The Stage of Orality

Theatre and Translation in Italian Dialects

By Edoardo Zuccato (IULM, Milan)


Theatre translation into Italian dialects raises important theoretical problems, and it shows the oral character of dialect even when dialect is employed as written language. Translations from the national languages into Italian dialects are usually described as adaptations, imitations or, at least, free versions, as though dialect poets could choose those stylistic approaches rather than literal translation. A comparison between different versions, in dialect and Italian, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet will show that literal translation in not an option in dialect. In other words, the outcome of a literal translation into dialect is radically different from a literal translation into Italian. The concept of literal translation – i.e., word by word – as is normally understood implies the existence of a national, written language and a long-standing literary tradition, whose development is the result of a constant interaction with other major, national cultures. In many cases where Italian offers two options – i.e., literal and idiomatic translation –, dialect offers only one, that is, idiomatic translation, which normally shifts the original tone towards a lower stylistic register. The result of literal translation into dialect is not a calque on the source language, as happens with rigorously literal versions into Italian, but a calque on Italian. Since no dialect poet in Italy has ever been monolingual, literal translation naturally merges into Italian, that is, the literary language closest to dialect.
In fact, the concepts of “literary language” and “tradition” have a radically different meaning in dialect and Italian. Despite the written use of dialect, its dominant character remains orality, as a comparison between the Bildung of dialect and Italian poets makes evident. Dialect poets never begin their career in dialect. They are schooled in Italian or they develop their literary talent elsewhere ― for example, in popular theatre. Conversely, poets who write in Italian always start from the desire to imitate models they meet at school, which is a canonical place where tradition perpetuates itself. On the contrary, dialect poets are spurred by sentiments which demand to be uttered in dialect. This is the reason why each dialect poet must take again the first step from orality to writing; only later he or she finds out about their poetic ancestry. The conclusion is that the concept of literal translation should be used more carefully than critics usually do, since it is not a principle which can be applied to any language regardless of its cultural context.


Dialect theatre; Literal translation; Literary tradition


©inTRAlinea & Edoardo Zuccato (2009).
"The Stage of Orality Theatre and Translation in Italian Dialects"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

1. Introduction

Dialect has long been the language of theatre in Italy. The only exception to this rule was the aristocratic stage of the Courts, where Italian was the normal language. None the less, translations of plays into dialect were rare and relatively unimportant in comparison to the dialect translations from other literary genres, such as epic, lyric and satiric poetry. Few important dialect playwrights turned to translation in the past. A significant exception was Stefano De Franchi, an eighteenth-century playwright who translated Molière into Genoese. In the twentieth century, however, there were major figures, such as Pirandello and Eduardo De Filippo, who translated Euripides and Shakespeare into Sicilian and Neapolitan. The reasons for this are easily found. In the first place, dialect theatre was a popular form, based on improvisation and composed for illiterate audiences. Classical drama was not part of their cultural heritage, and strange even to dialect actors and managers, who were also illiterate in most cases. Theatre translations of ancient and modern classics were naturally made into Italian, initially for the Courts and later for the bourgeois audiences of big towns and cities.
There is also another, subtler reason for this situation. Translation is a way of importing something new or strange into a language. Dialect, however, is a literature of orality, full of speaking characters who make dialect more theatrical than Italian literature. This is evident if we compare, for example, Carlo Porta with Giacomo Leopardi, Giuseppe Giacchino Belli with Alessandro Manzoni, Delio Tessa with Eugenio Montale, and Raffaello Baldini with Andrea Zanzotto. In other words, dialect literature did not need to absorb new works of a theatrical kind, whereas other literary genres, such as epic and lyric poetry, were a stimulating challenge. As the translators have often argued, it was a chance to extend the expressive range of dialect beyond its “natural” limits. Therefore, the small number of dialect translations for the stage is counterbalanced by the theatricality of most dialect translations from other genres, such as epic or lyric poetry. Two famous examples are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, which have been translated into all Italian dialects. The central importance of theatricality – that is, orality – has momentous consequences on the modes of translation, which is the theme I want to discuss in this paper.

