-1930s (Kalnychenko and Poliakova 2011), and Slovenia (writings on translation from 1550 to 1945) (Stanovnik 2013).Works of Czech and Slovak translation scholars have also become part of anthologies on literary translation (Hrdlička and Gromová 2004) and professional translation (Hrdlička, Gromová and Vilímek 2007).The list is far from being complete. There have also been published collected works of individual translation theorists, such as the Slovak František Miko (2011), Ukrainians Oleksandr Finkel (Chernovatyi et al 2007), Hryhoriy Kochur (2008, in 2 volumes),and Hryhoriy Maifet (2015; 2017).Then there are the monographs on translation studies history in Hungary (Klaudy, Lambert and Sohar1996), in Ukraine (Shmiher 2009), and in Slovakia (Vajdová et al. 2014), as well as bibliographies, such as the on-line Czech and Slovak bibliography of writings on translation and interpreting, a separate Slovak bibliography (Cejkova & Kusa 2010), a printed bibliography of Ukrainian translation studies of the twentieth century (Shmiher 2013), and the online bibliography of Ukrainian translation studies focusing on literary translation between 1877 and2012 (Poliakova 2013) (to mention just few). One of the first bibliographies of translation studies compiled by E. Khaitina and B. Khaves was printed in the first volume of an influential Soviet series dedicated to the theory and practice of translation Masterstvo perevoda [The Craft of Translation] as early as 1959. The bibliography contained both writings on translation from the Soviet republics and those from abroad. Kyiv-based bibliographer Mykola Nazarevskyi (Nazarevskiy 1963) supplemented that list and added references to current publications to the second volume. Since then, he has updated the bibliography annually, which is now up to its eighth edition.

Moreover, knowledge of Eastern and Central European translation theories in the West is incomplete, being mostly limited to the “Russian” and/or “Czechoslovakian Schools,” thus excluding, for instance, the existence of “local” traditions, e.g., within the Soviet Union, such as those to be found, for example, in Ukraine (promoted by scholars like Derzhavyn, Finkel’, Ryl’sky, and Koptilov, whose works were published mostly in Ukrainian), or Estonia, or Georgia.In his essay Sostoyanie teoreticheskoy mysli v oblasti perevoda [The State of Theoretical Thought in the Sphere of Translation], Jiří Levý (1970) rightly stated that ‘Soviet translation theory may have a unitary prism of outlook but it has different research directions coexisting within its frame’.The Ukrainian tradition of Translation Studies is still unknown to the majority in the West; however, there is a swing towards re-discovering its theoretical achievements, as we can see from recent publications about Ukrainian thinking on translation in English (Chernetsky 2011; Kal’nychenko 2011; Šmiger 2015; Kalnychenko 2015; Kalnychenko 2017; Odrekhivska 2017).

2. Oleksandr Finkel’s works on self-translation

2.1 Oleksandr Finkel’: Memories Recaptured

The history of translation thought is a good example of the general validity of Goethe’s often-cited dictum from Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre that all intelligent thoughts have already been thought and what is necessary is only try to think them again (Goethe 1829). In other words, the main facts about the nature of translation have long been recognized by many of our predecessors; our task is to rediscover them in the light of our own understanding of things and our present-day challenges and commitments. In this way, translation studies history is able to cast a new light onto the field and safeguard it from exaggerated claims of novelty, originality, breakthrough, and revolution in our (re)discoveries and, thus, lead to a less polemic discourse, a moderation in translation theory.

In his cursory review of the ‘several large uncultivated fields we can expect to plough in the near future’, a decade ago Julio-César Santoyo (2006: 13) wrote that there still remain ‘vast unknown territories’ in translation history, ‘territories which concern not only places and times but also whole fields of inquiry and research’. One of those “blank spots” is ‘an area of translation studies almost forgotten’(Santoyo 2006: 22), ‘defined thirty years ago by Anton Popovič as “the translation of an original work into another language by the author himself”‘ (Popovič 1976: 19).Santoyo argues vigorously that self-translation is a much more widespread phenomenon than one might think; it has a very long history and is today one of the most frequent and significant cultural, linguistic and literary phenomena in our global village and as such deserves much greater attention. ‘Once thought to be a marginal phenomenon [as documented in Santoyo 2005], it has of late received considerable attention in the more culturally inclined provinces of translation studies’, states Rainier Grutman in his entry “Self-translation” in the second edition of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (Grutman 2008: 257). This indication of the interest of Translation Studies towards the phenomenon of self-translation is a fairly recent development and was not noted in Grutman’s entry on this practice (“Auto-translation”) in the first edition of the Encyclopedia dated 1998 (Grutman 1998: 17). Like Santoyo and many other researchers of self-translation, Chiara Montini, the author of the entry “Self-translation in the Benjamins Handbook of Translation Studies, starts it with the words ‘Popovič gives a basic definition of self-translation as …’ (Montini 2010: 306) and quotes part of the definition by Anton Popovič from his Dictionary for the Analysis of Literary Translation mimeographed and published by the University of Alberta Department of Comparative Literature in 1976. The Dictionary (translated into English by Uri Margolin) is a synopsis of the most important terms coined by Anton Popovič himself and some other scholars (J. Lotman, E. Balcerzan, E. Etkind, F. Miko, A. Ljudskanov, S. Sabouk, J. Holmes, J. Čermák etc.) ( Špirk, 2009). The term auto-translation and its definition in this dictionary belongs to Oleksandr Finkel’ whose 1962 paper Popovič knew and referred to.

Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek in his 1995 article which presents revisions of the taxonomical work of Popovič offers the definition of self-translation from that taxonomy as

[t]he translation of an original work into another language by the producer of the text to be translated (by the author himself). Due to its modelling relation to the text to be translated, auto-translation cannot be regarded as a variant of the text to be translated, but as a true translation. This follows from a change of the axiological as well as stylistic and linguistic field into which the text to be translated enters (Finkel). (Tötösy de Zepetnek 1995: 438)

In fact, this reference to Finkel’ was actually the last mention of his name in English translation studies literature in connection with the problem of self-translation (in later publications of his taxonomy, Tötösy de Zepetnek omitted the reference).

 This is a reference to the name of Oleksandr Moiseyovych Finkel’ (3.10.1899 – 8.10.1968), a professor of Kharkiv University, a Ukrainian linguist and translation studies scholar and the author of the first book-length study in translation theory in the then Soviet Union (published in Ukrainian in 1929); the first scholar who directed attention to the problem of self-translation as early as 1929 (not 1962 as Costantino writes in the citation in the Introduction). Incidentally, Popovič shares the thoughts of Oleksandr Finkel (whose works the Slovak scholar also refers to in Teória umeleckého prekladu [19, 59 – reference in accordance with the Russian translation]) about the specific character of auto-translation. The close interest shown by Popovič in Finkel’s findings is also testified by the marks he made in his personal copy of Finkel’s article (see Figure 1).[1]

Figure 1

The theory and practice of translation are conditioned by the tasks to be resolved, i.e., various assignments give rise to various theoretical constructions. When we come across the theories from the past we are bound to ask ourselves which particular problems these theories were intended to solve. The first post-revolutionary years in Ukraine (1917–1932) saw immense enthusiasm and a surge in translation activities (in spite of the severe political censorship that was in force), the publication of multivolume collected works of translated authors, and a boost in the development of translation theory (Kal’nychenko 2011; Kolomiiets 2013). Mykola Zerov, Hryhoriy Maifet, Ivan Kulyk, Volodymyr Derzhavyn, and Oleksandr Finkel’, the pioneers of translation studies in Ukraine, sought to elaborate a coherent and systematic approach to translation, taking into consideration the reviews by numerous critics who in the mid-1920’s were making the effort to give some rational direction to the translational boom caused by the expansion of the spectrum of published books. As a consequence, the theoretical principles of translation methods and criticism were the topic of the day. Moreover, the new era brought about a revision of the Ukrainian literary heritage and the rewriting of the history of literature. Of vital significance for the emergence of the theory of translation were the works on literature history that viewed translation as an important and formative part of the literary system.

Ukrainian literature of the 1800’s and early 1900’s includes plentiful cases of self-translation. Among the translators of their own works were prominent Ukrainian writers, namely, Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko (Ukrainian – Russian), Panteleimon Kulish (Ukrainian – Russian), Marko Vovchok (Ukrainian, Russian, French), Ivan Franko (Ukrainian, German, Polish), Olha Kobylianska (Ukrainian, German), Lesia Ukrainka (Ukrainian, Russian, German), Marko Vorony (Ukrainian – Russsian)(the list is far from complete). It is not surprising, then, that Finkel’ addressed the issue of auto-translation placing the self-translator in his specific historical milieu, bringing social and political contexts to Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s bilingual text. Moreover, the choice of the topic is partly explained by the fact that Taras Shevchenko Institute (a literary research institution) in Kharkiv was preparing a scholarly collection to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko and young Finkel’ was invited to contribute.

2.2 Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko as a Self-Translator

Hence, for practical study and analysis of self-translation, Finkel’ selected the novellas and short stories by Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko (1778–1843), a Ukrainian writer, journalist, and playwright, a classic of Ukrainian literature, and one of the earliest proponents of vernacular Ukrainian as a literary language.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Ukrainian lands had been transformed into Russian provinces. Under these circumstances, Ukrainian national identity came to mean devotedness to the land and its people, which led Ukrainian letterati to place a special emphasis on linguistic, cultural, and ethnographic characteristics.

The local written standard, the so-called knyzhna mova (book language) consistently grew farther away from the spoken vernacular. It also suffered a decline due to the Russification of the Ukrainian nobility and higher clergy; this decline was enhanced by the Russufication of education and tsarist bans on printing books in the Ukrainian literary language. According to Mykola Zerov (1924), this situation, on the one hand, left ample room for the Russian language to establish itself, and, on the other, prompted the desire to use a phonetically purified and stylistically improved vernacular. But the prescriptive classicist doctrine of the Russian Empire of the second half of the eighteenth century demanded the vernacular to be used only in satirical, humorous, or lyrical writings.

Therefore, the history of the modern standard Ukrainian language and modern vernacular Ukrainian literature began with a travesty: a high styled heroic epic written in the rural language of the peasant. Such was the travestied translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (first edition, St. Petersburg, 1798) by Ivan Kotliarevs’kyi (1769 – 1838) with the title Malorossiiskaia Eneida (Little Russian Aeneid) “dressed” in the Ukrainian language (Eneida na malorossiiskii iazykperelitsiovannaia). Immensely popular, Eneida ushered in the vernacular style, the so-called “kotliarevshchyna,” and, according to Vitaly Chernetsky (2011: 37),

[s]ome unintended consequences, as many educated readers, both in Ukraine and abroad, came to believe that while Ukrainian vernacular literature was well suited to comedic narratives, it lacked the means to address lofty and serious topics.

Hryhoriy Kvitka Osnovyanenko, the initiator of the Ukrainian short story, sought to dispute this common assumption by extending the use of vernacular to ‘serious’ prose. Like most of his contemporaries in the Ukrainian literary scene, he also wrote in Russian. His Ukrainian language works were mostly burlesque-realistic and satirical in nature, however, he also wrote serious prose, such as the sentimental novella Marusia, which he did, in his own words, to prove to a disbeliever that something sentimental and moving could be written in Ukrainian. This was a well-considered, responsible and, in a way, daring decision, as Kvitka-Osnovyanenko became a Ukrainian writer precisely at a time when anything Ukrainian was either the object of mockery or, at best, a condescending ethnographic vogue.

H.F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself translated eight of his Ukrainian novellas into Russian. These were Marusia, Mertvetskyy Velikden (Dead Man’s Easter), Dobre roby, dobre y bude (Do Well and Be Well), Konotops’ka vidma (The Witch of Konotop ), Serdeshna Oksana (Hapless Oksana), Shchyra liubov (True Love), Bozhi dity (God’s Children), and Saldats’kyi patret (A Soldier’s Portrait) (Finkel’ 2006: 402-4). For the sake of comparison, Finkel’ also addressed the Russian translation of Saldatskyi patret made by the renowned Russian language lexicographer Vladimir Dahl (alternatively transliterated as Dal) (1801 –1872), published in 1837 (Finkel’ 1929: 108 [2006: 402]). It is also important to note that Finkel’ and Popovic applied the term “auto-translation” (“avtopereklad” in Ukrainian and “avtoperevod” – in Russian).

2.3 Oleksandr Finkel’ on Auto-Translation

What follows is an analysis of the ideas of Oleksandr Finkel’ on self-translation. In his 1929 seminal article “H.F. Kvitka as the translator of his own works”, written in August,1928, in Ukrainian, Finkel argues that the topic has been unjustifiably neglected and that it is a ‘simplification of the matter’ to suggest that ‘there is no difference between the author-translator and the ordinary translator at all’ (Finkel’ 1929: 107). He explains that

[t]here is no uniform compulsory translation norm [notably, this precise term was used as far back as 1929] (as far as literary translation is concerned) and attentive observation proves that norms fluctuate depending on the general literary views of a certain period. Moreover, within the same period and, more often than not, within the same literary school, one can find varying approaches towards the theory of translation. There is no objective criterion for differentiating between a translation and an artistic adaptation […], there is no objective criterion for determining quality […], and what is sometimes claimed to be this very criterion is a mere declaration of the theorizer’s subjective preference, which cannot be considered to have either an objective or categorizing value. What echoes the many theoretical positions is the diversity of translators’ practical solutions. Does this not account for numerous translators who translate the same works? Owing to all these circumstances […] the solutions an author finds for translation problems unexpectedly acquire a particularly acute interest and significance. (Finkel’ 1929: 107-8 [2006: 400-1])[2]

Oleksandr Finkel’ turned his attention to the problem of self-translation from time to time throughout his life. In 1939, he wrote his thesis entitled “H. F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko as the translator of his own works” (Finkel’ 1939), the complete version of which ironically only survives in Finkel’s self-translation into Russian. In it, Finkel’ explores the features of H.F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s translation method, his perception of the task, and the importance of self-translation for translation theory.

In his 1962 Russian article “Ob avtoperevode: Znacheniye avtoperevoda dlia teorii perevoda” [On Autotranslation: The Importance of Auto-translation for the Theory of Translation], Finkel’ writes:

It may seem that there is no significant difference between the author-translator and a regular translator and that, regardless of their personal relation to the translated work, it is only the result that matters, i.e., the degree of perfection and the means by which the problems presented by the translation have been solved. In fact, this is not true, and such reasoning simplifies the matter. While a regular translator and the author-translator are seemingly faced with the same problems and difficulties, with auto-translation, unlike the translation proper, their resolution acquires a somewhat different character, a different direction, and a different sense. First of all, it is the nature of conceptualization of a literary work which is strongly deformed. If the translator is not the author then she/he conceptualises the work in translation by emphasizing some elements and “muffling” others: firstly, because in ideological, aesthetic, ethical, and suchlike terms he/she will differ from  the author, and secondly, because the literary work will be transferred into new conditions (and presented to a different readership);but with an author-translator, then the first set of considerations obviously don’t apply. (Finkel’ 2007b: 300)

However, the second set of considerations does still apply, so reconceptualization does occur, but in a slightly different way: becoming reconsideration, so to speak, not for oneself, but for the others.

As a result, there appear more or less significant changes which the author-translator introduces, perhaps, as if committing an act of violence over his authorial intention: for a different language and cultural milieu may compel him to make such changes which he would not have allowed in the original, forcing him to re-make his work to some extent, thus splitting his/her personality. This “re-make” cannot but affect the language and style of the translation. (Finkel’ 2007b: 300-1)

As is known, a number of theorists and practitioners of translation have repeatedly claimed that the translator should write in the same way as the original author would have written has she/he been writing in the target language (Finkel’ mentions in his 1929 article such names as Vasily Zhukovsky, Aleksey K. Tolstoy, Innokentiy Annensky, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff) (Finkel 1929: 116 [2006: 407])). In self-translation, this requirement is fully met:

Hence, auto-translation would seem to provide for the optimum results, because who else can know better what the author considers to be the most significant features in the structure of the work, what should prevail what, or what should be emphasized? But does this personality split enable the author-translator to exercise his right? And does the amalgamation of the author and the translator in one person make that ideal which any translator should see his mind’s eye? The study of self-translation can shed light upon this matter as well. (Finkel’ 2007b: 301)

On the other hand, the changes that the author-translator forcibly introduces into his/her translation can lead to significant discrepancies with the original. In a regular translation, this can be considered a drawback, because it risks turning the translation into more of an adaptation or imitation. ‘But are the very same correlations between a translation and an adaptation operative for the author-translator?’ – asks Finkel’. (Finkel’ 2007b: 301) According to him, these are the key questions that self-translation raises in addition to general translation issues.

Apart from these, Finkel’ tackles the concept of self-translation in two other works (in which self-translation is not the subject of the study but a mere example to prove other ideas). He does so in his book Teoriya i praktyka perekladu[The Theory and Practice of Translation] (Finkel [1929] 2007c) published in 1929, and, later, in his 1939 Russian-language article “O nekotorykh voprpsakh teorii perevoda” [“Some Problems in the Theory of Translation”] (Finkel [1939] 2007a), the latter dealing with the fundamental problem of translatability and where, in Andrey Fedorov’s opinion, ‘the methodological failure of the idea of untranslatability is proven thoroughly and convincingly’. (Fedorov 1982: 9)

Finkel’ realizes that he is the first researcher to take an interest in the problem of self-translation: ‘Among the problems associated with the issues of translation, the problem of auto-translation [...] has never been addressed’ (Finkel’ 1929: 108 [2006: 401]).Although he claims (erroneously in our opinion) that ‘a bilingual writer who is the translator of his own works is a phenomenon so rare, if not exceptional, that it cannot have much significance in the formation of translational skills and principles’, nevertheless, ‘the temptation to ignore them completely is easy to fall into but hardly justifiable’. (Finkel’ 1929: 108 [2006: 401]) In his later article, Finkel’ insists that ‘auto-translation provides a very interesting and instructive material for the theory (and history) of translation’. (Finkel 2007b: 299)

While realizing that the analysis of a single author’s translations can hardly give a convincing answer to all the issues in question, Finkel’ still believed that the study of H.F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translations could help ‘reveal many interesting facts and chart the course for the further study of translation theory’. (Finkel’ 2007b: 301)

Finkel’s ideas changed with the social and political changes which took place in the Soviet Union. When comparing the Ukrainian article of 1929 and the Russian article of 1962, one can notice that the earlier one provides more detail on Kvitka’s biography, his publishers, and his translator; it also pays closer attention to theoretical issues, including references to Wilhelm von Humboldt, Oscar Weise, and Andrey Fedorov. While attempting to systematize the material collected in his Russian article in 1962, Finkel’ quite clearly avoids discussion of any socially provocative issues, such as questions of ethnic bilingualism, which he addresses in part V of the 1929 version, and avoids in 1962, problems of language disparity (part IX and X in 1929), or issues of censorship (part IX in 1929). The political situation in the country made Finkel’ exercise caution in order to eliminate the possibility of conflict. Therefore, the better known and wider cited article of 1962, despite its clear structure, is devoid of Finkel’s social and philosophical observations. This considerable loss makes the 1962 article more descriptive and its conclusions less significant.

2.4 Finkel’ on the Reasons for Self-Translating

In his 1962 article, Finkel’ lists the reasons that induced Kvitka-Osnovyanenko to translate his own works. He finds that the motivation of a regular translator is different from that of a self-translator.

[T]here must be some very important reasons and considerations for the writer to resort to translating his own works, and these reasons and considerations can be so varied and so personal that their convergence with different authors is a matter of pure coincidence. To some extent, they always include an aesthetic component, which may result from dissatisfaction with the translations by others, but this is certainly not the main, sole, or decisive reason. Nor was it the main reason for Kvitka, though other people’s translations did not always satisfy him. (Finkel 2007b: 302)

Finkel’ cites Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s letters to Pyotr Pletnyov, who, after Pushkin’s death in 1837, edited the literary journal Sovremennik: ‘Praising my writings, the locals got round to translating them into Russian, but everything was a failure [...]’. (26.04.1839) (Finkel 2007b: 302). In another letter to Pletnyov, Kvitka writes:

Soldier’s portrait [...] is splendidly rendered by the respected V.I. Dahl, but, if I may say so, there are phrases that interpret the idea wrongly and change the very notion of what was intended. All these stem from an ignorance of the locality and local customs. (Finkel 1929: 110 [2006: 404]).

Evidently, every author wants to see his works in perfect translation, so Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s complaints are quite natural. However, it was not personal motivation that made Kvitka turn to self-translating. There were reasons that were much more important to him than perfection or Dahl’s clumsiness in the translation of Soldier’s portrait.

These were the topical issue of whether it was possible to create worthy literary works in Ukrainian, part of the dispute over the potency of the Ukrainian language and the right to exist of “provincial” literature (Finkel 2007b: 302). For, there was a wide-spread opinion among the Russian literati of the early XIX century that Ukrainian literature was something unheard of and that the Ukrainian language was simply not suitable for refined belles-lettres. To illustrate this point, Oleksandr Finkel’ cites, for instance, the newspaper Severnaya pchela, which was notorious for its reactionary views, and which claimed: ‘Why should one bother with creating literature in a nation which has lost its national identity, and a face of its own?’ (Severnaya pchela, 1 November 1834) (Finkel 2007b: 302). Similarly, Nikolai Polevoy, a controversial Russian editor, writer, translator, and historian, wrote:

…we find it a completely useless whim to write something in the format of a full-size book in Malorossian [Little Russian][...] Why and for what? And [...] is not it better for the highly-respected Grytsko [i.e., Kvitka-Osnovyanenko] and his other gifted compatriots to write in the rich, beautiful, and melodious Russian language, rather than in a marred and ugly vernacular? (Finkel’ 2007b: 303).

Not many disagreed with this position, and only a few writers recognized the right of Ukrainian literature to independent existence (Dahl, Shevyrev). It was against the background of these prejudices that Kvitka-Osnovyanenko began translating his own works, particularly, Marusia, for reasons outlined very clearly in his letter to Pyotr Pletnyov (15 March 1839):

 I once had a dispute with a writer in the Malorossian idiom. I asked him to write something serious and touching. He tried to persuade me that the language was clumsy and utterly unfit for such a task. Yet, knowing its characteristics, I wrote Marusia and proved that the Malorossian language can move you to tears…The success of my tales encouraged locals to translate some into Russian, entirely into Russian, just as you would like. Now, we were listening to [the translation]: and what? We, Little Russians, do not recognize our own countrymen, and Russians [...] they yawn and find it a masquerade; the expressions do not tally with the customs, the exposition does not tally with the nationality, the action does not tally with the characters, who have their own way of thinking; and so it [the reading] was stopped, although, to tell the truth, the translation was polished and well-done. I offered my translation [...] and it was found to be satisfactory, yet – alas! – failing to convey the beauty of Malorossian turns of speech [...]
[...] And besides, dear Pyotr Aleksandrovich, will you be so kind as to take a closer look at the noticeable differences between our languages, well, that is, the Russian and the Malorossian languages; what in one language will be vigorous, melodious, and eloquent, in the other will not produce any effect at all; it will be bleary and dull [...] Here is an example for you: Feast of the Dead.[3] It is a legend, a local tale. [...] Told in our idiom, the way it is traditionally related, it is enjoyable, and is read and reread, and quoted by readers. Once rendered into Russian, it has proved a half-and-halfer; a butt for ridicule by a journalist, which was exactly what I expected upon reading it in your journal. (Finkel 2006: 405)

Pyotr Pletnyov himself highly appreciated the novella Marusia, the Russian self-translation of which was published in his journal Sovremennik (1838): ‘We would wish not only all Russia but also Europe to relish this treasure’ (Siundiukov 2003). Incidentally, the French translation of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s Hapless Oksana, made from the Russian self-translation, came out in Paris in 1854.

Thus, according to Finkel’, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, pursued a dual purpose. Firstly, he wanted to prove the authority and viability of the Ukrainian language, and show that is was fully suitable for belles-lettres. Secondly, Kvitka wanted to create the best possible translations of his works to prove that even the most exact and meticulous translation could not replace the original. He also meant to present his works in the most favourable light not only as his personal writings but also as achievements of Ukrainian literature. This intent shaped Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s attitude not only to other’s translations, but also the requirements he set himself as a translator (Finkel’ 2006: 406).

2.5 Finkel’ on the Prerequisites of Self-Translation

Far from being aware of all the controversial problems of translation, Kvitka groped for the solutions relying on his experience as a writer. According to Finkel’, the affinity of the Ukrainian and Russian languages became the essential background for Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s work, leaving an impact on all his self-translations (Finkel 2007b: 305). The greatest challenge here was bilingual homonymy and polysemy, which greatly affected Kvitka’s translations, in particular due to his bilingual environment: Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself did not always distinguish Russian phrases from Ukrainian (Finkel’ 2007b: 305).

This bilingualism of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s is clearly discernible in his self-translations. Besides, his chosen translation method pushed him towards inaccuracies in his self-translations. ‘I offered my translation, a literal one, not allowing myself to shift a word’, he wrote in his letters to Pletnyov (Finkel’ 2007a: 231). These words unequivocally account for Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s intentions: he believed that literal translation secured the best results. Thus, Kvitka’s practice as a self-translator was conditioned by the relations between the Russian and Ukrainian languages as an external factor; by his bilingualism as a subjective factor (and of which he was insufficiently aware); and by the word-for-word principle which he considered (at least in theory) the most appropriate for proving the wealth of the Ukrainian language (Finkel’ 2007b: 305-6).

2.6 Finkel’ on the Reproduction of Local Colour in Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s Self-translations

The self-translations by Kvitka are notable for their ethnographic colouring. Being aware of the similarity of the Ukrainian and Russian languages, Kvitka, at times, preferred transcription to Russian equivalents. However common these words might have seemed in the originals, they looked strikingly foreign in the Russian translations and required a lot of effort to understand. Transcriptions were widely employed in a range of contexts. Firstly, they were used in rendering words and expressions denoting realia of Ukrainian culture which did not have equivalents in the Russian language, and, therefore, had to be introduced in the translations in their original forms. This preservation of local Ukrainian colour was a natural strategy for Kvitka who repeatedly criticized his Russian translators for their ignorance of Ukrainian culture. His self-translations emphasize the originality of Ukrainian culture by preserving the names of Ukrainian holidays, types of activities, and garments.

Secondly – and most unexpectedly – Kvitka transcribe many words and expressions other than cultural realia, which had equivalents in the Russian language. Finkel’ argues that it is hard to find any consistency in Kvitka’s choices: ‘It is impossible to explain why Kvitka chose to transcribe these particular words without even trying to translate them’ (Finkel’ 2007b: 311). So Finkel’ makes the assumption that Kvitka was pursuing a stylistic purpose:

Apparently, the choice between translation and transcription was of little, if any, importance to Kvitka. But even though there are no linguistic, cultural, or historic grounds, the stylistic function of such transcriptions is very expressive: they are intended to create a particular Ukrainian atmosphere for the Russian reader, and they do so, however purposely mocking […] this way of rendering might seem. (Finkel’ 2007b: 311)

Whatever the case, Kvitka seeks to introduce ethnographic elements to render the particular national style of his works that he found unjustly ignored by the Russian translators. Kvitka is adamant in observing this principle, even though the use of transcriptions does not always achieve the intended effect and is, at times, misleading for the reader.

2.7 Kvitka’s Translations of Idioms

Finkel’ provides a careful analysis of Kvitka’s translations of idiomatic expressions to find out that Kvitka’s desire to render the original expressivity of the Ukrainian language made him experiment with idioms and apply varying strategies. Finkel’ states that the idiomatic diversity of Kvitka’s style posed particular difficulties in translation and he provides a list of such difficulties. Firstly, he notes, idioms reveal a particular semantics of their own, as the meaning of an idiomatic expression is not equal to the sum of the meanings of its constituents. Secondly, idioms present a lexical problem, as their wording can differ from a non-idiomatic use. Thirdly, the composition of an idiom has to be paid a particular attention to as idioms can have a distinct syntactic structure or phonetic features difficult to render in translation. Yet, the biggest difficulty, insists Finkel’, is rooted in the cultural specifics of the given idiom and its marked cultural slant. The translation of idioms may distort the bonds between an idiom and its original culture; the necessity to convey the implied meanings and associations limits the translator’s choices. This is why what may sound clear and natural in the original can look exotic or artificial in the translation (Finkel’ 2007b: 312-3).

Kvitka applies several techniques in rendering idioms in his self-translations, and, as in the case of rendering local colour he is able to relate the reader to the Ukrainian language and culture, but fails to achieve consistency in his translation methodology. He uses literal translations and idiomatic loan translations to render the same idiom in different contexts, at times introducing Ukrainian words.

Therefore, idiomatic equivalents in his translations prove incomprehensible in some cases, and literal translations are sometimes misleading or far from being expressive, which contradicts the purpose of Kvitka’s self-translations which was to introduce the reader to the unique Ukrainian language and style. (Finkel’ 2007b: 314)

Finkel’ makes an assumption that Kvitka intentionally avoided Russian idiomatic equivalents when translating Ukrainian idioms in order to counter the stereotypical idea that the Ukrainian and Russian languages are equivalent. In a way, experimenting with idioms was a method to demonstrate the originality of Ukrainian phraseology (Finkel 2007b: 315).

The same approach permeated Kvitka’s syntax as he introduced Ukrainian elements into his Russian self-translation. The Ukrainian grammatical elements brought into the Russian translations repeatedly produce a different and unpredictable effect which is quite different to the original, since, in the two languages, these elements can belong to different functional styles, social dialects, or historical periods. ‘In this regard, Kvitka’s self-translations appear to intentionally avoid complete conformity to the Russian grammatical rules’. (Finkel’ 2007b: 316-9)

2.8 Finkel’ on Changes and Additions in Kvitka’s Self-Translations

Towards the end of his article, Finkel’ discusses melioration – the improvement of content and style – as a tendency manifested by Kvitka in his self-translations. Despite his claims of having made a word-for-word translation of his works, Kvitka, in fact, rewrites long passages of the texts introducing substantial changes and additions. According to Finkel’s observations, a comparison of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translations with VladimirDahl’s translation shows that Dahl deviates from the original extremely rarely whereas Kvitka-Osnovyanenko resorts to considerable alterations. Finkel shows that all deviations from the original in Dahl’s translation of Soldier’s Portrait do not exceed ten explanatory words and an insignificant number of omissions; which means that Dahl can hardly be accused of rewriting the original. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translation of the same novella contains about a hundred explanations and omissions. And this is quite natural, since Kvitka-Osnovyanenko could afford any deviation from the original without any fear of criticism, while even the smallest variation by Dahl provoked criticism (mainly by Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself).

Importantly, Finkel’ concludes that a greater independence from the original constitutes the main difference between the author-translator and the regular translator. In a way, the authorial translation can be viewed as not a translation, but rather an independent work (Finkel’ 2006: 436). All in all, in the eight stories self-translated by Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, one can find over 200 rewritings, which is proof enough that the author specifically made the effort to edit his works and modulate their tone (Finkel’ 2007b: 322).

An important factor in Kvitka’s alterations in his self-translations was his self-censorship; and changes for aesthetic reasons are also important. Aware of the social situation in Russia and the specifics of the Russian readership, Kvitka resorts to omissions and reductions, insertions and additions, alterations and rehashes. There are hundreds of such cases (Finkel’ 2007b: 322). Finkel’ explains that

[A]ll these changes […] are of the same nature: Kvitka systematically moderates his Russian translations on the grounds of the stylistic dissimilarity between the Russian and Ukrainian languages and socially different readerships. (Finkel 2007a: 232)

Indeed, Ukrainian and Russian readers in those days belonged to different social strata: whereas the average Russian reader of his novellas came from gentry, his Ukrainian readers, in his own words, were ‘their servants’ (2007b: 214). Kvitka was well aware that preservation of some features of the original could distort the perception of the translation by the Russian readers, which might result in their misjudging Ukrainian literature and culture, in general (Finkel 2007b: 320).

2.9 Finkel’’s Conclusions

The close study of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translations enables Finkel to describe the process of self-translation as “amalgamation of the author and translator in one person” (Finkel’ 2007b: 324). This combination is not, in Finkel’s view, an advantage in terms of ensuring translation adequacy. Being of a different nature from a regular translation, the reconceptualisation of one’s own work can lead to substantial discrepancies with the original, either enhancing the quality of the work, or lowering it. However undesirable the discrepancies with the original might be, argues Finkel, reconceptualisation in translation is unavoidable, as the translator of the literary piece is also the author who addresses his work to a new readership. The split identity of the author therefore “prevents the author from becoming the best translator of his works” (Finkel 2007b: 324).  Indeed, authorial translation blurs the boundary between translation and adaptation, the latter, in Finkel’s opinion, much more typical for self-translation, if not inherent. The degree of liberty the author is able to take with his own work is incomparably higher than that of a regular translator (Finkel’ 2007b: 325). With these considerations in mind, Finkel’ was confident that the further research on self-translation would make a substantial contribution into the translation theory.

3. In conclusion

Whereas Finkel’s 1929 Ukrainian article did not attract any attention, his 1962 Russian article (which was, to a large extent, his self-translated 1929 article) did. In the 1960-80s, the phenomenon of self-translation was repeatedly discussed by translation scholars in Central and Eastern Europe, namely, Viktor Koptilov of Ukraine, Viačasłaŭ Rahojša of Belarus, Rurik Minyar-Beloruchev of Russia, Sider Florin and Sergeĭ Vlakhov of Bulgaria, Çingiz Hüseynov of Azerbaijan, Anton Popovič of Slovakia and others. It was Anton Popovič who linked Eastern European traditions in translation research with the Translation Studies emerging in the West. Specifically, by means of his Dictionary for the Analysis of Literary Translation, containing the entry on auto-translation, he introduced the concept in English-speaking countries. Unfortunately, these pioneer works on the study of self-translation as well as a wealth of other works published in Eastern Europe are largely unknown in the West. Moreover, they are not included in the Bibliography on self-translation edited recently by Eva Gentes (Gentes 2018).

As self-translation has become an increasingly common practice in our globalized world, more research is carried out in this area. Nevertheless, there are two areas adjacent to the issue of self-translation, which are still not clearly understood. One of them is the case where a self-translation is carried out from a “non-recorded” mother tongue source text. For instance, in his analysis of Gogol’s style against the background of the contemporary Russian language Professor Iosif Mandelstam (1902) of Helsingfors arrives at the conclusion that Gogol’s ‘idiom of the soul’ was in fact Ukrainian and that Gogol translated collocations and concepts to himself trying to adapt to the then Russian language. Another area is represented by translations made by the author in collaboration with the translator.

The History of Science, as Volodymyr Vernadsky maintained, is bound to be critically rewritten according to the imperatives of the present by each generation of investigators, and not only because our store of knowledge of the past has changed, or some new documents have been found, or some new methods of reinterpreting the past have been worked out.

It is necessary to approach the history of science anew, to immerse oneself in the past time and again, considering that due to the development of contemporary knowledge one thing in the past has become important and something else has lost its importance. Each generation of researchers seeks and finds in the history of their science the reflections of recent scientific trends. By making progress science does more than merely create something new; it also inevitably reappraises its past, its previous experience. (Vernadsky, 1912: 126–127)

In this light, the internationalization of the discipline seeks to rediscover new types of primary sources, new regions as well as additional languages and cultural traditions, which require the writing of new histories (Fernandez Sanchez2015, 104).

Mainstream Translation Studies (which often means English language Translation Studies) are currently facing a situation which calls for a new balance and moderation in the claims of novelty and originality. The knowledge of other translation traditions, practices, and contexts is able to shed a new light onto the discipline and make researchers in the field aware of the achievements of their predecessors in different countries across the world. Engagement with the literature on translation in the “peripheral” cultures that have centuries of experience in translation, as well as sound and solid reflections on its practice, ‘could be much more rewarding for translation studies than the assumption that the most recent debates and developments in the field are revolutionary, original and uniquely innovative’ (Nasi 2014: 138). Moreover, a greater familiarity with the contribution that “peripheral” cultures have made to translation studies could save time and effort in the common enterprise of trying to define translation. The development of unified translation studies history can become an important contribution to the field of Translation Studies and create a common ground for a joint effort development of the discipline.


We are indebted to Edita Gromová (Constantine the Philosopher University, Nitra) for sharing her private archive with us and to Luc van Doorslaer (KU Leuven/University of Tartu), Ton Naaijkens (University of Utrecht), and Christopher Rundle (University of Bologna) for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


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[1]The photo of Finkel’s article was kindly shared with us by Professor Edita Gromová from Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra.Gromová’s father, Professor Ján Kopál, a close co-worker of Popovič, received the volume with Finkel’s article from Popovič himself. This volume with Popovič’s marks in Finkel’s article is now a part of Gromová’s private library.

[2]All translations from Ukranian and Russian are by the authors unless otherwise indicated.

[3]In Finkel’s Russian self-translation the title was changed from Mertvetskyy Velikden (Dead Man’s Easter) into Prazdnik mertvetsov (Feast of the Dead)

About the author(s)

Oleksandr Kalnychenko is Associate Professor of Mykola Lukash Translation Studies Department at V.N. Karazin National University of Kharkiv. He lectures in Translation Studies and Translation History and is Editor-in-Chief of Protey annual translators’ miscellany and Khyst i Hluzd translators’ miscellany, author of 40 books of literary translations from English into Ukrainian and Russian, and over 130 scholarly publications.

Natalia Kamovnikova is Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology, Pedagogy, and Translation Studies of St. Petersburg University of Management Technologies and Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia. She lectures in Translation Studies and Linguistics and teaches practical courses of interpreting, English, and German. She is also a practicing conference interpreter.

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"Oleksandr Finkel’ on the Problem of Self-Translation"
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Despotism and Translation in Iran

The Case of Naseri House of Translation as the First State Translation Institution

By Somaye Delzendehrooy, Ali Khazaee Farid and Masood Khoshsaligheh (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran)

Abstract & Keywords

The Dar al-Tarjome Naseri [Naseri House of Translation] was the first state translation institution established at the time of Naser al-Din Shah, the fourth king of Qajar in Iran. This institution was managed by Mohammad Hassan Khan Etemad al-Saltane, the Shah’s special translator and interpreter and later his minister of Press and Publishing. He was the second key figure after the Shah, whose decisions influenced the publishing of translations in Iran. Known for being a despotic ruler, Naser al-Din Shah would not allow the translation and publication of any material at the Dar al-Tarjome Naseri without his approval. This situation led to a translation movement outside the court and even outside Iran which pursued objectives that were different from and even opposed to those of the state translation institution. The aim of this study is twofold: to describe the role translation played in and outside the Naseri House of Translation, which resulted in two translation movements, and to show how translation led to Naser al-Din Shah’s “new” form of despotism. To this end, the authors have examined the related sources including the books translated in and outside this institution and the translators' prefaces as well as Etemad al-Saltane's personal diary. The study intends to show that, not only did the Dar al-Tarjome Naseri feed Naser al-Din Shah’s despotism, but it also acted as a reference for translators outside the Dar al-Tarjome to select and translate books which then paved the way for the Constitutional Revolution in 1905.

Keywords: history of translation, publshing, Iran, Dar al-Tarjome Naseri, Naseri House of Translation, Naser al-Din Shah, Qajar dynasty

©inTRAlinea & Somaye Delzendehrooy, Ali Khazaee Farid and Masood Khoshsaligheh (2019).
"Despotism and Translation in Iran The Case of Naseri House of Translation as the First State Translation Institution"
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My subjects and the people of this country should know nothing but that which concerns Iran and their own preoccupations and that, for example, if they hear the word Paris or Brussels, they should not know whether these are something to eat or to wear. (Naser al-Din Shah, quoted in Amin al-Dowleh 1962: 123)

1. Introduction

“Oriental despots” is a phrase used by the 19th century Europeans to describe the Qajar dynasty Kings in Iran (Abrahamian, 2008: 8). The reign of Naser al-Din Shah, the forth King of Qajar is seen as a transition from the traditional reign to the modern state (Amanat, 1997: 7). The idea of “oriental despotism” is widely discussed in Western literature on Eastern governments and was of great interest to Western philosophers. The discussion is said to date back as far as Aristotle (384–322 BC), who proposed the “theoretical foundation” of ‘despotism’ in his book Politics (Minutir, 2012: 2-3).  Aristotle makes a distinction between despotic monarchy and tyranny, stating that the latter, unlike the former, is exercised against people’s will (Aristotle, 2007: 2018). Through the 16th to the 19th centuries, philosophers such as Machiavelli, Hume, Montesquieu and Hegel distinguished two principal kinds of government: the Eastern and the Western, the main difference being that the former enjoyed no limitation in exerting authority (Abrahamian, 1974: 3-4). Montesquieu particularly dealt with the concept of “oriental despotism” in his Lettres Persanes (1721) and later in Des Sprit des Lois (1748). The concept was also discussed in France stressing the similarities between Louis XIV (1638–1715)[1] and the oriental despots such as the Ottoman Sultans (Minutir, 2012: 15).  It is noteworthy that these two books were not translated into Persian until 1945 in the Pahlavi era, the Qajar’s successors.

Each thinker discussing “oriental despotism” gave different reasons for the phenomenon. While Montesquieu regarded “fear of the ruler” to be the prime reason, Hegel considered a lack of social “classes” to be the decisive factor (Abrahamian, 1974: 4). Accepting Hegel’s view, Marx and Engels went further to insist on the “socio-economic” factors influencing the “cultural and institutional variations in history” around the world. They believed that the difference in socio-economic structure of East and West lied in the “absence of private property” in Asia (Abrahaminan, 1974: 5). They provided two reasons for this, one being “large bureaucracy administering public works”, (mostly emphasized by Engels) and the other being “fragmented society”, which could not challenge the central government (mostly emphasized by Marx) (Abrahamian, 1974: 6).

Abrahamian maintains that Iranian monarchs at the time of Achaemenians, Sassanids and Safavids had a large bureaucracy. However, Abrahamian argues, that while the Qajar monarchy was a clear example of oriental despotism, it does not fit into Engels’ theory. Abrahamian believes that the Qajar kings, especially at the time of Naser al-Din Shah, governed the country by taking advantage of the social fragmentation in Iran (Marx’s theory) as the population were scattered in villages, towns and tribes, with little or no communication between them. Linguistic and religious diversity would also add to the distance between people. As a result, people of the same habit or rank would not find the opportunity to get together and shape a social class which could at last challenge the central state (Abrahamian, 1974: 31; See also Amanat, 1997: 43-52).    

As an oriental despot, Naser al-Din Shah established a ‘new’ kind of monarchy incorporating certain elements form Western governments. It was in his era that, for the first time, Iranians visited Europe and Western books were translated. Also, Naser al-Din Shah is generally considered the most literate Iranian king. His legacy, therefore, is a mixed one; while he established Dar al-Tarjome Naseri [Naseri House of Translation] (henceforth DTN), the first large state translation institution for translating Western books and magazines, he stunted its development as a fully-fledged translation institution which could cater to the intellectual needs of a rising nation.

