Translating Dialect Literature
Luigi Bonaffini

Any critical discussion of works written in dialect is destined to run against the heavy legacy of prejudices and misunderstandings that has historically weighed upon literature in dialect, often considered a "minor", subaltern, marginal language, even coarse and plebeian. These are misconceptions that the recent, in many respects exceptional, flowering of dialect (or neodialect) poetry in Italy has put into a much different perspective, so that the absolute parity of vernacular poetry with that in Italian, for a long time maintained by some enlightened critics (Croce is a case in point), has gradually gained universal acceptance, to the extent that it is now an established and irrefutable tenet of contemporary criticism. Dialect poetry has even been able to penetrate those prestigious editorial circuits from which it had always been excluded, bolstered by the recognition and encouragement of influential critics, even vying with Italian poetry for the attention of a readership that is no longer local or regional, but national and international. Very significant, in this respect, was in recent years the candidacy to the Nobel Prize of two poets who in a way embody this fundamental dichotomy of Italian letters, Mario Luzi and Albino Pierro, all the more remarkable considering that the latter wrote in one of the most archaic dialects in Italy, that of his native Tursi (which Contini defined as "proto romance"), without any literary tradition and extremely limited in its diffusion.

There are many reasons why so many contemporary Italian poets (the neodialect poets) are turning to dialect nowadays rather than standard Italian as their medium of expression, which carry far-reaching and deeply-rooted implications (literary, psychological, political, existential, anthropological): recent dialect poetry is part of a vaster reaction to the alienating effects of post-war industrial society, which especially in the seventies has meant the rehabilitation of ethnic history and memory; in the face of an increasingly complex reality, one rediscovers the universal potential in every man. Hence the recovery of personal history, of personal roots, which the impersonal language of the mass media cannot recognize or transcribe. This also means the recovery of one's native place, the place of origin, as an alternative to a monotonous and meaningless reality.

Perhaps the role of the dialect poet, as Brevini notes(1), reveals its deepest meaning in the struggle against the imposition of a superlanguage, English ( this is particularly relevant in the case of poets who live in the United States and also write in English, such as Giose Rimanelli and Joseph Tusiani), and at the national level of a standard emanating from the productive industrial centers of the North. Dialect is posited then as the language of concreteness and difference, in direct opposition to the flat homogeneity of the language of T.V. and advertising, and therefore offers a greater potential for individual creativity. The strength of dialect, in fact, lies in its essential "otherness," in its position of eccentricity with respect to the national language, in its different history, predominantly oral, which has saved it from the process of erosion and usura which always attends literary languages. For this reason, contemporary dialect poets have tended to accentuate this difference in many ways, usually opting for more archaic forms, farther removed from standard Italian, even in spelling (Pierro, Bandini, Loi).

Along with socio-cultural factors, there are psychological motivations that account for the choice of dialect. Not only dialect as a maternal tongue, as in Pasolini and Zanzotto, but also as a forgotten truth, a sacred, archaic language which is capable of revealing our hidden being. Through dialect the poet represents not only the places and events of his memory, but also a conception of the world closer to his own personal experience. To contemporary men and women in danger of being swallowed up and obliterated by post-industrial society, dialect can offer the support of a culture which, while threatened with obliteration, is radically different from the dominant culture.2 Dialect, then, as the linguistic testimony of a cultural heritage, of a collective patrimony and anthropological condition condemned to extinction. De Benedetti has called dialect "the painful conscience of history," because only dialect, as opposed to the language of the ruling class, can bear witness to the injustices of history and give a voice to the excluded and the oppressed.

It was again Contini, recognizing the importance of dialects for Italian literature, who pointed out that Italian literature is the only great national literature for which dialect literature is an integral part; yet dialect poetry, for reasons stemming from its traditional condition of subalternity and limited diffusion, but also due to objective difficulties inherent in the translation itself, given the scant knowledge of dialects outside of Italy, until very recently has been mostly ignored by translators, with the result that it remains largely untranslated, particularly the most recent output. There are, nevertheless, some notable exceptions. After the publication of the landmark anthology of dialect poetry edited by Hermann Haller (The Hidden Italy, 1986) another anthology in translation has appeared, and one more is about to be published(2); in the last few years alone several dialect poets have been translated (Jovine, Serrao, Rimanelli, Guerra, Pascarella, Di Giacomo, Trilussa, Ancona, Martoglio(4)), and more are currently being translated (Giacomini, Zanzotto): a clear indication that interest in dialect poetry is growing outside of Italy as well. Undoubtedly, the translation of dialect poetry poses peculiar problems which go beyond those encountered in translating from Italian, and each translator adopts a somewhat different approach, providing several possible methods and techniques to which we can refer.

It should be noted, first of all, that the problem of dialect does not concern Italy alone, although in Italy the phenomenon is much more extensive than in any other western country. A good starting point, since most of this essay is devoted to translation from Italian dialects, might be an American writer well-versed in vernacular speech, Mark Twain, who prefaces his masterpiece Huckleberry Finn with the following remark:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: The Missouri Negro dialect, the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect, the ordinary "Pike County" dialect, and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in an haphazard fashion or by guesswork, but painstakingly and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with the several forms of speech.