2. Orality and the modes of translation

Literal translation is usually considered as one of the two basic extremes – the other one being imitation – which delimit the range of possibilities in translation. Literal translation looks so natural an option that questioning it seems unreasonable. In recent years, literal translation, even in its extreme form – foreignising translation –, has enjoyed great popularity with scholars, who have described it as an ideal at which translators should point. Bringing the target language towards the source language is considered a form of respect for cultural difference, and of open-mindedness towards metrical, lexical and syntactic innovation.

Bearing in mind these ideas, I was struck by the dominant character of translation in Italian dialect, where literal translation is rare. Poetic translations in dialect are usually described as imitations, parodies or re-writings of their originals. This is all the more paradoxical in a country like Italy, whose translators in the national tongue were notorious for adapting the source texts freely to the conventions of the Italian tradition. Reading and writing in dialect, I have begun to wonder whether that is a fair description of what happens in dialect translation. The theoretical principles of translation we normally use have been deducted from the translations made into national languages: can they be applied to dialect uncritically? The translations of Balestrieri and Porta, Capasso and Fasano, Giotti and Tessa, Belli and Loi can be described as imitations if the translators intentionally opted for this type of translation. Is this a correct description of what they did? I don’t believe so.

A good example is provided by a text from which I translated a passage, the famous aubade in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, act III, whose lines 26-27 run as follows: “It is the lark that sings so out of tune, / Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps” (Shakespeare 1975: 128). Two good Italian versions published in recent times go as follows: “È l’allodola che stona in questo modo, / sforzando la sua voce a dissonanze così aspre, / ad acuti così sgradevoli” (Shakespeare 1991: 155); and “È l’allodola che canta fuori tono / Sforzando aspre discordie e duri accenti” (Shakespeare 2002: 155-7). Shakespeare’s compression compelled the translators to choose between the prosaic explication of the first version (which has a line and a half for the original l. 27) and the quaintness of the second version (in whose “discordie” the musical meaning of the original is barely perceivable). Though different, these can be defined as literal versions, which aim at a word-for-word rendering of the source text. However, a literal translation would have been problematic in the variety of Milanese I have employed in my version. I could have translated in this way: “L’é la lodula ca l’é inscì stunâ / cun tütt chi acüt lì, chi brütt dissunanz.” Words run smoothly and syntax is correct, yet no native speaker could have considered it as a good version. That was not a credible solution; therefore, I tried another way: “L’é la lodula ca l’é inscì stunâ / e la ga tìa ul coll aa vus ’me ’n strascê” (more or less, “It is the lark which is so out of tune / and forces its voice like a rag-and-bone man”; Bajetta, Recalcati, Zuccato 2004: 95). I combined two different idioms, “Tiàgh ul coll a ’n quaighidön” (“wringing someone’s neck”) that is, “to strain”,  “to get into trouble”, and “Vusà ’me ’n strascé”, which means “to shout aloud or harshly”. This is in keeping with the hyperbolic Petrarchism of the dialogue of the two lovers. Besides, my line is intentionally hypermetric, that is, strained, in comparison to the other lines, which are normal hendecasyllables.

The first point I want to make is this: in dialect – at least, Italian dialects –literal translation is often more difficult to pursue than in Italian. A close, literal translation into Italian is possible in many passages which require a sort of paraphrase when translated into dialect. In these cases, the result of a close translation into dialect would be different from a literal translation into Italian, in ways which will be analysed below. Here suffice it to say that the reason for this difference can be found in history. Up to the 1950s, Italian was a tongue spoken in some areas of Central Italy, and a written language of law, science, culture and politics in the rest of the country. It was a language the upper classes moulded following models like Greek, Latin, Provençal, French, and English, which enriched its vocabulary, syntax and metrics in innumerable ways. The major languages of culture, national and international, influenced one another over the centuries. Transfusions from Latin into Italian are so easy because generations of authors have used Latin as a model for written Italian. In other words, literal translation in the strict sense is much easier among the most important languages of culture, in particular those which share the same linguistic and historical background. A literal translation from Chinese into Italian can never attain the same level of literalness as a literal translation from French into Italian. Whereas a literal translation from French into Italian can aim, at least ideally, at a word-for-word rendering, a word-for-word translation from Chinese is incomprehensible in Italian unless some of its components are conveniently “paraphrased”.
These problems are even more complicated with the extreme form of literal translation. Many critics have argued that, if literal translation is undertaken with rigour, it creates an effect of estrangement (the Russian ostranyenie), which widens the expressive range of a tongue. It forces its borders by importing the idioms and structures of another language. This is a fascinating idea, whose necessary premise, unfortunately, remains unexpressed in most cases. The estranging effects of foreignising translation can be conceived and found only where a written language and a well-defined literary tradition exist.
The language of literature, especially in traditions like Italian, is a formal language which keeps common speech at distance, even though it can never break away from it completely, or otherwise it would become incomprehensible. The nature of literary language not only admits of, but almost requires estrangement, which is labelled as innovation in literary history. There are literary movements, such as the avant-garde, which naively identify poetry with estrangement. Conversely, other movements, which are in my opinion equally naïve, believe that novelty lies in the mimesis of common speech. They try to abolish that distance from everyday language which readers expect to find in a literary composition. How can this be applied to Italian dialects? Let us take another look at literal translation into dialect.