Based on the archival sources related to the DTN, its founders and its translations, the purpose of this study is to consider how despotism and translation were intertwined during Naser al-Din Shah’s reign. We hope to show that the DTN played a role both as a manifestation of a despotic government and at the same time one of the main factors fostering translation outside itself, which later contributed to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905. Although the authors have made every effort to access all available primary sources, this study suffers from the general lack of historical archives in Iran which makes all research on Iranian history very difficult (cf. Abrahamian, 1974). The only sources available were the diaries of Naser al Din Shah and some other courtiers. The most important of which was Etemad al-Saltane’s Ruzname-ye Khaterat [Journal of Memories] in which he provides valuable information about the DTN. This diary is significant because it is written by a person who, from the time he was 25 years old, met the Shah almost every day of his life. Iraj Afshar,[2] asserts that this diary is one of the most important historical documents of the Naseri Era (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967, Introduction, p. 4). What makes the diary specially significant is that, as  Etemad al-Saltane asserts, nobody except him and his wife knew he was writing a diary and that, in his own words, “I write whatever I do not dare to utter” (1967: 41). He may at times be prejudiced in his judgments but the information he provides about the Naseri era is first-hand and invaluable. As far as possible, we have cross-checked the information in the diary with other sources to avoid over-reliance on a single source. Besides, the state yearbooks, also prepared by Etemad al-Saltane by order of Naser al-Din Shah for the first time in Iran, were of great value to us since they provided a record of DTN members. Since this institution had not been studied in any detail before, the information available from other secondary sources was rather limited and in some cases clearly false.

Readers should be aware, therefore, that this study provides a rather partial reconstruction; but also that this is the only one possible with the sources currently available.

This paper will first provide an overview of the socio-cultural context of Iran at the time of Naser al-Din Shah. A brief account of Naser al-Din Shah’s background will be followed by an introduction to the DTN, the translators that worked there and their translation activity. We will then look at the censorship policies which were in place and the way they reflected the Shah’s increasing suspicious. The emergence of an opposing translation movement outside the DTN is then discussed: we try to show how the DTN and translation played a role in Naser al Din Shah’s adopting a ‘new’ mode of despotism originating from the West and how his model of censorship was followed by the successive dynasties. The concluding section shows how despotism and translation are intertwined and how Naser al-Din Shah’s policy towards translation set a trend in Iranian publishing. 

2. Historical background

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the ruling system in Iran was that of a kingship. Thirty five dynasties ruled Iran from its ancient origins up to the contemporary era. The Qajar dynasty, the focus of this study, was the penultimate, the 34th. This dynasty ruled Iran for 130 years (1796-1925), coming to power a few years after the French Revolution in the late 18th century. It was also contemporaneous with the industrial revolution in the 19th century as well as the World War I in the first two decades of the 20th century and the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 (Azarang 2016: 217). There were Seven Qajar kings, and of these Naser al-Din Shah reigned the longest, 48 years (1848-1896).

The Qajar dynasty was established by Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar in 1785, who brought unity and peace to Iran after five decades of upheaval. From the beginning of the dynasty up to the so-called Constitutional Revolution in 1905, Iran underwent a series of transformations as it gradually adapted to the changes taking place both within its borders and in the outside world. As Amanat (1997:7-8) puts it, the Constitutional Revolution was “an attempt to develop democratic institutions based on the rule of law, conscious nationalism, and secular reforms”. Naser-al-Din Shah played a key role in this process because of his intellectual character and the socio-historical conditions of his long reign.

When Naser al-Din Shah ascended to the throne in 1848, almost 20 years had passed since Iran’s defeat at the hands of Russia, a defeat which resulted in a significant loss of territory to Russia under the Gulestan and Turkamanchai Treaties, in 1813 and 1828 respectively. As Abrahamian (2008: 36-37) argues, this defeat led to Russia making advances in the north of Iran (Russia was interested in Enzeli Port and its road to Tehran) and the British Empire, Russia’s rival, advancing from the south (Britain was interested in the Persian Gulf and its roads to Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman). Britain’s presence in Iran also forced the Qajars to hand over Herat and to accept the Paris Treaty in 1857. The country was effectively divided between Britain and Russia and whenever these imperial powers were not satisfied with the advantages they were obtaining from Iran they would publish articles in newspapers and magazines criticizing Naser-al-Din Shah’s government severely (Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 118, 119, 183). This led to a gradual hostility towards foreign powers and explains Naser al-din Shah’s “paranoid style of politics” (Abrahamian 2008: 37)[3]. Thus while Europe was making advances in science and technology, the Iranian economy was critically weak and the Iranian people were discontent with the “political and clerical repression” that had its roots in traditional values and practices (Amanat 1997:2).

At the start of Naser-al-Din Shah’s reign, around the middle of the 19th century, the population of Iran barely reached six million, 80% of which lived in rural areas (Amanat 1997: 49). By the end of Naser al-Din Shah’s reign, in the early 20th century, the population had doubled: 60% now lived in rural areas, 10-15% in urban areas and 25-30% were members of nomadic tribes. The literacy rate by the beginning of the 20th century was about 5%, most of whom were graduates of religious/Koranic centres and missionary establishments (Abrahmian 2008: 2).

The decrease in the rural population was partly due to the policy that Naser al-Din Shah adopted in order to limit the influence of Russia and Britain, which was later called “defensive modernization” (Abrahamian, 2008: 38). Although the policy was a failure overall because of the severe financial crisis that the country was trapped in at the time, it did enjoy some success, such as the establishment of modern schools the most important of which was Dar al-Fonun [House of Skills], the first modern college in Iran. The college was founded to train the sons of the nobility and it would give scholarships to the best students so that they could continue their education in Europe, mainly in France and Belgium, but not in Russia and Britain. In the late 19th century, four other secondary schools and five other colleges affiliated to Dar al-Fonun plus two military schools, and two agriculture and foreign language schools were also established (Abrhamian 2008: 40). Amanat (1997: 7), describes the Qajar period as a transition from “tradition to modernity”; the Qajar kings, especially Naser al-Din Shah, were constantly confronting the dilemma of adhering to local traditions while also moving with the times and adapting to the modern trends of life and models of government that were arriving from the West.

3. Naser al-Din Shah’s background and its relation to translation

Naser al-Din Shah, whose reign spanned almost the whole of the second half of the 19th century, ascended the throne at the age of 17 in 1848. What makes his reign different from those of other Qajar Kings, apart from its being the longest, is his unique personality. His childhood had a great impact on his personality as a future king. This period of his life is so significant that Abbas Amanat, an Iranian historian, has devoted a whole book to the way Naser al-Din Shah’s character was shaped during his childhood. According to Amanat, Naser al-Din Shah had a bitter and lonely childhood, mainly due to the quarrelsome relationship between his mother, Mahd-e Olya, and his father, Mohammad Shah (1834-1848). They both had very different personalities, the mother being an extrovert and the father an introvert. However, the source of the conflict were the rumors that his mother was not faithful to her husband. The rumors were so intense that Naser al-Din was thought to be an illegitimate child. His father therefore felt little affection for him and instead paid much more attention to Naser al-Din’s half-brother who was younger than him. This caused Naser al-Din to grow up in solitude and fear with no support and love from his father (Amanat 1997:23-42). He was, according to Amanat, an “insecure crown prince” who was “seldom admitted to his father’s presence” (1997: 42). Thus his “troubled upbringing” and his “political insecurities”, caused him to be paranoid throughout his 48-year rule (1997: xvi). Despite the difficult period from his childhood to his becoming the legitimate crown prince, Naser al-Din Shah overcame the odds and became the King of Iran with the help of his mother and his father’s premier Mirza Aqasi (1997: 47-55).

Naser al-Din Shah had a great enthusiasm for reading books and learning new languages; he was especially fond of the French language as well as history and geography. His love for reading was the legacy of Naser al-Din Shah’s grandfather Abbas Mirza, who had a key role in initiating important reforms at this time (Amanat 1997: 27-28). Thus under the pro-literacy policies that Abbas Mirza had initiated, Naser al-Din Shah became a highly literate man, devoting most of his time to reading and writing. He had a library in his court which had 170 translated books in it by the time of his death (Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 1185). Even during lunch he ordered foreign newspapers to be read to him. Some Iranian newspapers, including Ettella’ [information] and Iran, were also established at this time. They were strictly monitored to ensure that they did not publish anything he disapproved of. Naser al-Din Shah was the first Iranian king to visit Europe; he made three trips there during his rule. He was a great writer both in terms of quality and quantity. Iraj Afshar (2000), a Qajar historian, maintains that he would write at least 200 lines a day and that all the writings of all the kings of Iran put together would be like a drop in the ocean compared to what Naser al-Din Shah had written.

Naser al-Din Shah was also interested in drawing portraits and landscapes and had a liking for topography. He enjoyed the theatre and would often watch Molière’s plays in translation. He was also interested in music and photography, keeping an eye on the development of these two art forms at Dar al-Fonun. Collecting old coins was one of his hobbies. He had a small museum built in his court containing old works of art and coins (Afshar 2000: 9-12).

It should therefore come as no surprise that he established a centre for translation. All the translators already working at the Foreign Ministry, plus those interpreters in his service since he took the throne, were told to join this centre. The centre was called Dar al-Tarjome Homayooni [His Majesty’s Translation House] which was mostly known after the Shah’s name Naser, Naseri Dar al-Tarjome. The centre will be discussed at greater length below.

Therefore Naser-al-Din Shah’s troubled childhood and “political insecurities” along with his love for reading made him obsessive with knowing what the Western governments thought of him and his rule. This resulted in his strict monitoring every single book translated at the DTN and even being sensitive about the translation method adopted by the translators, his desired method being word for word translation. As it will be discussed in the following sections, he went so far as to establish the first state censorship bureau which is still one of the major filters in Iran’s publication industry.

4. The Naseri House of Translation

The DTN is the only state translation institution created in Iran, along with the Jondi Shahpoor centre of knowledge which was founded during the Sassanid era (244-651 AD). The active period of the DTN may be divided into three phases. The initial phase, which lasted 12 years, started with the appointment by the Shah in 1871 of Etemad al-Saltane as manager of the DTN (Ahmadi 1992: 16). The appointment was announced on 22 October 1871 in the official government newspaper, Iran. The announcement stated that the office would start by employing Iranians who had been educated abroad and foreigners who resided in Iran.

The second phase, which lasted 13 years, started with the Shah’s order in 1882 to expand the DTN into “a comprehensive and organized translation centre”. The Shah dedicated a special place near Marmar Palace for the DTN; it was inaugurated on 22 October, 1883 by the Shah and his Grand Vizier, Amin-al-Dowleh. In another development, on 14 November, 1882, four bureaus were included in the newly founded Ministry of the Press and Publishing with Etemad al-Saltane as the minister (Etemad al-Saltane 1967:225). The four bureaus were the DTN, the Court Printing House, Bureau of Encyclopaedia, and Newspapers Bureau. By order of the Shah, the translators already working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were asked to work at the DTN (Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 226). The translators were either selected by Etemad al-Saltane based on the quality of their work or recommended by the Shah. As the Minister of the Press and Publishing, Etemad al-Saltane appointed Mohammad Hossein Foroughi (later given the title Zaka al-Molk [the sun of the country]) as the head of the DTN. Zaka-al-Molk was a highly literate man and an excellent editor and translator from French and Arabic. The second phase ends with the death of both Naser al-Din Shah and Etemad al-Saltane in 1896.

The third phase in the history of the DTN is the 11-year period after the death of Naser al-Din Shah and Etemad al-Saltane in 1896 up to the Constitutional Revolution in 1905. In this period Muzaffar al-Din Shah, Naser al-Din Shah’s son, ascended to the throne and Mohammad Baqer Khan (Etemad al-Saltane’s nephew), whose mismanagement brought ruin to the DTN, was appointed the Minister of Publication and Translation. With the victory of the Constitutional Revolution, the Ministry of Publication and Translation was disbanded (Mahboubi Ardakani 1989: 719). In this study we only focus on the first and second phases, in both of which the Shah and Etemad al-Saltaneh were the main translation agents.

4.1 Translators and number of translated books

As a comprehensive state institution, the DTN employed translators, editors, and Monshis, people well-versed in Persian whose job was to control the final draft of the translation in terms of language fluency and accuracy before it was presented to the Shah. These people received wages and had two days off a week (Etemad al-Saltne 1967: 291, 162; See also Iran newspaper No. 48, 22 October 1871). All in all, based on the Year Books (1873-1896) provided by Etemad al-Saltane (Qasemi, 2011) as well as his diary, plus the prefaces of translators to the books translated, there were 41 translators working at the DTN translating from different languages (French, Russian, Germany, English, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Indian).

There were also other translators in the court, such as princes, who translated either because of their interest in the job, or because they wanted to show their loyalty to the Shah; and there were translators outside the court, including the students and graduates of Dar al-Fonun, who normally translated textbooks, and the reformist intellectuals most of whom were against the monarchy and lived in exile. This study is limited to the salaried translators working in and around the court.

During these 25 years, according to the sources consulted,[4] overall 200 books and booklets were translated, along with 151 newspapers. Of the 200 books, 61 were on history (including biographies), 65 were travelogues (including both the trips to Iran and to other parts of the world), 11 were on geography, 20 were novels and short stories, and 43 were on different subjects such as science, politics, law and medicine (see table 1). The few number of books translated on politics (4) and law (1) mainly belonged to the second phase of DTN activity.



History books


Geography books

Novels & short stories











Table 1: The number of books and newspapers translated at the DTN from 1871 to 1896

It should be mentioned that these books were presented to the Shah, who was the first to read the book as illuminated manuscripts[5], handwritten in an elegant calligraphy. The announcements for the publication of the books were published in the Iran newspaper (cf. for example, Nos. 218 (16 May 1874), 312 (1 March 1877), 339 (6 December 1877). Moreover, some books, such as Robinson Crusoe (no. 133-216 (17 December 1872- 24 April 1874), Captain Hatteras Travel to the North Pole[6] [no. 1-132 (2 April 1871- 11 November 1872)], were first printed in instalments in newspapers.

4.2 The process of selecting books for translation

The books for translation were selected by three different authorities. First, the Shah himself. In the FANKHA index (The Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts), which is compiled by Mostafa Derayati by the Iran National Library publications, there is an entry for Naser al-Din Shah, according to which 411 books were written or translated by order of or for the Shah (Derayati, 2011 Vol. 38: 745-56). An examination of the books translated at the DTN shows that at least 25 books were translated by the direct order of the Shah as stated in the prefaces. The second selecting authority was Etemad al-Saltane; he would either directly order books from France (Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 540, 149), or buy them through Iran’s ambassador or the foreign translators coming back from France (Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 410, 332, 326, 309, 343). The third group were translators themselves; they would start translating a book if they found it to be worthy of translation. They normally stated this in the prefaces of their translations, justifying their selections by resorting to very general reasons such as “educational benefits”. For instance, Mohammad Aref, a translator at the DTN, explained his purpose in choosing Iraq Geography for translation as follows: “[…] It can be said that the main task of translators is the translation of scientific, technical and political books and theses of which both the state and the nation will be beneficiary” (Aref, 1884: 1).

However, translators rarely chose books for translation, because each and every book had to be approved by the Shah or it would be banned even if the translation had already been printed and distributed to bookshops. An example is Etemad al-Saltane’s translation of The Biography of Mademoiselle de Montpensier in seven volumes, two of which were devoted to the biography of Louis XIV. The book was banned by the Shah, even though 705 copies of the book had been sent to bookshops (Etemad al-Saltane 1967:1191). “I wonder”, Etemad al-Saltane stated in a letter of complaint to the Shah on the ban of his book, “which part of this book was harmful to the government?” (1191).

5. The Censorship Bureau

As stated in the previous section, no book or booklet could be translated at the DTN unless approved by Naser al-Din Shah.  An examination of the translators’ prefaces shows that in the first phase of DTN activity, Naser al-Din Shah insisted that the translations be done in a taht al-lafzi [word-for-word] manner, so that the writer’s meaning was not distorted. This fact is reported frequently in the translators’ prefaces. Issa Garoosi, one of the translators at the DTN, goes so far as to use the phrase “word-for-word translation” in the title of one his translations: Tarjomey-e That al-lafz-e Safarnameye Doctor Larte [Word-for-Word Translation of Dr Larte’s Travelogue] (1879). Mirza Rahim Khan, another translator at the DTN, in the margin of his preface to the translation of Tarikh-e Selsele-ye Jalile-ye Qajarieh [The History of Iran and the Grand Qajar Dynasty], writes as follows: (Rahim Khan, 1884: 2-3):

[The translator] does not deviate from the word-for-word translation method and does not try to use flowery language; he neither reduces anything from the author’s words […] nor adds to the text […].

Etemad-al-Saltaneh, as often mentioned in his diary, would first present the books to be translated to the Shah and after his approval send them for translation (Etemad-al-Saltane, 1967: 309, 400, 835). While the Shah could exert strict control over anything published at the DTN, he had no control over translations or articles published outside the court or even outside Iran. On one occasion, a book of satire, criticizing Naser al-din Shah, written by an Iranian in India, Sheikh Hashem Shirazi, was published and sent to Iran. When he read the book the shah was furious and he ordered that all available copies be destroyed. This incident led Etemad al-Saltane to suggest that a censorship bureau should be established. The Shah “liked the suggestion very much and approved it”, appointing Etemad al-Saltane manager of the bureau (1967: 381). When the new censorship bureau was presented as a bill in the parliament, it faced objections from other ministers but, with the support from the Shah, it was finally approved in 1885, two years after the expansion of the DTN. In reply to the ministers who opposed the censor bill, Etemad al-Saltane said: “what I do is for the benefit of the nation and state” (1967: 384). Qasemi (2000: 6) argues that the justification for this statement was that, if Etemad al-Saltaneh had not proposed the censorship bureau, the Shah would have put a ban on the whole publishing industry. After the approval of the bill, no books, newspapers, printed announcements or any other printed material anything written was allowed to get published in any printing house all over Iran, unless it was approved and signed by the manager of “Censorship Bureau”. Etemad al-Saltaneh had a stamp made on which it was written “Molaheze shod” [approved] with an image of a lying lion and a sun[7] (Etemad al-Saltane, 1995:162).

6. Naser al-Din Shah’s gradual increase of suspicion

As stated earlier, Naser al-Din Shah’s “troubled upbringing” meant that he lived in fear and suspicion of everyone. This fear intensified with the political unrest during his rule (Amanat, 1997: xvi). Moreover, with the increase of translation in and outside Iran and the growing number of Iranians going abroad for education, Naser al-Din Shah developed an aversion to learning and knowledge and towards the West, despite the fact that he spent  “60,000 Toman a year” [8] for the people to learn foreign sciences (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 597). His suspiscion of people who acquired knowledge increased to the extent that he once confessed to Etemad al-Saltane that he preferred people to stay ignorant (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 597).

Mohammad Ali Foroughi, one of the translators at the DTN, whose father worked the longest at the DTN as translator, editor and manager, asserts that Naser al-din Shah became hostile towards educated people towards the end of his rule; he banned people from going abroad, for he believed this could open their eyes to the importance of law. Foroughi goes on to say that even uttering the word “law” could have consequences such as “imprisonment and exile” (Foroughi, 1960: 64). Amin al-Dowleh, Naser al-Din Shah’s director of the Post and Telegraph Bureau, points to the same attitude of the Shah in his diary, Mirza Ali Khan Amin al-Dowleh’s Political Memories (1962: 26): “[…] the Shah had more trust in illiterate people than those who knew how to read and write […].” Elsewhere he mentions that the Shah often expressed the conviction that the people of Iran “should know of nothing but Iran and their own preoccupations, and for instance if they hear the word Paris or Brussels, they should not know whether these are something to eat or to wear” (223).

The Shah’s obsession with possible threats to his throne also explains his interest in history books, in particular those that could reassure him about the survival of the monarchy. An example of his attitude is the note he left at the beginning of volume one of The history of Bismarck in the war of 1870 and 1871[9], translated into Persian by Baron de Norman in 1880. The note reads: “I read it all, but it is utter nonsense. It is neither a history nor a story nor even a newspaper account. The person who wrote this book must have been drunk. Finished.” He left a similar note on volume 2 of the book: “I read this second volume too. It is all nonsense.”

 It is worth noting that this fear and suspiscion grew at the peak of the DTN’s activity, during the second phase. Consequently, the number of translations completed in the second phase dropped from a peak of 174 publications (translated books and newspapers) in the years 1882-88, to just 29 in the years 1889-96).  In fact the number of books and newspapers translated at the DTN decreased remarkably after the establishment of the censorship bureau. Being unable to control the materials printed outside Iran or outside the court, Naser al-Din Shah decided to check every single international parcel before it was delivered in Iran or sent abroad, fearing that they might contain something harmful to his throne. This was five years after the establishment of the bureau of censor in 1891 (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 218, 225).

7. Translators in and outside the DTN

The Constitutional Revolution that took place in 1905-1911 during the reign of Muzaffar al-Din Shah, Naser al-Din Shah’s son, is said to have had its roots in Naser al-Din Shah’s period, when the first generation of Monavvar al-fekran [enlightened thinkers], as they would call themselves, was formed as a result of the encounter between Iran and the West. This encounter happened when the first group of Iranian students, mostly sons of the nobility and the royal families, were sent to Europe to complete their education (Abrahamian 2008: 34-35; see also Adamiat 1978:14-17). This group of young intellectuals was formed against the old conservative establishment who abided by the traditions and fought jealously to keep the status quo. (Amanat 1997: 360-365; Adamiat, 1978: 13-17).

The intellectuals themselves can be divided into two groups: compliant and dissident, to use Chomsky’s terms (Gryspolakis 2016). Compliant intellectuals, like Etemad al-Saltane or Amin al-Dowleh (Naser al-Din Shah’s head of the post office) were those who worked within the government system and had an official position. Azarang (2016: 278) refers to the two groups of intellectuals as the “well-wishers of the government” and the “Degar-Andish”, literally “politically other”.

The two groups had two things in common: first, all except Amir Kabir were translators, either working within the court and/or the DTN or outside the court and/or Iran. The second was that both groups pursued a common goal: to introduce reforms in the political, economic and educational spheres which would result in the greater well-being and awareness of the people (Amanat 1997: 362-67; Abrahamian 2008: 34-35; Zahedi & Heidarpour 2008: 127).

 The difference between the two groups was in the way in which they tried to reach their goal: the compliant group indirectly pursued their goal by influencing the mind of the Shah, through translations for example, and did not aim for fundamental changes, while the dissident group stated clearly that fundamental changes needed to  be made.

Thus the compliant group did not directly oppose the Shah and did not express their reforming ideas explicitly. Instead, they tried to indirectly make the Shah aware of the consequences of the policies he adopted. Their survival depended on the survival of the government (See Sassani 1960: 181). In other words, even while insisting on reforms, the compliant group never wanted to change the identity of the kingdom or overthrow the Shah. For example Naser al-Din Shah’s first Premier and supposedly first compliant intellectual, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, without whose help and insight, Naser al-Din might not have been able to safely rise to the throne, and who was known for his reforming ideas, did not mean to reduce the “despotic power” inherent in the kingdom (Amanat, 1997: 131-132). He even once discouraged Naser al-Din Shah from ordering a translation of Malcolm's A History of Persia, because Malcom had predicted the fall of Qajar dynasty at the end of his second volume and Amir Kabir believed that reading such a book would be “fatally poisonous” to Iranians (Amanat, 1997: 130). Even so, Naser al-Din Shah did not hesitate to order his execution lest his plans for reform might restrain his power and authority (Amanat, 1997: 160). 

It seems that the intimidation caused by Amir Kabir’s execution, cowed the compliant intellectuals into following their policy of “influencing” the Shah rather than opposing him directly. For instance, Mirza Mohammad Hossein Foroughi, translator and manager at the DTN, confided to his son Mohammad Ali after Naser al-Din Shah’s death, that by writing an article in his newspaper Tarbiat [Discipline] – the first non-governmental newspaper – he was trying to “imply that the country needed law” (Foroughi, 1960: 66).  Mohammad Hossein Froughi was once the victim of the Shah’s intimidation and was forced into hiding for a week;  he was suspected of having written an article on a banned topic. But after a thorough inspection of all his works he was pardoned by the Shah (Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 856-62).

Etemad al-Saltane, was another compliant intellectual. He did not explicitly suggest any fundamental changes in the government because he was not immune from Naser al-Din Shah’s wrath either; as mentioned before, his seven-volume translation of French history was banned even after distribution (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 1191). Etemad al-Saltane strove to keep a balance between what the Shah approved and what he thought was good for the country. Since the Shah showed an interest in history books and biographies of kings, Etemad al-Saltaneh went out of his way to appease the Shah by translating a great number of history books. In addition to the books that were actually translated and published, he read 36 books to the Shah in the course of 14 years from 1881 to 1894. Of these, 34 books were on history, and 2 on science. On four occasions in his diary, Etemad al-Saltane explicitly states that he chose the books with the intention of opening the Shah’s eyes to the reality of the way he ruled (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 507, 773, 794, 411). On one occasion, in the entry dated 7 June, 1885, after four hours of reading Fredrick’s History to the Shah, he writes: “I spend more than 400 Tomans a year on books that are full of pieces of advice and admonition [for the Shah] but, alas, he does seem not to care at all” (1967: 411). However, based on his diary, it seems there were some cases where Etemad al-Saltaneh succeeded in influencing the Shah. For example in the entry dated 26 July, 1886, he writes: “Today I read A Graphic History of France to the Shah. The parts on Louis XV’s unrestrained revelry and invectives seemed to be a bit of admonition and a lesson to the Shah” (1967: 507). Four years later, in the entry dated 18 April, 1890, he writes: “I took the trouble to translate Madam Du Barry to admonish His majesty and make him understand what causes the fall of a monarchy; but, alas, it caused the opposite effect. The Shah approved of Louis XV’s wrongful deeds” (794).

The dissident group of intellectuals, on the other hand, wrote essays or letters to the Shah criticizing the conditions in Iran and offering solutions. Typically, they would make a comparison between the situation of Iran and that of the neighbouring countries such as Ottoman Turkey that had implemented a great project of reforms called “Tenzimat” (Adamiat 1978:26; See also Amin al-Dowleh 1962: 28; Sassani 1960: 181). They were mostly oppressed by Naser al-Din Shah, and had to live in exile, like Mirza Malkam Khan,[10] or were put into jail and tortured like Mustashar al-Dowleh. Other dissident intellectuals such as Mirza Abd al-Rahim Talebov, Mirza Habib Esfahani, Mirza Jaafar Qarachedaqi, Mirza Abd al-Hossein Aqa Khan Kermani and Zein al-Abedin Maraghei were all influential in mobilizing public opinion and the movement towards Constitutional Revolution (Azarang, 2015: 277-278; Azarang, 2016: 107-110). To give an idea of the way the dissident intellectuals acted, we will briefly look at two key figures: Malkam Khan and Mustashar al-Dowleh.

Malkam Khan was competent in English, French and Italian; formerly he was the Shah’s translator and interpreter and a professor and translator at Dar al-Fonun. After establishing the Freemasonry Society, he was deported from Iran but was pardoned by the Shah a year later and was appointed Iran’s consul in Egypt. Having lived in the Ottoman Empire for ten years, Malkam Khan became familiar with the reforms carried out there. Also, having lived in England for 16 years as minister plenipotentiary meant that he was acquainted with the parliamentary system and the ideas of political philosophers. He established a newspaper called Qanun [Law] which was also sent to Iran until it was banned by the order of Naser al-Din Shah (Azarang, 2015: 279). Malkam translated and wrote many books on politics including John Stewart Mill’s On Freedom, Ketabche-ye Politika-ye Dowlati [A booklet on State Politics], which is a translation of extracts from different European  books. He also wrote a book on reforms based on what he had learnt from the Tenzimat movement in the Ottoman Empire. 

Among the dissident intellectuals who were punished by the Shah for their translation activities, Mirza Yousef Khan Mustashar al Dowleh paid the highest price. He both wrote and translated; he knew several languages; he worked for the Foreign Ministry and was sent to Paris on a diplomatic mission. In Paris, he came into contact with new ideas and the result was the translation of a book called Yek Kalameh [One Word], first published in 1870, and reprinted in 1887 and 1907. The book was a partial adaptation of the French Constitution mixed with a translation of some chapters of the Napoleonic code. He had also incorporated certain Islamic laws in anticipation of possible objections put forth by the clergy. Yek Kalameh contains an introduction, 21 chapters and two announcements. The writer tries to analyze the reasons of Iran’s backwardness and to suggest ways of rejecting despotism and fighting against underdevelopment. He states that the secret for Iran’s development lies in one word: law. According to Vatandoost (2005: 349), he is believed to have got the idea of a “separation of powers” from Montesquieu whose books were not allowed to be translated at the DTN. Some time after the publication of the book, Mustashar al-Dowleh was arrested and put into jail. It is said that he was beaten about the head with his own book until he lost his sight; and since he had lost all his positions he died in poverty (Azarang, 2015: 281; See also Vatandoost, 2005; Haqiqat, 2008). However, this book is said to have had a great impact on the formation of the Constitutional Revolution and was used as a political guide in the secret meetings of the Constitutionalists. It was also used in the writing of the Constitution and later, in the Pahlavi era, it was a constant inspiration for the new judiciary system (Azarang, 2015: 281-282).

Since every step taken needed to be approved by the Shah, the reformists’ biggest obstacle was the Shah himself. When a new plan of reform was proposed to the Shah, he first showed an interest but then he would change his mind under the influence of the conservatives, who either opposed the whole plan or accepted  it with changes that would render it ineffective in the long run (Sassani, 1960: 181). Adamiat describes this initial phase of consensus and a later phase of drawback as “the struggling of the two opposing forces of reformists and conservatives” (1978: 13).

8. Discussion

Naser al-Din Shah’s reign was unique in various respects. He was the last traditional king and the first Iranian king to have to deal with international affairs. He was the first Iranian king to visit Europe. He was the most literate king of Iran. He also established many of other firsts: the first state ministries, the first official censorship bureau as well as other bureaus, the first telegraph, the first railway, the first factories, and the first comprehensive state translation institute (DTN); all thanks to contact with the West (See Etemad al-Saltane1995: 126-127). Thus his rule served as a bridge between traditional Persian rule and, to use Amanat’s term, the “monarchical absolutism in the modern sense” (1997: xiii-xiv).

Naser al-Din Shah’s despotism, in fact, found an additional impetus from outside, i.e. “Enlightened Absolutism”, also called “benevolent despotism”. It is, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

a form of government in the 18th century in which absolute monarchs pursued legal, social, and educational reforms inspired by the Enlightenment. […] They typically instituted administrative reform, religious toleration, and economic development but did not propose reforms that would undermine their sovereignty or disrupt the social order. (Britannica Encyclopedia)

The Enlightened Absolutists reached their aims by “implementing laws for the benefit of their people, funding education, and even encouraging production of arts and sciences. The idea was to benefit their subjects, but it was often done so according to the ruler’s belief and the ruler’s belief alone.” (Albert, 2016). Two key figures in the Enlightened Absolutism movement are Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. Frederick the Great was a true lover of French thought and philosophy, and did a great deal to modernize the Prussian state and improve the living conditions of his subjects. Catherine the Great of Russia also shared a deep belief in Enlightened Absolutism, but

[while] she was a patron of literature and a promoter of Russian culture she herself wrote, established literary reviews, encouraged the sciences, and founded schools, […] it cannot be denied that she was also egotistical, pretentious, and extremely domineering, above all a woman of action, capable of being ruthless when her own interest or that of the state was at stake. (Kuiper 2010: 125)

What was the lesson of enlightened absolutism for a king ruling not in Europe but in Iran? A king who frequently read, or was read to (he had 170 translated books in his library), the biographies of Fredrick the Great and Catherine the Great besides Peter the Great, Napoleon, Bismarck, and Charles XII, (See Etemad al-Saltane 1967: 411, 442, 1008). Naser al-Din Shah knew from his readings and travels abroad that he was ruling in an era that was quite different from that of his predecessors. As Amanat maintains, Naser al-Din Shah’s reign was “the beginning of monarchical absolutism in modern sense” (1997: 2-3). The reasons Amanat gives for this claim is the Shah’s “shrewd diplomacy” in “playing off rival European powers against each other” besides carrying out some “selective reforms”. To further increase his power, Amanat goes on to say, the Shah contained ministerial power by “shrewd weakening of traditional checks and balances” (1997: xiv).

While Iran and Europe were poles apart in terms of scientific, cultural, religious, economic and historical matters, (for example, the authority of a king with absolute power ordained by God was hardly challenged at the time in Iran [cf. Amanat 1997: xiii, xiv]), enlightened absolutism still had lessons for Naser al-Din Shah to learn. A biography of Naser al-Din Shah shows that he learned two important lessons from these two “great” rulers: how to project an image of benevolence by doing things in the interest of the people that could be done without jeopardizing the monarchical rule; and how to be ruthless in matters that involved the survival of the monarchical rule.

A study of the Shah’s reforms in various economic, scientific, social, religious and cultural spheres during his long reign shows how he adapted the policies of his favourite Prussian emperor and Russian empress to the context of Iran.[11] He did not copy the European model of despotism but borrowed the elements he thought would be useful to keep his throne and mixed those elements with what the traditional Persian kingdom had left him; that is, a God-like authority over his subjects. According to Scott (2002: 7), a significant element in enlightened absolutism was the “the acceptance by the monarch of a social contract, imposing obligations in return for the obedience and support derived from the population at large”. This was not crucial to Naser al-din Shah, for he already had people’s unconditional obedience as a legacy from oriental despotism without having to go under any contract.  

This made his kingdom an amalgam of paradoxes. Doing and undoing the reforms had become a feature of his rule. Both the national and international contexts plus the efforts of both compliant and dissident intellectuals made him first give in to some reforms and later give up those same reforms. For instance, while a government faced with social unrest due to food shortages may be expected to carry out some reforms, Naser al-Din Shah avoided any reform capable of empowering people (Amanat, 1997: 503; 516-517). Nonetheless, pressure from the West seemed to work better than internal unrests, forcing the Shah to introduce “laws”, a reform which eventually failed.

In a context where merely uttering the word “law” had serious consequences, the king’s order to introduce laws can seem paradoxical. However, under the pressure of Western governments (especially Britain and France) who had started “casting aspersions” on the Shah in their newspapers – something the Shah was very sensitive about – Naser al-Din Shah ordered his statesmen to write a set of laws in 1885, a year after he had established the bureau of censorship (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 118). This seemed to be a lesson he had learned from the enlightened absolutism, a gesture to show that he too cared for reform. But even Etemad al-Saltane regarded this as just a gesture for the Shah to enhamce his reputation and to show off as a fruit of his trip to Europe (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 771). This order of the Shah evidently had no practical results since four years later in 1889, when he came back from his third trip to Europe, he decided once again to have a set of laws written. It is noteworthy that this time too, European newspapers (mostly German and Russian) had “cast aspersions” on the Shah’s Premier Amin al-Sultan. At last, when a book of law was prepared by Amin al-Dowleh, it was never enforced, for the conservatives, including Amin al-Sultan himself, were not happy with the project. (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 769-773; see also Amanat, 1997:466, 480). The pressure from the conservatives was so intense that Abbas Mirza Molk Ara, who was in charge of writing the new laws on the model of the laws of European countries, gave up the task, saying that he could not write a book of laws in a situation where every single line had to be deleted upon the request of one of the conservative courtiers (Malekzadeh, 1984: 94; See also Amin al-Dowleh, 1962: 143).

It was the king’s habit to first welcome any reform and then oppose it once he realized it would threaten his throne. The DTN too faced a similar destiny. Two years after he ordered the institution to expand, Naser al-Din Shah realized the significance of translation and the threat it could pose to his throne. Before the establishment of the censorship bureau, the Shah himself filtered every translation, but now the bureau of censorship monitored all translated material. This resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of translations (see section 7 above). As the Shah became increasingly paranoid, he imposed stricter restrictions on the translated material. Naser al-Din Shah also became increasingly reluctant to cover the costs of the DTN.  In reply to Etemad al-Saltane’s request for funds for the DTN in 1885 (the same year the censorship bureau was established), the Shad replied that his (infrequent) tips to the translators would suffice: “Last year I gave some tips, why should I pay the costs as well?” (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 395). It seems that in the years that followed, Naser al-Din Shah continued to only give tips to the translators, for Etemad al-Saltane, eight years later mentions in his diary that each year he spends 1000 Tomans out of his own pocket to keep the DTN going (1967: 963).

In the cultural sphere, the establishment of the DTN may be regarded as a means of propaganda, an act that would help create the image of a learned Shah. In reality, there is no evidence to show that Naser al-Din Shah was interested in or motivated by enlightened ideas such as rationalism, reliance on science rather than religion, freedom, tolerance, progress, liberal governance, etc. This can be shown by the books that were not translated at the DTN and the ones translated outside the DTN: the ideas of revolutionary thinkers such as Voltaire, Descartes, Montesquieu, Spinoza that had swept through Europe at the time, were not translated during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah at the DTN (Delzendehrooy & Khazaeefar, 2017: 37-38). This was while Japan and Turkey had already brought western knowledge into their countries through a systematic translation project (See Saito 2015: 2; Berk 2006: 20; Tahir 2008: 68; Czygan 2008: 43).

An examination of the books translated outside the DTN shows that the concepts and topics that had no chance of being translated at the DTN, were translated either anonymously by DTN translators or by translators (dissident intellectuals) outside the DTN. Some examples are Etemad al-Saltane’s translation of Sophie Ségur’s Mémoires d'un Âne, which he adapted to the Iranian context to indirectly criticize the Shah’s Premiere, Amin al-Sultan. The book was published anonymously in 1887 and was banned on the Shah’s order when he found out that it was a criticism of his Premiere (Minavi, 2003: 46). This was the same year in which Naser al-Din Shah confided to Etemad al-Saltane that he preferred the Iranian people to stay ignorant (1967: 597). Etemad al-Saltane also wrote a story named Khalse/Khabname [Ecstasy/ Dream Letter] in which he recounts his dream in a state of wakefulness and sleep where he had criticized and judged eleven main characters of the Qajar. Malkam Khan also wrote/translated about 13 essays and books outside court discussing topics such as law, freedom, democracy, despotism and its effects on the emigration of intellectuals.[12] The same concepts were also translated and written about by Abd al-Rahim Talebov inspired by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Talebov’s book Ahmad, published in three volumes in Istanbul in 1893, was influential on the movements that culminated in the Constitutional Revolution (Azarang, 2015: 281; see also Nabavi Razavi, 2012: 333).

8.1. The effects of Naser al-Din Shah’s legacy on translation and publication 

What Naser al-Din Shah did with regard to translation and publishing industry and the way the intellectuals reacted against his deeds had long-lasting effects on translation and publishing in Iran. The same pattern seems to have been repeated in the era of the successors to the Qajars. Reza Khan Pahlavi (who reigned 1894–1921), after ascending the throne, passed a law in 1921 called “Code for Monitoring Publications” and also “The Penal Code for Propagandists against Independence and Security of the State” in 1931, whereby he censored and monitored whatever he felt to be a threat to his throne. Along the same lines, Reza Shah required the “Intelligence Office” to monitor books which were published in Iran or sent to Iran from abroad (Rajabi, 2009: 41). Reza Shah’s strict policies led to a low rate of translation. The few books that were translated in this era were popular literature that had a clear entertainment purpose. (Azarang, 2012: 152). At the time of Pahlavi II (who reigned 1941-1979), all printing houses were required to submit their manuscripts to “The Bureau of Composition” before publication. This was a department in the Ministry of Culture whose duty was to read any manuscript and issue a letter of approval for publication  (Rajabi, 2009: 47; see also Karimi-Hakkak, 1985: 191-192). To exert a stricter control over the printed material, Mohammad Reza Shah, passed a bill in 1963 which required the “Domestic Security and Intelligence Service” (SAVAK) to censor books (Rajabi, 2009: 48). This new policy resulted in a dramatic decline of the publication rate with a long black list of banned books. SAVAK was particularly sensitive about Russian literature and anyone having, for example, Maxim Gorki’s Mother would end up in jail. Moreover, the works of authors such as Jack London, Bertolt Brecht and, especially, Jean Paul Sartre were banned. Mohammad Reza Shah is quoted to have said: “Tell Mr Sartre to mind his own business […]” (Delannoy, 1992: 139-140). However this did not hinder the secret distribution of such books.

9. Conclusion

From our description of the DTN, it follows that translation and despotism were strongly connected in Iran; the growth of one fostered or hindered the other. As we observed above, as Naser al-Din Shah became more and more despotic, fewer and fewer translations were authorized and published at the DTN, but the publication of translations outside the DTN increased. Naser al-Din Shah’s  government, being despotic in nature, was not expected to establish a comprehensive state translation institution;  however, being familiar with the strategies used by certain European kings,  he applied a new kind of despotism which borrowed some elements from oriental despotism such the God-like authority and some elements from  the “enlightened absolutism”, such as advocating art and literature

In the same way that the DTN and the Censorship Bureau at the time of Naser al-Din Shah paved the way for the translation of books containing enlightening ideas, and thus leading to the Constitutional Revolution, during the Pahlavi era the Intelligence Office as well as the Bureau of Composition and finally SAVAK inadvertently fostered the clandestine translation and publication of banned books leading to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Since the Islamic Revolution, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has been responsible “for restricting access to any media that violates Islamic ethics or promotes values alien to the Iranian Revolution”. Any book to be translated and published must apply for approval from this ministry.

The relationship between translation and despotism is a complicated one. It should not be taken for granted that stricter controls on the part of a despotic government will necessarily have the desired effect. The DTN has provided a case in point. The despotic Naser al-Din Shah hindered translation but paradoxically fostered the clandestine publication of translated books thus contributing to the circumstances which brought about the Constitutional Revolution.


This paper has benefited enormously from the insightful comments of the anonymous reviewers and of Prof. Christopher Rundle.


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[1] Both Tarikh-e- Louie 14 [The History of Louis XIV] and Sharh-e Hal-e Louie 14 [The Biography of Louis XIV] were read by Naser al-Din Shah (Etemad al-Saltane, 1967: 824-867, 636).

[2]  Iranian historian, thanks to whose efforts Etemad al-Saltane’s diary as well as many other historical documents have been published and studied in Iran.

[3]Naser al-Din Shah’s anger and hostility towards the West went so far as to wish them death. On October 4, 1891, as Etemad al-Saltane noted in his diary, the Shah and Etemad al-Saltane were sitting together talking. The Shah showed a picture he had drawn of a mountain to Etemad al-Saltane saying in jest: “I am going to build a high wall in this mountain; when the European heads come to visit this wall I make each pay a lot of money. But since the mountain is hard to climb, hopefully, they will all fall down and die. This way I will take both the money and lives of the most important of them”. Etemad al-Saltane (1967: 886)

[4] National Library official site; Library, Museum and Document Centre of Iran Parliament Library site; Persian manuscript Catalogue (Fankha) 42 volumes; Iran Manuscripts (Dena); The Catalogue of Farsi Manuscripts; Catalogue of Persianized Printed Books from the beginning up to 1992 by Naji Nasr-Abadi.

[5] A manuscript in which the text is supplemented with such decoration as initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations. In the strictest definition, the term refers only to manuscripts decorated with gold or silver.

[6] The original book is Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras by Jules Verne

[7] This, along with a sword, was the emblem of Iran’s flag at the time

[8] 1 Toman was almost equal to 2$ at that time.

