Notes on the Translation of Ginzburg’s Cheese and the Worms and Ferrante

I recently read Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms in Italian. I was struck by the texture of the work which has Ginzburg’s academic standard Italian with extensive quotations from the transcripts of the Menocchio trials. For example, Menocchio:

«Credo che chi non fa mal al prossimo non faccia peccato; et perché semo tutti figliuoli di Dio, se non si femo mal l’un l’altro, come per esempio se un padre ha diversi figliuoli, et uno dica “maladetto sia mio padre”, il padre gli perdona, ma s’el rompe la testa ad un figliuol d’un altro non gli può perdonare se non paga».

I believe that a person does not sin if he does no evil to his neighbor. And since we are all children of God, if we do no evil to each other, for example, if a father has several children and one should say “damn my father,” the father pardons him, but if he cracks the head of another’s son, he cannot pardon him unless he pays.

It is usually not hard to make out, even with my level of Italian, what Menocchio is saying, even if the reasoning can be confusing. Sometimes, it feels more Spanish or French; sometimes, it has the single consonants that I associate with some Northern Italian dialects, and similar features: femo = facciamo, for example. This verbal texture left as strong an impression on me as the ideas about history contained in the book. I was thus was quite interested in how the English translation dealt with this texture. It did not. A reader of the translation would have little sense of the linguistic texture of the work. Perhaps this is fine since as a work of scholarship, the ideas are what matters.

Ferrante’s l’Amica Geniale series

il dialetto non appare, ma si comporta come una presenza silenziosa e al tempo stesso ingombrante, di cui l’autrice riesce a farci immaginare il rumore, il brusio o anche l’urlo sguaiato. (387)

The dialect does not appear, but acts like a presence, simultaneously silent and obtrusive. The author succeeds in making us imagine its noise, its buzz, or even the vulgar scream.

Librandi points out how Ferrante manages the linguistic situation with metalinguistic phrases such as “in dialetto.” It is this fact that can leave a reader who reads in translation with the idea that the novels contain Neapolitan dialect.

I tanti luoghi in cui si spiega che questo o quel personaggio hanno parlato in dialetto possono convincere il lettore straniero che buona parte dei dialoghi della quadrilogia e dell’Amore molesto si svolgono veramente in dialetto.

The many passages in which it is explained that this or that character spoke in dialect can convince the foreign reader that many dialogues were actually written in dialect.

But they were not. Aside from a few words scattered here and there (strunz), there is precious little dialect. In this, they differ from the television series, where the characters often speak in dialect. Again, I’m not sure how much this is apparent to an italian-less audience, who probably have the same English subtitles for everything. But in the Italian version on RAI, only the dialect receives Italian subtitles (absolutely necessary for me).

There are many solutions to this common translator’s problem. I am told, but have not seen it, that when Groundskeeper Willie in the Simpsons is voiced in Italian dub, he speaks with a Sardinian accent (confirmed by wikipedia). Honestly, seems rude, but I don’t know enough to be sure. Many who have translated works like Cicero’s letters that contain occasional Greek will recognize the problem posed to translators here. Perhaps render the Greek with French? Or, perhaps add a metalinguistic comment such as (in Greek)? Or perhaps just translate it into English without any notice of the linguistic situation? Or the scholar’s favorite: a footnote, most likely demoted to endnotes in the published translation. The many difficulties of translation, which I think most of those engaged in it recognize, should really allow it to be considered more of a scholarly activity than it currently is, at least among professional classicists.

* Librandi, Rita. 2019. “A Silent Language: Imagining the Dialect in Ferrante’s Novels.” KWARTALNIK NEOFILOLOGICZNY 66 (2): 385–98. (Despite the title, this article is in Italian)

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.