I make this distinction for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.(5)

John Du Val, who translated from Romanesco both Trilussa and Pascarella, in an article in which he discusses Miller Williams' translation of Belli's sonnets(6) and which begins with the above quotation from Mark Twain, advises any hypothetical translator of Huckleberry Finn not to translate the author's explanation at all; this of course would not solve the problem of translating all the varieties of dialect mentioned by the author, which not only pertain to the depiction of local color, but have a key role in distinguishing and individualizing the various characters. The use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn is in fact rather more complex than it might at first appear from the author's preface, because the characters' vernacular speech is dynamic, not static; that is, it tends to adapt itself to different situations, and its use is complicated by a moralization of the linguistic act, which privileges some varieties over others. The hypothetical Italian or Spanish translator of Hucklerry Finn who wished to reproduce the multiplicity of local linguistic forms would be forced to let the characters speak Neapolitan, Sicilian, Galician or Catalan, with all the resulting problems of incongruity and misplacement. It is not surprising then if the complexity and semantic richness of the language appear sharply diminished in the Italian translations, where the local and individual varieties are in effect erased, and substituted by a generically colloquial and idiomatic form of speech, as for instance in the following speech by Jim (chapter VII), in the bilingual edition with Giovanni Baldi's translation(7):

I tuck out en shin down de hill, en 'spec to steal a skift 'long de sho' som'ers 'bove de town, but dey wuz people a-stirring yit, so I hid in de ole tumbledown cooper shop on de bank to wait for everybody to go away.

Mi sbatto giù dalla collina e penso di sgraffignare una barca lungo la riva sopra la città, ma c'era ancora in giro della gente, e allora mi nascondo nel vecchio negozio del bottaio, quello tutto a pezzi che sta sulla sponda del fiume, per aspettare che se ne vanno.

Jim's dialect, strongly characterizing and quite different from the speech of the other characters, is thoroughly flattened in the translation, which in fact eliminates the most markedly idiomatic and vernacular elements by transferring it to an area of uncertain colloquialism. Moreover, the idiom "sgraffignare" translates almost incongruously one of the few standard words in the passage, "steal," while all other linguistic peculiarities, which are phonetic as well as grammatical and syntactic, completely disappear from the Italian text.

Mark Twain himself criticizes the French translator of his famous tale "The Jumping Frog" for having used standard French, without any understanding of the importance and the implications of the use of vernacular: "Benzon has not translated the story at all: he has simply mixed it all up; it is no more like the Jumping Frog when he gets through with it than I am like a meridian of longitude."(8) In other words, translating into a standard language, the translator cannot capture the eccentricity of vernacular speech, its function as an alternative, a non-normative deviation from the norm. While reflecting on this concept of deviation, inescapable in any discussion of dialect literature, one must however take into account the considerable variation in meaning that the very term "dialect" undergoes in Anglophone areas, where in effect it stands for anormality, departure from a well-defined linguistic standard, so that even a local or regional pronunciation can be regarded as a form of dialect. The "vernacular" style is therefore designated by the deviation from a standard, where there is no multiplicity of autonomous idioms as in Italy:

Vernacular style may, of course, be defined in a number of ways, but in the following I shall take it to mean a special category of "substandard" or "common" usage that serves as a marker of class, regional, or age-group affiliation and that includes such speech-oriented lexical and grammatical features as colloquial formulas and epithets, slang, obscenities, and other vulgarisms, and certain kinds of allusive or elliptical morphological and syntactic arrangements.(9)

This definition could be suitable for the various American "dialects," but it would be absolutely inadequate to describe the phenomenon of vernaculars - and thus related questions of style - in Italy, where dialect is understood not as a simple divergence from the national standard, but an autonomous linguistic system, historically determined through well-known mechanisms, as all linguists recognize. On the other hand, as we shall see further on, several translators acknowledge the inevitable validity of this principle, and not only do they reject the notion of dialect as a deviant and eccentric language, but consider it instead the place of naturalness and spontaneity, the linguistic norm of a determined community and therefore - in keeping with a seemingly paradoxical methodological criterion - the exact opposite of deviation.

The Anglophone world, with its countless varieties of English, is of course not alone in being profoundly affected by the question of vernaculars. For the West, we should at least mention the Francophone universe, just as rich in particular local and regional types in so many parts of the world. It would suffice to mention one instance among the less obvious: the influence of dialect in Canadian fiction and its consequences for translation, examined by Henry Schoght in his study of several Canadian novels, including La Sigouine by Antoine Maillet, in which a few characters speak the dialecte acadien of the province of Nouveau Brunswick:

The emphatic characterization of the heroine who recites the monologue rests on dialect traits as well as on the content of what she is saying. One could wonder if the book's appeal for many readers is due to a feeling of condescension awakened by the simplicity and naiveté of the protagonist and by the so-called color of dialect. Be it as it may, the translator Luis Cespedes tried to preserve a little of the flavor of the original text which ...utilizes only one register and does not create any internal opposition in the text. Since the geographic factor did not permit him to replace the dialect of La Sagouine with an equally marked dialect of a village of English or Scottish fishermen, he opted for a process of compensation by substituting the dialect acadien with a geographically neuter popular sociolect. Unfortunately, the Sagouine of the translation speaks more or less like Holden Caufield in Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, so that the compensation is not really successful." (34).(10) (My translation)