[9] The scanned version of this book is available at Iran National Library (http://www.nlai.ir)

[10] After Naser al-Din Shah’s death, Malkam Khan was removed from the Shah’s blacklist and appointed Iran’s ambassador to Italy. 

[11] In the fourth section of Al-Ma’ser va Al-‘Asar, Etemad al-Salatne describes the reforming acts of Naser al-Din Shah in his 40 year rule, such as establishing ministries, bureaus, telegraph, railways telephone and electricity, different factories, etc., which he considered to be the result of relations with foreign countries (Etemad al-Saltane 1989: 126-27). However some of these reforms, especially the establishment of different ministries and councils, were largely ineffective due the despotic nature of the government. One of these councils was Dar al-Showra-ye Kobra [The Grand House of Council] which consisted of six ministers whose task was to consult with each other the important issues of the government. They were supposed to act independently of the government but since whatever decisions they took, had to be approved by the Shah, they tended to only make decisions that they thought would be approved by the Shah (Mahboubi Ardakani 1989 712-13). This was a clear example of enlightened absolutism. Therefore the establishment of all these ministries and bureaus, including Naseri House of Translation, was justified as long as they caused limited reforms within the framework of the government helping its survival.

[12] Some of these books and essays are: Freedom (a translation of Mirabeau’s ideas), The Secret Booklet (on law), The Military Order and the Reform Parliament, A handbook of Law, The Benefits of Freedom (Mill’s translation), A Call for Justice.

About the author(s)

Somaye Delzendehrooy got her BA in English translation from Shahid Bahonar University of Kerman, Iran in 2004 and her MA in the same field from Esfahan University, Iran in 2006. She has been working as a faculty member at the Department of Linguistics and Translation Studies, Vali-e-Asr University of Rafsanjan since 2007. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. Her academic interests include translation history and practice.
Ali Khazaee Farid is associate professor of translation studies at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran. Dr. Khazaee Farid has been the founder and editor of the quarterly Motarjem (The Translator) published since 1993. His major interests are the practice and theory of literary translation.

Masood Khoshsaligheh is associate professor in translation studies and head of Department of English at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. He is also chief editor of the Iranian journal, Language and Translation Studies, and director of English Center at FUM College.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Somaye Delzendehrooy, Ali Khazaee Farid and Masood Khoshsaligheh (2019).
"Despotism and Translation in Iran The Case of Naseri House of Translation as the First State Translation Institution"
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inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
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tam multa ut puta genera linguarum sunt in mundo et nihil sine voce est
1 Cor 14, 10.

The aim of this special multidisciplinary issue of Intralinea is to take a close look at the circulation of European Renaissance texts between Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Recent studies have begun to shift attention to the vast historic and cultural significance of translation in early modern Europe, with the aim of balancing the traditional tendency of looking at translated texts from a solely linguistic or literary perspective (Burke, Po-Chia Hsia 2007).  The last twenty years have seen the rise of a new interest in the practices and theories of early modern translation (Hermans 1996; Bistué 2013), the role of cultural mediators played by translators and printers (Höfele-Von Koppenfels 2005), the innovative function of translated works with regard to specific aspects of culture in the early modern period (Di Biase 2006; Scarsi 2010) and in the history of print culture, including translated books (Barker-Hosington 2013). The improvement of technologies for online and data-base cataloguing (see for instance the Renaissance Cultural Crossroads Catalogue[1]), together with the possibility of directly accessing digitized primary sources, have opened up new avenues of exploration, which have so far produced interesting results that are mostly limited to individual authors[2].

This issue hopes to add to this evolving debate by outlining the field of inquiry, in the interests of looking at a well-defined phenomenon in terms of space and time: textual relationships, that is, between Italy, the Netherlands, the British Isles and the Scandinavian countries in the early modern age. In effect, the early modern translation practices in these regions had a similar aim to contribute to the linguistic and cultural enrichment of the vernaculars, which were seeking to establish a primary role for themselves in the emerging process of construction of national identities, in dialogue and confrontation with the prestigious models of Latin, Italian, and French culture. The essays presented here thus connect different early modern European cultures and assess common and distinctive traits among them, also illustrating overarching practices and trends: the presence and role of mediators, translators, printers, authors of paratexts are investigated alongside the actual translation processes, including imitation, reworking, rewriting, and adaptation. Historical, intercultural and literary perspectives have been variously adopted to evaluate the impact of content, style and vocabulary on target cultures, as well as the wider dynamics of textual adaptation and translation strategy.

As may be expected, contact with Italian culture plays a special role in the regions focused upon. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, hundreds of Italian texts were translated into English alone, dealing with narrative, theatrical, religious, theological, scientific, and artistic subjects, as well as grammar-books, travel narratives, historical, political, moral treatises, and etiquette manuals; and the flow of translated Italian works into the Dutch Republic is equally astounding. The Dano-Norwegian kingdom, which shares important features with the English context, such as the advent of the Reformation, the consolidation of the monarchy and the growing book market, is also seen gradually abandoning Latin in favour of original works and translations in the vernacular.

The Dano-Norwegian kingdom was very receptive towards the Italian Renaissance, and Denmark in particular was marked by a decided Italophilia, a fascination that included the rise of Italian as a privileged language at court, as testified for example by the influential presence in the late sixteenth century of Giacomo Castelvetro, an Italian protestant who played a fundamental role in mediating Italian language and culture both in England and in Denmark as a professional editor. The Italian model in Danish culture and court life in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is precisely the focus of Anders Toftgaard’s essay, which opens this collection: Toftgaard looks into two early Renaissance literary translations by the eminent humanist Anders Sørensen Vedel, the first produced in 1577 and dealing with Petrarca’s penitential psalms in Latin, the second (1593) proposing a version of Sannazaro’s love sonnet “O vita, vita no, ma vivo affanno”, in which the target text acquires a religious import which resonates more fully with the Lutheran context.

Within the same regional area, Anna Maria Segala’s essay focuses on a Danish translation of Machiavelli’s tale Belfagor (1549), dated approximately 1660. The paratextual materials as well as the translation itself provide insight into the reception of the source text: what emerges is that Machiavelli’s historical relevance was acknowledged within learned circles in spite of the official censorship of his main work, The Prince; on the other hand, the emphasis in Belfagor on the popular topic of marital quarrels was in tune with a widespread misogynous attitude, which probably lent it a certain commercial appeal and might explain the cheap format of the print.

While the Dano-Norwegian kingdom showed great interest in the Italian Renaissance, in Sweden Italian humanism did not take root until the eighteenth century. Paolo Marelli deals with the cultural climate in which the first Swedish – indeed Nordic – translation of Machiavelli’s Prince was published in 1757 by Carl von Klingenberg, together with the translation of its confutation, The Anti-Machiavel by Frederik II of Prussia.  This essay examines the contradictory circumstances in which Machiavelli’s text, albeit carefully mediated, and deprived of its dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici (and therefore of the Italian historical context), was considered necessary reading for the future king Gustavus III. Klingenberg’s translation was certainly an elitist enterprise, but it was intended at the same time to reach a wider reading public, favoured once again by the rapid growth of the book market.

Diversity in genres and approaches characterizes the articles dealing in this collection with the open, uncensored world of cultural transfer through translation and adaptation in the Dutch Republic. ‘It soon becomes clear to anyone who spends some time reading around in the discourse on translation in the Dutch Renaissance’, writes Theo Hermans ‘that, despite its fragmentary nature, there are patterns and traditions in it, central issues and international echoes, synchronic oppositions and diachronic shifts’ (Hermans 1991: 155). In the wake of this emphasis on the necessity of taking both the poetics and the socio-cultural contexts of translation into account, the picture offered by the essays in this issue devoted to the Dutch area reflects the rich landscape of cultural appropriation in the period. The Dutch texts discussed, considered within the context of the well-established printing activity of the mid-seventeenth century Netherlands, testify to the rising profile of translators and other mediators, who began to discuss choices and positions in a more self-asserting manner.  

Machiavelli features prominently in the Dutch area as well, as Francesca Terrenato’s analysis shows. Terrenato reads Machiavelli’s novella Belfagor against the background of popular misogynist literature which gave rise in France, England and the Netherlands to the debate known as ‘querelle des femmes’. Machiavelli’s tale, appearing in a miscellaneous chapbook, integrates the anti-uxorial theme with a strong anti-absolutist strain and a polemical vein against the clergy, a particularly appealing combination for Dutch readers. The texts also represent an interesting case of ‘middle style’ in Dutch prose, which had been developed over the period with the help of translations from such Italian classics as the Decameron.

The theatre is also a powerful catalyst of cultural and social debate in the Dutch Golden Age. As Marco Prandoni points out, the repertoire of the Amsterdam Theatre (Amsterdamse Schouwburg, founded in 1637) consisted in a great deal of translations and adaptations of foreign plays, both classic and contemporary. His essay focuses on a topical debate for and against translation for the stage which broke out between ca. 1665 and 1680, as well as on the cultural and social implications of this struggle in which translation was foregrounded.

Another centrally important cultural phenomenon characterizing the age, that is the rise of the experimental method and the dissemination of scientific knowledge throughout early modern Europe, is the subject of Leen Spruit’s essay, which specifically deals with scientific exchange among Italy, the Dutch Republic, and England, the cradle of Newtonianism.  The circulation of the works of such Dutch scientists as Willem’s Gravesande and Petrus van Musschenbroek is particularly revealing when considered in the light of the controversies provoked by the spread of Newtonian science and philosophy around the turn of the century. It is through their handbooks that a more accessible version of Newtonianism was able to reach Italy: such an example is only one of many which point to unexpected trajectories of knowledge in the European cultural space of the early modern period.

The Dutch section closes by introducing yet another strand of cultural transfer, that is the dissemination of foreign news in England: principally European in content, news coming from the Dutch Republic was in high demand, and Nicholas Brownlees’s essay examines both the significance of this crucial transit of news discourse and the translation strategies adopted in the English-language corantos and pamphlets published between 1600 and 1630.

The three essays which make up the final section of the issue are devoted to the circulation of texts between Italy and the British Isles, and further elaborate on a number of far-reaching cultural and ideological questions underpinning early modern European culture. Iolanda Plescia takes into consideration the emergence of a new linguistic culture at the end of the seventeenth century in England, when the experimental scientific method posed the question of linguistic standardization more strongly than ever before, in a quest for a clear, less ambiguous language capable of scientific expression. Within this context, the essay focuses on the entry points of Galilean and post-Galilean thought into England, in particular Richard Waller’s English translation of the experiments of the Accademia del Cimento, showing how the English vernacular was undergoing both a process of emulation and emancipation from the Italian models.

Brenda Hosington reconsiders the role of translation in promoting and spreading texts belonging to the querelle des femmes, from its appearance in late fifteenth-century France to its later status as a transnational European cultural phenomenon. She investigates the ways in which such texts were inevitably re-worked and usually domesticated during their transit, discussing in detail the paths by means of which translations moved across boundaries – undergoing transformations both through paratextual and material changes – and focusing in particular on nine querelle-related Italian texts that made their way to England in the period 1579-1615.

The third essay in this section proposes to reconsider political issues which were particularly relevant in light of the role and power of monarchy in early modern Europe: the study of political theory coincided with the royal exercise of power itself and the writings of a Renaissance sovereign were privileged objects of translation, to be used also as propaganda. Donatella Montini’s essay focuses on King James VI and I’s Basilikon Doron and its translation in Italian by John Florio, well known as one of the most outstanding interpreters of Italian humanistic culture in Elizabethan England. The essay argues that Florio’s translation worked as both linguistic exercise and a meditation on politics, and tries to establish some measure of the influence exercised by a major player of Italian culture in Elizabethan England on the political lexicon of the country.

The issue is closed by the afterword by Guyda Armstrong, in which she offers both a stimulating response to all of the essays collected here, and a challenge for the future, positing the need for a more marked ‘spatial turn’ in translation studies: in such an approach ‘relationality and connectedness’ are privileged ‘over simple geographic connection’, and space, as well as place, are defined in terms of flow and dynamics rather than as mere points on a map. Armstrong revisits the question of geographical textual transits by also raising the issue of possible future methodological developments at a time, such as ours, when new GIS tools and technologies are rapidly becoming available, arguing for the importance of ‘an awareness of the potential of a place-based, multiscalar early modern translation studies’.    

Indeed, although for the sake of clarity the essays are grouped here according to their regional identity, the authors collectively show how fruitful it is to look at the circulation of these texts from a perspective in which common themes and social issues emerge in a largely interconnected transnational corpus, hosting translations and remediations besides original contributions. The controversy on women, the debate on the relationship between monarchy and the common weal, the rise of experimental science, the emerging construction of public opinion: all of the most important debates of the day emerge in the cultural mediators’ selection and disposition of texts to be translated and disseminated across the early European landscape. Taken together, the essays included in this issue add to the known picture of early modern textual circulation, not only by revisiting the classics but also by taking into account less studied works which clearly responded either in form or content to particular needs expressed by the target cultures in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The thriving book industry in Northern Europe contributed to the formation of a borderless space in which diverse texts, from the domain of science to that of politics, from news to history, from plays to novellas, were appropriated and shared by different cultures.


Barker Sara K., and Brenda M. Hosington (2013) Renaissance Cultural Crossroads: Translation, Print and Culture in Britain, Leiden, Brill.

Belén Bistué  (2013) Collaborative Translation and Multi-Version Texts in Early Modern Europe. Transculturalisms, 1400-1700, Farnham, Ashgate.

Burke Peter, and Ronnie Po-chia Hsia (eds) (2007), Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Di Biase, Carmine (ed.) (2006) Travel and Translation in the Early Modern Period, Amsterdam & New York, Rodopi.

Hermans, Theo (1991) “Translating ‘rhetorijckelijck’ or ‘ghetrouwelijck’: Dutch Renaissance approaches to translation” in Standing Clear: a Festschrift for Reinder P. Meijer, J. Fenoulhet and T. Hermans (eds.), London, Centre for Low Countries Studies: 151-72.

Hermans, Theo (1996) Door eenen engen hals. Nederlandse beschouwingen over vertalen 1550-1670, Den Haag, Stichting Bibliographia Neerlandica.

Höfele Andreas, and Werner Von Koppenfels (eds) (2005) Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange In Early Modern Europe, Berlin, De Gruyter.

Scarsi, Selene (2010) Translating Women in Early Modern England, Farnham, Ashgate.


[2] See for example the work done on translations of Machiavelli in Europe on www.hypermachiavellism.net.

About the author(s)

Donatella Montini is Associate Professor of English Language and Translation at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. She has published on Queen Elizabeth I’s political speeches and is the author of a study on Elizabeth I and Shakespeare (I discorsi dei re. Retorica e politica in Elisabetta I e in Henry V di W. Shakespeare, 1999). Other research interests include Renaissance language teaching and translation, eighteenth century letter-writing practices, and stylistic textual analysis. She has recently co- edited (with Iolanda Plescia) for Palgrave Macmillan, Elizabeth I in Writing. Language, Power and Representation in Early Modern England (2018).

Iolanda Plescia teaches English Language and Translation in the Department of European, American and Intercultural Studies of Sapienza University of Rome. Her most recent publications deal with historical linguistics and Early Modern and Shakespearean English, the history of translation and literary translation. As a translator herself, she has published the first Italian edition of Henry VIII’s Letters to Anne Boleyn (Nutrimenti, 2013), and two new Shakespeare editions with Feltrinelli, Troilus and Cressida (2015) and The Taming of the Shrew (2019).

Anna Maria Segala, former full professor of Nordic languages and literature at Sapienza, Università di Roma, has published various articles on the major Scandinavian writers, among which Andersen, Blixen and Strindberg. She has translated works by Andersen (Metalsvinet, Annali Istituto Orientale X, Napoli 1967), Strindberg (Ensam, Mondadori, Milano 1991) Kierkegaard (Stadier paa Livets Vej, Første del, Rizzoli, Milano 1993: SE, Milano 2017). Her publications regarding cross-cultural influence are Odin Teatret tra Italia e Danimarca, in L’Italia in Europa. Italia e Danimarca in Analecta Romana Istituti Danici, Roma 2013, and Paesi scandinavi, an assessment of the first reception of Machiavelli’s Principe, in Enciclopedia Machiavelliana, 2014.

Francesca Terrenato is Associate Professor of Dutch Language and Literature at Sapienza, University of Rome. Her research interests include: cultural transfer and translation especially with regard to Italy and the Netherlands in the Early Modern period, gender issues in Renaissance, modern and contemporary Dutch literature, Afrikaans literature. She has published a study on artists’ biographies in the Renaissance, an anthology (in collaboration with Anna Maria Segala) of contemporary migrant women writers from the Netherlands and the Scadinavian countries, and she recently edited and translated a collection of Afrikaans poetry by Ronelda Kamfer.

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©inTRAlinea & Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato (2019).
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2351

From Lutheran penitence to pastoral court culture

The use of Danish translations of Italian literature in 16th and 17th century Denmark

By Anders Toftgaard (Royal Danish Library, Denmark)

Abstract & Keywords

Translations into Danish of Italian texts began on a large scale in the 18th century, when Italian opera libretti were translated into Danish. Several pages of the Danish National Bibliography are thus devoted to Italian plays translated into Danish (Bruun 1877-1902, vol. 4: 415-427). However, even before the 18th century Italian texts had been translated into Danish, whether in print or manuscript. At the time of Christian IV (1577-1648) Italian language and literature were held in high esteem (Toftgaard 2014 and 2016), and the desire for Italian culture continued during the reign of Frederic III (born 1609, King of Denmark and Norway 1648-1670). The purpose of this article is to inquire into the role of the Italian language in Denmark and its connection with Danish translations of Italian literature in the 16th and 17th centuries. Two very different translations of 16th century Italian authors will be analysed, in order to answer the underlying question of how translations of Italian literature were used in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Keywords: Italian language, Italian literature, Italo-Danish relations, Christian IV, early modern translation, translation from Italian into Danish, Danish court

©inTRAlinea & Anders Toftgaard (2019).
"From Lutheran penitence to pastoral court culture The use of Danish translations of Italian literature in 16th and 17th century Denmark"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2366

Petrarch, Petrarchism and penitence

Among the three great Trecento authors, Dante was not translated into Danish before the 19th century (Lausten & Toftgaard 2016), while minor parts of the works of both Boccaccio and Petrarch had already been translated indirectly or directly in the second half of the 16th century.

Four leaves from a book containing short stories drawn from the Decameron have survived (LN 1066 – the bibliographical number LN referring to the bibliography of Danish 15th and 16th century printed books: Nielsen 1931-33). The 4 leaves contain parts of novellas IX, 5; VIII, 8; and VIII, 2. The book was believed to be a fragment of a partial Danish translation of Decameron, but in 1923 Robert Paulli showed that it was in reality part of a translation of Rastbüchlein by the German author Michael Lindener (1520-1562), who had used novellas from the Decameron in his book (Paulli 1923). A chapbook was also published containing the story of Griselda, the joint enterprise of Boccaccio and Petrarch: Griseldis, Tuende deylige oc Nyttelige Historier at læse. Den første om Griseldis. Den Anden om en Doctors Daater aff Bononia, Lybeck: Prentet ... hos Asswerus Krøger 1592 (see Olsen 2007).

It was the priest, historian, author, translator and publisher Anders Sørensen Vedel (1542-1616) who introduced Petrarch to a Danish reading audience. In 1577 – the year that Christian IV was born – Vedel published a translation of Petrarch’s seven penitential psalms written in Latin, Septem psalmi penitentiales, which was published again in 1593. There are two existing copies of this book; one in the library of Ribe Cathedral School, and one in the National Library in Oslo. The Ribe copy has been described by Kinck (1854), Haar (1924), Nielsen (1925 & 1931-33), and the Oslo copy by Tunold (1963). The translation is quoted extensively in Sørensen (2004). The title page of the 1577 edition has been lost, though the book’s title was probably identical to that of the 1593 edition. The 1593 edition was printed along with an interpretation of Psalm 51, most probably a translation of an interpretation by the Florentine monk Savonarola, some of whose sermons and bible interpretations were translated into Danish in the 16th century. The remarkable title of the translation of Petrarch is worth quoting in full:

Siu Gudelige Penitentze Psalmer, som ere skreffne aff den høylærde oc naffnkundige Francisco Petrarcha Florentino, mere end for tu hundrede Aar forleden, mit vdi Paffuedommet.

[Seven Godly Penitential Psalms written by the most learned and renowned Francisco Petrarcha Florentino more than two hundred years ago, in the middle of the Papal Lands].

Nielsen (2004: 52) states that the translation could have been done from either Latin or Italian, though there is no reason to believe that the translation was not done from Latin, the original language, which Vedel had mastered to perfection (see Mortensen 1995).

In the preface to the 1577 edition (the preface was replaced by another in the 1593 edition) Anders Sørensen Vedel elaborates on the fact that Petrarch wrote piously while living in the Papal Lands. With examples from the Old and the New Testament, he states that Satan has never been able to fully eradicate the true word. There has always been a ‘holy Christian Church, the communion of saints’. The same holds true under the Papacy:

Det samme haffuer ocsaa ladet sig ansee vnder Paffvedømmet, vdi den store Forblindelse oc Mørckhed , som vore Forfædre haffue veret vdi, vnder den Romske Antichristen. (quoted in Kinck 1854: 213)

[The same has been the case under the Papacy, during the great infatuation and darkness in which our ancestors lived under the Roman Antichrist.]

The last part of the sentence, with its Lutheran resentment against the pope, echoes the title of the first book published by Anders Sørensen Vedel, a history of the popes: Antichristus Romanus. Romske Paffuers leffnede oc gerninger, fra Apostlers tid indtil dette 1571 Aar, [Antichristus Romanus. The lives and deeds of the Roman Popes from the time of the Apostles to this year 1571], Copenhagen, Matz Wingaardt, 1571 (LN 1609).

Vedel states that God has preserved some pious Christians even under Papal rule, and Petrarch is one of them:

Iblant andre gudfryetige Christne, sum Gud haffuer beuaret sig vnder Paffuedommet, haffuer ocsaa veret denne herlige oc naffnkundige Mand Franciscus Petrarcha. (Kinck 1854: 213)

[Among the other god-fearing Christians, whom God has kept under Papal rule, was also this wonderful and renowned man Franciscus Petrarcha.]

According to Vedel, the seven penitential psalms testify to the fact that Petrarch’s faith and confession were very different from what the monks and clergymen taught at his time:

disse siu Psalmer, som klarligen vidne om hans Tro oc Bekiendelse. at den haffuer veret langt anderledis, end som Munckene oc Papistiske Preste haffue lærdt oc predicket den tid. (Kinck 1854: 213)

[these seven Psalms, which clearly bear witness to his faith and confession, showing that it was far different from what the Monks and Papistic priests taught and preached at that time, our translation.]

In the preface to his translation of the penitential psalms, Vedel further explained that he had made the translation at the instigation of the late Hans Philipsen Pratensis (1543-1576), who had died the previous year (Aggebo 1938). The doctor and professor of medicine, Hans Philipsen Pratensis/Johannes Pratensis (1543-1576) was the son of Philippe du Pré (Philippus Pratensis, ca. 1465-1567) from Rouen who had come to Denmark with Christian II’s wife Elisabeth; he was a close friend of both Anders Sørensen Vedel, the Paracelsian Petrus Severinus (Peder Sørensen, 1542-1602), and Tycho Brahe (1546-1601).

Pratensis travelled with Peder Sørensen around Europe for six years 1566-1571, and they both studied medicine in Padua. As a 20-year old student, Johannes Pratensis published a pastoral poem in Latin, written for the wedding of Hans Thomesen (1532-1573, priest and later editor of the first official Danish psalm book): Johannis Pratensis Arrhusii Daphnis. Copenhagen: Lorens Benedict, 1563 (LN 1342). The pastoral was inspired by Erasmus Laetus’ (1526-1582) Bucolica, Wittenberg, 1560 (LN 664) (see Friis-Jensen 1987 and Zeeberg 2008). Johannes Pratensis is today best known as Tycho Brahe’s friend, who urged him to make known his observations on the new star and who supervised their publication in De nova et nullius ævi memoria prius visa stella jam pridem Anno a nato Christo 1572 mense Novembr. primum conspecta, contemplatio mathematica (Copenhagen, Lorentz Benedict, 1573 (LN 429)) – to which Anders Sørensen Vedel contributed with a poem in honor of Brahe. After the death of Johannes Pratensis, Brahe published an epitaph in his honor: Epitaphium clarissimo et omnigena eruditione virtuteque ornatissimo viro D. Johanni Pratensi Aarusiensi Medicinæ Paracelsicæ et Galenicæ Doctori excellentissimo ob ingenitam naturæ bonitatem […]: Obiit Anno 1576 Uraniburgi, 1584 (LN 431, cf. Brahe 1913-29: 176-177).

Vedel states that Hans Philipsen Pratensis had urged him to translate the psalms, and that afterwards other friends had asked him to make the translation available to them.

Anders Sørensen Vedel was also the first Dane to quote and translate an Italian Renaissance Petrarchan poet. In a collection of sermons, Den XC. Psalme, Mose Guds Mands Bøn, met en kaart Vdleggelse, forfattet vdi ni Predickener (Ribe: 1593) (LN 1618) (see Nielsen 1923: 144 and Brix 1924: 81-82), Anders Sørensen Vedel quoted the first part of a poem by Jacopo Sannazaro (ca. 1456-1530) and gave it a new content in his rendering.

According to the preface, Anders Sørensen Vedel delivered the sermons while he was a preacher at the Royal Court. It should be mentioned that there are two different issues of the book, though the second issue is identical apart from a new preface (see Brix 1924).

All nine sermons in the book interpret Psalm 90, the psalm attributed to Moses and dear to Martin Luther. Luther had lectured at the university on this psalm in 1534/35 and his interpretation was published in 1541 (cf. Luther 1541 and Luther 1930), and in the preface to the first issue Vedel mentions Martin Luther (f. A6v).

In the very beginning of the book, after a dedication, psalm 90 is shown in full (16 lines) in the Danish translation from Christian III’s Bible (1550). Each of the nine sermons that follow takes as a point of departure a new verse of psalm 90. The interpretations are loaded with citations of classical and modern authors. Thus, Anders Sørensen Vedel quotes Lucretius (referring to him as den Hedenske poet, ‘the pagan poet’), Ovid, Persius, Aesop, Horace and the French author Robert Gauguin (1433-1501).

In the seventh of the nine sermons, Vedel interprets the second part of verse ten and all of verse eleven of Psalm 90, speaking of the nullity of worldly existence and the wrath of God. In the Vulgate, where the psalm is numbered 89, lines 10 and 11 read:

[dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni si autem in potentatibus octoginta anni] et amplius eorum labor et dolor quoniam supervenit mansuetudo et corripiemur / quis novit potestatem irae tuae et prae timore tuo iram tuam.

Vedel renders the lines of the Psalm with this translation from Christian III’s Bible (1550):

Og naar det var kosteligt, var det Arbeid og Møie og det flyver bort; hvo troer, at du er vred og frygter for din Grumhed

[And even if it was precious, it was labour and sorrow, and it flies away; who believes that you are angry and fears your ferocity?]

In his interpretation of these lines, Vedel quotes the sonnet ‘O vita, vita no, ma vivo affanno’ by Jacopo Sannazaro (first published in 1530 [Sannazaro 1961: 149][1] and made famous by the musical rendering by Ruffo), with what would seem to be his own Danish translation. A printed marginal note says ‘En italiensk Dict’ [An Italian poem]. In the introduction to the poem, Vedel explains that he himself has had the poem explained to him by ‘den høylærde og meget fromme Mand, Doctor Johannes Philippus Pratensis’ [the very learned and very pious man, Doctor Johannes Philippus Pratensis]. And Vedel wishes to commemorate his friend by printing the translation. Thus, once again, Hans Philipsen Pratensis was the originator of the translation.

In seven lines of the first two quartets below (line 5 is excluded), we see that Vedel makes use of both doubling and expansion in his translation with the result that some of the Italian lines are translated by an entire stanza (Vedel 1593: f. I5recto-verso).

O vita, vita non, ma vivo affanno,

O Liff, O Leffnet, som icke er Liff

Som icke er Leffnet at kalde:

Men levende Banghed, Fect og Kiff

En liffs Forgifft oc Galde

O life, O living, which is not life

Which cannot be called living

But living fear, scraping a living and quarrel

Life’s poison and bile

nave di vetro in mar di cieco orrore,

Et Skib udi Storm oc Mørckheds Egn,

Som løber paa Eventyrs hyre:

A ship in storm and in the area of darkness,

Signed on on adventure

sotto pioggia di pianto e di dolore

Hves seyl er Suck, under Graadsens regn

For Omhues skrøbelig styre

Whose sails are sighs, under the rain of tears

Steered in a fragile way by solicitude

che sempre cresce con vergogna e danno,

Denne regn hand voxer til Skade oc brøst

This rain increases with damage and flaw as a result

le tue false promesse e 'l vero inganno

Effter spotten tør mand ey lede:

After the mockery one dares not search

mi han prive sì d'ogni speranza il core,

Det haffver mig skilt, ved all min Trøst,

Som Hu oc Hiertet skulde glæde

It has separated me from any consolation,

Which could have pleased the mind and the heart

ch'io porto invidia a quei che son già fòre

Ved eder, i Døde, ieg Affvende baar

For lycken, som sømligt kunde være:

For you, dead ones, I feel envy,

For the happiness, which could be due

et ho pietà degli altri che verranno.

Men i Ufødde, Ulycken staar faar,

Offver eder mig ynckis end mere

But for you unborn ones, who face unhappiness,

I feel even more pity for you

The translation is quite free, but it follows the outline of the original. It is curious how the Petrarchan description of the sufferings of the lover who has lost his beloved is used in a sermon to depict the worldly existence of the Christian in a Lutheran worldview of man as a sinner wholly dependent on God’s mercy.

Italian language and literature in Denmark

Anders Sørensen Vedel translated Petrarch in the year that Christian IV was born, and he quoted Sannazaro in 1593, the year that the king was declared of age. In order to explain this interest in Italian poetry it is necessary to look into the general knowledge of Italian at the Danish court.

Christian IV (1577-1648, king 1588-1648, crowned 1596), wrote in Latin, German and Danish, and it would appear that later in his life he learned to speak, or at least to understand, French and Italian (Toftgaard 2016). How could the king, who had never been to Italy, have learned to speak Italian? We have the testimony of his doctor, Otto Sperling (1602-1681), a Dutch immigrant, who was physician to the king for many years. In his autobiography, preserved in a manuscript in the Royal Library, (GKS 3094 4°), Otto Sperling explains that sometimes the king began to speak to him in Italian, and that he had learned it from his fencing master, Salvator Fabris.

Having spent several years in Gottorp in the service of Count Johan Friedrich, whom he had met in Padua, Salvator Fabris (1544-1617) spent five more years at the court of Denmark, from October 1601 to November 1606, as master of arms to the young king Christian IV. Fabris had compiled a lavishly illustrated manuscript in three volumes on the art of fencing (GKS 1868 4°), which he dedicated to his patron, Johan Friedrich, Count of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, and also Archbishop of Bremen and a cousin of Christian IV. In 1606 Fabris published an edition of the tract – now entitled De lo schermo overo scienza d’arme [On fencing or weaponry] and with a dedication to Christian IV – printed by Henrik Waldkirch (d. 1629), who had immigrated from Germany and in 1599 had become the university printer.

De lo schermo ovvero scienza d'arme is an outstanding work in the history of Danish books. The typographical layout is unusual for that time; it is the first Danish book to contain copperplates for illustration, a total of 190, depicting the two naked male fencers, who also appear in the manuscript (Nielsen 1941: 104). It is the second Danish book printed in Italian – after Melchior Borchgrevinck’s collection of madrigals which had appeared the year before (Borchgrevinck 1605) - also printed by Heinrich Waldkirch.

The King appreciated the Italian language and it is certain that one can speak of a real Italian influence at the time of Christian IV. The interest that Christian IV gave to the Italian model, has for good reasons been studied especially regarding his taste for music. According to musicologist Susan Lewis Hammond, the Danish king used the Italian model to establish Denmark as a European power (Lewis Hammond 2005); Christian IV invested heavily in court music throughout his reign (Moe 2010/2011).

To prepare young noblemen for their careers, it became customary in the sixteenth century to send them abroad. Abroad meant mainly the German states. But by the end of the sixteenth century the young noblemen started travelling to the southern part of Europe, especially to Italy, and, in Italy, especially to Padua, where Protestants were tolerated (Grendler 2002: 191). From 1536 to 1660, there were no fewer than 355 Danish and Norwegian students at the University of Padua whilst there were 132 in Siena. Numbers were far smaller in other Italian cities. In the same period, there were 2 in Bologna and Perugia, and 3 in Rome. For comparison, there were 158 Danish students registered in Basel, 107 in Geneva and 278 in Orleans; 582 were enrolled in Leiden, 1326 in Rostock and 962 in Wittenberg. The alba amicorum – in German Stambücher – provide rich testimony of the intellectual relationships formed during these trips.

Women, however noble, were seldom sent abroad, but in the early seventeenth century there were many learned women who were often linked by kinship relations (Pedersen 2017). Among foreign languages, German was the most common, followed by French and Latin. Marie Below (1586-1651) had learnt Latin with her brother and French by herself. According to her contemporaries, the niece of Marie Below, Birgitte Thott (1610-1662), mastered Danish, German, Dutch, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew; in a dedication in Latin the Dutch Anna Maria van Schurman – herself one of the most learned women of the time – called Thott the ‘tenth muse’ (Alenius 2004). These learned women used their knowledge of languages to make translations into Danish. Birgitte Thott made several (Joseph Hall, Pierre du Moulin, Philippe de Mornay, Thomas Fuller), but she is especially famous for her Danish translation of the entire moral work of Seneca; this beautiful edition (1658) remains a landmark in the history of the book in Denmark. In 1659 Susanne Gøye (1634-1689) translated the treaty of Juan Luis Vives on the education of women, De institutione feminae christianae (1523) from French to Danish (Riising 1956: 171). Susanne Gøye thus made the translation when her daughter, the future book collector Karen Brahe (1657-1736), was only two years old, and around the time that the parents had a painting made of Karen Brahe. The manuscript is kept at Karen Brahe’s library (shelfmark G 3) and is still unpublished.

During their travels, the young noblemen learned many languages – as did their tutors – but at great expense. Furthermore, long tours were characterized by a fairly high mortality rate. For these reasons King Frederic II created a school in Sorø, a former Cistercian monastery, for sixty boys: thirty commoners and thirty noblemen. In 1623, Christian IV added an academy to the school stating that young people could further their education only there and not abroad. The king ordered the noblemen to send their sons up to nineteen years of age to Sorø. Skovgaard-Petersen (2011) has shown how this Danish equestrian academy was built upon the principles laid out in François de la Noue’s Discours politiques et militaires first published in 1587. Whereas the University was meant for the lower estates, the Academy in Sorø was intended for the higher estates. In 1623 the Frenchman Daniel Matras (1598-1689) was employed as a teacher of French and Italian. Thus, the young noblemen could learn French and Italian without having to go abroad. Matras published a glossary Nomenclature françoise, allemande, italienne et danoise (1631) and in 1633 a parallel edition of French, Danish, Italian and German proverbs. Thereafter he published grammars of the Italian language.

The son of Christian IV, King Frederic III (reigned 1648-1670), continued his father’s interest in Italian culture, even though he was even more interested in French culture, in a period in which French court culture was exemplary.

During the reign of Frederic III various translations were made from Italian, not only of literary texts. The medical professor Thomas Bartholin translated the Venetian nobleman Luigi Cornaro’s book on healthy aging – a topic which has not ceased to be of interest – under the title It edrue Lefnets Gafn oc Nytte beskrefven af Luigi Cornaro, Venetiansk Herremand dennem til Villie, som ville naa hundrede Aar, af det Italianske Sprock-udsat af en hvers Tienist Berede [The benefit and use of a Sober Life described by Luigi Cornaro, Venitian landholder, for those who may wish to live until one hundred years, translated from the Italian language by everyone’s most obliged [i.e.: Thomas Bartholin]] (Copenhagen, 1658).

The Dutch bookseller Jan Janssonius kept a shop in the Stock Exchange [Børsen] built by Christian IV. His catalogue gives us an idea of what foreign books were available in Copenhagen in 1649, the year after Frederic III ascended the throne. The catalogue (Catalogus librorum etc. 1649) is divided into books in Latin (96 pages), German (27 pages), French (11 pages) and Italian (6 pages). Among the 103 Italian titles we find the following literary texts: ‘Arcadia di Sannazaro’, ‘Decameron di Bocacci’, ‘Genealogia degli Dei di Boccacci’, ‘Gerusalemme Liberata di Torquato Tasso,’ ‘Machiavelli Opera’ and ‘Pastor fido’.

In these years we also find an interest in Italian vernacular literature. Professor Ole Borch (1626-1690) gave a series of lectures in Copenhagen on poetry, Dissertationes academicæ de poëtis I-VII. Although the lectures deal exclusively with literature in Latin, including that written by modern Italian authors, Borch mentions that the Italians have excellent writers in the vernacular. Borch cites Dante and Petrarch, but not Boccaccio. Apart from the two Trecento authors, Borch cites the poet Battista Guarini (1538-1612) along with two other Italian sixteenth-century poets:

Vernaculo carmine excelluēre itidem multi, inprimis autem Dantes, Fr. Petrarca, Bapt. Guarinus, Lud. Ariostus, & Torquatus Tassus; & Quidem Tragicomoedia Guarini, cui nomen Fidi Pastoris, omnium hactenus laudes provocavit. (Borch 1683: 109)

[Many authors distinguished themselves in vernacular poetry, but first and foremost Dante, Fr. Petrarca, Battista Guarini, Ludovico Ariosto & Torquato Tasso; and a certain tragicomedy by Guarini, entitled Pastor fido has so far invoked praise from all.]

In order to give the reader a taste of the pleasantness of Guarini’s poetry Borch cites a passage epitomizing the very moral of Il pastor fido (‘Sed ne Guarini suavitatem non degustemus ecce fimbriam de illo texto’ [In order to taste Guarini’s pleasantness here is a fringe of the text]): ‘Non è sana ogni gioia,/ Nè mal ciò che v’annoia./ Quello è vero gioire, / Che nasce da virtù dopò il soffrire.’ (Borch 1683: 109-110).

Pastoral poetry and patriotism

We have seen that Johannes Pratensis published a pastoral poem, written in Latin and inspired by the Bucolica by Erasmus Laetus. According to Peter Zeeberg, ‘The pastoral was a favourite genre among the first generation of humanist Latin poets in Denmark, as indeed all over Europe’ (Zeeberg 2008: 96). The 17th century saw a new vogue of pastoral in the vernacular. A translation (through German) of parts of Honoré d’Urfé’s novel L’Astrée by Søren Terkelsen (d. 1656) was published 1645-48 and court ballet was inspired by the pastoral genre. According to Krogh (1939: 50), the era of pastoral (with a German word: ‘Schäferi’) started here.

It is in this context that we should locate a Danish translation of Guarini’s Il pastor fido, which was written in 1666 but never printed. It is preserved in a manuscript which looks like a presentation copy, now housed in the Thott collection in the Royal Danish Library with the shelf mark Thott 1084 4°. I will analyze samples of the translation here, but it would be worth making a proper edition of the manuscript.

The manuscript consists of 102 leaves bound in parchment.[2] A line on all leaves marks the outer margin of each page, and the titles of each act and scene have been highlighted by 17th century decorative calligraphic convolutions. Whereas the writer and playwright Ludvig Holberg in the 18th century would use the Latin words Actus, abbreviated Act., and Scena, abbreviated Sc., the translator has translated Atto by ‘Handel’ and scena by the word ‘udkomst’[3].

The manuscript is written in a beautiful Gothic script, and notable epigrammatic sentences have been highlighted in Roman script. Indeed, the Roman script would seem to correspond closely to those lines that are marked by marginal quotation marks in the left margin in both the editio princeps (Guarini 1590) and the ne varietur edition (Guarini 1602) of Il pastor fido. This feature of the text has not been included in the modern edition used for the present article (Guarini 1999). For instance, the prophecy of the oracle in the ‘Argomento’ [Indhold] is highlighted. Proverbial sentences such as the following have also been highlighted:

[Linco:] ‘Altri tempi, altre cure’ (At. I, Sc. 1, l. 49), ‘Andre Tider, andre Sorge’ [Other times, other sorrows];

[Uranio:] ‘Per tutto è buona stanza, ov’altri goda / Ed ogni stanza al valent’huomo è patria (At. V, Sc. 1, l. 1-2), ‘Det er offver alt godt at boe hvor mand befinder sig vell, oc alle orter er for een tapper mand et Fæderneland’ [It is good to live everywhere where you are well, and all places are a fatherland for a brave man];

[Mirtillo:] ‘Non è in man di chi perde l’anima, il non morire’, (At. III, Sc. 3, l. 449-450), ‘Det staaer icke i dens Haand, som mister sin sjæl, at hand ikke døer’ [It is not in the power of the person who loses his soul to decide not to die].

The same is true for the three so-called ‘monostich disputes’ (Baldassari 1999: 29). This marking of sententiae worth noting ‘fairly common in certain classes of books printed in Europe between the approximate dates 1500 and 1660’ (Hunter 1951: 171) has been deemed ‘very specifically related to commonplace-books’ (Moss 1996: 210). It is interesting to note how the translator – clearly aware of the importance of the quotation marks – conveys this distinct typographical feature by a change of script from Gothic to Roman.

The translation is preceded by a dedication from the translator to Danish women, ‘Till det høyt-priisede oc meget tucktige Danske Fruentimmer’ [To the higly esteemed and very virtuous Danish women], in which the name of the translator signing the dedication has been crossed out in black ink. The translation is also preceded by dedicatory poems by five authors connected to the Academy of Sorø and to eastern Jutland: Janus Foss (i.e. Jens Foss 1629-1687), Johannes Rhodius (1587-1659), a certain N. Drostrop (possibly Hans Drostrup?), Johannes Olavius (1624-1698, Olden-Jørgensen 1996: 79) and a certain Anshelmus v. Podevelsk (i.e. Anselm von Podewils to Lyngbygaard, 1625-1695). The dedicatory poem by Johannes Rhodius is in Latin but it is also translated into Danish under the title ‘Til De Moder-Maalet-elskende Landsmænd’ [to mother-tongue-loving fellow countrymen]. Translating an Italian classic was thus conceived as a way of enriching the mother tongue. In his poem in French, Drostrop celebrates the erudition of the translator:

L'Italie donna naissance
A cette douce Jouissance
Le Danmarc a la puissance
Pour la mettre a balance

Et quiquonque a du jugement
Pour parler Danois purement
Lira avec contentement
Des aggreables changements

Ici, le Berger Fidelle
Et Amaryllis nompareille
Nous disent tant de merveilles
Pour enjouir les cerveilles

Cecy n'est qu-un estincillon [sic]
Du grand esprit d'un bon homme
Qui scait faire esclater son nom
Par cette docte version

Who is this learned translator? In the Thott catalogue of from 1795, where we find the earliest extant mention of the manuscript, the translator is identified as the learned Erik Pontoppidan (1616-1678). The entry in the catalogue says: ‘Pastor fido, oversat af Erik Pontoppidan. 1666’ [Pastor fido, translated by Erik Pontoppidan. 1666] ([Nyerup]: 1795: 437), and this ascription has been repeated to this day by the manuscript catalogue of the Royal Danish Library. This attribution was also repeated by the bibliographer and literary historian Holger Ehrencron-Müller in his entry on Erik Pontoppidan (Ehrencron-Müller 1924-1939, vol. 6: 321). Erik Pontoppidan was a pastor and prolific writer who also published the first Danish grammar. However, as early as the 19th century the literary historian Julius Paludan (1843-1926) had shown that Erik Pontoppidan was an erroneous attribution, caused by a misreading of the name in the dedicatory poems where a certain licentiate named Broberg is addressed as the translator (Paludan 1887: 323-324). Pontoppidan is a latinization of the name Broby (‘pons’, bridge, is ‘bro’ in Danish, and ‘oppidum’, small town, is ‘by’ in Danish). Paludan does not identify the translator, but he states that Broberg was connected to the academy in Sorø.