3. Literal translation into dialect

If we go back to the translations of the lines from Romeo and Juliet cited above, it is easy to find out what is not idiomatic in them. The second line, “cun tütt chi acüt lì, chi brütt dissunanz”, preserves the technical terms of the English original, which, however, sound unnatural in dialect. Besides, there is no way of preserving in a single word the sense of the term “Straining”. The closest way I could find to express Shakespeare’s line in well-wrought dialect was the solution cited above, that is, “e la ga tìa ul coll aa vus ’me ’n strascê.” This line contains no calques on Italian and, at the same time, it ends the distich with an idiomatic expression.

The radical difference between the dialect and Italian versions of Shakespeare’s lines is evident. Here and elsewhere, there are two options in Italian: literal translation, which tries to keep as close as possible to the original, as Sabbadini and Lombardo did, and another kind of translation, as in dialect, which could run as follows in this case: “che sforza la voce come una gallina spennata” (“which forces its voice like a plucked chicken”). In other words, two options are always available in Italian: written, literary Italian, which makes literal translation viable, and spoken Italian, which, in this case, lowers the linguistic register of the original. But even when spoken and written Italian are very close, one can always distinguish between a formal and an informal register of spoken Italian. In dialect this difference is minimal, not to say inexistent. Therefore, literal translation in dialect is often more problematic, and sometimes its sense differs significantly from literal translation into Italian. Literal translation into dialect is especially difficult from all sorts of abstract and technical languages which do not come from lower-class jobs.

In its turn, literal translation into Italian can have two different results: a result which sounds natural in the literary or spoken languages (like Sabbadini’s translation), and a foreignising result, whenever something unusual is perceived in syntax or vocabulary (like, in part, Lombardo’s version). In these cases the result is Latinised Italian, which was very common in the past, Provençalised Italian, which was frequent in the thirteenth century, Frenchified Italian, as in the eighteenth century, Anglicised Italian (a large part of contemporary Italian), and so forth, always transfusing from written language to written language. None of these options is available in dialect. A literal translation of that line of Shakespeare does not sound like Anglicised dialect, but a calque on Italian. This is a crucial point which must be emphasised: the result of literal translation into dialect, whenever a sort of paraphrase is necessary, is an awkward calque on Italian, which does not widen the expressive range of dialect. Since no Italian dialect poet has ever been monolingual, literal translation into dialect merges spontaneously into the closest literary language, that is, Italian. This happens because there is not a literary language in dialect in the same sense as in Italian. The Italian literary language is only a special part of a much vaster written language, that is, the languages of culture, law and politics, whose norms have been fixed and transmitted by school education.

4. Dialects as oral languages

This brings us to the second point of our discussion. Italian dialects, even those with a long-standing written tradition, remain oral languages. Transcribing a tongue, as many dialect poets have done, is not enough to make it a written language in the same sense as a national language. A “higher level” of written usage can be attained only if a language is used constantly in all sectors of society beyond literature, from which this process sometimes takes its start.