Thanks to research in the 20th century it is now possible to come to a closer identification of the translator. The three Broberg brothers, Mathias (c. 1629-1683), Jens (1630-1652) and Niels (1636-1674) all studied at Sorø Academy (Glahn 1978: 169, 189). Jens died young while studying theology. Both Mathias and Niels studied law. Niels Broberg became licentiatus juris in Orléans and married a daughter of Hans Drostrup, Kirsten Drostrup (1647-1731). Mathias Broberg (c. 1630-1681) studied law in Padua in 1653 and became doctor juris in 1654; he was a friend of Johannes Rhodius (Helk 1987: 180, citing i.a. the album amicorum of Rhodius, Thott 573 8°: 31). The mention of the title licentiatus and the fact that Hans Drostrup appears as the author of a poem should point us to Niels Broberg. On the other hand, Mathias Broberg’s studies in Padua and the fact that he was acquainted with Johannes Rhodius suggests that it might be his brother. So it remains an open question whether the translator is in fact Mathias or Niels Broberg.

The title page bears the following lengthy title, which follows the original closely:

Den Troe Hyrde. Sørgelig-Lystigendende Hyrde-spill skrefffuit i den Italienske Tale aff Battista Guarini tilskreffuit den Stormæctigste Første H. Carl Emmanuel Hertug aff Savoien etc. Allerførst udi Skuespill fremviist till Turin udi Hans Kongl. Høyh. Bielager med den Høybaarne Printsesse Frøicken Catharina aff Østerrige oc nu udi det Danske Sprock offuersatt.

[The Faithful Shepherd, Tragi-comical Pastoral Play written in the Italian language by Battista Guarini, dedicated to the mighty Prince H. Carl Emmanuel duke of Savoy etc., first performed as a play in Turin at His Royal Highness’ wedding with the high born Princess Catherine of Austria and now translated into the Danish language.]

The way the title is translated – in its orientation towards the source language – is typical of the translation as a whole. The entire title of the editio princeps (Venice: Bonfadini, 1590) reads: Il pastor fido. tragicomedia pastorale di Battista Guarini, dedicata al ser.mo d. Carlo Emanuele duca di Sauoia. &c., nelle reali nozze di s.a. con la ser.ma infante d. Caterina d'Austria. The translator follows the title closely. He adds the fact that it was written in Italian (‘skrefffuit i den Italienske Tale’) and that it is also translated into Danish (‘oc nu udi det Danske Sprock offuersatt’). But where the original states that it was dedicated to the Duke on the occasion of his marriage (in 1585) when Guarini gave the duke a manuscript copy (cf. Selmi 1999: 35), the translator adds that it was performed as a play in Turin: ‘Allerførst udi Skuespill fremviist till Turin’. Moreover, the translation of the title inverts the genre of the text. Whereas Guarini termed his Pastor fido a tragicomedia pastorale the translator turns it into a Sørgelig-Lystigendende Hyrde-spill, which is to say a ‘tragi-comic pastoral play’, a solution that unfortunately downplays the importance of the genre tragicomedia. While the Italian word pastorale can be used as either a noun or an adjective, Danish does not have an adjective deriving from the noun Hyrde-spill, pastoral.

Julius Paludan (1887: 324) found the Danish translation devoid of any attraction simply because it was in prose: ‘Den danske Oversætter […] har ikke vovet sig videre end til at gjengive sin Original i Prosa, hvorved det lyriske Hyrdedrama taber al Tiltrækning’ [The Danish translator […] has not dared more than to reproduce his original in prose on account of which the lyrical pastoral play loses any attraction]. But Julius Paludan reached this aesthetic verdict before the invention of modernist free verse, and if we try not to judge the translation by those same aesthetic rules, the translation is full of interest. Its interest lies not only in the fact that it exists and has come down to us (albeit only in one manuscript copy), but we can appreciate its fidelity to the source text and the information it carries about literary tastes and languages used in seventeenth-century Denmark. All this is instructive about the uses and purposes of translations.

One way to appreciate the prose translation is to make a detailed analysis of a key passage in the text, the prophecy of the oracle:

Non havrà prima fin quel, che v’offende,
Che duo semi del ciel congiunga Amore,
E di Donna infedel l’antico errore
 L’alta pietà d’un PASTOR FIDO ammende


Det som eder beskader, skal icke faae ende førend Kierlighed har sammenføjet tu aff himmelske Sæd; oc en høy medlidenhed udaff en TRO HYRDE betaler for den utroe Quindes gamle forseelse. (f. 8v)

What damages you shall not come to an end before love has combined two of divine semen, and the high compassion of a FAITHFUL SHEPHERD pays for the unfaithful woman’s ancient offence.

The prophecy consists of one sentence, which includes two temporal subordinate clauses. The subject of the sentence includes a relative clause, ‘quel, che v’offende’, and this structure is imitated in the Danish translation ‘Det som eder beskader’ [that which damages you]. The verbal is translated directly: ‘Non havrà fin’ > ‘skal icke faae ende’ [shall not come to an end]. The two paratactical temporal subordinate clauses are introduced by the adverbial ‘prima che’ which is translated as ‘førend’ [before] in Danish. In the first temporal clause, the translator changes the tense of the verb: while the Italian original has a present subjunctive, the Danish translation uses present perfect (indicative): ‘Che duo semi del ciel congiunga Amore’ > ‘Kierlighed har sammenføjet tu aff himmelske Sæd’ [love has combined two of divine semen]. One could argue that, given the absence of the subjunctive in Danish, the present perfect is the best translation of the subjunctive. In the second temporal clause, the Danish translation repeats the grammatical structure. The subject ‘l’alta pietà d’un PASTOR FIDO’ is translated as follows: ‘en høy medlidenhed udaff en TRO HYRDE’ [the high compassion of a FAITHFUL SHEPHERD], where ‘medlidenhed’ [compassion] is a somewhat surprising translation of pietà. The verbal ‘ammende’ is translated as ‘betaler’. The object ‘di Donna infedel l’antico errore’ is translated with a corresponding genitive construction (‘den utroe Quindes gamle forseelse’) [the unfaithful woman’s ancient offence], while the undetermined ‘donna infidel’ is turned into determined ‘den utroe Quindes’ [the unfaithful woman’s]. The analysis of the prophecy shows that Broberg has tried to match both the structure and the vocabulary of the source language as closely as possible. In this way, the strategy employed could be called foreignization in Lawrence Venuti’s terms (Venuti 1995). Nonetheless, Broberg does not use foreign words, but Danish words.

The same is clear from the final words of the play, though these will not be the object of a detailed analysis here. In the first sentence we notice the same repetition of the structure of the source language in the target language.

Oh fortunata coppia,

O lycksalige Par

O happy Couple

Che pianto hà seminato, e riso accoglie

Som har saaet Graad og høstet ladder,

Which has sown Tears and reaped laughter

Con quante amare doglie

Med hvor mange bittre bedrøffvelser

With how many bitter sorrows

Hai raddolciti tu gli affetti tuoi.

Har du sødgjort dine kærlige tilbøjeligheder

Have you sweetened your loving inclinations

Quinci imparate voi

Lærer derudaf,

Learn from this,

O ciechi, e troppo teneri mortali

I blinde oc alt for bekere dødelige Mennisker

You blind and far too week mortal Human beings,

I sinceri diletti, e i veri mali.

De oprictige Forlystelser oc sande Gienvordigheder att kiende

To distinguish the genuine Pleasures and true Adversities.

Non è sana ogni gioia

Alt det som fornøyer er icke lycksaligt,

Everything that pleases is not blissful

Nè mal ciò che v’annoia.

Oc alt det som bekymrer er icke ulyckeligt.

And everything that worries is not unhappy

Quello è vero gioire,

Det er den rette Fornøyelse

It is the right Pleasure

Che nasce da virtù dopò il soffrire.

som med møye oc arbeid adspurt aff Dyden alleene fremkommer.

which alone comes from effort and labor enticed by Vertue

Even though the structure and vocabulary of the source language is imitated in the target language, in the last clause we see a case of both duplication (the strategy employed by Vedel in his translation of Sannazaro) and dynamic translation of the vocabulary. The relative clause ‘Che nasce da virtù dopò il soffrire’ becomes ‘som med møye oc arbeid adspurt aff Dyden alleene fremkommer’ [which alone comes from effort and labor enticed by Vertue]; ‘møye oc arbeid’ [effort and labor] is a peculiar translation of ‘soffrire’ [suffer], which would normally be translated by ‘lidelse’ [suffering] or ‘pine’ [torment] in Danish. The combination ‘møye oc arbeid’ was known from Luther’s works, i.a. from the preface to his little catechismus (‘Mühe und Arbeit’), and strangely enough, the combination of the two words was used – as we saw above – in the Danish translation of psalm 90/89, where it translates the Latin words ‘labor et dolor’.

Thus, one of the most important words of the Italian vocabulary of love, ‘soffrire’, is translated by a biblical Lutheran concept, which has little to do with the vocabulary of love. Even a source-language oriented translation adapts the concepts to a local context.


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Danes acquired knowledge of Italian by travelling to Italy (mainly Padua), by reading Italian texts, and by conversing with Italians in Denmark. The interest in and desire for Italian culture led to translations from Italian, and as we have seen in the case of Sannazaro’s poem, in some cases the translations were adapted to the Danish Lutheran context.

From the beginning of the 17th century, Italian books were printed in Copenhagen. When Christian IV died, and Frederic III ascended to the throne, Italian books were available in Copenhagen, Italian was being taught in Sorø and Italian books were being translated into Danish. The transit of people between Italy and Denmark led to translations from Italian to Danish, and to an interest in the ways in which Italian had become a dominant literary language.

In these years Peder Syv wrote in his Nogle Betenkninger om det cimbriske sprog (1663) that authors should follow the example set by Dante and Petrarch who had cultivated their vernacular: ‘Saaledis skulde sproget uddyrkes. Saa have Dantes, Petrarka og efter dem mange andre udarbejded det vælske sprog’ [Thus the language should be cultivated. In this way Dante, Petrarch and many after them have developed the Italian language] (Syv 1663: 9).

This article is a small contribution to the early history of translation of Italian literature into Danish. Apart from the fact that they are both translations of 16th century Italian poetry, the two translations of Italian literary texts studied in this article – the sonnet “O vita, vita no, ma vivo affanno” by Sannazaro and Il pastor fido by Guarini – are two very different kinds of translation. They are both translations of sixteenth century authors, but in the first case, it is a sonnet used among other texts in order to interpret Psalm 90/89 in a sermon that was subsequently printed. In the second case, it is a manuscript translation of an entire literary work.

Nevertheless, the two translations embody the two kinds of Renaissance translation identified by Eric Jacobsen (1958) in his study of translation:

The older and chiefly didactic one, which aims at transferring a body of knowledge […] into the native store; and the more recent and patriotic one, eager to convey at once new information and new words into local culture (Jacobsen 1958: 137).

Anders Sørensen Vedel’s translation of Sannazaro’s sonnet is chiefly didactic, and he uses the translation for his own purpose in his sermon. Broberg’s source-language oriented translation from 1660 of Il pastor fido is explicitly presented in the paratexts as a patriotic act. As to the use of the translation it is worth noting that Anders Sørensen Vedel uses his translation of Sannazaro as a way of commemorating his friend Pratensis, who died too young, just as he commemorated Pratensis by translating Petrarch’s penitential psalms (and perhaps somewhat like the way in which Montaigne commemorated his father by publishing a translation of Raymond de Sebond’s Theologia naturalis). Broberg, on the other hand, apart from the patriotic act of recreating a modern literary classic in Danish, seems to have created his precious book object for a special occasion. The name of the translator has been crossed out, probably by the translator himself, and has thus come down to us as a riddle to be solved through a careful reading of the paratexts.


I would like to thank Prof. Anna Maria Segala for the invitation to contribute to this issue, Bruno Berni for his precious advice (it was Bruno Berni who in the reading room of the Royal Danish Library showed me Vedel’s partial translation of Sannazaro’s poem), the two anonymous peer reviewers for their acumen, Prof. Charles Lock for his most learned linguistic and stylistic revision, and the editors for their patience.

Manuscripts cited

Royal Danish Library (Copenhagen)

GKS 1868 4°

GKS 3094 4°

Thott 1084 4°

Thott 573 8°

Karen Brahe’s Library (Roskilde)

G 3


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[1] In the sixteenth-century translation made by the Scottish poet William Drummond (1585-1649) the poem reads: ‘O Woefull Life ! Life, no, but living Death, / Fraile Boat of Christall in a rockie Sea, /A Sport expos’d to Fortunes stormie Breath, / Which kept with Paine, with Terrour doth decay :/ The false Delights, true Woes thou dost bequeath,/ Mine all-appalled Minde doe so affraye,/ That I those enuie who are laid in Earth,/ And pittie them that runne thy dreadfull Waye’ (Drummond 1913: 1, 53).

[2] Since the manuscript has not yet been foliated, I will not refer to the leaf numbers, but to the pagination in the edition of the Italian text, Guarini (1999).

[3] The word ‘Handel’ was also used in the contemporary ballets as the Danish counterpart of the French word Partie, cf. Krog 1939: 59.

About the author(s)

Anders Toftgaard is a senior researcher at the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen. MA in comparative literature, he received his
Ph.D.-degree in Italian and French literature from the University of Copenhagen in 2006.  He is specialized in book history and
in Renaissance Italian and French literature. His most recent publications include articles on Montaigne and the Montaigne
collector Frederik Thorkelin, on French 17th c. political pamphlets (socalled “mazarinades”), on Italianism at the court of
Denmark and on manuscripts by Giacomo Castelvetro. Anders Toftgaard has published a book in Danish on the birth of the
novella genre in 13th and 14th c. Italy. He is currently working on a project on Otto Thott’s 18th c. library.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Anders Toftgaard (2019).
"From Lutheran penitence to pastoral court culture The use of Danish translations of Italian literature in 16th and 17th century Denmark"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2366

The Translation of Machiavelli’s Prince and the Political Climate in Mid Eighteenth-Century Sweden

By Paolo Marelli (Università di Genova, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

The first translation of Machiavelli’s Prince into a Nordic language was published in Stockholm by Carl von Klingenberg (1757), together with the translation of its confutation, The Anti-Machiavel by Frederick II of Prussia.  Klingenberg was an Enlightenment intellectual of a period in Sweden that was characterized by the conflict between the Crown and Parliament. The volume, dedicated to the eleven-year-old Crown Prince Gustaf, the future king of Sweden Gustavus III had a limited influence and circulation notwithstanding the growing interest in Machiavelli’s treatise. In this paper other events are also taken into consideration, i.e. the factors which boosted the Swedish book market and helped to loosen censorship. From this perspective, Klingenberg’s work can also be seen as an attempt to make Machiavelli’s treatise available to a larger public and to achieve personal success.

Keywords: Machiavelli, The Prince, Carl Klingenberg, Sweden, Age of Liberty, Gustavus III

©inTRAlinea & Paolo Marelli (2019).
"The Translation of Machiavelli’s Prince and the Political Climate in Mid Eighteenth-Century Sweden"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2365

In 1757, the first translation in a Scandinavian language of Machiavelli’s The Prince was brought out in Stockholm by the publisher Grefing. The centuries-long delay was due – as is well-known – to the fact that the treatise was inscribed in the Index librorum prohibitorum but nevertheless circulated more or less clandestinely all over Europe in various Latin translations, from Silvestro Tegli’s 1560 version to Herman Conring’s of 1660 (Mordeglia 2010). The spread of The Prince as far as the Nordic regions[1] was also aided by Amelot’s French translation, which eluded censorship by being published in Amsterdam (Machiavelli 1683), and by the success of the refutation of Machiavelli’s treatise, the celebrated Anti-Machiavel by Frederick II of Prussia, which was published first in a French and then a German translation and contained both works set out in two parallel columns.[2]

The Swedish translation of The Prince along with the Anti-Machiavel was a work by Carl Klingenberg, a typical Enlightenment intellectual of the age that in Sweden was called frihetstid [Age of Liberty], 1721-72. Despite the importance of the work and the long wait for the translation, it should be noted that its impact in Sweden was slight and that no-one in Scandinavia would translate the Prince again for over a century – as a stand-alone text the treatise was in fact not translated into Swedish until 1867 by R. Afzelius (Machiavelli 1867).

In a preceding study dedicated to Kingenberg’s translation (Marelli 2010), I focused in particular on textual and translation aspects with the aim of identifying the translator’s sources and evaluating their use. However, given the singularity of a translation which appears as an isolated case in Scandinavia and was a clear publishing failure, I also dealt with the problem of its function and its reading public. Before taking up again the conclusions and hypotheses put forward at the time, it will be useful to re-examine the figures of the translator and the dedicatee of the work (Gustav II of Sweden, then the Crown Prince), as well as the position of the translation within the political and cultural context of Sweden in the mid-1700s.

Carl Klingenberg (1708-57), an intellectual with wide-ranging interests who had the merit of spreading the ideas of Wolff, Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers in Sweden, is remembered for his work in the Tankebyggarorden [Order of the Thought-Builders], the first private Swedish literary association. The association is often seen – but not quite correctly – as a sort of alternative and competitor to the Vitterhetsakademien [Academy of Belles Lettres], expression of the official culture of the court, founded by Princess Louisa Ulrika, wife of the King of Sweden Adolf Frederick and sister of Frederick II of Prussia. Introduced to the Tankebyggarorden by his cousin, the poetess Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht, Klingenberg immediately rose to a prominent position (Stålmarck 1986): not only did he become part of the close circle which gravitated around Nordenflycht’s “literary salon” and also included two most talented poets – the young counts Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg and Gustav Philip Creutz – but he also enjoyed great consideration and respect, to the point of being perceived as a mentor. Thanks to his vast modern culture, he above all fascinated the younger generation and was able to bring the members into contact with the new ideas of the age.  Nevertheless, the contribution he made to the association’s publications was rather slight: a single prose piece of writing of a theoretical nature, Avhandling om den rätta Smaken [Treatise on Good Taste], included in the Våra Försök III [Our Experiments III][3] of 1756, an essay which is moreover not distinguished by its originality (Stålmarck 1986: 42-4).

An academic of no particular distinction at the University of Uppsala, where he was overshadowed by figures of much greater prestige, Klingenberg obtained some modest recognition thanks to his friendships with exponents of the “Hats” party [hattpartiet][4], in particular Carl Gyllenborg, leader of the party and uncle to the poet Gustaf Fredrik. In 1754, he began to devote his attention to the translation of some scientific studies from French and English on subjects relating to medicine and economics, published by Salvius (Marelli 2010: 250). Then, at the beginning of 1757, just before his death on 28 January of that same year, his translation of The Prince and the Anti-Machiavel came out, distinguishing itself significantly from the rest of his literary and scientific works, which were on the whole unexceptional and lacking in originality.

The prestige of the publication was further enhanced by the long dedication to the Crown Prince, the future King Gustav III of Sweden and nephew to Frederick II of Prussia, author of the Anti-Machiavel. In the dedication Klingenberg praises at length not only Prince Gustav, but also the noble author of the Anti-Machiavel and invites the young prince on the one hand to take inspiration from the virtuous ideas expressed by the sovereign of Prussia, and on the other hand to stay away from Machiavelli’s dangerous political ideas and the princes he cites as models.

The impression created by the dedication is that the translator’s interest is directed more towards the Anti-Machiavel; but on the frontispiece the position of the title of Machiavelli’s work (Machiavels Prins [Machiavelli’s Prince]), at the top and in large type, is in contrast to the vague indirect mention in much smaller type of the Anti-Machiavel (med undersökningen deraf [with its analysis]), where the word undersökning refers to the French title of some of the first editions of the work (Anti-Machiavel, ou Examen du Prince de Machiavel). The word undersökning, however, returns in Frederick II’s premise to the Anti-Machiavel, Erinran vid undersökningen af Machiavels Prins [Notice on the Analysis of Machiavelli’s Prince], and in the internal title, Undersökning af Machiavels Prins [Analysis of Machiavelli’s Prince], where the work of Frederick II assumes a dominant position with respect to Machiavelli’s treatise. Add to this the fact that Klingenberg eliminated not only Amelot’s premise – till then one of the clearest and most decisive apologias of the Prince – but also his dedication to the Grand-duke of Tuscany and Machiavelli’s dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici, and it is quite evident that a conscious act of censorship was carried out of all the parts of The Prince or its translations which appeared in the Anti-Machiavel and contained words of praise for the Italian treatise and its author or which were not directly confuted by Frederick II. Moreover, the elimination of the dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici completely de-contextualizes Machiavelli’s work, suggesting that Klingenberg had little interest in understanding The Prince within the Italian historical context and that he attributed greater importance to its confutation.[5]

In light of these observations, the dedication to the Crown Prince does not appear to be a mere formality or an act of deference towards the future king of Sweden, but seems to indicate that the book is effectively addressed first of all to the dedicatee. In any case, no-one could have been more interested in the two works than Prince Gustaf, certainly out of a desire to gain a better understandnig of a famous political treatise – a perennial subject of discussion – and its just as famous confutation, written by his esteemed uncle Frederick II of Prussia at a time when he was also Crown Prince. What we cannot know is whether the translation was commissioned by the Prince himself (or by the Royal Family), or whether it was assigned by his tutors in order to guide the young heir to the throne towards a more prudent reading of Machiavelli’s treatise, which might otherwise have had a dangerous influence on him (Marelli 2010: 258)[6].

In this regard, it ought to be considered that the translation of The Prince appeared at a time of serious difficulty for the Swedish Royal Family: power was in fact held by Parliament (in particular, by the “Hats” Party), which, against the wishes of the Royal Couple, pushed the country into war against the Prussia of Frederick II, who in August 1756 had invaded Saxony, thus sparking what was to become the Seven Years’ War. The crisis between the Crown and Parliament had in any case already culminated in June 1756, when, following a failed attempt at a coup d’état organized by the “Court Party” [hovpartiet], the king was further deprived of his powers and new tutors were imposed on the princes. Responsibility (as guvernör) for the education of the young princes was assigned to the unwelcome Carl Fredrik Scheffer, who brought with him a series of instructors and courtiers. Some of the latter were recruited from the Tankebyggarorden: Prince Gustaf was assigned Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg, nephew, as mentioned above, of one of the founders of the “Hat” Party[7], and Axel Gabriel Leijonhufvud (Marelli 2010: 256). The translation therefore may have been commissioned by Scheffer as part of the young prince’s educational programme and entrusted, perhaps on the advice of Gyllenborg, to Klingenberg, who did not miss the opportunity to make himself known at court and readily accepted this prestigious assignment.

If this hypothesis is true, then Klingenberg’s work would appear to have been of an elite nature and served as a manual for the reigning monarchs and those who would reign in the future. (Marelli 2010: 260-261); Machiavelli’s treatise would have had a secondary role within the volume, which would rather have been intended as a private initiative concerning the Anti-Machiavel and not a work popularizing Machiavelli’s Prince.[8] Nevertheless, the very fact that it was a translation into Swedish is an indication that it was meant to be disseminated, in line with the enlightened principles of the translator, who, moreover, in his premise to the translation – where he speaks exclusively about the Prince and his primary source, Amelot’s translation – refers to certain stylistic choices made to facilitate a wider reading public. It is also quite likely that prince Gustaf already had one or two copies of the Anti-Machiavel, both in French and German, and that he was capable of reading them.[9] In addition, it is worth repeating that the frontispiece clearly gives more importance to Machiavelli’s work, in contrast to the apparent focus of the volume itself; a fact which is significant as the cover and frontispiece are elements which often explicitly reveal the purpose of a book and who its intended readers are.

In my opinion, Klingenberg’s translation is rather ambiguous, in the sense that on the one hand it seems to be an elitist and individual initiative, with a very precise educational purpose and with an anti-Machiavellian intent, while on the other hand it seems to have been conceived with the aim of popularizing Machiavelli’s treatise, never before translated into a Scandinavian language. This ambiguity resides in the very nature of the Anti-Machiavel, a work which, under the pretext of a point by point confutation of Machiavelli’s assertions, actually offers an international public the possibility of reading The Prince in French and in German;[10] while its author is an “enlightened” sovereign who through his work promotes a virtuous image of himself, and is at the same time a military genius who has no scruples in challenging the greatest European powers on the battlefield. I believe therefore that Klingenberg’s translation of the two works has a dual function: we have discussed its educational and elitist purpose, regardless of who took the initiative and commissioned it; but as far as its potentially popularizing and commercial function is concerned, we need to consider whether the conditions to undertake such an initiative actually existed in mid eighteenth-century Sweden.

            As is well-known, the book market in Sweden until 1740 was rather limited and appeared so even to Danish eyes. Despite the growth in the number of readers, at least in Stockholm and the other larger cities, the book market was hindered by a series of factors until the mid-1700s (Schück and Warburg 1926: 99-114; Lindroth 1978: 76-83). First of all, the binders, well-organized in corporations and protected by the “Caps” party, enjoyed exclusive rights to the sale of bound volumes and aimed at cost-cutting rather than quality. On the other hand, printers who were also publishers, or aspired to become such by publishing quality literature, could only sell unbound books despite being protected by the “Hats” party. In 1752 Salvius, the main publisher in Stockholm, obtained on behalf of the printers the right to sell books produced by them in their workshops, whether or not they were bound, although the effects of this ordinance were felt only over time. In 1756 Salvius requested (and a year later obtained) the right for publishers to sell and lend any book, including those printed abroad, in their bookshops; but this concession didn’t bring any immediate results either because the other publishers preferred to sell only their own books.

Another obstacle lay in costs: the price per sheet was too high, again due to the binders’ monopoly, and few people could afford to purchase a book. In 1756 the issue reached the government and a maximum price was established, but this provision also had no effect because the binders and private publishers never put it into practice, citing the increase in costs and salaries (which in actual fact increased only in the following decade).

The market for foreign books was much thwarted by the government, which was suspicious of ideas coming from abroad. All books imported by booksellers were subject to scrutiny by the censor, as were their private collections and sales by auction. Since there was a great demand for foreign books in Sweden but not as much for Swedish books abroad (except for scientific writings), Salvius started to exchange Swedish books for foreign ones. In 1756 the government granted a bonus of 15% for Swedish books sold abroad, a measure which had a beneficial effect on the market. This also contributed to the rapid growth in the number of booksellers, especially in Stockholm between 1755 and 1770. Despite the economic hardships they faced, the number of sales led to greater interest in reading and as a result the production of books increased as well.

In the first half of the 1700s, scientific and academic writings could be published with state support or with the help of a patron, while literary texts often remained unpublished because of a lack of publishers, financers and readers. Moreover, the poor quality of the bookbinders’ publishing ventures did little to promote literature. Many authors thus published at their own expense and sold copies by subscription, giving the remaining copies to bookshops, which asked for very low commissions. The state gave very little funding for non-scientific literature, most of the time permitting only the privilege of publishing at one’s own expense.

Until copyright laws were established in 1810, neither the authors nor the publishers had ownership rights on the works published, but only a concession of brief duration. In any case, a book printing regulatory provision of 1752 (Boktryckerireglementet) improved conditions for publishers and authors: the latter could request a lien on the work, as well as its extension, and they could sell it to a publisher for any price they wished. In addition, the authors could receive a fee from the publisher if the volume was dedicated to an important person, which generally consisted in a certain number of sample copies that they could sell freely, and later of a sum of money in cash. The fees started to increase only towards the mid-1700s, even though those written in Latin and German were paid more because the works could be sold abroad. Translators were paid less, but not as little as literary authors. In any case, it was in this period that a readership interested in literature and willing to pay for a book of poetry started to grow.

As far as censorship was concerned, it is true that it was greatly feared and that it represented a serious limitation on freedom of the press, but in the 1700s this was considered normal, a fact which everyone had to take into account. All the more so since the corruptibility of the censors, and in particular of Oelreich (censor from 1746 to 1766), made it possible to get around this obstacle regardless of one’s political affiliation (Schück and Warburg 1926: 59-61; Lindroth 1978: 82-3). The system’s inefficiency was one of the reasons which led to the abolition of censorship in 1766, which left the problem of a new regulation; and it was King Gustaf III who re-introduced it as early as 1772. With regard to Klingenberg’s publication, censorship was no danger, not only because the rank of the illustrious dedicatee guaranteed the granting of the imprimatur, but also because the Anti-Machiavel was considered a work of unquestioned virtue and morality. Moreover, the political censorship carried out by Oelreich in the years 1755-7 affected above all the exponents of the Court party, while supporters of the “Hats” like Klingenberg, were not at risk.

We may thus conclude that precisely in the years 1755-7 conditions were created that favoured the development of the book market, a fact which led publishers and authors to publish new works, including those of a literary nature. One of these was without doubt the translation of the Prince and the Anti-Machiavel by Klingenberg. The reasons why the publication was not a success were probably the same reasons for which no one considered translating the Prince again until the second half of the nineteenth century: the few erudite and wealthy people who were interested could already read it in one of the many Latin, French or German translations which circulated in Europe; while for the merely curious the cost of the volume was too prohibitive. Klingenberg was probably aware of all this, but he did not worry about the costs of publication, evidently sustained by others, nor about any possible profits, content with the personal prestige that the work granted him and which he needed for his career.


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Schück, Henrik, and Karl Warburg (1926) Illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria. Tredje delen. Frihetstiden, Stockholm, Rabén & Sjögren.

Stålmarck, Torkel (1986) Tankebyggare 1753-62. Miljö- och genrestudier, Stockholm, Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis.


[1] That Machiavelli’s treatise was well-known to Danish and Swedish scholars as well as royals in the sixteenth century has been noted in a number of studies, from Andersson (1931) to Larsson (2002).

[2] Anti-Machiavel. Oder Prüfung der Regeln Nic. Machiavells Von der Regierungskunst eines Fürsten. Mit historischen und politischen Anmerckungen. Aus dem Französischen Übersetzt, Göttingen, Königliche Universitets Buchhandlung, 1741.

[3] Miscellany publications where disparate works of members of the Order were published, with poetic compositions placed side by side with essays of a philosophical or didactic nature.

[4] The dominant party within the Tankebyggarorden as well. The party of the “Hats” and that of the “Caps” [mösspartiet], which competed for the majority in Parliament during the Age of Liberty, rather than representing social classes were more than anything two power factions. The contrast between the two parties consisted above all in their different positions on questions of foreign and economic policy (the “Hats”, supporters of mercantilism, were more aggressive, while the “Caps” were more prudent). In the 1750s, the “Hats” took a clearly anti-monarchical position to protect the independence of Parliament, but Sweden’s military failures in the Seven Years’ War brought about their decline.

[5] It can thus be said, in other words, that Klingenberg deletes some paratextual elements (Genette 1989) primarily connected with Machiavelli’s Prince (the dedication to Lorenzo De’ Medici, Amelot’s premise), while he retains others directly connected with the Anti-Machiavel, like Frederick II’s autograph preface, if one wishes to consider it a paratext; he also substitutes the omitted elements with other paratexts functional to the reading of the Anti-Machiavel as the foremost text.

[6] This observation summarizes one part of my conclusions mentioned above (Marelli 2010).

[7] It should be noted however that Gyllenborg was not interested in politics and that once the initial hostility was overcome, he established a loyal friendship with the prince which lasted the rest of his life.

[8] What is said here summarizes one of my conclusive hypotheses referred to above (Marelli 2010).

[9] As the translator himself underlines in the dedication to the Crown Prince.

[10] Within this perspective, one may consider the Anti-Machiavel almost as a paratext in comparison with The Prince, or better, as a parallel or accompanying text, as a cover for a scandalous work not authorized for publication. 

About the author(s)

Paolo Marelli, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the University of Genoa, where he has been teaching Swedish Language and Swedish for Special Purposes since 2001. His research activity focuses on the description of Swedish both from a diachronic and synchronic point of view (phonetics and phonology, cases and prepositions, lexicology and lexicography), but he has also worked on subjects such as the translation of Italian literary works into Swedish and the reception of foreign authors in Scandinavia (Machiavelli, Gadda, Sterne).

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Paolo Marelli (2019).
"The Translation of Machiavelli’s Prince and the Political Climate in Mid Eighteenth-Century Sweden"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2365

Machiavelli’s Belfagor in seventeenth century Denmark

By Anna Maria Segala (University La Sapienza of Rome, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

Long before Machiavelli’s political thought became influential in Denmark, where the Prince was first translated in 1876, his tale Belfagor (published in 1549) reached an extensive international audience, particularly in Northern Europe, on the wave of the popular theme of women possessed by the devil. The tale’s first anonymous translation into Danish, entitled Machiavelli – Den florentinske Secretarii artige oc lystige Belphegors Gifftermaal, was printed – not published – around 1660 and probably intended as a commercial booklet. The purpose of this article is to shed light on this forgotten translation, which testifies to the assimilation in Renaissance Danish of a narrative model imported from Italy and circulating in Early Modern Europe. Focusing on the historical and cultural background of the target text, the article also aims to offer an insight into the translating strategies applied by the unknown translator.

Keywords: Belfagor, Renaissance Denmark, Early modern book market, married women, Machiavelli

©inTRAlinea & Anna Maria Segala (2019).
"Machiavelli’s Belfagor in seventeenth century Denmark"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2364

Literary migrations

The first known translation into Danish of Machiavelli’s “fable” Belfagor,[1] carried out by an anonymous translator, printed by an unknown printer or publisher in an unspecified year (‘udi dette aar’ – ‘in this year’) estimated around 1660, was found in 1938 in Oslo University Library by the research librarian Øyvind Anker.[2] It is a loose print, never registered, as one would expect, in Biblioteca Danica, the unified catalogue of all Danish printed publications from 1482 to 1830. It had apparently remained unseen up to that point. Øyvind Anker published his research on this unique specimen in the same year in the brief but relevant article “En dansk Machiavelli-oversettelse fra 1600-tallet” [A Danish translation from Machiavelli from the seventeenth century].[3] The translation is a 12-page text in black letters bearing the following title on the frontispiece:

Machiavelli/ Den Florentinske Secretarii/ artige og lystige/ BELFE-/GORS Gifftermaal// Udsæt aff Italiensk paa / Danske/ oc dedicerit til alle/ Onde Qvinder. – Prentet udi dette Aar.

[Machiavelli. The Florentine Secretary’s BELPHEGOR’S Righteous and Jocular MarriageTransposed from Italian into Danish and dedicated to all Bad Women. – Printed this year]. [4]

Although we cannot be certain, it is likely that this was the first translation of Belfagor into Danish. The text might have been part of a book, an almanac or an anthology, as was common at the time. The indication ‘Printed this year’ may refer to the publication date on the title page of the main work, but even in that case we don’t know who printed it and whether the book was meant, as it seems, for commercial use. However, its apparition outside of any contemporary official reception of Machiavelli’s works in Denmark[5] makes it a challenging case of cultural importation and ‘relocation̕ (Steiner 1975: 299).

The year 1660 was a crucial year for Denmark’s history: it marked the end of Adelsvælden (the nobles’ power) (1536-1660) and the introduction of Absolutism by Frederik III in the Dano-Norwegian Kingdom. Before that, during Christian IV’s reign (1577-1648), court culture had been characterized by the overwhelming splendor of royal power and by such new cultural forms as ‘Renaissance (Mannerist) architecture, silver furniture, court ballets and music at international level’ (Olden-Jørgensen 2002: 68).[6] The major historical event marking the beginning of this period was the Reformation, introduced in 1536 in Denmark-Norway by Christian III. The new religious, political and cultural climate benefited enormously from the recent invention of the printing press.

In the first decades after the rupture between the Lutheran church and the Roman Catholic church, printers worked mainly at the service of the Reformation’s need for propaganda. The reorganization of the church made it necessary to mediate the new faith in the mother tongue, which is the reason why religious texts were the focus of an intense printing and translating activity, mainly from German: Luther’s Bible, the Catechism, the Hymns and various books of prayer. However, these decisive changes did not undermine the enduring prestige of Latin as the language of the Church and of elite circles. On the contrary, Christian IV, the Renaissance king par excellence, in favour of a national humanistic literary production, welcomed the impulse coming from the Southern European Renaissance. Therefore, through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, original poetry written in Latin by Danish poets flourished side by side with imitations, adaptations and translations of the classics into Danish.[7]

Given this background, the first translation of Machiavelli’s Favola di Belfagor Arcidiavolo is, on the one hand, a Danish example of the migration of themes and stories in Early Modern Europe, on the other, the evidence of the higher standard achieved in the use of the vernacular language.[8] The former was part of the humanists’ urge to introduce new literary models as part of a project of cultural renewal, an essential step towards the making of a national literature; while the latter reveals a pragmatic, heterogeneous approach to the transfer of an original story from Italian via French to that middle phase of the Danish language called Renaissance Danish.

The Italian Language in a multilingual Renaissance court

Anders Toftgaard’s essay Les Langues à la cour de Danemark à la Renaissance et l’italianisme à l’époque de Christian IV (Toftgaard 2016) is an invaluable source of information on the cultural environment of the Danish Renaissance court and, in particular, on the multilingual and multicultural situation during the reign of Christian IV (1577-1648). The Danish monarchy included, in a personal union, Norway, Iceland and the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. From 1536 to 1660, its territory was second in size only to the Spanish Empire, therefore within its boundaries several languages were spoken: Danish, German, Icelandic and Norwegian. At court, German and Latin were used for foreign affairs, Danish for internal affairs. French and Italian were part of a young noblemen’s education – alongside German which played a primary role. Italian was the language of culture and the king himself used the Italian model to gain prestige among the other European courts.

High-ranking people would all have studied for some time in Padua. Musicians like Hans Nielsen and Mogens Pedersøn wrote and published their madrigals in Venice. Italian was learned during educational journeys to Italy (a real investment on the part of middle-class parents who were aiming at social promotion for their children), through books or through conversation with Italian people. Olden-Jørgensen (2007: 28) sums up the situation as follows: ‘Court culture under Christian IV was characterized by an Italianate Renaissance and mannerist style, mediated by German courts and Nederlandish craftsmen and artists.’ Moreover, the close ties which developed between the Danish and the Scottish and English Courts after Anna of Denmark’s marriage to James VI/I of England in 1589, further favored the circulation of Italian culture. Anna, Christian IV’s sister, was very fond of Italian Renaissance festivals and played an important role in the artistic life of the very early Stuart court.[9] In the context of cultural exchanges between Italy and other European countries, however, it is the Italian man of letters Giacomo Castelvetro, a protestant voluntary exile and a learned cosmopolitan, who played a leading part in the dissemination of Italian culture in Europe, and who exerted a remarkable influence on both courts. Besides being James VI and Anna’s teacher of Italian from about 1592 to 1593,[10] he had collaborated for some time with John Wolf, a London printer specialized in Italian literary works, in order to publish blacklisted books, among which Machiavelli’s Discorsi. At the Scottish court, he met the Danish nobleman Christian Barnekow, who asked him to work for him in Denmark. Between the summer of 1594 and the autumn of 1595, Castelvetro tried to put into order and edit, for the purpose of a publication which was unfortunately left unfinished, a huge corpus of Italian writings on political theory [‘scritture politiche’] that Barnekow, perhaps the most learned man of his day, had brought home from his long stay in Italy. These writings were highly valued by young Danish aristocrats, proof that the prestige of the Italian language and culture was connected not only to the arts, but also to the political subtleties for which the Italians were famous.[11]

As far as Machiavelli is concerned, an article by Harald Ilsøe (Ilsøe 1969: 7-30) informs us that his works were frequently present in the private libraries of seventeenth-century Denmark and it is quite easy to suppose that travelers coming back from the Grand Tour introduced some of the copies now property of The Royal Library. For example, a copy of Tutte le opere (the so called “Testina-udgave”/ “Testina” edition) featuring a small reproduction of Machiavelli’s head on the frontispiece), probably printed in the early seventeenth century but bearing the falsified date of 1550, had belonged to the brothers Flemming and Laurids Ulfeldt, who signed it in 1640.[12] The Fable of Belfagor, however, was neither part of this edition nor of the sixteenth-seventeenth century French and English translations of Machiavelli’s works (Anker 1938:29). Further information about how the text reached the Danish book market is still lacking.

Books for the common man

In the lively harbour city of Copenhagen, outside the life of the court, and mostly thanks to the Reformation, the first book markets were opened in a side chapel inside the main churches (Appel: 2001), so that they might be kept under control.[13] As the number of printers and booksellers began to expand in the whole country, others came from Germany or from the Netherlands. Henrik Horstbøll explains, in his thorough and very comprehensive study on the impact of the printing press in Denmark (Horstbøll 1999), how letterpress printing in the seventeenth century expanded the reading public beyond the small educated élite. The written word became part of everyday life in the country and influenced the perception of contemporary events through religious or didactic writings, the narration of tales and the historical reconstruction of a common heritage. Books offered a new way of looking at every aspect of life, therefore they are considered today as the common man’s media of the time. The major works intended for a learned public in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century were normally published in Latin and were expensive, whereas handbooks, stories and almanacs written in Danish dominated in the field of small format books, aimed at the general public. Such publications enjoyed a very wide circulation (Horstbøll 1999: 279-336), but only a minority of them have been preserved up to the present time.

It is therefore possible that the translation of  The Fable of Belfagor was printed in Copenhagen for a popular readership. Venturing even further, the publication or book that it was a part of, might have travelled to Norway just like many other books printed in Copenhagen and sent to a detached part of the kingdom; or it might have been bought in Copenhagen and taken to Christiania (Oslo’s earlier name). For example, one of the German publishers active in Copenhagen, Cassube, was specialized in popular, low price literature, also of a religious character, and was not adverse to producing pirate editions of the books he thought worth publishing.[14]

Belfagor arcidiavolo and Belphegaars Gifftermaal. In-between, Le mariage de Belphégor

Before looking at the Danish translation, I will briefly recall the plot of Belfagor. The story begins in hell. After a meeting of the devils’ Council, Belfagor the Archfiend is sent by Pluto down to earth in order to find out why so many husbands, once descended in hell, complain about their wives’ faults. Having been told to get married and given some money to invest, the Archfiend chooses to settle in Florence, where, under the name of Roderigo, he marries Onesta, a vain and demanding woman for whom he becomes indebted. He is therefore obliged to flee Florence and his creditors. During his escape, he meets a peasant, Gianmatteo, with whom he comes to an agreement: while Roderigo – who has in the meantime revealed himself as a devil – will take possession of rich young women, the peasant will pretend to enact an exorcism, delivering the woman from possession in exchange for a reward from her family. After two exorcisms, Roderigo decides unilaterally that he has paid off his debt of gratitude, but the peasant, now famous, is called by the King of France to deliver his daughter who is possessed by a devil. The devil in question is, of course, Roderigo, who refuses to leave the girl’s body. Under the terrible pressure of a double threat, the King’s and the devil’s, Gianmatteo makes Roderigo believe that his wife is coming to fetch him. In fear of having to return to his married life, Roderigo leaves Earth and goes back to hell, while the peasant, now a rich man, returns to Florence.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that, while elaborating on a theme borrowed from a French medieval tradition, Machiavelli introduces: 1) a realistic element in the frequent references to concrete places or persons in Florence; 2) an ironical description of hell as a very orderly kingdom, wisely ruled by Pluto, juxtaposed with a satirical picture of  the Florentine people’s interest in money and social status; 3) a misogynist view of married women’s vanity and arrogance; 4) a reversed conclusion of the pact between Belfagor, the devil, and Gianmatteo where  Belfagor is the one who must give in if he wants to free himself from his wife, while Gianmatteo turns the situation to his own advantage.[15]

The Danish translation, Belphegaars Gifftermaal (Belfagor’s marriage) is – as frequently happens with translations – quite a bit longer than the original. Unfortunately, a critical edition of this work is still missing, in spite of the fact that other Danish translations of the tale have been published in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not always with satisfactory results.[16] As to the linguistic aspect, the first difficulty one encounters in dealing with such an ancient text is decoding the black letter script.[17] The acquisition of a normalized transcription to work on was therefore the first important step towards understanding this early Danish Belphegor printed in approximately 1660.[18]

The plot follows the pattern of the original, but there are a few additions, a couple of which are totally external to the story, so that we can venture to speak of a form of ‘rewriting’ (Lefevere 1992: 9, 200).

Øyvind Anker, who was the first to come across the anonymous print, points to a separate French translation of the tale dated 1661, which, like other coeval English translations, probably circulated among learned people, showing that the theme of ‘bad women’ possessed by the devil was quite popular in the western European countries. [19] The anonymous Danish translator seems to have worked with the help of a French translation while probably referring to the Italian source text.

However, even the first French translation, Le mariage de Belfégor, carried out by Tanneguy Le Febvre and published ‘after several editions’ in Saumur in 1665 (Le Febvre 1665), did not appear as an independent text; rather, it was almost hidden at the end of an abridged version of the lives of the Greek poets, Les Vies des Poètes grecs. Whether Machiavelli’s fable was being smuggled like an exoteric text or added as a concluding divertissement is difficult to say. What is particularly interesting in our context is the final note added by Le Febvre, where he apologizes for the changes and additions he has made to the tale claiming, at the same time, that no harm has been done to the text, since

Peut-estre mesme qu’en quelques endroits Machiauel n’auoit pas dit tout ce qu’il eust bien voulu dire: et  pour parler plus nettement, mais sans pourtant me flatter beaucoup, ie croy que le François vaut bien l’Italien pour le moins. (Le Febvre 1665: 28)

The cultural and linguistic contiguity between Italian and French puts the translator in the privileged position of being less “foreign” than others in relation to the text. In spite of the lesser distance and probably moved by the desire to gain a kind of literary authorship, Le Febvre emphasizes the act of translation trying to “improve” on the original by adding missing details. His attempt to ‘render  “clear” what does not wish to be clear in the original’ would fall into the trend Antoine Berman defines as ‘deforming tendency’.[20]

The Danish translator’s strategies go even further. A look at the title page will tell us a number of things in relation to the cultural context:

Den Florentinske Secretarii
artige oc lystige
GORS Gifftermaal,
Udsæt aff Italiensk paa
Danske, oc dedicerit til alle
Onde Qvinder[21]

Firstly, the author is presented as the Florentine Secretary, probably to indicate the uniqueness of that position and the well-known political role it involved. The implication is that by 1660 Machiavelli was easily identifiable as the author of the Prince, even outside a limited circle of humanists.[22] Secondly, the title of the story, Belfagor’s marriage, reproduces the French title, Le Mariage de Belfégor, focusing on only one of the themes – the most appealing for the readers – present in the original story. The third statement about the translation being made from Italian into Danish is probably intended to enhance the authenticity of the story. Last but not least, the dedication to all bad women (‘til alle Onde Qvinder’) points to a dual commercial purpose: on the one hand the popularity of misogynous themes among men, on the other, a growing market for writings about married life directed at female readers. In fact, the majority of the publications of an overtly religious and moral inspiration in the sixteenth-seventeeth century were addressed to widows. One exception was a booklet by a certain Holzmann, Fromme Qvinders Speyl, eller alle gudfryctige Matroners Plict oc Skyld imod Gud, deris Ecte-Mænd, saa oc alle Mennisker, oc dem self [Pious women’s mirror, or all the devout mistresses’ duty towards God, their husbands and all the people, also themselves], translated by the Danish publisher Moltke in 1653 (Appel 2001: 621).[23] How different from the subversive situation or “moral” presented in our Belphegors Gifftermaal!

Apart from the title page, the preamble, which adds almost one page to the original, is again explicitly addressed to women: ‘Braffve oc vitberømte Qvinder’ [To the Audacious and Famous Women]. The translator, here speaking as if covered by the author’s identity, uses the first person jeg and a patronizing tone to give women some useful directions about how to behave with their husbands, since ‘ligesom I venner dem i Begyndelsen, saa har I dem altid’ [if you steer them from the beginning, you will always have them with you]. Then, suddenly, the narrator’s voice takes a sideways step into a shared social context to show a direct knowledge of family and social life, for which the fable could work as a parable:

[...] ja jeg kiender dem,som gifver vores Honesta slet intet effter; Oc hvis Mænd skulle heller ønske med vores Dom Rodrigo at brænde udi Helffvede ved ævigvarende Steen-Kull, end at boe her paa Jorden, (om det var end i Roskild eller KiøgeKroe) udi stedsvarende Klammer oc Trætte. Med det haffver intet paa sig, I veed vel at dersom Manden er Qvindens Hoffvet, saa er Qvinden Hoffvedets Krone: Lader dem derfore dantze effter eders Pibe, lærer dem at krybe i Sæcken, saa skal mand udi sin tid sætte eder udi de Danske Krønnicker; Ligesom Honesta staar udi de Florentinske. Leffver oc holder eder vel.[24]

[[…] yes, I do know women who are not inferior to our Honesta, and men who would rather burn in hell’s eternal tenterhooks than, like Dom Rodrigo live here on earth, (be it Roskilde or Køge-kro), in perennial rows and disputes. But there’s nothing to do, you know very well that if a man is a woman’s head, then the woman is the head’s crown. Therefore, let them obey you, teach them to take the cowl so that, with time, you will be recorded in the Danish chronicles, just like Honesta has been in the Florentine.]

As we can see, by expanding the subject matter of the text with the example of two well-known places in Denmark, Roskilde and Køge, the translator is adding some local details with a domesticating effect for the Danish public. One should note that Roskilde, once a rich and important cathedral city, had been recently devastated by the plague and by the war against Sweden (soon to end with a Danish defeat). Køge, a flourishing fish-market, in the previous decades had been the site of many witch trials, the most notorious of them being in 1612 Køge huskors, when a husband’s accusation that his wife had sent the devil into his house had caused 15 women to be condemned to the stake. This could explain why Dom Rodrigo/the archfiend would rather ‘burn in hell’s eternal tenterhooks’ than live in one of those cities, a metonym for Denmark. In fact, the country was going through a crucial change. The power of the State Council (Rigsrådet), which had reached its height at the end of the 1640s, was about to be overtaken by the king’s absolute power in 1660. Therefore, the very orderly Council meeting summoned by Pluto in hell could be a satirical mirror of the tensions between the aristocracy and Frederik III. And there is more. When the members of the Council in hell decide to make a rigorous inquiry into the causes of many a husband’s unhappiness, they do so ‘without consulting the Queen, who precisely that week was not very well’ [‘foruden at tale til Dronningen der om, som var ilde til pass den gandske uge’].[25] This expansion of the target text, wholly outside of the Florentine context, has the characteristic of a pretext, which may be explained only if we take into account that king Frederik III’s wife, queen Sophie Amalie, strongly supported her husband’s policy against the nobility, a policy that would lead to the introduction of absolutism.

The prism of translation

So far, we have gone through a few items that allow a reading of the target text as an example of interaction with the Danish cultural-political system. This brings us into the territory of “translation as rewriting”, a concept developed by André Lefevere in a series of articles collected in his seminal book Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame.[26] Given the influence of the Italian model in Renaissance Denmark, the translation of Belfagor can be regarded not only as a means of cultural enrichment, but also as an attempt to introduce into the vernacular a satirical tale meant to function in a Danish context.  The complexity of the act of translating is very well expressed in another basic concept put forward by Lefevere, that is “refraction”, by which he signifies ‘the adaptation of a work of literature to a different audience, with the intention of influencing the way in which that audience reads the work’ (Shuping 2013: 56). In this respect, Belphegors Gifftermaal reveals a strategy that takes into account the readers’ awareness of the coexistence in the Danish society of a double standard of speaking as well as of reading and writing. The gap between books for the learned few and printed matter intended for ordinary people is actually refracted in the ironical, amplified resonance given to the episode of Roderic’s first possession of a married Florentine woman. Here the devil, described as ‘an honourable devil’ [‘en retskaffens Djeffvel’], takes his job so seriously that ‘he spoke better Latin than one finds in books, disputed of universal wisdom, and revealed many people’s sins’ [‘talte hand bedre Latin end Mand finder udi Bøgerne, disputerede udi Verdslig Viißdom, oc aabenbarede adskillige Folckis Synder’].[27]

It will be evident by now that, compared to the literary production of the time, Belphegor’s Gifftermaal is a very entertaining story which succeeds in keeping the ironical and satirical tone of the Italian original by turning it into a more popular form of narration.  Frequent signs of this are represented by the translator’s interpolations. For example, the first time we meet Gianmatteo (Matteo in the Danish version), Machiavelli uses one single, but meaningful adjective, ‘animoso’, whereas the Danish version expands Matteo’s characteristics into: ‘a man ready for anything, and a hard nut to crack’ [‘en Mand færdig til alt, oc som haffde Been udi Næsen’]. Again, when Matteo sets the devil free from his creditors, the first-person narrator makes the devil even nobler by adding: ‘and I dare say that never had a devil kept his promises so well, or showed so much gratitude and honesty as he did’ [‘oc jeg tør vel sige, at aldrig haffver nogen Djeffvel holt sine Løffter  saa vel, eller ladet see saa stor Taknemmelighed oc Oprictighed som han gjorde’].[28]


To conclude, so much good will on the part of the devils is, in my opinion, suspect. What I would suggest, is that the translator is “speaking” to an audience that does not take devils so seriously and which laughs at miracles, since, in the words of the king of France, ‘it was just as easy to make miracles in Paris, as it was in Florence or in Naples’ [‘det var lige saa læt at gjøre Mirakler til Paris, som  til Florence oc til Naples’]. On the contrary, he shows a kind of sympathetic understanding for the character of Matteo, who in the end, after succeeding in his third and last pseudo-exorcism, happily returns to Florence – with a meaningful difference in the translator’s addition: ‘he thought he was lucky enough having escaped being hanged in Paris’ [‘[…] holdt han sig lycksalig nock at hand slap fra at hand icke bleff hengt til Paris’]. [29]

It is quite likely that the translation was more than a commercial enterprise. One might even suggest that it was the output of a learned person who found Machiavelli’s fable an apt means to convey a tale about bad women who control their husbands (if not, they must learn to do so), good devils who prefer hell to being married in Denmark and a cunning peasant, who is eager to get rich, but who wisely holds his own life dearer than the money offered by a king. One hundred years and a couple of decades after the Reformation, on the threshold of Absolutism and at the dawn of a literary production of complete orthodoxy towards the king, a Danish translator finds a way to introduce his countrymen to a satirical form of narration coming from Southern Europe.


Appel, Charlotte (2001), Læsning og bogmarked i 1600-tallets Danmark. Bind I-II (Reading and the Book Market in seventeenth Century Denmark. Voll. I-II), Det Kongelige Bibliotek og Museum Tusculanums Forlag, København.

Belphegors Gifftermaal (approx. 1660) Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar. D 48.

Berman, Antoine (1985/2000) “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign”, in Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader, London, Routledge: 284-297. English translation of “La Traduction comme épreuve de l’étranger,” Texte, 1985: 67-81.

Horstbøll, Henrik (1999) Menigmandsmedie. Det folkelige bogtryk i Danmark 1500-1840. En kulturhistorisk undersøgelse (The common man’s media. The popular printed press in Denmark 1580-1840), Museum Tusculanums Forlag, København: 279-336.

Ilsøe, Harald (1969) “Af Machiavellis historie i Danmark i femhundredåret for hans fødsel” (Of Machiavelli’s History in Denmark Five Hundred Years from his Birth), Fund og forskning i det Kongelige Biblioteks samlinger 1969, 16: 7-30.

Ilsøe, Ingrid (1982-83) Christian Cassube Boghandler i København 1650-1693, in Fund og Forskning, Bind 26 Det Kongelige Bibliotek, København, https://tidsskrift.dk/fundogforskning/issue/view/4502.

Leeds Barroll, J. (2001) Anna of Denmark, Queen of England: A Cultural Biography, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Le Febvre, Tanneguy (1665) "Le mariage de Belfégor. Nouvelle, traduite de l'italien de messer Nicolo M. secretaire de Florence", in Les Vies des Poètes grecs - en abrégé par Mr Le Febvre, latest checked in  data.bfn.fr February 19th 2018.

Lefevere, André (1982) “Mother Courage's Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction in a Theory of Literature”, Modern Language Studies 12(4): 3-20.

Lefevere, André (ed.) (1992) Translation/ History/ Culture: A Sourcebook, Routledge, London and New York.

Munday, Jeremy (2016) Introducing translation Studies. Theories and Applications, Routledge, London and New York.

Olden-Jørgensen Sebastian (2002) “State Ceremonial, Court Culture and Political Power in Early Modern Denmark, 1536-1746”, Scandinavian Journal of History 27, 2: 65-76.

Olden-Jørgensen, Sebastian (2007) “Court Culture during the Reign of Christian IV”, in Pieter Isaacsz (1568-1625): Court Painter, Art Dealer and Spy, B. Noldus and J. Roding (eds.), Brepols Publishers n.v., Turnhout, Belgium: 15-29.

Shuping, Ren (2013) “Translation as Rewriting”, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 3, 18: 55-59.

Skovgaard Petersen, Karen (2004) “Et dansk hyldestdigt til Nürnberg”, in Renæssancen: dansk. europæisk, globalt, Marianne Pade and Minna Skafte Jensen eds., Museum Tusculanums Forlag-Københavns Universitet: 161-176.

Segala, Anna Maria (2014) “La fortuna di Machiavelli nei Paesi scandinavi”, in Machiavelli. Enciclopedia Machiavelliana, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 2014, Vol. II: 271-273.

Steiner, George (1975) After Babel. Aspects of language and Translation, Oxford University Press, New York and London.

Stoppelli, Pasquale (2007) Machiavelli e la novella di Belfagor. Saggio di filologia attributiva, Salerno Editrice, Roma.

Toftgaard, Anders (2011) “Måske vil vi engang glædes ved at mindes dette”. Om Giacomo Castevetros håndskrifter”, Det Kgl. Bibliotek, in Fund og Forskning, Bind 50, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, København.

Toftgaard, Anders (2016) “Les langues à la cour de Danemark à la Renaissance et l’italianisme à l’époque de Christian IV (1577-1648)” in Les cours comme lieux de rencontre et d’élaboration des langues vernaculaires à la Renaissance, Jean Balsamo and Anna-Kathrin Bleuler (eds), Librairie Droz, Genève : 153-180.

Zuliani, Federico (2011) “En samling politiske håndskrifter fra slutningen af det 16. århundrede. Giacomo Castevetro og Christian Barnekows bibliotek”, Det Kgl. Bibliotek, in Fund og Forskning, Bind 50, 2011, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, København.

Øyvind, Anker (1938) En dansk Machiavelli-oversettelse fra 1600-tallet, Bok og bibliotek 5: 28-31.


[1]The edition consulted here is Machiavelli (1971) published by Giunti, Florence.

[2] I am grateful to Anders Toftgaard, research librarian at the Manuscript section of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, for his invaluable help in referring me to this text, kept at the Royal Library as a photocopy of the original in Oslo, and also in giving me access to Øyvind Anker’s presentation of the translation found at Oslo University Library (see next note) and to relevant research on the sixteenth-seventeenth century in Denmark. Toftgaard discusses a related topic in the this special issue.

[3] Øyvind Anker (1938) “En dansk Machiavelli-oversettelse fra 1600-tallet”, Bok og bibliotek 5: 28-31.

[4] Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar. D 48.

[5] The Prince (Fyrsten) was first translated into Danish, by Johannes C. Barth in 1876, although the historian Caspar Paludan Muller had already published an essay on Machiavelli in 1839 (Segala 2014: 271-273).

[6] Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen (2002: 65-76) “State Ceremonial, Court Culture and Political Power in Early Modern Denmark, 1536-1746”, Scandinavian Journal of History 27(2): 65-76. In this article, the author attempts a new definition of the representative public sphere as an Early Modern phenomenon because of the structure and values of society that it expressed. Although these values concerned the aristocracy, they were an efficient means of social and political communication.

[7] See Karen Skovgaard Petersen (2004: 161-176). The two editors of the book underline that much remains to be explored in this field of research.

[8] Here a mention must be made of Anders Sørensen Vedel, the most learned and refined Renaissance humanist, both as the translator of Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum from Latin into Danish and as the editor of the first collection of Medieval Danish ballads, Hundredvisebog, published in 1591.

[9] See Leeds Barroll (2001: 1-13).

[10] Some years later, John Florio would have an even more important role at the English court. See Montini in this issue.

[11] Two articles have been relevant for this part of my paper: Toftgaard (2011) and Zuliani (2011). Both authors underline the wealth of manuscripts related to the role of the Italian culture in Denmark that are still to be investigated.

[12] Harald Ilsøe, research librarian and bibliographer at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, see Ilsøe 1969.

[13] Charlotte Appel (2001) gives a comprehensive and detailed picture of the type of books and prints circulating in the sixteenth-seventeenth century, only partially preserved and classified in the national catalogue Biblioteca Danica.

 [14]See Ilsøe (1982-83).

[15] Here I am indebted to Stoppelli’s reading of Belfagor Arcidiavolo from a philological point of view in the light of a long tradition of studies in Stoppelli (2007), where he underlines the coexistence of different types of narration in Machiavelli’s text: the structure of the exemplum, already developed into a fable by Le Fèvre, the later use of the theme in the European repertoire of misogynous stories, and the new link to the medieval theme of the peasant’s cunningness with clear allusions to the city of Florence as a whole. Belfagor, only seemingly a fable, reveals then a rhetorical status that can be connected to Florence’s linguistic, cultural and political context in the 16th century.

[16] See En meget lystig novelle [A very Funny Story], translated by Johan Windfeld-Hansen in Halvtreds Mesterfortællinger [Master Stories from the 1950s], Jens Kruuse and Ole Storm (eds), Det Schønbergske Forlag, København 1954 and Belfagor eller Djævelen der blev gift [Belfagor or the Devil who got married], translated by Mads Qvortrup, Informations Forlag, København 2008. The latter has been strongly criticized (and with good reason) by Anders Toftgaard and other critics in the Danish press.

[17] I am very grateful to Mauro Camiz, who in the years 2011-2015 was postdoctoral research assistant in Germanic Philology at La Sapienza university in Rome for his accurate normalized transcription of the black letter print.

[18] I am also grateful to Simon Skovgaard Boeck, Senior editor of Gammeldansk Ordbog, Det Danske Sprog- og Litteratur Selskab, for revising the transcription and supplying historical information on some lexical occurrences in the Danish Belphegor.

[19] Anker (1938: 29).

[20]Antoine Berman (1985/2000) quoted in Munday (2016: 231).

[21] All the proper names and words quoted in Italics here, are marked in Antiqua in the print, which means that they were perceived as foreign.

[22]Among them, Arild Uidtfeldt, author of Danmarks Riges Krønicke (1595-1603) [A History of the Kingdom of Denmark 1595-1603]. He was well informed on Machiavelli and had a direct knowledge of his texts. In the first part of his work, Frederik I.s Historie, he finds similarities between Christian II and Cesare Borgia, both of them terrible tyrants, a fact that, according to the moral values current at the time, Uidtfelfdt condemns. His source here is The Prince, chapter 7, but no mention is made of it by Huitfeldt. Some other parts of his History show signs that he has read and used passages from the French translation of Discorsi, but the conclusions he comes to are quite different compared to Machiavelli’s philosophy, basically because Uidtfeldt was afraid of influencing the king. However, Ilsøe (1969: 14-19) gives detailed evidence of the interpretative angles from which the Danish humanists of the time tried to interpret Machiavelli’s state reason in the Nordic political context. Quite a number of them were in fact State Counsellors, as well as Huitfeldt himself, which explains his cautious attitude.

[23] In the course of the seventeenth century, owing to the Lutheran Church’s endeavor to spread the reading of the catechism, there was an improvement in literacy rates in the country, with obvious differences between town and countryside, men and women, rich and poor. By the end of the seventeenth century, it is quite likely that there were as many literate women as there were men, at least in the towns.

[24] Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar. D 48, – f. 3v.

[25] Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar. D 48, – f. 4r.

[26] Lefevere (1982: 4) quoted in Shuping (2013: 56).

[27] Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar. D 48, – f. 10v. It may be worth noting the difference in register between the word disputerede, clearly from the Latin “disputare”, and the alliterative expression ̔Verdslig Viißdom̕, in my translation ‘universal wisdom’, used as a more popular equivalent  for  Machiavelli’s ‘philosophia’. See Machiavelli, Tutte le Opere, La favola di Belfagor Arcidiavolo, Einaudi on line, p. 7: ‘parlava in latino et disputava delle cose di philosophia et scopriva i peccati di molti’.

[28] Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar, D 48, – f. 14v.

[29] Oslo, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lib. Rar. D 48, – f. 14v.

About the author(s)

Anna Maria Segala has been Professor of Nordic languages and literature at Sapienza, Università di Roma. Her major areas of interest are the fairy tale, nineteenth and twentieth century poetry and fiction, experimental theatre and translation. Among her publications: Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast/ Babettes Gaestebud, Einaudi 1997, the anthology of essays Forme della modernità in H. C. Andersen, Bulzoni 2010, proceedings of the International Conference at Sapienza Università di Roma for H.C. Andersen’s Bicentenary in 2005, the essays Superficie con frattura. La prosa di Helle Helle, AION 2010 and Le Vivisezioni di Strindberg. L’osservazione scientifica come pretesto per nuove forme narrative, AION 2013. More recently, the anthology of essays The Nordic Avant-gardes in the European Context of the Early 20th Century, Edizioni di Pagina 2017, proceedings of the International Conference at Sapienza Università di Roma, 2015. Translations from the original of works by H.C. Andersen, S. Kierkegaard and A. Strindberg.

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©inTRAlinea & Anna Maria Segala (2019).
"Machiavelli’s Belfagor in seventeenth century Denmark"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
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Genealogies of Knowledge II

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Summer School in Translation Studies

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Machiavelli’s Belfagor and the Dutch Mirror of Evil Women

By Francesca Terrenato (Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

Machiavelli’s  Belfagor (written in the 1520’s and first published in 1549), a satirical tale about the devil who takes a bride, enjoyed a circulation of its own in the seventeenth-century, independently of the author’s political writings. This article deals with the Dutch translation of this novella, by placing it in the context of popular and misogynist literature in the Early Modern period, as well as in the context of Dutch seventeenth-century culture and practices of translation. Belfagor combines Florentine folklore with statements about gender, politics and religion. In 1668 it appeared in the Netherlands in a printed miscellany, the Spiegel der quade vrouwen [Mirror of Evil Women]. In France and in England, in the context of the debate known as the ‘querelle des femmes’ or ‘battle of the trousers’, pamphlets and collections on the theme circulated widely. Belfagor fits perfectly within this tradition, also thriving in the Dutch Golden Age. But Machiavelli’s tale could also be valued by Dutch readers for its anti-absolutist strain and its polemic against the clergy. These issues were particularly welcome in the Protestant Dutch republic. Furthermore, the translation of Italian prose (Boccaccio and Machiavelli) helped the Dutch literary system to develop its own ‘middle style’.

Keywords: Machiavelli, Belfagor, early modern translation, popular literature, misogynist literature

©inTRAlinea & Francesca Terrenato (2019).
"Machiavelli’s Belfagor and the Dutch Mirror of Evil Women"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2359

Belfagor’s wanderings

An early detractor of Machiavelli, cardinal Reginald Pole, wrote in 1539 that the Prince had been ‘written with the finger of Satan’.[1] This was to become a common refrain in the often-uninformed criticism against the Florentine secretary, but Machiavelli’s ‘sympathy for the Devil’[2] is indeed quite literally expressed in his tale Belfagor (first published under his name in 1549).[3] While the Prince travelled all around Europe arousing contrasting feelings this satirical fable about the devil who takes a bride enjoyed an independent circulation of its own. The English translation appeared in 1647 (The Divell a Married Man),[4] followed by one in Dutch in 1668 (Seer vermaeckelijcke vertelling […], as part of a miscellany)[5] and the Danish translation was probably also published around the 1660’s (Belphegors Gifftermaal […]).[6] In France the first edition dates back to 1664 (as an appendix to a collection, Les vies des poetes grecs) and the second to 1677 (in the volume L’enfer burlesque. Le marriage de Belphegor).[7]

Seventeenth-century European publishers and readers, generally cautious in approaching the Prince because of its alleged political opportunism and atheism, could instead freely lay hands on this minor work generally printed on its own or in combination with works by other nonpolitical authors. The French 1664 edition is particularly relevant, since in 1557 Machiavelli’s work had been prohibited in its entirety in the papal Index and the ban was usually respected by French printers. The Prince and other works circulated in the Protestant countries but stimulated fierce debates, whereas the captivating character of the devil turned into a man, who takes a human wife and goes through hell on Earth, clearly had a wide appeal and roused little or no suspicion. However, it is precisely on some controversial moral and political aspects of the tale as far as its circulation in England is concerned, that Hoenselaars concentrates in his 1998 study.[8]

At first glance a divertissement totally alien to Machiavelli’s learned political writing, Belfagor can actually be read as an ingenious bric-a-brac combining the tradition of the folk tale –  a flourishing genre especially in Florence – with the polemical views of the author himself on the politics of his own day.  Machiavelli elaborated upon elements derived from oral lore: the devil in disguise interacting with humans, a high-maintenance, petulant wife, a witty peasant who makes it to the royal court. He could also have found inspiration in a French fabliau, just as his Venetian contemporary Giovanni Brevio, who wrote a similar although less provoking tale (see Stoppelli 2007; 2014). The presence of a political thinker in the background, however, is evident in his treatment of the subject.

In the first pages of the tale, Machiavelli depicts a monarch (Pluto, king of Hell) opening a democratic debate with his counselors[9] in order to decide whether to send a representative to the upper world.  Belfagor will be sent on Earth to gather information on matters of common interest, that is to say, to acquire evidence of the catastrophic consequences of marriage for men, an element that the scrupulous infernal judges must take into account when disposing of the sinners’ souls. Machiavelli presents the reader with an upside-down perspective: justice and participation in the administration of justice are more likely to reside in Hell than on Earth. According to Sumberg, author of an illuminating reading of the tale:

The devil chosen, though unwilling at first, consents to go in a spirit of civic sacrifice typical of a political regime that is broadly based. Machiavelli notes the longstanding political stability of the nether world. In fact he pays more attention to the political arrangements of hell than the logic of the plot requires. Why? Where is good government to be found? In hell. His readers know well enough that it is not found on earth. He wants them to share his joke about the political superiority of the imagined kingdom of hell.

Machiavelli even claims for hell a concern for truth and justice. Assembled for consultation, the devils hold that they would show little love for justice were they to fail to investigate men's complaints. It is this alleged love of justice that pushes them to seek the truth. Where on earth are truth and justice found?

The storyteller carefully sketches the limited monarchy of hell. (Sumberg 1992: 244)

Limited monarchy is preferable to absolute monarchy, as Machiavelli states in Chapter IX (De principatu civili) of his Prince, where he praises the stability of a government based on popular consent, and in Chapter 23 when, dealing with the perils of adulation, he praises the ruler who is able to ask for and listen to wise advice. The first pages of the tale are thus a humorous appendix to Machiavelli’s more engaged works.

The vicissitudes of Belfagor in Florence as a married man, his pact with the peasant who saves his life and the reiterated possessions of young ladies in the second part of the tale combine elements of the misogynist tradition stemming from the Middle Ages with anti-clerical satire, a mixture present in the tradition of Italian novellas from Novellino and Decameron to Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti [The Nights of Pleasure].[10] It is worth noting, with Ghelli (2007), that Machiavelli purposely presented it as a ‘fable’, thus underlining its supernatural features in contrast with the reality-based novella. Although its beginning and end are located in the demonic underworld, the central part of the text, telling the vicissitudes of married life as well as hinting at the sins of priests and monks, reminds us of antecedents in the corpus of (late) medieval tale collections from Tuscany.

Belfagor in the context of seventeenth century Dutch popular literature

When the Dutch Belfagor went to press, Machiavelli was already well known in the thriving, tolerant Dutch Republic. His editorial fortunes had begun there some forty years before: a Dutch translation of the Prince had been available since 1615. This fact seems to indicate that it might have been read by a wider public than the learned circles (who could read it in Latin, French or even Italian). Another notable fact is the appearance of various French and Latin editions printed by Dutch presses that deliberately ignored Roman Catholic censorship. Among them was the 1683 French Prince by Amelot de la Houssaie printed in Amsterdam, with a famous apologetic foreword. These translations spread direct knowledge of Machiavelli’s ideas, promoting a decidedly positive view of his figure, based on his ability to realistically depict the good and bad aspects of power that contrasted with the negative prejudice mostly expressed by the learned (Terrenato 2010: 178-182).

Machiavelli’s Belfagor came out in the Dutch Republic as the last component of a printed miscellany, the Spiegel der quade vrouwen, or Mirror of Evil Women (second augmented edition of the work published in 1668, henceforth the Mirror). The printing press was that of the brothers Appelaer, who also published seafaring, scientific and theological tracts.[11]  The volume is an example of a volksboek [popular reader]. Volksboek is an umbrella term for a varied corpus of texts (many of them collections of sparse short prose), intended for the recreation and/or basic education of a wide range of readers. As often happens with this kind of publication, no indication is given of the translator or editor of the collection. The target group of such books is markedly different from that of the learned and/or informed public interested in contemporary political and philosophical debates that read Machiavelli’s Discourses and the Prince. Further guesses at the targeted readers for Machiavelli’s fable in this particular collection and its positioning in the literary system have to be contextualized in terms of recent research in the field of popular readers.

With regard to Dutch popular literature, E.K. Grootes has the merit of having laid down some fundamental issues connected to the study of this neglected early modern best-selling kind of text.[12] Firstly, we must consider the huge variety of publications that it included, from almanacs to books of proverbs, from travelogues to farces, from songbooks to lives of saints, from fables to books on and for women, to mention just a few. Secondly, the study of these texts entails in many cases an inclusive approach towards literary products that until recently had seemed too low and trivial to be included in literary handbooks or be the object of research. Grootes rightly calls for more attention for this ‘overgrown backyard’, so that scholars may be able ‘to paint a white spot in the map of our diachronic and synchronic literary historiography’ (Grootes 1982-1983: 11). Furthermore, he considers it impossible to draw a line in this corpus between original and (regularly unacknowledged) translated texts, often juxtaposed in one volume; nor can we limit ourselves, in his view, to tracing back the imported items to their source lest we miss the chance to understand the function and scope of these heterogeneous items.

Their fortune is a transnational phenomenon that sees the circulation, translation and re-use of works (and sometimes of printed illustrations) in new collections, in Italy, France, England, and other European countries. In an article on English readers, for instance, Adam Smyth describes such collections in general terms as follows:

Printed miscellanies were small, octavo or duodecimo publications, the products of a bundling together of writing from diverse sources – manuscript commonplace books, plays, songbooks, other printed miscellanies. These texts are bursting with material: most commonly short poetry from numerous unascribed authors, but often also potted histories, court dialogues, model letters, notes of mythology, riddles and jokes. These books are verse miscellanies; models for etiquette; prompt-books for wits; exemplars of elite life. The most common subject for discussion is love, particularly the torturous sufferings of the snubbed male wooer, but poems praising or criticizing women, lauding Royalism, friendship, and drink, are also common. If these books could be said to have any unified voice, that voice must be pitched somewhere among the bawdy, the misogynous, the Royalist, the voyeuristic, and the educative. (Smyth 2004: 4)

Luc Debaene, whose study is focused on the Dutch prose novels of classical or chivalric origin circulating in the seventeenth century, in his effort to outline the group of popular readers addressed by these novels, points to the French tradition of the livres bleus (Debaene 1977: 23). The small format, the cheap covers and printing paper, and the presence of illustrations, featured in this heterogeneous corpus of inexpensive booklets published in seventeenth-century France, are consistent with the aforementioned Dutch miscellanies. In discussing the targeted readers Chartier problematizes the notion of ‘popular’: it is possible that these books ‘constituted reading matter for different social groups, each approaching it in ways ranging from basic deciphering of signs to fluent reading’ (Chartier 1984: 131). 

It is rather interesting to note that a number of tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron also suffered the same fate as Belfagor, ending up in a Dutch collection of diverse texts, known as the Distance-shortener or the Melancholy-chaser [Wech-corter of Melancolie-verdrijver], that was re-issued several times starting from the last decade of the sixteenth century. As the title, format and quality of print suggest, it was intended as a travel companion for the lower and middle classes; the editor/translator did not eschew bawdy and explicit passages in Boccaccio’s tales, as a learned translator of the Decameron, such as Dirck Coornhert[13], had done before.

Similar in structure to other miscellaneous volumes that inundated the European book market at the time, the Dutch Mirror is a heterogeneous collection of writings on the faults of women. Anti-uxorial and misogynist attitudes were to be found in a variety of works from all over Europe and represent one of the aspects of continuity from the medieval to the early modern range of literary subjects. Authors often schizophrenically engaged in both satires against women and apologies of the female sex (according to the laus and vituperatio scheme), as Boccaccio did in two of his works: the learned Latin collection of lives of illustrious women, De mulieribus claris (1362) and Il Corbaccio (1365), a venomous vernacular invective against the ‘imperfect creature excited by a thousand foul passions’ (quoted in Panizza 2013: 189).

In her 1966 study of misogyny in literature, Katherine Rogers states about the early modern period:

Although the Renaissance retractions were more secular and generally less virulent, as well as less frequent, than those of the Middle Ages, poets continued to indulge in the medieval charges that women's bodies are really masses of corruption; that women are lustful and undiscriminating; that they offer no more than sensual gratification, which is degrading; and that they are to be used, discarded, and escaped from before they ruin their lovers. (Rogers 1966: 118)

The Mirror of Evil Women is perfectly in line with this synchronic topos. Notwithstanding the solemn title of ‘Spiegel’, winking at the tradition of early modern mirrors of virtue, righteous love or courteous behavior, the volume ending with Belfagor is a product intended for average readers in search of solace with just a tiny bit of learning attached. As for the choice of the overall subject, the faults of women, it was quite fashionable at the time in the Netherlands where, as Schama states, there was an ‘outpouring of misogynist literature that gathered momentum through the century’ . Inspired by an English work from the time of the Pamphlet Wars, Joseph Swetnam's Arraignment of Lewd and Idle Women (1615)[14], books like the Mirror, writes Schama, ‘scorned the institution of marriage as a trap sprung by unscrupulous females for the enslavement and ruin of gullible males’ (Schama: 9). Both in France and in England, in the context of the debate known as ‘querelle des femmes’ or ‘battle of the trousers’, pamphlets and collections on the theme circulated widely together with their philogynist counterparts, as shown by Ian Maclean (Maclean 2013).

Besides the Mirror, the Netherlands contributed to the dispute with a number of satirical texts against women and warning men against marriage, displaying a variety of choices as far as the genre and targeted audience is concerned. Schama mentions the Huwlijks Doolhof [Marriage Maze] of Jan de Mol (1634), the Tien Vermakelijkheden der Houwelijks [The Ten Amusements of Marriage] (1678), and the Biegt der Getrouwde [The Trap of the Betrothed] (1679), published by Hieronymus Sweerts (Schama: 9).[15]

Particularly widespread in its circulation (as testified by the presence of the volume in a number of public and private libraries in Europe) is also the Latin tract Hippolytus Redivivus id est remedium contemnendi sexum muliebrem (1644). Author, publisher and place of publication are unknown, although bibliographic research locates it in the Netherlands.[16] Not without a sense of irony (see the fake censorship note in the first pages), it is a learned discussion of the faults of women based on ancient and early Christian auctoritates such as Euripides, Seneca, Eusebius and Orosius, full of quotes and marginal annotations. It was translated into the vernacular and popularized in Den verreesen Hippolytus (1679),[17] by adding to the (simplified) original content the translation of Phaedra’s letter to Hippolytus from Ovid’s Heroides, some copper engravings, a satirical ‘cooling beverage’ in prose for crazy lovers, and a ‘story’ of uncertain origin depicting the misdeeds of a courtesan. The result is a remarkable combination of highbrow and lowbrow styles and subjects quite similar to those of the Mirror.

The Mirror included a few international titles. The first part, the Alphabet, is a translation of an anonymous French work: Alphabet de l’imperfection et malice des femmes, dedié à la plus mauvaise du monde.[18] Later attributed to an otherwise obscure Jacques Olivier, ‘holding a licentiate in Canon Law’, the text is in fact attributable to the Franciscan preacher Alexis Trousset, who died in 1632 after writing some religious works (Maclean 2013: 161-162). The title page shows a woman with a pair of chicken legs appearing at the bottom of her lavish dress. The series of short texts starts with A, Avidissimum Animal, B Bestiale Baratrum, C Concupiscientia Carnis, and goes on with analogous definitions of the most repelling aspects of women’s behavior, enriched by mythological and historical examples borrowed from other works. This book was published in the course of a heated book dispute between French women-haters and their opponents, that saw the publication in the years 1615-1632 of new titles as well as many reprints. The French querelle had an English counterpart, which begun with the publication of the already mentioned The arraignment by Joseph Swetnam in 1615. 

As for the tales that precede Belfagor in the second edition of the Mirror, they have an English source: one of John Reynolds’ successful collections of grimy tales, namely The triumphs of gods revenge against the crying and execrable sinne of (willfull and premeditated) murther, published in 1635.[19] This best-selling collection, offering material for numerous tragedies, polemical writings and tales in the following decades, is rarely studied and its source (or sources), if there is one, remains unidentified. The Mirror includes only translations of those stories from Reynolds’ collection centering on treacherous, murderous women. It has this source in common with a German collection published in 1673 (Acerra Historico-Tragica Nova […]) and with an English collection named The glory of God's revenge […] (1685) by Thomas Wright.

Machiavelli’s tale appears only in the second edition as the closing chapter of the series of exemplary tales about criminal women, followed by a small number of farcical short tales [kluchten] derived from an unknown source or from the oral tradition. Belfagor is given more importance than the previous parts for it has a separate title page where the name of the author, Sir [de heer] Machiavelli is mentioned. This is also a hint at a possible separate circulation of the tale in booklet form. No other text in the collection bears an author’s name.[20] ‘Machiavelli’, instead, surely rang a bell for most readers, even those not directly acquainted with his political writings, thanks to references to him and his ‘methods’ in Dutch pamphlets and epigrams during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), which the Netherlands fought to gain their independence from Spain (Terrenato 2017: 191). The combination of Machiavelli’s fable with some unassuming farcical tales is a notable choice on the editor’s part. These short texts, endlessly remixing such over-used ingredients as the misbehaving wife and the cuckolded husband, surely offer some solace but no surprise to the reader. He or she would have to wait until the very last pages to find a plot full of unexpected elements, such as a parliament in Hell, a ‘poor devil’ married to a proud and bossy (although not adulterous) wife, possessions and exorcisms, and a witty peasant. In terms of style, irony and narrative impact, the Dutch Belfagor surpasses by far the preceding chapters, due to the merits of the original and of the quite literal but fluent translation.

Belfagor as a model of satirical prose

Biting satire against women offered the anonymous translator/editor the chance to paste together texts from different languages and genres, and Belfagor is a gold mine in this respect. The Devil’s bride surpasses Lucifer in pride; she is vain, manipulative, ill-tempered, and takes advantage of her husband’s feelings; it is quite obvious that with such wives men’s life on Earth is worse than Hell.

But Machiavelli’s tale offers more in terms of satire. It ridicules learning, the clergy, religion in general. These aspects are purposely intensified by the Dutch translator. For example, a young woman in the tale who is possessed speaks Latin and philosophizes but at the same time also reveals the sins of many people, including those of a monk. The Dutch text underlines especially his carnal lust: ‘[…] een Monnick, die vier Jaren lang een Vrouw met een Monnickskap bekleed, tot sijn lust in sijn Celle gehouden had; […]’ [A Monk who had kept for his pleasure a woman dressed in a monk’s robe in his cell for four years] (Machiavelli 1668: 465). The Roman Rite of the Catholic Church describes exorcism as a sacrament, applied for the first time by Christ himself, and as such a prerogative of the clergy. The peasant Gianmatteo is a mock-exorcist, and all the apparel he uses is sheer parody. But his tricks actually work. The ‘finte cerimonie’ [fake ceremonies] of the Italian original are rendered as ‘versierde belacchelickheden’ [embellished nonsense] in the Dutch translation (Machiavelli 1668: 467). In the Protestant Dutch republic anti-clerical satire was particularly welcome. But even more daring on matters of religion, as Sumberg notes, is the view, implicitly underlying the tale, that ‘the devil is made flesh, lives among us, suffers tortures on earth and then returns to his point of origin, hell. All too clear is the blasphemous parallelism between the devil-man and the God-man’ (Sumberg 1992: 247).

The Dutch translator felt no urge to amend Machiavelli’s tale. He closely follows the original: topographical details are maintained, for example, although Dutch readers would have had no idea of the location of the small rural village of Peretola, where the devil meets the sly Gianmatteo who will in the end outwit him. The translator made the interesting choice of translating Gianmatteo’s name, which becomes Jan Tijssen, a quite familiar-sounding name that may have been intended to encourage Dutch readers to identify with the character. Minor misinterpretations come to light with a close reading: the meaning of ‘battiloro’ [goldbeater] is obscure to the translator who simply refers to ‘goud’ [gold]. The meaning of the threatening words of Belfagor is misunderstood and totally reversed in the Dutch translation:

Italian: Dove io ti ho facto bene ti farei per lo advenire male [Whereas I have been good to you, I would be bad to you in the future]
Dutch: Want daer ick u wel gedaen heb, soud ghy in ‘t toekomende my qualick doen [Whereas I have been good to you, you would be bad to me in the future][21]

These and other divergences with extant translations and adaptations of the tale confirm that the translator worked from the original Italian text, as stated in the title-page. A quite remarkable fact at a time when Italian works often travelled through French translations.