In fact, though scholars usually talk of “dialect tradition”, I believe that dialect does not possess a literary tradition comparable to Italian. This is not only a matter of size, as is showed by what has been said so far. Further evidence is provided by the way in which dialect poets, past and present, usually come to write in vernacular. Even when dialect was the only spoken language, hardly any poet began his career directly in dialect. Dialect is usually the last stage in a slow development which, more often than not, includes previous writings in Italian, as with Maggi and Belli, or different experiences. For instance, Tonino Guerra (born 1920) began to write dialect poetry in a concentration camp in Germany during World War II; Raffaello Baldini (1924-2007) was an editor and a journalist of the magazine Panorama; and Franco Loi (born 1930) did many jobs and had an active interest in politics before starting his career as a poet in the 1970s. When dialect is a poet’s starting point, there is always a sort of ascent from popular culture, such as farce or popular verse satire, to formally accomplished poetry. This is what happened to Carlo Porta, the most important poet in Milanese, who was an amateur actor. His earliest poems, just as Tessa’s, were strongly influenced by satiric almanacs and businàd, that is, verse satires sold in the streets in the Milan area at carnival. To my knowledge, no dialect poet ever began to write in order to imitate the great dialect poets of the past. These are normally retrieved later, when work is in progress and a new poet is happy to find out about a rich ancestry which is given little space at school.

The difference from the common Bildung of the poets who write in Italian is striking. These poets always start by imitating the authors they meet in their school days and who first stimulate their imagination. This is one of the moments when tradition makes itself felt and perpetuates itself. It is a further step along a path opened by the previous generations of writers. On the contrary, each dialect poet must, in a sense, start from scratch, taking once again the first step from orality to writing. Poets in Italian normally start from a literary suggestion, that is, from a written tradition. Their own experience will emerge only later, when that tradition has been absorbed adequately. On the contrary, what usually drives dialect poets to write is personal experience, their Erlebnis, which at some stage demands expression in dialect. Their literary training always takes place in Italian or in other national tongues. This also explains why many poets began their careers in dialect only in middle age.

5. Conclusions

I wrote down these informal notes to point out how some common principles of translation studies and literary history cannot be applied everywhere uncritically. The ideas of literal translation, literary language and tradition do not have the same meanings and do not stand for the same things in Italian dialect and in the national tongues. Besides, it would be interesting to know how these principles could be applied to languages devoid of a written tradition, or languages spoken by tiny communities. For instance, I am not certain that foreignising translation, oral or written, would be a recommendable strategy to one of the 3,500 endangered languages spoken by groups of 10,000 people at most. In these cases, foreignising translation sounds like a hand-book for suicide rather than an illuminated openness to the Other. Perhaps scholars ought to reflect before claiming universal value for theories arising from the analysis of the most common European tongues. It would not be a waste of time to try to apply those hypotheses to some of the thousands of smaller languages in which human speech still manifests itself.



Bajetta, Carlo M; Recalcati, Claudio; Zuccato, Edoardo (2004). “Amore che ti fermi alla terra”. Antologia di voci dal petrarchismo europeo, a cura di. Bajetta, Recalcati, Edoardo Zuccato. Milano: I.S.U. Università Cattolica.

Shakespeare, William (1975 [1967]). William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”, edited by T. J. B. Spencer, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Shakespeare, William (1991). William Shakespeare, “Romeo e Giulietta”, introd. Nemi D’Agostino, trans. Silvano Sabbadini. Milano: Garzanti.

Shakespeare, William (2002 [1994]). William Shakespeare, “Romeo e Giulietta”, cura e traduzione di Agostino Lombardo. Milano: Feltrinelli.


About the author(s)

Edoardo Zuccato is Associate Professor of English literature at IULM University, Milan. He has published articles on Romantic and contemporary poetry and Coleridge in Italy (Cork University Press, 1996). With Elinor S. Shaffer he has edited the volume The Reception of S. T. Coleridge in Europe (Continuum, London, 2007). A new book, Petrarch in Romantic England, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan in 2008. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Comparative Critical Studies and an editor-in-chief of the journal of poetry and translation Testo a fronte. He has translated several poets into Italian and dialect, and he is the author of three collections of poetry in a Lombard dialect.

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©inTRAlinea & Edoardo Zuccato (2009).
"The Stage of Orality Theatre and Translation in Italian Dialects"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

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