Like elsewhere in Northern Europe,  early modern translations contribute in the Dutch-speaking area to the development of new vocabulary: the first written record of the Dutch word kolonie (colony), for example, is to be found in the first Dutch translation of Machiavelli’s Prince (Terrenato 2010: 201). Belfagor, however, did not pose any real lexical challenges to the translator but it did present some stylistic difficulties. The combination of the lofty and resonating style of Pluto’s speech in the first pages with the sharp, ironic comments of the narrator and with the loose everyday language of the dialogues, demanded some skill on the part of the translator, in most cases with convincing results. The opening lines of the ‘oration’ held by the infernal King exemplify the translator’s ability to handle a long clause chain and a few rhetorical devices in his native language:  

Hoe wel dat ick, mijn seer beminde, door Hemelsche schicking, en door het Noodloods geval dat gantsch onherroepelick is, dit Rijck hier besit, en ick derhalven aen generley oordeel, ‘t zy Hemels of Werelds, verbonden kan zijn, nochtans dewijl ‘er meerder kracht van wijs beleyd onder soodanighe te vinden is, die meerder aen de wetten sich konnen onderwerpen, en meerder het oordeel van andere achten, soo heb ick goet gevonden met u te rade te gaen, hoe dat ick in een geval, ’t welck tot eenige oneer van onze heerschappy sou konnen dienen, my behoorde te schicken: [...] (Machiavelli 1668: 454-455)

[Although I, my most beloved, by virtue of a Celestial arrangement and of an irrevocable Fate, rule this Kingdom, and cannot therefore be subjected to anybody’s judgment, be it Celestial or Terrestrial, nevertheless seen that the power of a wise administration is more likely to be found among those who are more willing to submit themselves to the law and who value the opinion of the others, I have consented to hold a council with you on how I should behave in a matter that could damage the reputation of our dominion [...]]

In the last page the translator chose to explain by means of small additions why a simple stratagem such as pretending that Belfagor’s wife was coming to fetch him could have made the devil (whose name on Earth is Roderick) flee. The translated text thus bluntly uncovers the hidden purpose of Gianmatteo’s theatrical staging, which is in fact revealed with a rather unexpected twist in the original.  It can be a sign that the Dutch public was deemed not yet ready to cope with the pungent style that typified the closing lines of traditional Italian novellas:

En dus dese hem wederom biddende, en hy desen gedurich voortsscheldende, oordeelde Ian Tijssen geen tijt meer te moeten verliesen, bedacht hy eyndelick dat hem Roderick geseyt had van sijn quaet Wijf, oordeelde geen beter middel te konnen bedencken, om hem uyt te doen varen, als hem te seggen, dat sijn Wijf hem quam soecken, en het teecken met sijn hoet gevende, maeckten alle die daer toe bestelt waren terstond haer gerucht, en naderden so tot de schouw-plaets met klancken die tot in den Hemel dreunden, van welck geluyt Roderick sijn ooren overvallen gevoelende, en niets daer van wetende, lichtelick verwondert en als heel verbaest, vraeghde hy Ian Tijssen wat sulcks mogt bedieden. Waer op Ian Tijssen als verslagen seyde, Ach! Lieve Roderick, het is u Vrouw die u hier komt soecken. (Machiavelli 1668: 471-472)

[As he kept on imploring, and the other kept on insulting him, Jan Tijssen decided he could not wait any longer, and thinking of what Roderick had lately told him of his wicked wife, he could not find a better way to make him flee than to tell him that his Wife had come to fetch him. Given the sign with his hat, all those who had this task immediately began to play and came towards the stage with such a terrible noise that it reached the Heavens, and Roderick feeling his ears offended by it, not knowing what it was, totally stupefied and surprised, asked Jan Tijssen what was going on. Jan Tijssen then, apparently upset, answered: ‘Alas, Dear Roderick, your Wife is coming to look for you’.]

The sardonic mode of expression that Machiavelli excelled in could represent a model for prose, in this case for a middle style that combined the formal and the informal register, and in which the clash between high and low produced an ironic effect together with the incidents depicted. From the second half of the sixteenth century the works of such successful authors as Dirck Coornhert, Hendrik Spiegel, Pieter Hooft and Karel van Mander offered models for learned prose in the fields of philosophy, linguistics, historiography and artists’ biography,[22] which quickly entered the canon. The Dutch Belfagor reveals interesting common features with the prose of the playwright Gerbrand Bredero (Jansen 2011: 34-65),[23] an author who knew how to balance popular amusement with literary adornment. The adoption of hyphenated compounds (e.g. ‘Aerts-duyvel’, [archdevil]) and the alternate use of the genitive case before and after the head noun, noticeable in the Dutch translation and in Bredero’s prose fragments, hint at a preoccupation with language rules that were being discussed at the time (Jansen 2011: 55-57).

Learned translators also provided models for a less engaged kind of narrative writing, often derived from the Italian tradition. Coornhert’s translation of novellas from the Decameron (1564) and Van Mander’s adaptation of Vasari’s Lives of the Italian painters (1603-4) are a first step towards a full-range development of the potential of prose, notwithstanding the cautious cuts imposed by these authors on their Italian sources, mostly regarding sexual morality and religion. The Dutch Belfagor, like many other prose translations from Italian and French at the time, appearing in inexpensive books for a wide audience, had a role in further popularizing prose as a medium, and in endowing narrative with that freedom of thought that paved the way for the production of original novels, often full of libertine and picaresque aspects, in the second half of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands.


Buisman, Michiel (1960) Populaire prozaschrijvers van 1600 tot 1815. Romans, novellen, verhalen, levensbeschrijvingen, arcadia's, sprookjes. Amsterdam, B.M. Israël.

Chartier, Roger (1984) “Cultural Appropriation: Popular Cultural Uses in Early Modern France” in Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, Steven L. Kaplan (ed.), Berlin-New York-Amsterdam, Mouton Publishers: 229-254.

Debaene, Luc (1977) De Nederlandse volksboeken. Ontstaan en geschiedenis van de Nederlandse prozaromans, gedrukt tussen 1475 en 1540, Hulst, Antiquariaat Merlijn.

Donaldson, Peter S. (1988) Machiavelli and Mistery of State, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Jansen, Jeroen (2011) “Inleiding”, in Proza van G.A. Bredero, Jeroen Jansen (ed.), Hilversum, Verloren: 11-68.

Ghelli, Samuel (2007) “La favola di Machiavelli: Belfagor Arcidiavolo”, Forum Italicum, 41, no 2: 285 – 296.

Grootes, Elidius K. (1982-1983) “De bestudering van populaire literatuur uit de zeventiende eeuw”, Spektator, 12: 3-24.

Hoenselaars, A. J. (1998) “The Politics of Prose and Drama: The Case of Machiavelli’s Belfagor” in The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama: Cultural Exchange and Intertextuality, Michele Marrapodi, A. J. Hoenselaars (eds.), Newark, University of Delaware Press: 106-121.

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1668) “Seer vermaeckelicke vertelling, beschreven door de heer Nicolaes Machiavelli, uyt het Italiaens in het Nederlandts vertaelt”, in Spiegel der quade vrouwen; daer in al hare gruwelen heel aerdigh worden vertoont, soo uyt de H. Schrift en Vaderen, als uyt d’oude en nieuwe Geschied-boecken, door P. B. Minnebroeder […], Amsterdam, Broer and Jan Appelaer: 453-472.

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1971), “Novella di Belfagor” in Tutte le opere, Firenze, Sansoni.

Maclean, Ian (2013) “La querelle des femmes en France et en Angleterre de 1615 à 1632: conjoncture et structures”, Littératures classiques, 2, no. 81: 147-171.

Minnebroeder, P. B. (1668) Spiegel der quade vrouwen; daer in al hare gruwelen heel aerdigh worden vertoont, soo uyt de H. Schrift en Vaderen, als uyt d’oude en nieuwe Geschied-boecken, door P. B. Minnebroeder […], Amsterdam, Broer and Jan Appelaer.

Panizza, Letizia (2013) “Rhetoric and Invective in Love’s Labyrinth” in Boccaccio. A Critical Guide to the Complete Works, V. Kirkham, M. Sherberg, J. Levarie Smarr (eds.), Chicago-London, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 183-193.

Rogers, Katherine (1966) The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature, Seattle (WA), University of Washington Press.

Schama, Simon (1980) “Wives and Wantons: Versions of Womanhood in 17th Century

Dutch Art”, The Oxford Art Journal, 3, no. 1: 5-13.

Smyth, Adam (2004) “Profit and Delight”. Printed Miscellanies in England 1640-1682, Detroit, Wayne State University Press.

Stoppelli, Pasquale (2007), Machiavelli e la novella di Belfagor. Saggio di filologia attributiva, Roma, Salerno Editrice.

Stoppelli, Pasquale (2014), “Favola” in Enciclopedia Machiavelliana, 3 vols. Roma, Treccani, vol. I: 525-528.

Sumberg, Theodore A. (1992) “Belfagor: Machiavelli’s Short Story”, Interpretation. A Journal of Political Philosophy, 19, no 3: 243-250.

Terrenato, Francesca (2010), “The First Dutch Translation” in The First Translations of Machiavelli’s Prince From the Sixteenth to the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, Roberto De Pol (ed.), New York, Rodopi: 171-206.

Terrenato, Francesca (2017) “The Prince in the Dutch Republic: Dutch and French translations, 1615-1705” in Machiavelli’s Prince. Traditions, Text and Translations, Nicola Gardini and Martin MacLaughlin (eds.), Rome, Viella 2017: 191-202.


[1] In the Apologia Reginaldi Poli ad Carolum V, 1539, printed only in 1744, in Brescia (quoted in Donaldson 1988: 9). The complete sentence reads: ‘Liber enim, etsi hominis nomen, & stylum prae se ferat, tamen, vix coepi legere, quin Satanae digito scriptum agnoscerem’ (Pole 1744: 136-137).

[2] I quote here the title of the famous 1968 song by the Rolling Stones, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

[3] Giunti, Firenze. For details on the different editions and on the attribution of the text see Stoppelli (2007). The edition consulted here is Machiavelli (1971). For a recent overview of the medieval sources of the plot and dating of the work see Stoppelli (2014).

[4] This is actually the first appearance of a translation undoubtedly based on Machiavelli’s text, although the author is not mentioned. The translator and printer are anonymous and only the place, London, is known. A version of the tale, probably based on the similar novella by Straparola, although perhaps Machiavelli’s fable was also used as a source, came out as early as 1588 in Barnabe Riche, Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581) (Hoenselaars: 109), followed by theatrical adaptations of elements from the tale from around 1600 (see infra n. iv). Belfagor was available in Italian, in a collected edition with other works by Machiavelli that was reprinted by Thomas Wolfe in London in 1588. The 1647 anonymous English translation is certainly the source for the short anonymous play The Devill, and the Parliament (1648), featuring a strong royalist and anti-parliamentarian stance (Hoenselaars: 116).

[5] The full title reads Seer vermaeckelicke vertelling, beschreven door de heer Nicolaes Machiavelli, uyt het Italiaens in het Nederlandts vertaelt [A very entertaining tale, written by Sir N.M., translated from Italian into Dutch]. It closes the volume: Spiegel der quade vrouwen; daer in al hare gruwelen heel aerdigh worden vertoont, soo uyt de H. Schrift en Vaderen, als uyt d’oude en nieuwe Geschied-boecken, door P. B. Minnebroeder […], ‘t Amsterdam, Broer and Jan Appelaer, 1668 [Mirror of evil women; in which all their harmfulness is depicted in a pleasant way, from the Bible and the Fathers, as well as from old and new history books]. The presence of the Machiavellian tale in this second augmented edition, in fact a miscellany, is announced on the collection’s title page.

[6] Machiavelli/ Den Florentinske SECRETARII/ artige og lystige/ BELFE-/GORS Gifftermaal// Udsæt aff Italiensk paa / Danske/ oc dedicerit til alle/ Onde Qvinder. – Prentet udi dette Aar [Machiavelli. The Florentine Secretary’s BELPHEGOR’S Righteous and Jocular Marriage.  Transposed from Italian into Danish and dedicated to all Bad Women. – Printed this year]. See Segala in this issue.

[7]The first French translation is contained in Tanneguy Lefevre, Les vies des poètes grecs, Paris, Guignard, 1665, under the title Le mariage de Belfegor. The second (relying on the first) appeared in an anonymous volume with other satirical texts attributed to Charles Jaulnay: L’enfer burlesque. Le Mariage de Belphegor. Epitaphes de Mr. de Molière, Cologne, Jean Le Blanc, 1677.

[8] The author discusses at length the influence of the political context in which Barnabe Riche’s version appeared as well as some later dramatic works based on the novella, such as the one by William Houghton (Grim the Collier of Croydon, 1602 ca.) and the one by Ben Johnson (The Devil is an Ass, first performed in 1616). In dealing with matters of faith (the practice of exorcism) and with the misogynist attitudes of the original text the English authors had to alter the content in order to avoid clashes with the court.

[9] Pluto’s speech is a typical example of oratio ficta [fictional oration], a stylistic device often adopted in Machiavelli’s Istorie Fiorentine (1532).

[10] Il novellino (known as The hundred Old Tales in English) is an anonymous collection of tales stemming from various sources written in Florence between 1280 and the early 1300’s. The work is an antecedent to Boccaccio’s Decameron (1351 ca.).

[11] Broer Appelaer (Amsterdam 1636 – Utrecht 1685) came from a family of Amsterdam printers. He ran a printing press in Amsterdam with his brother Jan, until he moved to Utrecht, in 1674, where he was appointed as a courantier (editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper) by the local authorities.

[12] Grootes suggests the following for a first introduction to the subject of popular literature in England, France and Germany: Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories, Popular fiction and its readership in seventeenth-century England (1981) and Victor Neuburg, Popular literature (1977); Robert Mandrou, De la culture populaire aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. La Bibliothèque bleue de Troyes, Paris, Stock (1964) and Geneviève Bollème, La Bibliothèque bleue, Paris, Julliard (1971); Wolfgang Brückner (ed.), Volkserzahlung und Reformation. Ein Handbuch zur Tradierung und Funktion von Frzahlstoffen und Erzahlliteratur im Protestantismus, Berlin: E.Schmidt, 1974 (Grootes 1982-1983: 10).

[13] Dirck Coornhert (1522-1590) Dutch philosopher, translator and artist, published a selection in 1564 (also based on moralistic issues) of 50 novellas from the Decameron: Vijftigh lustighe historien oft nieuwigheden Joannis Boccatij.

[14] The work was translated into Dutch and published for the first time in Leiden in 1641, as Recht-back tegen de Ydele, Korzelighe ende Wispeltuyrighe Vrouwen. Many reprints followed.

[15] Sweerts used in this case his nom de plume ‘the widower Hippolytus de Vrye’ [the free one].

[16] The author identifies himself only with the acronym S.I.E.D.V.M.W.A.S.

[17] Den verreesen Hippolytus, Ontdekkende De natuur, eygenschappen, sporelose hertstochten,
onkuysche liefde, en ydelheyt der Vrouwen. Soo met oude als hedendaagse geschiedenissen bekrachtigt.
Beneffens Een Koeldrank voor alle minsieke malle Vryers
. Uyt het Lat. vert., doch wel een derden
deel vermeerdert, en Met aardige kopere Plaatjes verçiert, Amsterdam, Jacob van Royen, 1679.

[18] Paris, Jean Petit-Pas, 1617.

[19] As far as I know, the work having never been the object of detailed research, this source has gone unnoticed until now.

[20] The Alphabet is presented as work by the hand of ‘P.B. Minnebroeder’, a fictitious name devised by the Dutch translator or publisher, hinting at a member of the Franciscan order (as its author in fact was).

[21] All translation from Italian and Dutch are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

[22] Hendrik Laurenszoon Spiegel (1549-1612), a founding member of the Chamber of rhetoric De Eglantier, is probably the author of the anonymous Twe-spraack vande Nederduitsche letterkunst (1584), the first treatise on Dutch language and grammar. Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581-1647), poet and playwright, is also the author of a pioneering history of the Dutch revolt against Spain: De Nederlandsche Historien (1642). Karel van Mander (1548-1606), painter, poet and translator, is the author of an encyclopedic work on painting, Het Schilder-boeck (1604), containing biographies of the ancient, Italian and Dutch and Flemish painters.

[23] The prose production of Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero (1585-1618), best known for the perfectly timed and lively comedies he wrote in the span of his short life, consists of letters, dedications and forewords.

About the author(s)

Francesca Terrenato is Associate Professor of Dutch Language and Literature at Sapienza, University of Rome. Her research interests include early modern Dutch culture and the relationship between literature and visual arts as well as intercultural and gender issues in (early) modern and contemporary literary works.  She has published books and articles on Vasari’s and Machiavelli’s reception in the Low Countries, on emblematic works, and on migrant contemporary authors.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Francesca Terrenato (2019).
"Machiavelli’s Belfagor and the Dutch Mirror of Evil Women"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2359

La poesía de Manuel Gahete en Italia

By Marina Bianchi & Mario Benvenuto (Università di Bergamo, Università della Calabria, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords


As it is well known, poetic translation supposes a challenge whose objective is to create another text -not the same one- in the target language. The final product has to be clear and faithful to the original without disregarding the style and it has to respect the semantic and structural content without renouncing the communicative effectiveness. Its ultimate purpose should be to produce in the reader the same effect that the first text produced.

These are the starting points of our Italian edition of Mitos urbanos by Manuel Gahete, an exquisite and meticulous poet in his constant effort of refinement and search of formal perfection. He is a neo-baroque poet whose cultured verses are inserted in the line of neo-romantic intimacy of Andalusian style.

This communication will illustrate the problems found in our translation, carried out under the supervision of the poet himself, where the biggest difficulties lied in transposing formal care, hermeticism, and conceptual metaphors.


Como es sabido, la traducción poética supone un reto cuyo objetivo es crear otro texto –no el mismo– en la lengua de llegada, claro y fiel sin prescindir del estilo, que respete el contenido semántico y estructural sin renunciar a la eficacia comunicativa; su finalidad última debería ser la de producir en el lector la misma impresión que produjo el original.

Estas son las bases de partida de nuestra edición italiana de Mitos urbanos de Manuel Gahete, poeta exquisito y meticuloso en su esfuerzo constante de refinamiento y búsqueda de la perfección formal. Se trata de un neobarroco cuyos versos cultos se insertan en la línea del intimismo neorromántico de corte andaluz.

La comunicación ilustrará los problemas encontrados en nuestra traducción, realizada con la supervisión del mismo poeta, donde las mayores dificultades residen en la transposición del cuidado formal, con su consecuente hermetismo, y de las metáforas conceptuosas.

Keywords: Traducción poética, poesía española del siglo XX, teoría y praxis de la traducción literaria, Manuel Gahete, poetic translation, Spanish poetry of XX century, theory and praxis of literary translation

©inTRAlinea & Marina Bianchi & Mario Benvenuto (2019).
"La poesía de Manuel Gahete en Italia"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Le ragioni del tradurre
Edited by: Rafael Lozano Miralles, Pietro Taravacci, Antonella Cancellier & Pilar Capanaga
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2392

Llegar al límite del referente es la tarea cotidiana del traductor. […] El traductor […] es aquél cuya lectura del original es más profunda más íntima y con esta palabra transgredo el límite de la separación entre mi lengua y la del otro.(Gayatri Spivak)

1. Premisa (Bianchi)

Estamos convencidos[1] de que el trabajo conjunto de un hablante nativo de español que desde hace varios años se dedica a la traducción y de una italiana cuya investigación se centra en la poesía española del siglo XX, con la finalidad de difundirla también en su país y en su idioma, es una buena oportunidad a la hora de emprender la tarea de la traducción poética. Por esta razón decidimos trabajar juntos en la edición italiana del libro Mitos urbanos de Manuel Gahete, de la que aquí hablaremos.

Como es sabido, la traducción poética supone un reto bastante difícil de llevar a cabo: hay que tomar decisiones que den como resultado un texto que quede claro y sea fiel al original sin prescindir del estilo, respetando el contenido semántico y estructural sin renunciar a la eficacia comunicativa. La finalidad última debería ser la de producir en el lector la misma impresión que produjo el original. La manera en que concebimos esta labor se amolda a la definición de traducción que Umberto Eco proporciona en Dire quasi la stessa cosa:

[…] tradurre vuol dire capire il sistema interno di una lingua e la struttura di un testo dato in quella lingua, e costruire un doppio del sistema testuale che, sotto una certa descrizione, possa produrre effetti analoghi nel lettore, sia sul piano semantico e sintattico che su quello stilistico, metrico, fonosimbolico, e quanto agli effetti passionali a cui il testo tendeva. (Eco 2006: 16)

La traducción literaria es distinta a las demás por su intención simbólica, aun más evidente en el caso de la traducción poética. Desde Cicerón sabemos que traducir implica ser intérprete y escritor, en la medida en que supone un acto creativo que busca crear otro texto – no el mismo – en la lengua de llegada. Con lo cual, quien se encarga de este desafío tiene que tomar posición, conciente de que la suya sólo es una de las interpretaciones posibles y de que toda traducción conlleva inevitablemente unas pérdidas.

Al principio nos centraremos en la teoría de la traducción, ciencia que intenta localizar métodos traductivos válidos para cada categoría textual – no sólo para cada género. Teniendo en cuenta que para entender un texto literario hay que conocer bien la obra del poeta y su teoría literaria, para traducir hay que seguir tres pasos: entender – cuyo primer significado en el R.A.E. es “tener idea clara de las cosas” –, mediante una lectura formal, semántica y cultural del texto; interpretar, a través de la segunda lectura que tiene que ser hermenéutica, penetrando y analizando el texto; redactar (reescribir) el texto en la lengua de llegada, donde el traductor tiene que tomar las decisiones de las que hablábamos al principio, teniendo en cuenta todo lo que veremos más adelante.

2. El papel del traductor literario (Benvenuto)

Esta tercera fase de la redacción o reescritura implica cuatro problemas posibles:

  • la intraducibilidad según la cual toda traducción conlleva una pérdida (Hurtado Albir 2007: 639), que habría que reducir al mínimo en un proceso de translación que sea dinámico y revitalizante;
  • la infidelidad a la intención del texto, sabiendo que el efecto no es el mismo en dos culturas distintas (Eco 2006: 16-17), y por ende no es suficiente tener en cuenta solo el nivel semántico;
  • la invisibilidad, considerando que una traducción puede ser transparente, es decir, invisible, en la medida en que esconde su condición para que se lea como si fuera el original, o visible, si no se ajusta al lugar de llegada y deja intacta su condición de reescritura (Venuti 1995: 186);
  • la conservación del secreto, que consiste en guardar lo que concierne a la interpretación, sin explicar más ni ocultar más de lo que hace el original (Ricoeur 2004: 51).

Conforme a lo mencionado, ninguna traducción es inocente: siempre presupone que el traductor tome posición; la misma se postulará como una de las interpretaciones posibles del texto original. Por lo tanto, se plantea la necesidad de elegir entre las dos posturas posibles, objeto del debate secular sobre la traducción: la traducción semántica o literal, basada en la translación del significado de las palabras, y la traducción creativa o libre que aspira a la producción de otro texto en la lengua de llegada, como resultado de un nuevo acto creativo.

La primera conduce el lector al lenguaje del autor, exigiéndole que se adapte a su situación comunicativa, a su manera de hablar, a su estilo; la segunda lleva el autor al medio comunicativo del lector, adaptándolo a su nueva situación. En ámbito poético esto significa elegir entre la traducción del significado y la conservación de la correspondencia formal, donde ambas posturas se ciñen rigurosamente al texto, aunque lo hacen desde dos distintas vertientes. Sobre estas dos posibilidades, Francisco de Ayala afirma que:

  • La traducción es un escamoteo, un truco ilusionista […], tanto si […] se ha perseguido con fanatismo la correspondencia formal, como si, por el contrario, se ha extremado la sutileza en buscar analogías de significado.
  • Estas dos intenciones son los polos entre los que oscila toda empresa de traducción, sin que sea posible escapar jamás a su alternativa […].
  • La verdad es que llevados a ultranza, ambos métodos de traducción conducen al absurdo y niegan la traducción misma, cada uno por su lado. (Ayala 1965: 15-19)

Afortunadamente ya existe la tercera postura deseada por Ayala: es la llamada traducción comunicativa, con la que se intenta producir en el lector la misma impresión que produjo su original, teniendo en cuenta la intención del escritor y el efecto deseado. Esta manera de concebir la traducción lleva el texto a la situación comunicativa del lector, sin olvidarse de lo que el autor se proponía en el original.

Pese a esto, siguen existiendo diferentes opiniones: algunos creen que hay que escribir un nuevo poema (traducción creativa), manteniendo los mismos recursos retóricos o fonéticos y el sentido general (Rest 1976: 192); otros consideran que sólo los poetas, teniendo la misma sensibilidad y la misma capacidad de escritura, pueden traducir un poema, refiriéndose a la traducción como nueva labor poética (Paz 1971; Bousoño 1970); otros opinan que hay que centrarse en el nivel semántico o en la traducción del significado (Meschonnic 1973). De hecho hay quienes, como Etkind, definen el poema como “un sistema de conflictos” (Etkind 1982, apud Hurtado Albir 2007: 65) – entre la sintaxis y el metro, el metro y el ritmo, la tradición poética y la innovación, etc. Lo cierto es que el traductor tiene que decidir qué hacer con los elementos sonoros: reconstruirlos en la lengua de llegada, hasta los extremos de la traducción fónica – Esteban Torre cita el ejemplo del World Trade Center de la Expo del ’92, que los andaluces llamaban Huerto de Vicente (Torre 1994: 164) –; dejarlos y centrarse en el significado; recrear sólo algunos. En este último caso, la rima se considera poco relevante,mientras que lo son bastante más el número de sílabas y la alternancia de sílabas tónicas y átonas (ritmo del verso), y las figuras retóricas.

Independientemente de la postura del traductor, en la transposición de una lengua a otra, hay procedimientos a los que se recurre prácticamente siempre. Los principales son (Torre 1994: 126 ss.):

  • la compensación: la omisión o pérdida de algo debería compensarse en otro punto con la amplificación o explicitación;
  • la trasposición: la sustitución de una palabra o segmento, que conserve su contenido semántico, cambiando la categoría gramatical o la sintaxis [vita → vivir];
  • la modulación: el cambio en las categorías de pensamiento, modificando el punto de vista, por ejemplo lo concreto con lo abstracto, o de la forma activa a la pasiva [la scrittura → lo escrito];
  • la equivalencia: la sustitución de un enunciado con otro que se usa en la misma situación comunicativa, como ocurre con los modismos. La equivalencia tendrá para nosotros el mismo valor que le atribuyen Nida y Taber (1969: 12-13) para definir el principio básico de la traducción: conseguir el equivalente natural más cercano en una situación determinada; concordamos además con Jakobson, según quien “la equivalencia en la diferencia es el problema cardinal del lenguaje y la cuestión central de la lingüística” (Jakobson 1975: 70);
  • la adaptación: la sustitución de una situación comunicativa análoga porque la original es intraducible en la nueva cultura.

3. La metáfora y la traducción (Benvenuto)

Además, hay que tener en cuenta las dificultades debidas a la traducción de la metáfora, elemento básico de la poesía. Desde Aristóteles, metáfora significa ponerle a una cosa el nombre de otra, aunque es más que esto: Aristóteles habla más bien de un traslado que implica una pluralidad de significados. De acuerdo con las más recientes teorías de la lingüística cognitiva, la semiótica y la psicolingüística, se define como:

un mecanismo conceptual esencial consistente en una proyección estructural de un campo conceptual a otro […]. Por consiguiente, lo que tradicionalmente se denominaba “metáfora” es en realidad la manifestación en la lengua de una “metáfora conceptual” o “concepto metafórico”. (Samaniego Fernández 2002: 48)

La traducción de la metáfora ocupa un lugar central desde finales de los años ochenta, cuando empezó a ser un tema de interés en el ámbito de los Translation Studies, hasta volverse una de las principales preocupaciones en las teorías de la traducción (Scarpa 1989). Muchos se limitan a señalar la dificultad (ej. Newmark 1988: 9; Kurth 1999: 97) o se preguntan sobre la posibilidad de trasladar la metáfora de una lengua a otra (ej. Broek 1981; Dagut 1987), sin proporcionar respuestas. De acuerdo con Muñoz Martín (1994: 72), consideramos que se trata de un tropo constantemente presente en todo nivel del lenguaje y en todo tipo de texto: hablamos y pensamos básicamente por metáforas, lingüísticas en el primer caso – como expresiones metafóricas del habla –, o conceptuales en el segundo – como conceptos metafóricos del pensamiento – (cfr. Lakoff, Johnson 1995: 39-42); esto implica que, si ésta no fuera traducible, nada lo sería, ni la poesía, ni la prosa, ni siquiera una simple conversación. Como es de suponer, el hecho de trabajar con dos idiomas afines que comparten metáforas conceptuales parecidas ha facilitado a veces nuestra tarea.

Según Torre, hay tres tipos de metáforas: lexicalizadas o cristalizadas, que ya forman parte de nuestro patrimonio lingüístico [Ese chico es un zorro]; literarias usuales o convencionales, comunes sólo en la literatura [la rosa]; creativas, inventadas y efímeras, del momento. Hay quienes, como Newmark (1981), sólo consideran la primera y la tercera. De todos modos, traduciendo metáforas creativas es imposible encontrar una equivalencia perfecta: hay que inventarla o explicarla – lo que sería mejor evitar en poesía –; al contrario, las lexicalizadas y las literarias usuales hay que buscarlas o crearlas si no existen. En otras palabras, una metáfora se puede traducir con: la misma metáfora, con otra distinta, o sin metáfora, interpretándola.

4. El poeta (Bianchi)

Pese a las dificultades comentadas, la traducción poética brinda la oportunidad de acercarse al escritor y a la obra mucho más de lo que solemos hacer en otras ocasiones. No sólo porque, como reconocen las teorías recientes, esta actividad tiene que tener en cuenta el contenido, el estilo y las intenciones del escritor, lo mismo que su contexto social, cultural, histórico, geográfico y personal. Además, entender a fondo los versos implica un esfuerzo de interpretación para descifrar lo que el autor quería decir en cada uno de ellos, en cada palabra, metáfora o sonido de su poesía. Por esta razón, consideramos la traducción y el estudio de un poeta dos tareas estrictamente relacionadas, complementarias una de otra. Con estas bases de partida hemos llevado a cabo nuestra edición italiana de Miti urbani de Manuel Gahete.

Manuel Gahete (Fuente Obejuna, Córdoba, 1957) es un poeta vitalista y apasionado, ganador de muchos premios,[2] además de autor de ensayos, artículos periodísticos, traducciones, libros en prosa, teatrales y para niños. El protagonista de sus versos es indudablemente el amor: normalmente hacia una mujer, pero también hacia Dios o la vida misma; como la rosa, su símbolo, el amor inspira belleza y provoca emociones intensas, a la vez que, como la flor, siempre tiene espinas puntiagudas que hieren la carne y lastiman el alma. En sus poemas, el tiempo lleva todo camino vital hacia su inevitable destino final, y la palabra se hace cargo de la persistencia, garantizando la inmortalidad de los sentimientos experimentados y atrapados en el verso que intenta dar constancia de ellos. En Gahete, poeta esencialmente optimista, tanto la palabra como el amor son destellos en un fondo negro que, sin ellos, ocultaría la vida misma, condenándola al olvido en el primer caso, a la trivialidad en el segundo.

Entre muchas otras influencias, se perciben en Gahete la herencia de la tradición clásica, los ecos de la metáfora gongorina, las referencias bíblicas que remiten a los místicos y la búsqueda de la palabra perfecta que evoca a Juan Ramón Jiménez, solemne pero inmediata. La afición a la lectura como inspiración, entrenamiento y escuela de un poeta exquisito y meticuloso para quien la poiesis implica un esfuerzo constante de refinamiento y búsqueda de la perfección formal confluye en un léxico selecto que, junto con la musicalidad, concurre a plasmar una belleza funcional a la comunicación de las emociones. Como consecuencia, se percibe un hermetismo que va abriéndose en las páginas y se configura como “lenguaje nuevo, representación del deseo, espectacular y simbólico que lo aleja – poética, porque existencialmente no lo logrará nunca – de todo lo creado” (Gahete, 1998: 40).[3] Lo que en un primer momento puede dificultar la comprensión inmediata se vuelve pronto lenguaje perfecto del deseo, base de la creación poética que se sustenta en la concepción del verso como huida y alejamiento de la existencia. En otras palabras, se trata de un poeta formalista, de un neobarroco que recoge las influencias de toda época y corriente, adaptándolas a su visión y forma de comunicar. En la escritura de Gahete, la música del verso culto y rebuscado, siempre elegante en las distintas formas métricas empleadas, acompaña y enfatiza las emociones de un intimismo neorromántico de corte andaluz, que se manifiesta tanto en el binomio amor-muerte heredado de Cernuda y Aleixandre, como en la fusión con la naturaleza que procede del grupo de la revista Cántico.

Un estilo y un lenguaje tan cuidados requieren muchos esfuerzos para la comprensión y la interpretación, lo que de nuevo constituye la base de partida tanto para el estudio del poeta como para la traducción. Por supuesto, el texto italiano debería mantener las mismas peculiaridades debidas a las palabras rebuscadas o inventadas, sin renunciar a la claridad.

5. Nuestra edición (Benvenuto)

Cuando empezamos a trabajar en la edición italiana de Mitos urbanos, tan sólo se había traducido una antología de Gahete a este idioma (Gahete 1992), por mano de Michele Coco. Miti urbani (Bianchi, Benvenuto 2012), realizado en colaboración, incluye el estudio crítico preliminar de Marina Bianchi, mi nota a la traducción, la advertencia a la edición firmada por los dos y la traducción del libro, siempre con el texto original al lado. Como aclaramos en la advertencia, tradujimos doce poemas cada uno, pero el volumen es el resultado de una colaboración constante y de la continua comparación de ideas y opiniones.

Como un buen traductor, que a su vez es un creador, co-autor o metapoeta en poesía, debe reconocer sus límites, consideramos que lo ideal es ofrecer el original junto al metatexto, para que el lector pueda apreciar la forma original y lo que inevitablemente se pierde en la traducción. Además, un buen traductor sabe que está tomando decisiones, por ende es necesario explicitarlas y justificar el método en la nota previa, o aclarar los cambios y los matices que se pierden en la traducción en las notas al pie. La primera elección tiene la ventaja de evitar que se interrumpa la lectura, razón por la que hemos preferido reducir las notas en el texto a los casos de extrema necesidad - por ejemplo a los realia, términos culturales de los que hay que aclarar el sentido que se pierde en la cultura de llegada.

En nuestra edición italiana es evidente el intento de reproducir la musicalidad, que responde a la voluntad del poeta, quien se encargó de leer la traducción para señalarnos los errores de acentuación métrica. Tenemos conciencia de los límites de la traducción poética señalados por Juan Tena, en su comentario acerca de la antología italiana de Gahete (1992) al cuidado de Michele Coco:

A Gahete he leído en un italiano próximo y en “las acequias de fuego donde sucumben siempre las últimas palabras”, las acequias, se me quedan en “i canali” cuando una acequia, donde el poeta me está diciendo que ésta, viene a ser, con respecto a un canal, algo así como un jazmín frente a una mole de Chillida. Y, en “espuma draconiana que draga entre los dientes”, no necesito el rigor de Drako para decir que se nos escamotea un fundamental elemento poético: la aliteración. Mientras más rico sea el lenguaje, los recursos retóricos, la sutileza de la idea, más difícil es su trasvase. (Tena 1995: 20)

Sin embargo, tras apuntar que “la poesía es materia demasiado sutil para que llegue pura cuando viaja por lenguas distintas” y que se pierden “la musicalidad, la eufonía, el acierto de la palabra exacta sin los engañosos sinónimos” (Tena 1995: 20), el mismo Juan Tena afirma que a través de la traducción “Podemos comprender la grandeza de un poeta, nos llega el concepto, la idea” (Tena 1995: 20). De esto se trata: la edición italiana pretende difundir la obra de Gahete, hacer que su mensaje alcance un mayor número de lectores; el original al lado se encarga de remediar a las pérdidas, quedando como muestra de la habilidad del poeta para quienes no podrían entenderlo sin la traducción. Por estas razones, el mismo autor no sólo aprobó el proyecto, sino que colaboró con nosotros en su realización.

6. Ejemplos prácticos I (Bianchi)

Como habrá quedado claro, en el caso de un poeta como Manuel Gahete, la dificultad mayor reside en la transposición del cuidado formal y de las metáforas. Entre los muchos ejemplos cabe citar el poema Himno amargo:

Himno amargo

Provengo de la noche, de aquel silencio épico

que cantaron los bardos

y los héroes urdieron.


Uncida va mi sangre a los cauces sagrados

donde Tharsis contempla con su vieja mirada

el liquen de los siglos sobre una piel de estaño.


Del mar no queda nada

acaso un eco ronco que resuena por dentro

y espesa un sol de acero bajo el lienzo del agua.

Pervive aquel acento

que heredamos un día

mientras la vida hilaba la carne sobre el hueso


y en la luz, como amantes heridos, se fundían.

Pétreos restos de barro sobre el oro fluctúan.

Alguna oración triste se escucha todavía.


Y aquel turbio universo me reclama, me busca,

se revuelve en mis llagas,

mi pesar profundiza.


¡Hacia qué oscuro tiempo mi tiempo se devana!

¡Qué destino se aviene

a hundir su daga dulce en el centro del alma!


Provengo de la noche y en la noche se yergue

un fuego pavoroso nielado por el frío,

el silencio, el vacío constrictor de la muerte.

Inno amaro

Provengo dalla notte, da quel silenzio epico

cantato dai bardi,

forgiato dagli eroi.


Il mio sangue obbedisce a consacrati canoni

dove Tharsis contempla con il suo vecchio sguardo

il muschio secolare su una pelle di stagno.


Nulla resta del mare,

forse una roca eco che risuona da dentro;

sorge un sole d’acciaio sotto il velo delle acque.

Persiste quell’accento

ereditato un tempo

quando la vita ordiva la carne sulle ossa


che nella luce, amanti feriti, si fondevano.

Duri resti d’argilla ondeggiano sull’oro.

Ancora oggi si sente qualche triste preghiera.


Quell’universo torbido mi reclama, mi cerca,

mi gira nelle piaghe,

mi rinforza il dolore.


Su quale oscuro tempo il mio tempo si avvolge!

Quale destino anela

affondare la daga fino al centro dell’anima!


Provengo dalla notte e nella notte si erge

un fuoco spaventoso cesellato dal freddo,

il silenzio, il vuoto che costringe la morte.

Además del intento de mantener el alejandrino y de guardar cierta musicalidad, queda patente la voluntad de encontrar las equivalencias adecuadas para urdieron, uncida, hilaba, nielado en las correspondientes metáforas. Tanto urdir como hilar hacen referencia al campo semántico del sector textil, como sugiriendo que el “silencio épico” fue creado físicamente por los héroes, lo mismo que la carne fue tejida “sobre el hueso” por el milagro de la vida. De las palabras italianas, forgiare para el primero y ordire para el segundo, solo la última conserva la referencia al telar, pero forgiare establece un nuevo paralelismo con la traducción de nielar en cesellare, puesto que los dos se refieren al labrado del metal. Se nota aquí otra diferencia entre los dos idiomas: la decoración específica a la que remite el verbo nielar – “labor en hueco sobre metales preciosos, rellena con un esmalte negro hecho de plata y plomo fundidos con azufre”, según el diccionario RAE – se pierde en italiano; pese a la existencia del verbo niellare, cesellare evita el inconveniente métrico que rompería el ritmo de la estrofa. De la misma manera, la mayor elegancia justifica también la traducción de “uncida va mi sangre a los cauces sagrados” en “Il mio sangue obbedisce a consacrati canoni”.

Lo que se quería señalar con este ejemplo es que la traducción se ha llevado a cabo cuidando la forma y el significado a la vez. Esto supuso a veces pequeños retoques en las metáforas, como en la última estrofa de Penúltima morada:

porque el tiempo implacable

decide que tu fuerza

es un loto quebrado que rebota en las aguas

de una orilla sin límites

perché il tempo implacabile

vuole che in te la forza

sia un loto stremato trascinato dall’acqua

che non trova la sponda

Intentando mantener la idea de la vana lucha del loto y evitando a la vez el italiano rimbalzare, tan poco musical, se ha modificado parcialmente la imagen, con el permiso de Gahete. En la primera traducción, el verbo del cuarto verso del fragmento era trasportato, luego cambiado por sugerencia del mismo poeta, quien escribió en un correo electrónico en el que comentábamos el trabajo:

No se trata de un loto que flota plácidamente camino de ninguna parte sino de una flor que rompe contra el agua intentando franquear un destino inexorable. De cualquier forma, me parece una versión adecuada. Quizás la palabra “trasportato” podría sustituirse por alguna otra que diera más esa sensación de resistencia que intento transmitir: algo así como “arrebatado”, “arrastrado”, “precipitado”.[4]

Se deduce que la colaboración del autor ha sido fundamental, para aclarar dudas o confirmar elecciones. Por otra parte, hay que admitir que no ha sido fácil respetar siempre sus sugerencias finalizadas a mejorar la métrica, sin querer renunciar a la claridad y la fidelidad del significado.

De la misma manera, volviendo al último verso de Himno amargo que no queda tan claro en el original – excepto en la lectura en voz alta, donde la pausa entre los dos hemistiquios deja intuir algo –, fue el mismo poeta quien nos explicó que se refiere aquí al “vacío que produce constricción sobre la muerte”, y no a la “muerte con su vacío constrictivo”. Con lo cual, se ha perseguido una traducción que tomara en cuenta el significado que el poeta quiso atribuir al verso original, sin perder la ambigüedad del mismo y que, según nuestra opinión, forma parte de las emociones suscitadas por el poema.

Desde la perspectiva semántica, son muchas las cuestiones que se podrían comentar acerca de las metáforas. Por ejemplo, en un verso de El peso y la medida, Gahete escribe: “una flor en la troje de la lluvia”. Según el diccionario RAE, los significados de troje, de troj, son los siguientes: “1. f. Espacio limitado por tabiques, para guardar frutos y especialmente cereales. 2. f. algorín (división para depositar la aceituna)”. Se trata entonces de un recipiente para almacenar materias primas. Por la análoga idea del agua guardada en algo que la contiene se ha traducido al italiano como “un fiore nel letto della pioggia”.

7. Ejemplos prácticos II (Benvenuto)

Para la traducción de lemas o locuciones cuyas equivalencias son inaceptables en italiano o no guardan las mismas connotaciones, se han empleado diferentes estilemas o recursos traductivos. En Heredero de Adán, por ejemplo, plenitud de rudeza se convierte en rude tra i rudi; de la misma manera, en Remedio de amor la negritud y en Camino de Regreso la negrura se vuelven “nero profondo”, y en Gigoló, en el el verso “el placer y la luz que aún no has bebido”, es necesario disipar la ambigüedad del verbo beber y cambiarlo, por razones de métrica, sentido poético y musicalidad: “il piacere e la luce che ancora non conosci”.

También ha sido posible aplicar un procedimiento metonímico: la potencialidad expresiva del autor presenta en Camino de regreso otro problema de equivalencia léxica en el verso “y me bese los labios con los labios / que todo lo desnombran”, donde el verbo desnombrar – aunque presente dificultad en la traducción – es el resultado de una construcción posible en español gracias a la simple anteposición del prefijo des- que indica, en este caso, el significado de acción contraria a la indicada por el verbo nombrar (en italiano nominare, dire, enunciare, etc.). Como es posible intuir, el metaverso no admitiría “le labbra che non nominano”, pero, por derivación metonímica se obtuvo una hipótesis de traducción aceptable con “e baci le mie labbra con le labbra / che ora conservano il silenzio”.

No faltan las palabras que no aparecen en los diccionarios, como en el caso de viragua, que tradujimos como colomba, de acuerdo con el significado que tiene en los versos de otro poeta, Jorge Isaacs, quien escribe en Río Moro: “La fúnebre viragua repetía sus trinos / que saludan al invierno” (Isaacs 2006: 94).

La traducción cuenta también con transposiciones sintácticas, justificadas por la eufonía, la métrica o la mayor expresividad lograda, como en El vértigo y la luz, donde “Soledad, / ya me cercas” aparece traducido como “Mi assedi, / solitudine”, o en el poema Vínculo, donde “toda la luz del cosmos se vislumbra” en italiano se convierte en “si scorge la luce piena del cosmo”, o en Penúltima morada, en la que los versos “la boca pierde el ánimo / con que amaron mis labios, risas, dientes y besos” viene a ser “la bocca, le cui labbra / hanno amato sorrisi, denti e baci, si strema”.

Por último, tenemos un caso interesante de intertextualidad en Heredero de Adán: donde Gahete habla de “tierra cárdena”. Según el concepto de transferencia de referencias intertextuales de Hatim y Mason (1995: 161 apud Hurtado Albir 2007: 437), hallamos en la frase gahetiana la referencia a uno de los ensayos, La tierra cárdena, de El tamaño de mi esperanza de Jorge Luis Borges: el pretexto, esto es, la referencia textual, aparece aquí como traducción del título de una novela del inglés William Henry Hudson, The Purple Land (1885), que el escritor argentino reseña de manera muy positiva. Lo mencionado anteriormente se puede apreciar en el poema:

Heredero de Adán

Hombre en la piel cerrada de los hombres,

plenitud de rudeza, tierra cárdena,

fiero bruto mortal


náufrago entre las algas y las olas.

Hombre de sal, herido, jadeante,

cognado del linaje de los dioses,

heredero del aire,

de la nada,

fustigado a beberse

vino y livor,

el beso y la agonía.

¿Quién te busca en la sed de este silencio,

hombre en la soledad

de los clamores?

¿Quién te frena en el alfa del camino,

hombre de luz eterna

a la efímera sombra condenado?

Erede di Adamo

Uomo nella pelle chiusa degli uomini,

rude tra i rudi, terra purpurea,

empio bruto mortale


naufrago tra le alghe e le onde.

Uomo di sale, ferito, ansimante,

progenie della stirpe degli dei,

erede dell’aria,

del nulla,

costretto a bere

il vino e il livore,

il bacio e l’agonia.

Chi ti cerca nella sete del silenzio,

uomo solitario

nel clamore?

Chi ti frena nell’alfa del cammino,

uomo di luce eterna

all’effimera ombra condannato?

Propusimos la traducción de tierra cárdena por la locución italiana terra purpurea, no sólo por el paralelismo con la traducción borgiana, por tratarse de una referencia intertextual exofórica, es decir, fuera del texto (Calsamiglia Blancafort, Tusón Valls 2007: 226-227), sino también porque el equivalente italiano de cárdeno es carminio, que siendo gramaticalmente invariable, non respondía, en este caso, a la dinámica expresiva del original español, al contraponerse perceptiblemente el adjetivo femenino al masculino con el que comienza el verso siguiente. Por otra parte, empio se ha empleado en lugar del español fiero (con siete acepciones negativas, según el DRAE), para evitar el falso amigo del italiano, que, contrariamente al adjetivo español, posee en sus dos primeras acepciones un significado positivo, como corrobora el diccionario de Tullio De Mauro:

(Dal lat. ferum)

1a. che possiede un carattere forte, inflessibile.

1b. coraggioso, audace.

2. orgoglioso

3a. Letterario. Crudele, spietato

3b. spaventoso, raccapricciante

4a. violento, accanito.

4b. di sentimento, passione, ecc. intenso, cocente.

En nuestro libro prevalece la voluntad de recrear las imágenes y las sensaciones del texto español en el alma del lector italiano. Pese a que no pudimos mantener completamente la musicalidad y las vibraciones emocionales de los múltiples efectos obtenidos por un estudioso de la palabra en la búsqueda constante de la expresión perfecta, la afinidad de los dos idiomas nos permitió alcanzar una fidelidad casi literal en muchos poemas. La cercanía del italiano y el español favoreció que se mantuviera el alejandrino en una traducción muy fiel al original, lo que no ocurrió siempre con otros tipos de versos: cuando tuvimos que elegir, por ejemplo, entre mantener el número de sílabas y guardar la mayor fidelidad posible al texto español, nuestra elección se centró en el segundo elemento.

8. Conclusiones (Bianchi)

El afán por mejorar la traducción atormenta siempre a quien decide llevar a cabo esta labor, justamente porque es consciente de las pérdidas, de su innata incapacidad de preservar completamente cada uno de los elementos del texto original, donde lo que más se pierde es precisamente uno de los rasgos caracterizantes del poema: la musicalidad. Pese a los límites y a los posibles errores en los que podemos incurrir, los esfuerzos finalizados a la publicación de ediciones italianas son fundamentales para que los poetas extranjeros se conozcan en nuestro país. Además, en discordancia con el número cada vez mayor de personas que aprenden y hablan idiomas extranjeros, creemos que la comprensión de la poesía se va reduciendo, no sólo por problemas lingüísticos; hasta en las universidades, probablemente debido a los nuevos planes de estudio, los alumnos tienen cada vez más dificultades en leer y entender poemas en lengua original.

Es inevitable que algo se diluya, pero la traducción consiste precisamente en esto: es una síntesis de pérdidas y recuperaciones, un justo compromiso entre fidelidad y reelaboración o, como diría Eco (2006: 364), una negociación de la solución que a cada instante nos parece más adecuada, donde hay que entender la fidelidad como interpretación apasionada de lo que nosotros percibimos como sentido profundo. Si por una parte toda traducción poética, actividad que consideramos gratificante a pesar del esfuerzo que conlleva, es algo siempre perfectible y por ende cuestionable, por otro lado, se trata de un trabajo estrictamente personal, en el que el traductor se entrevé aunque intente evitarlo: como dijimos al principio, interviene él mismo con su acto creativo y su estilo sobre otro texto que no coincide nunca con el suyo. Por ende, creemos que la traducción es una ciencia y un arte a la vez, un proceso complejo que difícilmente admite paradigmas preestablecidos, una actividad en la que nunca se deja de aprender y en la que el traductor tiene que armonizar la ciencia, la creación y una buena dosis de intuición.

Su única pretensión debería ser la de otorgarle al destinatario de su trabajo la oportunidad de compartir por lo menos una parte de las emociones que, a su vez, sintió en la lectura del texto que se dispone a reescribir. Con esto queremos decir que consideramos fundamental un primer acercamiento al poema como espectadores, antes de trabajar sobre él, porque para trasmitir emociones, fin último de la traducción poética, es imprescindible experimentarlas y conocerlas personalmente. No sabemos si llegaremos algún día a ser buenos traductores de poesía, pero sabemos que es imposible llegar a serlo sin ser antes buenos lectores.


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Dagut, Menachem (1987) “More About the Translability of Metaphor”, en Babel (XXXIII: II): 77-83.

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Gahete, Manuel (1992) Carne e cenere (Carne y ceniza) (ed. y trad. M. Coco), Bari: Levante Editori.

Gahete, Manuel (1995) El cristal en la llama: Antología abierta (1980-1995), Córdoba: Cajasur.

Gahete, Manuel (1998) La oscuridad luminosa: Góngora, Lorca, Aleixandre, Córdoba: Consejería de Educación y Ciencia de la Junta de Andalucía.

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[1] Este trabajo surge de la colaboración y el intercambio de ideas de los dos autores. Sin embargo, cada uno se ha encargado de párrafos específicos, como señalamos entre paréntesis al lado del titulo de cada uno de ellos: Marina Bianchi es autora de: 1. Premisa, 4. El poeta, 6. Ejemplos prácticos I, 8.Conclusiones; Mario F. Benvenuto lo es de: 2. El papel del traductor literario, 3. La metáfora y la traducción, 5. Nuestra edición, 7. Ejemplos prácticos II.

[2] Entre ellos: 1985: Premio Internacional Ricardo Molina de Poesía (Ayuntamiento de Córdoba) con Nacimiento al amor; 1988: Premio Nacional Miguel Hernández de Poesía (Alicante) con Capítulo del fuego, obra finalista del Premio Nacional de la Crítica; 1999: X Premio Nacional San Juan de la Cruz de Poesía (Ávila) con La región encendida, obra finalista del Premio Nacional de la Crítica y del Premio de la Crítica Andaluza; 2002: Premio Nacional de Poesía Ángaro (Ayuntamiento de Sevilla) con Mapa físico, libro finalista del Premio Nacional de la Crítica; 2002: finalista del Premio Nacional de la Crítica y del Premio de la Crítica Andaluza con Elegía Plural; 2007: V Premio de Poesía Ateneo de Sevilla con Mitos Urbanos.

[3] Lo escribe el mismo Manuel Gahete, refiriéndose a la poesía de su maestro Luis de Góngora y Argote.

[4] Correo electrónico de Manuel Gahete a Marina Bianchi, del 25 de febrero de 2010, en respuesta al de M. B. del mismo día: «Te quiero preguntar si te parece bien que cambie un poquito la imagen del loto que “rebota en las aguas / de una orilla sin límites” por la del loto “llevado por el agua / que no encuentra la orilla” (traducción literal de mi versión italiana), sugiriendo la idea del viaje sin límites”.


About the author(s)

Marina Bianchi is Associate Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Bergamo and holds a PhD in Iberistics - Spanish Literature from the University of Bologna (2008). Her research focuses mainly on Andalusian poetry of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Mario Francisco Benvenuto is Associate Professor of Spanish Language and Translation at the University of Calabria (Cs, Italy). His field of research incudes linguistics, translation, lexicography and languages for
specific purposes focusing on particular on legal sphere.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Marina Bianchi & Mario Benvenuto (2019).
"La poesía de Manuel Gahete en Italia"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Le ragioni del tradurre
Edited by: Rafael Lozano Miralles, Pietro Taravacci, Antonella Cancellier & Pilar Capanaga
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2392

Against Translation

The Struggle Over Translation for the Stage in the (Late) Dutch Golden Age

By Marco Prandoni (Università di Bologna, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

In the multilingual society of the Republic of the United Provinces of the early modern period, translation was an extremely widespread social practice. At the Amsterdam Theatre as well (Amsterdamse Schouwburg, founded in 1637), the repertoire consisted in a great deal of translations and adaptations of foreign plays, both classic and contemporary. Much new light has been shed recently on theatre repertoires and the agents involved in them, including the intermediaries. In this paper I focus on a debate for and against translation for the stage which broke out between ca. 1665 and 1680, as well as on the cultural and social implications of this struggle in which translation was foregrounded.

Keywords: Republic of the United Provinces, Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam Schouwburg, Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, French classicism, early modern drama, discourse on translation, multilingualism, poetics of translation, stage translation, retranslation

©inTRAlinea & Marco Prandoni (2019).
"Against Translation The Struggle Over Translation for the Stage in the (Late) Dutch Golden Age"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2358


During the seventeenth century, the Republic of the United Provinces witnessed a growing process of codification and standardization of the (proto-)national language, civilized Dutch. At the same time, many other languages were widely used in the daily life of most of its inhabitants and especially among immigrants. The latter often identified themselves, in different contexts, with their own neighborhood, with their city, with the state-community of the Republic and with a cross-border linguistic community (Burke 2004: 5-7). Particularly in the big trading cities in the province of Holland people were accustomed to a high degree of practical multilingualism, as Willem Frijhoff (2017) puts it. Dutch, with its many varieties, coexisted with German, English, Italian (which enjoyed considerable cultural prestige among the élite), Latin, spoken and written for religious and academic purposes by a small élite of men, and of course French. French had always been an important language in the history of the Low Countries and its role was greatly strengthened by the mass of Calvinist immigrants from France, French-speaking Wallonia and Flanders: all of them were called Walloons, and the Flemish were also generally fluent in French, often becoming French language teachers. French slowly but surely overshadowed Latin as international lingua franca in the second half of the century (Burke 2004: 43-60; Frijhoff 2017: 128).

Given this situation of practical multilingualism, language contact and intense intercultural negotiation, it is hardly surprising that translation – both oral and written, both spontaneous and highly codified – was an omnipresent social practice: among merchants, jurists and notaries, at the highly Francophile court in The Hague, and of course among scholars and writers, the Republic being a world staple market not only of goods but also of books in many languages.

Theatre was no exception. Dutch theatre had been very much influenced by French models since the late Middle Ages, in the Chambers of Rhetoric (see Prandoni 2014a). The ‘modern’ humanistic theatre, which considered the classics as models, also passed through French, and neo-Latin, mediation. During the seventeenth century in Amsterdam one might find on the one hand playwrights such as Joost van den Vondel – firstly imbued with protestant French culture due to his immigrant Anabaptist milieu, then slowly shifting to classical Latin and Greek models (see Grootes & Schenkeveld-van der Dussen 2009: 212-219). On the other hand, dramatists like Theodore Rodenburgh mediated to the Dutch audience highly successful Spanish, French and in some cases English plays too, showpieces with romantic or adventurous plots full of action, passions, murder. Both the plays which were rooted in the humanist tradition and those which were not, or more loosely, were often translations/adaptations of foreign texts. In some cases, they were ‘exported’ again outside the Republic, to the cities in northern Germany and Scandinavia where Dutch was frequently used as a lingua franca and Dutch companies performed in their own mother tongue (Grit 1994). The Republic functioned thus as a staple market with regard to drama as well.

Recent research focusing on translated theatre production and its agents and intermediaries (Rodríguez Pérez 2016) has shown that ‘original’ Dutch plays were neither the most prevalent nor the most popular (Jautze, Álvarez Francés & Blom 2016: 15-16). The perception of canonic Dutch-writing authors as dominating the dramatic arena was biased by a persistent Romantic paradigm focused on national cultural products. However, not everybody was enthusiastic about translation playing such a vital role on the stage. Some dramatists, and among them one of the most successful, Jan Vos, took an outspoken position against translated plays and translation: a largely unknown Dutch contribution to the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. In the present paper I will briefly outline the cultural and social context in which the discourse on translation developed, and how it was used by playwrights to legitimize themselves and their work as well as gain influence in the theatrical life of the young Republic in the second half of the seventeenth century. I am not primarily concerned with theoretical issues of translation studies but with an interesting case of translation as a topic for debate within the United Provinces in the early-modern period; a society which lay at the crossroads of different cultures and in which translation practices, and reflection on translation, deeply influenced its cultural dynamics.

Joost van den Vondel and Jan Vos

Paratexts are the place where ‘les idées du théâtre’ – to quote a running project on the luminaria in French, Italian and Spanish plays of the early modern time (IdT: http://www.idt.paris-sorbonne.fr/) – are mostly packaged. Views on translation happen to be often foregrounded in introductions and dedicatory letters as well. Theo Hermans (1996) has collected a number of Dutch reflections on translation published during the early modern period. However, his stimulating book pays little attention to theatre, a central social practice in the Republic and most notably in Amsterdam, where plays were usually printed by the official printing house of the Schouwburg and by many others – including pirate publishers. The booklets were spread among audiences after the performance and in some cases even before. Moreover, Hermans selects two ‘canonical’ voices of dramatists, G.A. Bredero and Joost van den Vondel: the latter was admittedly the most influential poet of the century, and his reflections on translation were pivotal, but his humanistic-classical orientation was only shared by a fraction of the innumerable dramatists who wrote for the stage. Bredero was not a poeta doctus but he greatly admired the classical culture and the cultivated elite of his time, as we can read in the preface to his adaptation of Terentius’ Eunuchus, Moortje (The Moorish Girl, 1617), humbly offered to the classical scholars (‘Latynsche-geleerde’, ‘Latinists’, see Hermans 1996: 90, Jansen 2011: 200ff).

Vondel’s reflection on translation, nourished by a life-long engagement with it, is in many respects extraordinary (Hermans 1996: 111), but not with regard to his view on the necessity for writers to engage in the study of venerated models by means of translation:  a necessary exercise in derivative-imitative writing (Hermans 1985). Beside the paratexts of his plays, in a short treatise (Aenleidinge ter Nederduitsche dichtkunste, Introduction to Dutch Poetry, 1650) Vondel states that ‘translating the illustrious Poets will help the aspiring Poet in the same way the Painter’s apprentice may benefit from copying great masterpieces’ [‘het overzetten uit vermaerde Poëten helpt den aenkomende Poeet, gelijck het kopieeren van kunstige meesterstucken den Schildersleerling’]: an ‘artful theft’ [‘behendig stelende’], as he adds with a wink toward the reader. The condition is thus, unsurprisingly: ‘Knowledge of foreign languages is a great advantage’ [‘Kennis van uytheemsche spraecken vordert niet weinigh’] (translation M. Kasten, in Kasten 2012: 255). Vondel knew this from his own experience. A son of Antwerp immigrants, and despite belonging to the middle-class (like his parents, he traded in silk goods), his social background was not that of the elite of merchants-regents to which he would try to open his way throughout his life. His mother taught him Dutch, and even that not perfectly, as he once wrote in the humorous introduction to a translation from Du Bartas (Vondel 1927-1940, vol. 2: 230). He attended the French school but not the Latin one nor university and it was only through restless lifelong, self-taught learning that he could learn good Latin, decent Greek, a little bit of Italian besides, probably, some German and English. Nothing in comparison to such celebrated linguists as Constantijn Huygens, fluent in so many dead and living tongues (Joby 2014). Knowledge of foreign languages is thus considered by Vondel to be essential for the intellectual and artistic development of a poet.  

Jan Vos knew him well. Since 1640 was Vondel also a convert to Catholicism, Vos’ own confession. Vos helped him stage many of his plays, as a trustee of the Amsterdam theatre who devised ballets and tableaux vivants for the performances. However, despite his respect for Vondel, his ideas on drama were utterly different. ‘Seeing before saying’ was his motto and the few plays he wrote were anything but static: lofty, full of action, murder and passions. He had a tremendous success at the Schouwburg but also among the elite of literati who appreciated his talent and his ‘moralistic’ treatment of passions (Geerdink 2014: 46), as in the best Senecan tradition, which spread all over Europe between 16th and 17th century. Most of his career as a playwright – besides being an occasional poet for different milieus in Amsterdam and a professional glassmaker – was built upon the success of Aran and Titus from 1641 onwards. That tragedy greatly influenced the taste of both public and authors in the following thirty years, the time when he served as trustee of the theatre of Amsterdam. It was also thanks to his impulse that the theatre was partially rebuilt, in order to welcome plays all’italiana, from Italy, France and Spain (Amir 1996).

It was precisely for the opening of the new theatre in 1665 that Vos had intended his play Medea, but due to technical problems its premiere was postponed for a couple of years. It proved immensely popular. The printed text of the play contains an interesting defense of his own poetics from vocal critics and a plea for creativity, individual talent and experience, against excessive codification, foreign models and against translation as well.

Vos immediately gets to the point:

De wijze Grieken, hooghdraavende Romeinen, schrandere Italiaanen, geestige Spanjaarts, aartige Fransen en loffelijke Neederlanders, hebben hun krachten saamen gespannen, om Medea voor alle keurige oogen en ooren, in hun Schouwburgen, op het Toneel te brengen; ik van Natuur, mijn eenige schoolmeesteres in de Duitsche Dichtkunst, na het veurbeeldt der beroemste Dichters, aangeprikkelt, zal u de zelfde Medea aan d’Amstel doen zien hoe dat zy zich binnen Korinten heft gedraagen. Zoo uw ooren geen vloeiende vaarzen. Vol dreunende woorden, gelijk zulk een groote Prinses vereischen, ontmoeten, uw oogen zullen aan haar kleedt, daar zy zich in vertoont, mijns weetens, noch stof van uit- noch inheemsche Dichters vinden. (Vos 1667/1975: 352)

[Wise Greeks, lofty Romans, smart Italians, witty Spaniards, gentle French and praiseful Dutch have joined their forces together to put Medea on their stages for all honorable eyes and ears. I, stimulated by nature – my one and only schoolteacher in Dutch poetry – following the example of the most famous poets, will show you here on the river Amstel how she behaved in Corinth.  Should your ears not meet the fluent verses, full of bombastic words, that such a great princess deserves, your eyes will not find in her costume any cloth borrowed from foreign or local poets.]

Vos could scarcely have chosen a more cherished subject-matter in theatre and literature than Medea. To name just two recent and influential versions of this evergreen myth, Seneca’s Medea had just been translated by Jacob Kemp in 1665; a French travelling company had put on the Amsterdam stage Corneille’s La toison d’or in 1662, dealing with the antecedents of the same story, a spectacular play which seduced Vos himself and the audience (Buitendijk 1975: 326-329). That is why his initial statement emerges with the force of a provocation: despite the overflow of classic and contemporary, Dutch and international treatments of the subject, he has not borrowed anything from anyone. He makes use of the metaphor of the text as a ‘dress/costume’, already used for instance by Bredero and Vondel, and any borrowings from others as patches on it. The reader will not find them in his Medea, because he has only relied on his own ‘nature’. What follows is a lively discussion of the classicist theory on theatre, based on the poetics of Horace and Aristotle and on their modern interpreters. No wonder that Vos quotes Horace in the Dutch translation by Joost van den Vondel, as he intends to distance himself – implicitly – from the growing ‘orthodoxy’ of his fellow-playwright’s adhesion to classical regulation, as expressed in the foreword to Jephta in 1657 (Porteman & Smits-Veldt 2008: 538). Vos does not reject those regulations as such, but tests each abstract rule to the theatrical practice, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. He refuses authority as an argument, and all the more so if that authority is drawn from a poet and a philosopher – Horace and Aristotle – who between them did not write a single line for the stage.

Vos’ implications are far-reaching. For the purpose of this article I will just single out what concerns the discourse on translation and national culture:

Hier zal ik voorzeeker bestormt worden van een deel lieden, de wijze uitgezondert, die het hooft door de roeden en plakken, zoo vol Latijn zyn geslaagen, dat’er geen plaats in kan vinden: my dunckt ik hoor ze alree zeggen: wat mach deeze Vos rammelen en raazen van d’eigenschappen der Spelen? van het verdeelen der leeden in gedichten? wat men doen en laaten moet? het zou best zijn d thy zich met zijn ambacht, daar de huiszorg in bestaat, bemoeide; hy heeft niet dan Duits geleert: laat ons van de kunsten der aaloude Dichters spreken: wy hebben op Parnas, by Apollo, school geleegen, en Letters gegeten. Dat ik niet dan de Duitsche taal ken, en noch zo goedt niet gelijk ik wensch, wil ik gaaren bekennen: maar lichtelijk beter dan eenige die zich door op hun schoollatijn veel laten voorstaan. (Vos 1667/1975: 362-363)

[Here I will doubtless be assaulted by a mass of people – but not the wise among them: their head is so full of Latin, with which they were beaten in schools, that there remains no space left. I mean I can hear them say already: how can this Vos rant and rage about the features of a play? of the internal division of poems? about what you can or cannot do? it would be better if he devoted himself to his profession, on which his household depends; he hasn’t learnt anything but Dutch – let us speak about the ancient poets: we went to school and ate letters in Parnassus, with Apollo. That I can only speak Dutch, and not as good as I wish, I candidly admit, but slightly better than some of those who are proud of their school-Latin.]

He then goes on to quote P.C. Hooft, a highly respected historian, scholar and playwright, as well as a politician. Hooft once reminded him that Spiegel ‘who helped to construct the Dutch language and poetry’, [‘die de Neederduitsche taal en Dichtkunst heft helpen bouwen’] did not consider poetry to sprout ‘from foreign languages, but from innate talent’ [‘niet uit vreemde taalen, maar uit een aangebooren aart’] (Vos 1667/1975: 362-363). Vos relies thus on prestigious ‘national’ scholars who, despite their erudition and international orientation, were between 16th and early 17th century highly concerned with the cultivation of the vernacular language in order to render it able to compete with the other modern vernaculars (see Burke 2004: 61-88; Prandoni 2014a). But Vos goes further, expanding on this:

De taalkunde maakt wel geleert, maar geen Dichters: ik wil wel bekennen dat het een brug is daar men over moet gaan als men een ander zijn wieigejsheidt wil ontleenen, om die voor zijn eigen uit te geeven […]De Dichtkunst is geen dochter van uitheemsche taalen; maar van d’overvloedt der geesten, die zich in de gedachten uitstorten […]. (Vos 1667/1975: 363-364)

[The knowledge of languages makes one cultivated, not a poet. I am disposed to admit that it is a bridge which you have to cross if you want to borrow wisdom from someone else, and pass it off as your own […] Wisdom is not a child of foreign languages, but of the overflow of the spirits that pour out in thoughts […]]

Although he praises the role of polyglots and translators as cross-cultural mediators, using the metaphor of the bridge – to which we are accustomed since the very outset of contemporary translation studies (Holmes 1972) – Vos strongly opposes the idea that knowing many foreign languages and possessing a great scholarly erudition is a necessary precondition to becoming a poet.

His argumentation is obviously not just limited to poetics and reveals a social component. The social element emerges from that imaginary criticism: why should a glassmaker write on such subjects? He would do better devote himself to the profession his family depends on. Vos is aware that he does not belong to the upper classes of merchants-regents and intellectuals. His simple Dutch education is a direct consequence of that social background, resulting in no classical education, no university, no educational trips abroad (the grand tour), no intercourse with the international Republic of Letters. He is and will remain primarily a craftsman making a living out of his manual work, a condition which he proudly embraces and defends, and a talented poet, often for the élite as well, for which he often wrote (see Geerdink 2012). But it was primarily of the stage that he could claim a lifelong experience as a playwright and as a trustee of the Schouwburg. Not a poeta doctus as in the illustrious humanistic traditions embraced by Vondel and – as he implies – by many other less gifted colleagues who have no idea of what good poetry and theatre are and are not respectful of their own mother tongue either. Vos is here also expanding on the words of a famous ‘popular’ poet of the beginning of the century, the already quoted G.A. Bredero, a ‘simple man of Amsterdam’ who in the dedicatory letter to the Latinists of his modern adaptation of Terentius’ Eunuchus, Moortje [The Moorish Girl] (1617) cautiously suggested that knowledge of too many languages, prior to a good knowledge of your own mother tongue, can result in insufficient mastery of the latter. Bredero also invited learned scholars to be generous with less cultivated people, whose lack of knowledge he directly linked to ignorance of foreign languages, with a curious compound word: ‘uytheemsche-letterloosen-ongheleerde’ [‘uneducated and with no knowledge of foreign languages and literatures’], Hermans 1996, 90; Jansen 2011: 202). The subtle, indirect critic expressed by Bredero to the exponents of the social and cultural elite at the beginning of the century is turned here into open attack: the social gap between cultivated elite and lower middle-class had apparently spread in those fifty years.

Concerning the translation-imitation of the ancients, somewhat anticipating the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes which would break out in France and elsewhere some decades later (Buitendijk 1975: 352), Jan Vos defends the primacy of the modern times – and most notably the Dutch impulse to modernity therein: after the invention of the compass, the new war techniques, the telescope, the press, shall we refuse all that only because the ancients did not know them? The latent national, not to say nationalist, undertone of this argumentation comes to the fore when he evokes the Dutch glory, admiral Michiel de Ruyter. During the recent wars against England, De Ruyter did not shine because he had learnt warfare or courage from ancient Hamilcar or Atilius Regulus. His braveness was the result of ‘nature’ and ‘experience’, as in the case of the true poet, like Vos himself.

Lodewijk Meijer and Thomas Asselijn

Although Vos also points out that Aristotle lost much of his authority to Descartes, it is doubtful whether he was particularly versed in philosophy. But this was most certainly the case with Lodewijk Meijer who to this day enjoys a reputation as linguist and philosopher. A friend, an interpreter and an editor of Baruch de Spinoza and exponent of what Israel (2001: 197) has called the radical enlightenment in the Republic, sprouting from the libertine circles of the Latin schoolteacher Franciscus van den Enden (Bossers 2012), Meijer tried to combine rationalism with Christianity in the first ‘of the great public intellectual controversies generated by the rise of radical thought’ (Israel 2001: 197) in 1666. He also helped form a scientific terminology for Dutch, editing the new edition of a dictionary which was aimed at elucidating foreign terms for those who did not master foreign languages (Israel 2001: 197). At the same time, he did not miss first-hand experience of theatre either. He composed plays, drawing on classic, Spanish and more notably French models, Corneille in the very first place of whom he proved to be a true disciple. Since the 50s he collaborated with the Schouwburg from a peripheral position (Jautze, Álvarez Francés and Blom 2016: 28) but later on he became directly involved with it when he entered the body of its directors (together with Vos) in 1665. At the time, the two colleagues shared a passion for sensational baroque drama, intricate plots, for all sorts of machinery and visual effects and thus inevitably – no matter what Vos wrote in his preface – for Corneille.

Shortly after Medea, and the death of its author Jan Vos, Meijer put his own version of the antecedents of that storyline on stage (once again!): Ghulde Vlies [The Golden Fleece], an adaptation of Corneille’s La toison d’or. Meant as a tribute to his venerated model, admired in Amsterdam few years later, it was composed in 1664. In the preface, Meijer adopts a skeptical stance towards the classic rules which is quite similar to Vos’: hostile to servile imitation, he maintains that not all classic rules have to be respected and defends the Dutch dramatic tradition which proved to be different, but equally successful. Six months later, in 1668, we hear an utterly different sound in the long preface to his Verloofde Koninghsbruidt [The Engaged King’s Daughter], not a translation proper but mainly drawn on Corneille and Seneca. The author tells the long prehistory of this play, begun in 1654 and reshaped again and again, rejected as inaugural pièce of the new theatre in 1665 and eventually put on stage and published after a deep revision (Meijer 1668/1978: 60). All these elements indicate a complete reorientation of the playwright with respect to the classic dramatic rules. The preface becomes a literary-theoretical treatise on dramatic poetics and follows in this Corneille’s Discours sur le poème dramatique (placed as introductory texts to his Complete Works in 1660). Corneille is considered normative and his views on theatre shared and propagated among the Dutch public, together with Horace’s and Aristotle’s. Corneille, and Seneca, have been his ‘Northern stars in this sea’ [‘noordt-sterren in deze zee’] (Meijer 1668/1978: 64): without them he would not have dared to write for the stage.

Meijer’s reorientation reveals that something is stirring in the world of the Amsterdam theatre, an evolution to which Vos’ Medea certainly contributed, with its polemic stance and overwhelming public success to confirm it. Vos’ death opened a struggle among supporters and rivals of his views, all of them contending a leading position in the Amsterdam theatre.

This conflict was fought on stage and in printed paratexts in which authors explained and legitimized their position, setting out against competing views. In the same year 1668 a new play was put on stage, by Thomas Asselijn: Rise and Fall of Mas Anjello, or the Neapolitan Turmoils, Happened in the Year 1647 [Op en ondergang van Mas Anjello, of Napelse beroerte, voorgevallen in ’t jaar 1647]. In the printed drama text, accompanied by a dedicatory letter to a secretary of the city council and son of a burgomaster, the author defends himself and his work on political as well as on aesthetic grounds. To start from the latter, he makes a plea against translation / adaptation of foreign plays and, more generally, against imitative poetics:

Ik offer hem U.E.A. dan gants armelijk en veragt, doch in een vry kleet van geen Spanjaardt  noch Fransman ontleent, noch omswachtelt met Poëetsche droomen, maar alleen naar de waarheyt der zaaken. Wy hebben hier door een spoor trachten te maaken voor onze kunst-genooten, want willen wy dat onze vaarzen geroemdt zullen worden en onze Schouwburg doorlugtigh werdt, laat ons dan niet sweeten om door ’t overzetten van uytheemse Toneelspeelen beroemdt te werden […]

Door copieeren en kunt gy niet opklimmen om vermaardt te warden, alzoo het zelve zoo veel herssens noch begrijp niet van nooden heft. Laat ons dan tragten eygen vindinge voort te brengen en toegang neemen tot de Historien en op alle voorvallen onze bedenkingen laaten gaan. Wat zou ons verhindren dat wy niet zoo wel als de Spaanse, Franse en Engelse zouden kunnen voortbrengen zoodanige gedachten gelijk ons dagelijks van haar op onze Schouburgh warden vertoont? (Asselijn 1668/1994: 22).

[I offer him [Masaniello] to you utterly poor and despised, but a free costume, not borrowed from any Spaniard or Frenchman, nor bandaged by poetic dreams but based exclusively on truth. By doing this we have tried to make a trail for our fellow-artists, for if we want our verses and our theatre to gain fame, then let us not sweat to become famous by translating foreign plays […]. By copying it is not possible to climb up to fame, as this does not require much brains or intelligence. Therefore, let us try to bring forth our own inventions and turn to Histories, leaving all doubts behind. What could prevent us from bringing forth, like Spaniards, French and English do, similar thoughts to the ones which are shown every day in our Theatre?]

Painters do not learn from copying from other painters, but dal vero: Vondel’s aesthetic views find here a counterpart, and his arguments are refuted. Jan Vos is not mentioned but receives a complete backing. However, Asselijn radicalizes the views of his predecessor, abandoning classical or romanesque intrigues and choosing ‘Histories’: the dramatization of truly happened events from (almost contemporary, as the indication of the year 1647 in the subtitle stresses) history. Asselijn’s choice of Masaniello was very daring indeed: the preface shows that he had to defend himself from attacks not only to his poetic views but because of his choice of subject-matter: a fiscal revolt. He has to explain that no sympathy whatsoever can be felt for the Neapolitan fisher and that any polemical allusion in the play to an exaggerated taxation in the Republic (a hot item at the time) is out of the question.

Contemporary history entered the Schouwburg only as an exception, and certainly not in dealing with the lower social classes. Revolts were  (rarely) shown only as cautionary tales for the audience, as in the case of the Anabaptist upheavals in Munster and Amsterdam, suffocated in blood by exemplary city magistrates (see Prandoni 2014b): those plays had an overt ideological message against any form of radicalism which might have destabilized the social order. Theatre directors, in close touch with the city magistrates, kept a close eye on the repertoire (Porteman and Smits-Veldt 2008: 544). Anything that might lead to social unrest was carefully avoided, in a society without a central court or an absolute monarch and in which everything was based on a delicated balance between different forces and interests. It is incorrect to say, as some contemporary and modern interpreters have (see Meijer Drees 1989), that Masaniello’s social transgression finds some justification in the play. That would be an unicum in pre-romantic Europe. However, Masaniello is given a more complex character than, for instance, the English or German versions (on which see Masaniello 1998, with an Italian translation of the Dutch play by A. Peters) and gets a chance to express his radical views in long and passionate monologues, before becoming completely frenzied. Asselijn liked to put round characters on stage that fully contrasted with each other, however shocking or radical their arguments might be: a full-blood theatre-maker with a taste for provocation.

In any case, Masaniello and its author came in for a lot of criticism. In that criticism aesthetic and social arguments were interwoven, and the author’s refusal to draw inspiration from foreign models was put down to ignorance, not considered a deliberate choice. The bookbinder Asselijn had migrated with his family in the 20s from France: he belonged to the (lower)-middleclass theatre-practitioners (he would go bankrupt in 1678) and, much as Vos and others, did not belong to the wealthy upper class, the internationally-oriented intellectual elite of Meijer and his circles.

Academy Nil Volentibus Arduum vs. the Schouwburg directors: a pamphlet war on translation

In this period an international orientation meant above all a French orientation. French was taking over from Latin as the international lingua franca. In the Republic it became extremely popular in the upper levels of society, becoming sometimes a posh affectation (Frijhoff 2017: 128, 138). Meijer’s ‘conversion’ to French orthodoxy (he even had to disavow his beloved special effects on stage) went together with a new French orientation among academic poets and playwrights who stuck to the règles de l’art of the doctrine classique, even before Boileau would systematize it. This led to an escalation in the struggle between practice-oriented playwrights, backed by the majority of the Schouwburg directors, and academic writers.

Academic is intended here in a two senses. Academics mostly had a first-class university education: Meijer, a Cartesian philosopher, held a Phd in philosophy and in medicine from Leiden (Israel 2001: 197; Holzhey 2014: 81). In 1669 Meijer, after stepping down from the board of trustees of the theatre because he was in conflict with his colleagues, founded with other friends the first Dutch Academy on the French and Italian model: a scholarly and literary association whose members gathered once a week to discuss rhetoric, poetry, and theatre (their conferences would be published only in 1765: NVA 1765/1989). Their aim was to become as authoritative a body as the French Académie Française, laying down rules for the codification of art, and above all theatre, according to the French-classicist model which they considered normative (see Holzhey 2014). Needless to say, they intended to defy the ‘party’ of theatre directors and practitioners and overrule them in theatre policy and, practically, in the direction of the Schouwburg. Their opponents were those playwrights who were close to theatre direction and mostly relied on practice, experience and audience success and refused to accept strict abstract regulations.

From 1669 onwards, and at least until 1681, the arguments would rage (see Meijer 1978: 49-59; Meijer Drees 1989: 121-143; Holzhey 2014). Nil members reissued five amended translations by their adversaries (Holzhey speaks of ‘tegenvertalingen’, ‘countertranslations’, 2014: 220), like Hendrik de Graeff’s Agrippa (from Philippe Quinault) and Blasius’ rendering of Plautus’ Menaechmi. They followed a much more regulated structure and language, in order to meet the rules of French classicism with regard to consistency, stylistic appropriateness, clarity, soberness. The Schouwburg poets reacted to this act of war by anonymously editing an edition of their own translation of Jean de Rotrou’s Greek Antigone, accompanied by a self-defense and a counterattack in the fore- and afterword, directed against literary researchers. They address ‘poetry lovers’ as follows:

Waerde Kunstgenooten, en mede begunstigers der Dichtkunst, wy beleeven een tijdt, dat al ’t gene ter liefde, en uyt zucht tot de Poëzy werdt aan den dach gebracht, behoorde niet als gewapent in zijn volle rusting te voorschijn te koomen, om alzoo de vervolgers, te weeren, en te doen afstuyten. Te meer, alzoo eenige, by afzonderinge, onder den anderen hebben opgerecht, (gelijk zy ’t noemen) een Reedenschool, al seen Poëtische Inquizitie, ofte een slaafachtige onderzoeking der Kunst; waar by alles, (wat niet met den Kanon, ofte reegel van dat Concilium over een komt), werdt verkettert, ende verworpen, als onwaardigh tot eenigh nut (Bericht aan alle Beminnaars van de Poëzy, Griekse Antigóne 1670: A 2).

[Esteemed fellow-artists, and fellow-supporters of Poetry, we live in a time in which all is brought forth out of love and poetic aspiration, must appear armed in full armor, in order to defend itself from its persecutors and make them recoil. Even more so because some of the others have founded an Academy (as they name it), which should actually bear the righteous name of Poetic Inquisition, or servile study of Art; in which everything – whatever does not meet the Canon, or rule of that Council – is banned and rejected as completely unworthy and useless.]

Meijer’s plays are clumsy and lack theatricality, because of their exaggerated imitative nature. The tone is openly sarcastic: twelve years of dedicated study have resulted in a play, The Engaged King’s Daughter, which is just ‘a bunch of French patches all thrown together’ [‘van een party Franse lappen […] te zamen geflikt’]. No wonder the play met with little success among audiences and was immediately removed from the repertoire of the Schouwburg, which would be utterly ruined [‘een totale ruine der Schouwburg’] (A 3) if the Academy managed to get its hands on it. The authors wonder if the fact that those men have studied, ‘are expert in numerous foreign languages and sciences” [‘ervaaren in veeldenhande taalen en weetenschappen’] and  ‘have their names adorned with special titles’ [‘wiens naamen met bezondere tijtelen zijn verrijkt’] could be a good reason to choose their side: not at all, is their answer, as they know many examples of people who were driven to frenzy by study (‘door de studien’: A 3).

In the afterword to the Greek Antigone, they blame Nil’s publication of already existing and staged versions in a new, corrected form. The academicians had re-issued an amended translation by Joan Blasius from Jean de Magnon, adding their own Critica (NVA 1670) and attacking ‘the author of the translated Orondaates en Statira, shown in the theatre’ [‘Autheur van de vertaalde Orondates en Statira’] (D 1). They had listed an interminable list of errors concerning ‘construction’ of the plot [‘constructie’], morphology, syntax (word order: instead of ‘u vrientschap ik versmaade’ they prefer ‘ik versmaade uw vrientschap’ etc., D 1). This must have been painful for Blasius and the circles of the Schouwburg. In their reply, Asselijn & Co. retorted the same accusations. Even though they did not share the academicians’ views on regulated language and rationalist language use, they could sum up many places in Meijer’s The Engaged King’s Daughter where, despite twelve years of polishing, the language sounded far-fetched, obscure or inappropriate. In the conclusion, they subscribed to what Meijer in his modesty had written in his preface: ‘and if there is anything good in it, then it belongs to the Frenchman’ [‘en zoo ’er al iet goets in is, zoo is het van de Fransman, gelijk hy zelfs zeyt’] (D 2).

The academy as a collective body, and Meijer on his own, launched a furious campaign against their opponents, Asselijn in the first place, as they did not doubt that he stood behind the anonymous work. Sarcasm is paid back with the same coin: they would reproach Asselijn for using too pompous a language for simple fishers in his Mas Anjello, and suggest he follow the ancient models of Plautus and Terentius,

ten waar wy wisten, dat die Heer, uit de Natuur met een algemeene wetenschap begaaft, een byzondere afkeer had van alle uitheemsche spraaken, en geleerdtheid daar uit gehaalt […] Wy zijn dan ook niet verwondert, dat die heer geduurig roept om eige vindingen, wijl hy niet meer, als zijn Moeders taal, kennende, en de andere, na ’t loffelijke voorbeeldt van Jan Vos, verachtende […]. (Antwoordt 1670: 6-7, see Meijer Drees 1989: 131) 

[were it not that we are aware that that gentleman, exceptionally gifted by nature with general knowledge, has a peculiar distaste for all foreign languages, and any erudition one can draw from them […] It is therefore not surprising that that gentleman boasts all the time of his own invention, for he only speaks his mother tongue and despises all other languages, following Jan Vos’ example […]].

It is interesting to notice that not only forewords of (translated/adapted) plays were used at the height of this confrontation, a true pamphlet war (sometimes fought anonymously) or even more so a controversy. To this the Dutch proto- ‘public opinion’ was well accustomed. The fact that the academy published corrected translations as well is a clear demonstration that the two parties were not so much contending on the issue of whether to translate or not as on how to translate, which to them came down to how to write for the stage, translation/adaptation/imitation lying at the very core of the Dutch theatrical life of the time. They were using concurrent translations to propagate their own views on theatre and language (Holzhey 2014: 220). In modern translation studies the importance of re-translations is well known, since they allow the interpreter to analyze translation norms and paradigms of an epoch and individual writers who foreground, with a varying degree of awareness, their position in it (Naaijkens 2002: 29-34). In this case, however, playwrights do not contend on issues of ‘translation proper’, but on the construction of the plot in the adaptation and the correctness / appropriateness of the Dutch language in it (see Holzhey 2014: 220ff). Bredero did the same a half century before, when he criticized his predecessor’s (Cornelis van Ghistele from Antwerp) bastardized language in his translation from Terentius (Hermans 1996, 90; Jansen 2011: 200-203). To most of them it must have been self-evident that a translation for the stage had to be an adaptation and they did not question each other’s translation strategies.

Meijer published his own individual reply also: after all, he had been targeted the most. In his frustration for all the criticism received, he surpasses the limits of a civilized disputation. Asselijn is considered to be the same as Jan Vos and ‘his monkey’ [‘wiens Aap hij is’]: he is not even able to understand what Meijer has explained in plain Dutch. As he concludes: ‘it is anyway not my fault if you are a stupid Dutch preacher’ [‘het is immers mijn schuldt niet, dat gy een dome duitsche Klerk zijt’ (Meijer 1670: 18, see Meijer Drees 1989: 132-133).

In his reactions, Asselijn blames his opponents’ stubborn fixation, while he considers it obvious that original work is more valuable than any derivative work (Meijer Drees 1989: 136-137). He also adds one more cutting remark: in his drama De Looghenaar [The Liar] (1658) Meijer had not mentioned that it was partially adapted from Corneille (Le Menteur, 1644). Meijer loses his patience: and he has no problem admitting so, quite unlike his enemy. Asselijn’s old play Den grooten Kurieen [The great Curio] (1657), he points out, was actually translated from Lope de Vega’s La Amistad pagada by someone else whom Asselijn probably had to pay, even if he ‘considers the work as his own’ [‘[hij] reekent het daarom voor ’t zijne’] (Antwoordt 1670: 29, see Jautze, Álvarez Francés and Blom: 28, n. 43).

Thanks to this embittered polemics, another issue is foregrounded on which scholars have drawn attention over the last years, with a growing interest in research into all the agents involved in the cultural industry of the Schouwburg (see the database ONSTAGE,  http://www.vondel.humanities.uva.nl/onstage/). As Meijer suggested, most of the Spanish plays were first translated in prose by professional translators, often from Sephardic Jews circles, whose versions were rhymed by playwrights. The only name we know for sure is that of Jacobus Baroces (Hermans 1996, 21), who was possibly responsible for the rendering in question. It seems likely that the translation costs were covered by the theatre (Jautze, Álvarez Francés and Blom 2016). Meijer’s attack on Asselijn reveals his feeling of cultural and social superiority: he did not need professional help to access his foreign models, nor did he need to pay anyone for help, unlike the socially and culturally inferior Asselijn whose choice of ‘original’ works was simply the result of material and spiritual poverty.

Closure of the Schouwburg and triumph of the Academicians

In 1672 the Schouwburg closed. The cause was a fire, but also the French invasion of the Republic. The polemics on repertoire contributed to its shutting down as well. When it opened its doors again, in 1677, half of the board of the theatre directors was in hands of the Academicians, who had thus won their struggle and could impose new ‘regulations’. In the following years it would be above all the influential Nil member Andries Pels who would set forth the crusade against Asselijn and his circles with two treatises in verses, à la Horace and Boileau: the first was an actualization of Horace’s Poetica (Pels 1678/1973), the second a poem on Use and Abuse of Theatre (Gebruik én misbruik des tooneels, 1681/1978). The titles speak for themselves. For Pels there can exist no doubt whatsoever as to the supremacy of the classical theoreticians and the modern French ones. He repeatedly stresses French cultural superiority and the need to consider its achievements paradigmatic: ‘Let the French be for us an example’ [‘Laat de Fransche ons tót een voorbeeld zyn’] (Pels 1681/1978, v. 1051). Spanish and English plays, which he does not despise, must be regulated after that model.

Vos is ridiculed for his arrogant relativization of Aristotle and Horace, and for his pretension to judge equally about glass and drama, but one of his favorite targets is precisely Asselijn, ‘pupil of Jan Vos’ [‘leerling van Jan Vos’] (Pels 1681/1978, v. 500). Sarcastically, Pels defend Mas Anjello’s author from the accusation of trying to stir social rebellion with his Neapolitan fisher: the play’s construction had so many flaws, was so chaotic and inordinate that no one in the audience could possibly have been moved to insubordination by watching it! The author only wanted to fill his public’s eyes and ears with bombastic action (ivi, v. 493-505). Asselijn receives no compassion and is scorned utterly. But Pels extends his critic to the poeta vulgaris also to the pictor vulgaris who does not wish to take regulations into account and arrogantly relies on his own creativity: for instance, Rembrandt, whose great talent was spoilt because of his refusal to follow both his predecessors (Michelangelo, Rafael, Titian or Van Dyk) and classical rules (ivi, 1093ff).

Asselijn and his party lowered the tone of their voice in the polemic. The growing French hegemony on political and cultural grounds helped the Academicians triumph and overrule their adversaries in the direction of the Schouwburg. The new century would confirm the success of the French-classicist crusade with a strongly regulated theatre repertoire in polished, sober language and a tendency to avoid whatever might cause an uproar in society: no references to religion and a preference for myth and classical history in the subject-matter over biblical plays like Vondel’s, a poeta doctus whom they admired but also criticized and amended (Holzhey 2014: 110).


What is significant in this war over poetics is its focus on translation. The topic of translation was catapulted to the foreground and became both the battle-field and at certain point the weapon itself. This is a demonstration of the omnipresent importance of translation, deeply embedded in social practice (Frijhoff 2017) and implying a general positive taxonomy of heteroglossia, the importation of foreign ideas (see Burke 2004: 80) and cross-cultural mediation for the construction of the Dutch cultural space, despite the struggle for the purification of the proto-national language in order to render it capable of competing with other vernaculars in Europe. 

What was at stake was thus not primarily whether to translate or not – everybody did, including the Schouwburg playwrights, who restlessly mediated foreign cultural products into Dutch society, with great success. A full-blooded theatre-practitioner, involved in all aspects concerning the cultural industry of the Schouwburg, Vos knew better than anyone that adaptations from Spanish, French and classical dramas ensured favor and good revenues. He was himself indebted to classical and modern French models for his Aran en Titus and Medea. The Greek Antigone was a translation from Jean de Rotrou. Even Asselijn, who proudly stated he was not drawing from any foreign model, had of course to adapt and transmedialize a foreign source for his Mas Anjello, the chronicle of the Neapolitan upheavals by Giraffi: his histories were the result of complex negotiation of a foreign, albeit not poetic or theatrical, model which he followed closely (Prandoni 2008).

Those who declared themselves to be against translation were upholding a stance against an all too passive derivative-imitative poetics and defending original creation as well as their own experience as theatre-practitioners against strict regulations handed down by studious, rationalist academicians. This is not to say they were against translations as such: translation is a necessary ‘bridge’, as Vos himself says, to obtain knowledge from other people, make it your own and pass it off as yours, according to the dominant translation paradigm at the time, based on appropriation of the cultural other (Kasten 2012: 252-256). They were against what they considered to be sterile erudition and excessive dependence on models, especially the classics, which ran the risk of suffocating original creation, defined in pre-romantic terms. They also upheld the rights of an autochthonous Dutch dramatic tradition which, despite being indebted to international models, did not follow them too closely and did not feel the need to meet all of the demands of ancient or modern theoreticians either.

The academic writers, ridiculed for their clumsy plays and finding little favor with audiences, played the card of their higher social status and level of education in the quarrel. The arguments of their adversaries were presented as a consequence of their ignorance of dramatic rules, foreign languages, theoretical essays; their lack of education inevitably led them to refuse foreign models and to maintain an arrogant and stupid confidence in the poet’s own genius. Many of the arguments used by the academic writers (the need to pay professional translators, their scorn for manual work, their superiority to monolingual persons, etc.) betray the social undertone of their polemic: this applied also to an ‘enlightened’ man like Meijer, who had edited a dictionary of foreign technical terms in order to help those who only knew Dutch. Their adversaries could only reply with the ‘populist’ topos of the frenzied man of letters, lacking practical experience and unable to judge fairly due to his excessive erudition. Vos’s refusal to bow to antiquity is on the contrary a much more interesting stance which could only be touched upon here, suggesting an awareness among the Dutch population – even the low-middle class with no university education – that the Republic and its citizens were the forerunners of a proud new era: the modern times.

The discursive presence of translation in the public debate confirms that translation and intercultural intercourse stood high on the agenda of the Republic, in all of its social layers, and deeply influenced all domains of knowledge, including the arts. And thus it happened that a struggle to rule one of the most important cultural institutions of the Republic, the Amsterdam Theatre, could be fought on the very idea of translation, and by means of (counter) translations.

Note: all translation from the Dutch are by the author unless otherwise stated.


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Geerdink, Nina (2012) De sociale verankering van het dichterschap van Jan Vos (1610-1667), Hilversum, Verloren.

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Pels, Andries (1678/1973) Q. Horatius Flaccus Dichtkunst op onze tijden en zeden gepast, M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen (ed.), Assen, Van Gorcum.

---- (1681/1978) Gebruik én misbruik des tooneels, M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen (ed.), Culemborg, Tjeen Willink-Noorduijn.

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---- (2014a) “Vive la France, A bas la France! Contradictory Attitude Toward the Appropriation of French Cultural Elements in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century: The Forewords of ‘Modern’ Poetry Collections, in Wissenstransfer und Auctoritas in der frühneuzeitlichen niederländischsprachigen Literatur, Bettina Noak (ed.), Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 179-194.

---- (2014b) “‘Doen an een zijden draet hingh ’t welvaert van dees’ Stede’. Amsterdamse stadsgeschiedenis  en (katholieke) identiteit in P.A. Coddes toneelstuk Herdoopers anslagh op Amsterdam (1641)”, De zeventiende eeuw 30: 97-109.

Rodríguez Pérez, Yolanda (2016) “‘Neem liever een Spaans spel’. Nieuw onderzoek naar het Spaanse toneel op de Noord- en Zuidnederlandse planken in de zeventiende eeuw”, De zeventiende eeuw 32: 2-11.

Vondel, Joost van den (1620/1929) De Heerlyckheyd van Salomon, in Joost van den Vondel, De werken. Volledige en geïllustreerde tekstuitgave, J.F.M. Sterck et al. (eds.), 10 vols., Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek, vol. 2: 223-298.

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About the author(s)

Marco Prandoni, PHD (Utrecht, 2007), lectures in Dutch Studies at the University of Bologna. His research examines intercultural dynamics in early modern
drama and contemporary culture, with a specific focus on migration-related issues. With Sonia Salsi he has been leading since 2016 the international project
“Minatori di memorie” (Miners of Memory) devoted to the transcultural memory of mines and migration in the former mining districts in Belgium and The
Netherlands. He has published on the work of Dutch writers of migrant origin and their reception and on interconfessional dynamics in early modern theatre.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Marco Prandoni (2019).
"Against Translation The Struggle Over Translation for the Stage in the (Late) Dutch Golden Age"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Transit and Translation in Early Modern Europe
Edited by: Donatella Montini, Iolanda Plescia, Anna Maria Segala and Francesca Terrenato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2358

Il Catalogo Feltrinelli (1955-2011), la Spagna e l’America latina: da Vicente Blasco Ibáñez a Marcela Serrano

By Simone Cattaneo (Università di Milano, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords


The aim of this paper is to provide a general panorama about the translations from Spanish published in Italy by the publishing company Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore from its founding, in 1955, to the year 2011. As a matter of fact, an accurate analysis of its historical catalogue can show some representative guidelines about the main policies adopted by italian publishers regarding Hispanic and Latin American cultures in that period. This kind of approach also allows to point out some interesting questions about the relationships between Italy, Spain and Latin America within the frame of a more and more challenging global book industry.


L’obiettivo del presente contributo è quello di fornire un quadro generale delle traduzioni dal castigliano pubblicate in Italia dalla casa editrice Giangiacomo Feltrinelli dal 1955, anno della sua fondazione, fino al 2011. Lo spoglio del catalogo di questa storica azienda si presta infatti a essere un esempio significativo delle politiche editoriali italiane nei confronti delle culture ispaniche e ispanoamericane, permettendo inoltre di articolare diverse riflessioni sui rapporti tra la nostra penisola, la Spagna e l’America Latina all’interno di un mercato del libro in costante evoluzione.

Keywords: Feltrinelli, Spagna, America Latina, mercato del libro, Book Industry

©inTRAlinea & Simone Cattaneo (2019).
"Il Catalogo Feltrinelli (1955-2011), la Spagna e l’America latina: da Vicente Blasco Ibáñez a Marcela Serrano"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Le ragioni del tradurre
Edited by: Rafael Lozano Miralles, Pietro Taravacci, Antonella Cancellier & Pilar Capanaga
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2391

Il presente saggio nasce dalla curiosità di analizzare il volume Feltrinelli 1955-2005. Catalogo storico, con l’occhio di un ispanista attento alle traduzioni dal castigliano pubblicate in Italia,[1] però la tentazione di prolungare lo spoglio sino ai nostri giorni si è fatta largo fin da subito e grazie ai listini Feltrinelli, stampati dal 2005 al 2011, è stato possibile compiere un ulteriore passo nel fornire un quadro più esaustivo e aggiornato.

Creare cataloghi o sottocataloghi è un’operazione insidiosa e va condotta con l’accortezza di stabilire alcuni limiti che, pur restringendo il campo d’azione, permettano una visione d’insieme. Ecco dunque che, lungi dal voler disegnare una mappa in grado di riprodurre a scala naturale la complessità dell’oggetto di studio, si è deciso di realizzare una panoramica cronologica, accompagnata da rapide considerazioni, nel tentativo di offrire possibili chiavi interpretative e con la speranza di stimolare letture e domande suscettibili a loro volta di generare nuove riflessioni.

L’avventura di Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, com’è noto, inizia intorno alla metà degli anni ’50, quando decide di rimettere insieme i cocci della serie Universale Economica del Canguro, sorta nel 1949 all’ombra del giornale pomeridiano «Milano Sera» e poi proseguita, grazie all’intervento del Pci, con l’inaugurazione della Cooperativa del libro popolare che mirava a offrire a un vasto pubblico testi didattici o letterari di alto livello a un prezzo contenuto. Da questo slancio filantropico sorge, nel 1955, la Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore e tra i primi volumi dati alle stampe spicca La baracca di Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, a cura di Vittorio Spinazzola. La decisione di pubblicare l’opera è probabilmente legata a una sua possibile lettura “ideologica” (vi si narrano le lotte sociali tra i lavoratori dei campi attorno a Valencia e i grandi proprietari terrieri), ma al contempo si tratta di un libro scaturito dalla penna di un autore molto noto in Italia, visto che erano stati pubblicati vari suoi romanzi (più di ottanta prima del 1944) e il testo in questione era già uscito presso altri editori con titoli differenti: Ah, il pane! (Palermo, Sandron, 1908); Terre maledette (Milano, Sonzogno, 1928) e La baracca (Milano, Bietti, 1928).[2] In quello stesso anno però, viene stampato anche un secondo volume che scioglie ogni dubbio riguardo alla linea adottata dalla neonata casa editrice: Spagna clandestina è il diario di Juan Hermanos, un giovane spagnolo che nel corso della guerra civile aveva militato tra le file repubblicane e che, una volta rifugiatosi in Francia, aveva redatto le memorie di quell’epoca, riuscendo a pubblicarle in francese nel 1950 (La fin de l’espoir, Parigi, Julliard) con una prefazione di Jean Paul-Sartre. Anche la personalità di chi scopre e traduce l’opera è significativa poiché Francesco Scotti, politico di lungo corso, era stato un militante comunista che aveva rischiato la vita sia sul fronte di Madrid sia su quello di Saragozza (Cosmacini, Scotti 2010: 50-72). La copertina della versione italiana è un’evidente dichiarazione di intenti: su uno sfondo che riproduce i colori della bandiera repubblicana spagnola, si intravede un muro con la scritta «Abajo el terror franquista». In quel periodo l’ideologia ha un peso decisivo su ogni scelta dell’editore, iscritto dal 1945 al Pci (Feltrinelli 2010: 55-56) e convinto della necessità di un antifascismo senza concessioni e del bisogno di promuovere un assetto globale condiviso in cui i paesi del Terzo Mondo avrebbero potuto inserirsi nel sistema politico mondiale (79-80). La Spagna, stritolata dalla morsa reazionaria di Franco, doveva sembrare ai suoi occhi una nazione ansiosa di scrollarsi di dosso il grigiore in cui era piombata e allora ecco che, in quanto territorio in mano nemica ed esaltato dal suo immaginario di fervente militante,[3] si trasforma in una cartina tornasole dell’inquietudine europea.

Nel 1956 sarà però un titolo vicino alla realtà latinoamericana a incitare alla rivolta, abbagliando inoltre i potenziali acquirenti con il luccichio di una patina hollywoodiana: Zapata l’invincibile – traduzione dall’inglese di Zapata the unconquerable – di Edgcumb Pinchon è infatti una delle fonti utilizzate da John Steinbeck per elaborare il copione del film ¡Viva Zapata! (1952) del regista Elia Kazan e con interpreti del calibro di Marlon Brando e Anthony Quinn.[4]

A distanza di due anni, dopo un paio di volumi ancora dedicati alle peculiarità e alla leyenda negra della penisola iberica – Missione in Spagna: 1933-1939: Prova generale della seconda guerra mondiale (1957) di Claude Gernade Bowers e L’inquisizione spagnola (1957) di Arthur Stanley Turberville ‒, Feltrinelli si avventura alla scoperta del romanzo ispanoamericano e dà alle stampe L’uomo della Provvidenza. Il Signor Presidente (1958, trad. di E. Mancuso) del guatemalteco Miguel Ángel Asturias, un testo dai palesi risvolti politici. A questa pietra miliare del panorama letterario mondiale ne segue un’altra e nel 1959, grazie alla traduzione di Tentori Montalto, i lettori italiani avranno l’opportunità di sfogliare L’Aleph di Jorge Luis Borges che, insieme a Lutto in Paradiso di Juan Goytisolo (trad. di M. Giacobbe) – incentrato di nuovo sul trauma della guerra civile – e La leggenda nera. Storia proibita degli spagnoli nel Nuovo Mondo di Fra Bartolomé de Las Casas (intr. e trad. di A. Pincherle), compone la triade di titoli tradotti dal castigliano e pubblicati da Feltrinelli nell’ultimo scampolo degli anni ’50.

Il decennio seguente si apre nel segno della continuità e all’opera maestra di Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo (1960, trad. di E. Mancuso), fa eco il grido poetico dell’antologia Romancero della Resistenza spagnola 1936-1959 (a cura di D. Puccini), in cui coabitano lo sdegno e la rabbia di vari poeti geograficamente lontani tra loro ma accomunati da un sentimento di avversione nei confronti del regime franchista (Puccini 1997: 84-85). A queste opere di carattere creativo viene affiancato un saggio di Carmelo Samonà, Calderón nella critica italiana (1960), seguito negli anni successivi da altri testi, espressione di un vivo interesse per la cultura letteraria e artistica, oltre che politica, della penisola iberica: Storia della letteratura spagnola di Guido Mancini (1961), il primo volume di Studi Ispanici (1962), I comunisti e la guerra civile spagnola (1962) e La diplomazia sovietica e la guerra civile spagnola (1963) di David Treadwell Cattel e Guernica. Genesi di un dipinto (1964) di Arnheim Rudolf. Per quanto riguarda il romanzo si attende invece un segnale di risveglio in grado di scuotere il sonnecchiante orizzonte culturale, come scrive Feltrinelli a Pasternàk in una lettera del 15 maggio 1960:

In Spagna, dove gli scrittori vivono da vent’anni sotto la dittatura di Franco e della chiesa cattolica, forse il romanzo è in fase di crescita. Dopo la grande delusione del 1945 (speravamo tutti che la fine della guerra fosse anche la fine di Franco) gli spagnoli si ribellano di nuovo e trovano il loro “outlet” (quantunque ciò sia proibito nel loro paese) nella letteratura. (Feltrinelli 2010: 208)

Forse le opere di Juan Goytisolo gli sembrano ordigni d’inchiostro e carta da far brillare nell’immobile notte del franchismo e durante il biennio 1961-1962 si assiste a un tentativo di attirare l’attenzione del pubblico italiano sulle vicende spagnole: appaiono La risacca (1961, a cura di D. Puccini, trad. di M. Capasso) e Per vivere qui (1962, trad. di D. Puccini), una raccolta di poesie di Miguel Hernández con testo originale a fronte – Poesie (1962, cura, intr. e trad. di D. Puccini)[5] – l’antologia di José María Castellet Spagna poesia oggi. La poesia spagnola dopo la guerra civile (1962, a cura di D. Puccini, trad. di D. Puccini, M. Socrate e R. Rossi)[6] e, infine, il romanzo I vinti (1962, trad. di E. Mancuso) dell’esiliato Antonio Ferres, una ricostruzione delle crudeltà perpetrate dai nazionalisti sui prigionieri repubblicani del carcere di Guadalarreal che, a causa del veto imposto dalla censura, non era stato possibile stampare all’interno dei confini spagnoli (Gracia, Ródenas de Moya 2011: 461). Gli scritti citati probabilmente non riuscirono a smuovere un numero sufficiente di coscienze né, tantomeno, furono in grado di far saltare gli ingranaggi della macchina repressiva franchista, ma in Italia la presentazione del romanzo La risacca di Goytisolo, interrotta da una violenta incursione filofascista, sollevò un polverone che il vento della stampa si incaricò di portare oltre i Pirenei, gettando negli occhi del potere qualche fastidioso granello di sabbia e rafforzando l’immagine di Feltrinelli tra gli oppositori del regime (Feltrinelli 2010: 224-225). D’altronde in quel periodo si cominciava a soffiare sulle braci di un’inquietudine ideologica sempre più incline agli estremismi, destinata ad avvampare nel 1968, e tra le lettere spagnole e italiane vi era una grande permeabilità[7] che trovava riscontro in un interesse condiviso per i risvolti sociali dell’esistenza ritratti dal realismo social e dal neorealismo (Pérez Vicente 2006: 133-134), filoni sfruttati dai loro esponenti come strumento di rappresentazione e riflessione critica in grado di inserirsi nel dibattito europeo (Calabrò 1997: 173-174).

Una corrente parallela al fervore politico e, in una certa qual misura altrettanto esplosiva, è costituita dal lavorio incessante degli scrittori ispanoamericani che minano le basi del romanzo tradizionale: nel 1963 Feltrinelli pubblica Altre inquisizioni (pref. e trad. di F. Tentori Montalto) di Borges, seguito da Aura (1964, trad. di C. Di Michele) di Carlos Fuentes e da La bomba dell’Avana (1964, trad. di Á. González-Palacios) di Severo Sarduy. Uniche concessioni al contesto spagnolo sono una raccolta di note di Picasso – Scritti di Picasso (1964, cura e intr. di M. De Micheli, trad. di M. De Micheli e D. Montaldi) ‒, un altro libro di Goytisolo[8]Le terre di Níjar e la Chanca (1965, trad. di E. Clementelli) ‒, un volume sull’inquisizione di Herny Camet – L’inquisizione spagnola (1966) – e la versione italiana di due opere teatrali di Alfonso Sastre riunite in un unico tomo: Il sangue e la cenere: dialoghi di Miguel Servet. Nella rete (1967, trad. di M.L. Aguirre e D. Puccini).[9] Tra le scansie dei punti vendita sono quindi le opere provenienti dal continente americano a fare bella mostra di sé e, nell’arco di tre anni, si susseguono Sopra eroi e tombe (1965, trad. di F. Leoni) e Il tunnel (1967, trad. di P. Vita-Finzi) di Ernesto Sábato, La morte di Artemio Cruz (1966, trad. di C. Di Michele) e Cambio di pelle (1967, trad. di C. Di Michele e A. Calidon) di Carlos Fuentes, una ristampa di Il Signor Presidente (1967) di Asturias (con calcolato tempismo rispetto alla concessione del premio Nobel), La città e i cani (1967, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Mario Vargas Llosa e, nel 1968, Cent’anni di solitudine (trad. di E. Cicogna) di Gabriel García Márquez.

Da metà del decennio dei ’60 in poi sarà di nuovo la politica – ravvivata dall’effervescenza della giovane rivoluzione cubana e dall’ansia di ribellione degli studenti europei – a dettare le scelte della casa editrice (Feltrinelli 2010: 270): Giangiacomo inizia un percorso che lo avvicina sempre più a Fidel Castro, prima guidato dall’istinto dell’editore di sinistra che ha fiutato un possibile affare (282) e poi con una crescente curiosità da entomologo politico (305-306). La distanza Milano-Cuba si assottiglia e dopo un paio di anni di trattative estenuanti, nel 1967, non esce la tanto agognata biografia di Castro bensì l’Orazione funebre per Ernesto Che Guevara (trad. di V. Riva) e, in concomitanza, appaiono le raccolte di saggi Bolivia (trad. di I. Bayon Herrera, S. D’Amico, M. Maglione, G. Mainoldi e T. Riva), a cura di Mariano Chavero, e La guerra di guerriglia e altri scritti politici e militari (trad. di E. Cicogna, E. Filippini e T. Riva) di Ernesto Guevara, a cui fanno eco Il libro dei Dodici di Castro (1968, pref. di A. Moravia, trad. di V. Riva) del giornalista cubano Carlos Franqui,[10] Liberazione o morte. Antologia degli scritti (1968, pref. di G.M. Albani e F. Gonzáles, trad. di G. Petrillo) del sacerdote rivoluzionario Camilo Torres, il primo e il secondo volume delle opere complete di Ernesto Guevara[11] e il suo Diario in Bolivia (1968, intr. di F. Castro, trad. di M.R.C. e G.F.). Nel maggio 1967, inoltre, fanno la loro comparsa le «Edizioni della libreria», una collana di opuscoli pensata da Feltrinelli per la sua catena di punti vendita con l’obiettivo di formare politicamente i militanti; vengono venduti a un prezzo medio di 250 lire e hanno titoli del seguente tenore: Documenti della rivoluzione nell’America Latina di Che Guevara, Rivoluzione nella Rivoluzione di Régis Debray, Dieci giorni in Guatemala di Camillo Castano, ecc. (Feltrinelli 2010: 277). L’epicentro di una possibile rivoluzione mondiale non è più dunque la Spagna ma l’America Latina e, di conseguenza, si nota un affievolirsi dell’entusiasmo dell’editore nei confronti di un antifranchismo imprigionato in una sterile attesa, mentre nel sud del mondo il sangue scorre impetuoso nelle vene e dà nuova linfa alle speranze e alla letteratura: Socialismo e comunismo: un processo unico (1969, a cura di C. Varela) di Fidel Castro; Nessuno scrive al colonnello e otto racconti (1969, trad. di E. Cicogna) e La mala ora (1970, trad. di E. Cicogna) di García Márquez; il terzo tomo delle Opere (1969)[12] di Ernesto Guevara; Raccattacadaveri (1969, trad. di E. Cicogna) e La vita breve (1970, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Juan Carlos Onetti; Autobiografia di una guerriglia. Guatemala 1960-1968 (1969, trad. di S. D’Amico, N. Elter, A. Gasparetti e L. Macfie Robles) di Ricardo Ramírez; Poeti ispano-americani contemporanei. Dalle prime avanguardie ai poeti d’oggi (1970, cura e trad. di M. Ravoni e A. Porta); Farabeuf o la cronaca di un istante (1970, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Elizondo Salvador; Secondo fronte. Teoria della guerriglia e appello alla lotta armata (1970, intr. di J. Lobatón, trad. di G. Lapasini) di Guillermo Lobatón; Il Che in Bolivia. L’altro diario. Le testimonianze dei superstiti (1970, a cura di S. Tutino); Il nuovo marxismo latinoamericano (1970, cura e intr. di G. Santarelli); I Tupamaros in azione. Testimonianze dei guerriglieri (1971, trad. di G. Guadalupi), Cuba dopo l’autocritica. “Il potere del popolo, questo è il vero potere” (1971, cura e pref. di F. Pantarelli, trad. di F. Pantarelli, F. Pasini e G. Ranzato) di Fidel Castro; Tania la guerrigliera (1971, trad. di F. Pantarelli ), a cura di Marta Rojas e Mirta Rodríguez Calderón; e, finalmente, un paio di testi letterari: Una frase, un rigo appena (1971, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Manuel Puig e Conversazione nella cattedrale (1971, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Vargas Llosa, accompagnati da altri studi sul contesto sudamericano – Dipendenza e sviluppo in America Latina. Saggio di interpretazione sociologica (1971, trad. di G. Santarelli) di Fernando H. Cardoso ed Enzo Faletto, I tupamaros. La guerriglia urbana in Uruguay (1971) di Alain Labrousse, il testo storico America precolombiana (1971) di Laurette Séjourné e La via cilena. Intervista con Salvador Allende, presidente del Cile (1971) di Régis Debray. Le sole voci che si levano dal contesto spagnolo sono quelle di Luis Martín-Santos ‒ con il fondamentale romanzo Tempo di silenzio (1970, trad. di E. Cicogna) ‒, di Sergio Vilar ‒ Contro Franco. I protagonisti dell’opposizione alla dittatura 1939-1970 (1970) ‒ e del disegnatore basco Chumy Chúmez, autore delle vignette Sopra & sotto (1971, pres. di M.Á. Gozalo, trad. di C. Mainoldi).

A partire dal 1972 – complici l’ultimo periodo di completa latitanza dell’editore e il tragico epilogo della sua avventura tra le file dei Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana – la politica continua a destare un certo interesse,[13] ma non è più un’ossessione, e la narrativa acquista maggiore rilevanza (Feltrinelli 2005a: vi), trascinata dal romanzo latinoamericano ormai consolidato in Feltrinelli grazie al prestigio di scrittori come Asturias o García Márquez e all’impressione che si tratti di testi più innovativi rispetto a quelli prodotti nella penisola iberica (Pérez Vicente 2006: 16), senza però essere affetti da un eccessivo solipsismo sperimentale (Pérez Vicente 2006: 136); giungono così nelle librerie Il cantiere (1972, trad. di E. Cicogna) e Per questa notte (1974, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Onetti; Il tradimento di Rita Hayworth (1972, trad. di E. Cicogna) e Fattaccio di Buenos Aires (1973, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Puig; Rulli di tamburo per Rancas (1972, trad. di E. Cicogna), Storia di Garabombo l’invisibile (1973, trad. di E. Cicogna), Cantare di Agapito Robles (1979, trad. A. Morino) e Il cavaliere insonne (1979, trad. di A. Morino) di Manuel Scorza; La incredibile e triste storia della candida Eréndira e della sua nonna snaturata (1973, trad. di E. Cicogna), L’autunno del patriarca (1975, trad. di E. Cicogna) e Foglie morte (1977, trad. di A. Morino) di García Márquez; Un mondo per Julius (1974, trad. di E. Cicogna) di Alfredo Bryce Echenique; Debeiba (1975, trad. di E. Cicogna) del colombiano Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal; Armi per la città (1975, trad. di A. Faccio) di Adriano González León; Figlio di uomo (1976, trad. di S. Bossi) e Io il Supremo (1978, trad. di S. Bossi) del paraguayano Augusto Roa Bastos; Sognai che la neve bruciava (1976, trad. di G. Manfredini) di Antonio Skármeta; I piedi di argilla (1977, trad. di A. Faccio) di Salvador Garmendia e Il comandante veneno (1979, trad. di B. Vignola) di Manuel Pereira.

Gli anni ’80 per le Edizioni Feltrinelli sembrano cominciare nel segno della continuità, anche se sorprende l’elevato numero di nuovi titoli pubblicati nel 1980: 179. Nel bel mezzo di questo profluvio d’inchiostro e carta però sono solo quattro le traduzioni dal castigliano: due romanzi – Figlio di ladro (1980, trad. di U. Cuesta) del cileno Manuel Roja e La vampata (1980, trad. di A. Morino) di Scorza –, un saggio – La medicina del capitalismo (1980, pref. di G. Berlinguer, trad. di E. Ferranti) di Vicente Navarro – e un’antologia di poesia – La rosa necessaria. Poeti spagnoli contemporanei (1980, cura e intr. di G. Calabrò, trad. di G. Calabrò e G. Gentile).[14] Il 1981 vede una contrazione della cifra dei volumi editati (106) e anche una diminuzione delle opere tradotte dallo spagnolo: Ombra del paradiso (1981, cura, pres. e trad. di M. E. Moras), del recente premio Nobel Vicente Aleixandre, e Arenata dopo l’ultimo naufragio (1981, trad. di G. Masotto) di Esther Tusquets. La situazione della casa editrice non è delle più rosee e il drastico ridimensionamento delle novità editoriali (nel 1982 saranno 81) è sintomo di un’azienda in difficoltà,[15] ma l’interesse per l’ambito iberoamericano non viene meno ed escono due romanzi – Le tre metà di Ino Moxo e altri maghi verdi (1982, trad. di A. Zucconi e L. Pranzetti) del peruviano César Calvo, Lasciamo che parli il vento (1982, trad. di F. Tarquini) di Onetti – e, nel campo degli studi umanistici, il saggio Borges. Una biografia letteraria (1982) di Emir Rodríguez Monegal, tradotto però dall’inglese. Nel 1983 si assiste invece a una ripresa insperata (89 libri dati alle stampe), con ben tre testi di narrativa – La casa degli spiriti (1983, trad. di A. Morino e S. Piloto di Castri) di Isabel Allende, La tregua (1983, trad. di F. Saba Sardi) di Mario Benedetti e La danza immobile (1983, trad. di A. Morino) di Scorza – e una raccolta di conferenze di Borges, Sette notti (1983, trad. di M.E. Moras). Si è però di fronte all’ultimo scatto di un congegno che pare destinato a incepparsi in maniera definitiva e bisognerà attendere sette anni perché torni a essere oliato a dovere. Nel contesto editoriale italiano dell’epoca, che guardava le lettere spagnole con crescente, sebbene altalenante, interesse (Pérez Vicente 2006: 256) in seguito alla straordinaria diffusione nella penisola iberica del libro come bene di consumo promosso dalla politica socialista (Alonso 2003: 17), la casa editrice Feltrinelli perde il passo con le rivali e precipita in un baratro che, nel 1984, la porta a produrre solo 60 volumi, tra i quali figura come caso a sé Il tiranno Banderas (1984) di Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, che altro non è se non un ripescaggio della traduzione di Aldo Camerino stampata da Bompiani nel 1946[16] (Lottini 1984: 245).

L’anno successivo le cose si complicano e i titoli pubblicati si riducono a 49, con due opere cilene e un saggio sulla rivoluzione sandinista: escono il secondo romanzo di Isabel Allende, D’amore e ombra (1985, trad. di A. Morino), e Marulanda. La dimora di campagna (1985, trad. di A. Morino) di José Donoso, mentre il testo Sandinisti, il Nicaragua oggi (1985), scritto a più mani, pare voler rinverdire il versante politico, ma si tratta di una vampa che segna il congedo pressoché definitivo da una saggistica impegnata al cui centro vi erano state la Spagna e l’America Latina. Richiama l’attenzione, infine, la presenza costante di un traduttore che dal 1983 al 1988 sembra sobbarcarsi l’onere di reggere quasi da solo le sorti della letteratura ispanoamericana all’interno della casa editrice e, in effetti, Morino non soltanto volge all’italiano D’amore e ombra e Merulanda. La dimora di campagna, ma nel triennio successivo ripete l’operazione con La disperanza (1987) – sempre di Donoso –, Ammazzate il leone (1987) del messicano Jorge Ibargüengoitia e, nel 1988, con Eva Luna di Isabel Allende che viene pubblicato nello stesso anno di Strappami la vita (trad. di S. Ossola) di Ángeles Mastretta. Nel 1986 e nel 1989 invece, si assiste a una lenta ripresa dell’azienda (si danno alle stampe, rispettivamente, 57 e 75 nuovi titoli), ma non vi è nemmeno un libro proveniente dalla penisola iberica o da oltreoceano.

Gli anni ’90, dal canto loro, vedono una rinascita della casa editrice e l’instaurarsi di un dialogo fittissimo con la Spagna, propiziato dal fermento culturale di quest’ultima e dalla sua esposizione mediatica a livello internazionale (Pérez Vicente 2006: 19). Feltrinelli si muove con cautela, ma con cognizione di causa e, accanto all’ormai consueto libro di Isabel Allende, prova a saggiare la curiosità del pubblico italiano nei confronti delle lettere spagnole con due polizieschi di scrittori già affermati in patria, e così, all’inizio del nuovo decennio, Il mistero della cripta stregata (1990, trad. di G. Guadalupi) di Eduardo Mendoza e Gli uccelli di Bangkok (1990, trad. di S. Ossola) di Manuel Vázquez Montalbán inaugurano una nuova tendenza che sancirà, nell’arco di un paio di lustri, il prevalere dei narratori spagnoli su quelli ispanoamericani (fig. 4) e segnerà un incremento evidente delle traduzioni dal castigliano che spesso supereranno il 5% del totale delle novità pubblicate, arrivando, alle soglie del 2000, a lambire addirittura il 10% (figg. 1 e 2).[17]

Un personaggio chiave nel dare abbrivio a questa ondata di scrittori e titoli iberici è Silvia Meucci, una giovane laureata in Germanistica e Iberistica che nel 1990 approda alla Feltrinelli e si occupa dell’area spagnola,[18] prima in qualità di redattrice e traduttrice e poi con l’incarico di scovare nuovi talenti all’estero. Il felice combinarsi di questi eventi porta alla pubblicazione, nel 1991, di titoli degni di nota: Giochi tardivi (trad. di G. Guadalupi) di Luis Landero; L’isola inaudita (trad. di O. Bin) di Mendoza e due testi della serie del detective Pepe Carvalho, del barcellonese Vázquez Montalbán ‒ Il centroavanti è stato assassinato verso sera (trad. di H. Lyria) e Tatuaggio (trad. di H. Lyria) ‒ a cui va aggiunta l’opera Chiari del bosco (trad. di C. Ferrucci) della filosofa María Zambrano, deceduta quello stesso anno. In questo periodo la narrativa si impone sugli altri generi (fig. 5) e le traduzioni di romanzi e racconti si susseguono – non senza qualche piacevole sorpresa che pare sfuggire al mero calcolo economico, come il Lazarillo de Tormes (1993, trad. di R. Rossi)[19] – a un ritmo serratissimo: Il piano infinito (1992, trad. di E. Cicogna), Paula (1995, trad. di G. Guadalupi), Per Paula. Lettere dal mondo (1997, trad. di V. Raimondi), Afrodita. Racconti, ricette e altri afrodisiaci (1998, trad. di E. Liverani e S. Geroldi) e La figlia della fortuna (1999, trad. E. Liverani) di Isabel Allende; Nessuna notizia di Gurb (1992, trad. G. Guadalupi) e La verità sul caso Savolta (1995, trad. G. Guadalupi) di Mendoza; Il labirinto greco (1992), La solitudine del manager (1993), I mari del sud (1994), La rosa di Alessandria (1995), Le terme (1996), Il fratellino (1997), Il premio (1998), Quintetto di Buenos Aires (1999), Storie di fantasmi (1999) di Vázquez Montalbán ‒ tutti tradotti da H. Lyria; L’ultima notte a letto con te. Un romanzo erotico (1992, trad. di H. Lyria) e Da Haiti viene il sangue (1993, trad. di G. Guadalupi) della cubana Mayra Montero; Gli ultimi giorni della vittima (1993, trad. di O. Bin) dell’argentino José Pablo Feinmann; Il custode delle rane (1994, trad. di M. Aboaf) di Pedro Zarraluki; L’inverno a Lisbona (1995, trad. di E. Liverani) di Antonio Muñoz Molina; Quando Teresa si arrabbiò con Dio (1996, trad. di G. Guadalupi) di Alejandro Jodorowsky; Male d’amore (1996, trad. di S. Meucci) di Mastretta; Noi che ci vogliamo così bene (1996, trad. di S. Meucci), Il tempo di Blanca (1998, trad. di S. Geroldi) e L’albergo delle donne tristi (1999, trad. di S. Geroldi) di Marcela Serrano; La signora del miele (1999, trad. di A. Donazzan) di Fanny Buitrago; Pallide bandiere (1999, pref. di P. Cacucci e trad. di G. Corica) di Paco Ignacio Taibo I e, infine, Aperto tutta la notte (1999, trad. S. Meucci) del madrileno David Trueba.

Sul filone della narrativa si innestano però altre opere sospese tra riflessione filosofica e poesia – I beati (1992, postfaz. e trad. di C. Ferrucci) di María Zambrano –, tra narrativa e cucina – Ricette immorali (1992, trad. di H. Lyria) e Le ricette di Pepe Carvalho (1994, trad. di H. Lyria) di Vázquez Montalbán –, tra diario, romanzo e pamphlet politico – Latinoamericana. Un diario per un viaggio in motocicletta (1993, cura e trad. di P. Cacucci e G. Corica) e Prima di morire. Appunti e note di lettura (1998, trad. di P. Cacucci) di Ernesto Guevara, Latinoamericana. Due diari per un viaggio in motocicletta (1993, cura e trad. di P. Cacucci, G. Corica e R. Massari) di Guevara e Alberto Granado, Io Marcos. Il nuovo Zapata racconta (1995, cura di M. Durán de Huerta, pref. di P. Cacucci, trad. di P. Cacucci e G. Corica) del subcomandante Marcos e Pamphlet dal pianeta delle scimmie (1995, trad. di H. Lyria) di Vázquez Montalbán –, tra critica letteraria e biografia – Piacere, Pepe Carvalho. Biografia autorizzata dell’investigatore più famoso di Spagna (1997, trad. S. Meucci) di Quim Aranda –, tra magia e psicologia – Psicomagia. Una terapia panica. Conversazioni con Gilles Farcet (1997, trad. di S. Meucci) di Jodorowsky – o tra lingua spagnola e slang inglese – Voci di frontiera. Scritture dei Latinos negli Stati Uniti (1997, a cura di M. Maffi). Sono invece rari i saggi “puri”, tra l’altro quasi tutti scritti da autori non ispanofoni: nel campo dell’arte va menzionato Matta. Corpo a corpo (1993) a cura di G. Ferrari, mentre all’interno degli studi storici spiccano Il Che. Una leggenda del secolo (1998) di Pierre Kalfon, corredato da una prefazione dell’onnipresente Vázquez Montalbán, e Il volo. Rivelazioni di un militare pentito sulla fine dei desaparecidos (1996, pref. e trad. di C. Tognonato) dell’argentino Horacio Verbitsky.

Nell’analizzare le pubblicazioni degli anni ’90 però, non si può trascurare il sorgere di due nuove collane e il fiorire di antologie collettive, f