The solution adopted by the translator, in choosing a sociolect which is geographically neuter and without oppositions within the text, is not much different from the one chosen by the Italian translator. But the totality of the linguistic context in which dialect appears is crucial for the various compensatory strategies available to translators, because if it is possible to speak of naturalness in a monolingual context, in which only dialect is spoken, and the perennial opposition between standard language and dialect is kept below the threshold of conflict, this becomes practically impossible the instant the standard language is introduced, in whose presence the vernacular must necessarily become eccentric and deviant. It is the multilingual context then, rife with internal frictions and contrasts, that further complicates the task of the translator, forced to adopt inevitably reductive countervailing stratagems, incapable of expressing that diversity which is fully manifested only in the presence of the standard language.

An Italian example of the use of multiple dialects in a work of fiction bears the prestigious signature of Carlo Emilio Gadda in Quer Pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana. In this expressionistic and baroque detective story, Gadda mixes Romanesco, Neapolitan, Venetian, Milanese, Molisan and Sicilian with the bureaucratese of the various offices, with police jargon and with several other sectorial languages. In order to guarantee the authenticity of the various dialects, Gadda consulted several people; for Romanesco, for instance, he turned to the dialect poet Mario dell'Arco. Quer Pasticciaccio is at least as refractory to translation as Huckleberry Finn: the translator must take into account not only the complex interaction of the various dialects, but their expressive and structural function as well, as in Mark Twain. It would be impossible to recreate the individualization of the characters through language carried out in Quer Pasticciaccio by assigning each, say, an American vernacular variety, and the translator, William Weaver, does not even try, with the same effect of expressive impoverishment and depreciation noted above. In an essay on the English translation of Gadda(11), Brian Altano takes the translator to task for not having used a sufficiently colloquial, vernacular language in the translation, and cites as an example the following passage describing a seller of porchetta in a market:

La porca, la porca! Ciavemo la porchetta, signori! la bella porca de l'Ariccio con un bosco de rosmarino in de la panza! Co le patatine de staggione!... V'oo dico io. Asssaggiatele!" Posava un attimo a riprender fiato. E poi a scoppio: "Uno e novanta l'etto, la porca. E' 'na miseria, signori! a chi venne e a chi compra! Uno e novanta l'etto, più mejo fatto che detto. Famese avanti co li bajocchi a la mano, sore spose! Chi nun magna nun guadagna" E poi sottovoce a una belloccia: "A voi ve do er mejo boccone, v'o giuro! Me piacete troppo! Sete troppo bona!(12)

In translating this passage, according to Altano, the translator should consider three important factors: 1) the lively jargon used by the youth to attract the crowd; 2) the sense of breathless excitement of the original; 3) the nuances of tone, especially the spicy allusions of a fourteen-year-old.

Weaver's translation is quoted in its entirety in the note, but here it will suffice to read the last sentence, namely "A voi ve do er mejo boccone, v'o giuro! Me piacete troppo! Sete troppo bona!". Weaver renders it as "I'll give you the best part, that's a promise.You're my type, all right. You're too pretty!." "You're too pretty!" has nothing of the sensuality of the original, perhaps because the translator is not aware of the erotic connotation of the adjective "bona," the spicy allusion mentioned by Altano. The latter proposes his own translation of the passage, using a much more colloquial and idiomatic language: "I'll give you the best mouthful, I really swear. I really like ya a lot! You're really good lookin',"(13) but even here something is clearly missing, and the tone of the original, its expressive specificity, remains remote, beyond reach.

Huckleberry Finn and Quer pasticciaccio, however, are extreme examples of the literary use of multiple vernacular codes; the norm is instead the use of one vernacular - Belli's Romanesco, Meli's Sicilian, De Filippo's Neapolitan - which can nevertheless be articulated in several expressive registers that indicate social position, cultural level, place of origin, and so on. All dialectophones are aware of these linguistic levels in their dialect and can immediately distinguish forms that are slightly more archaic or peripheral. It must also be added that the same dialect is not necessarily identical for all, and can be employed in very dissimilar ways by various authors: Basile's Neapolitan is quite different both from Di Giacomo's and from Serrao's more recent one, and Trilussa's Romanesco is different - much more neutral and closer to Italian - from Belli's. To return to the latter, let's read the preface of his translator, Miller Williams:

There is in some quarters an assumption that because Romanesco is looked upon as a dialect by those who don't speak it, Belli's poems can't be truly translated unless they are rendered into some sort of patois, some special language spoken by a people outside the center of culture and mostly deprived of whatever the culture offers people, that is, like the Romani of Trastevere. The truth, of course, is exactly the contrary. If we render the poems into any kind of dialect, slang, or jive talk, we hear them only as the middle- and upper-class Roman would have heard them and hears them now. If we are to come to them as the people of Trastevere did, then we have to hear them as they did, in the plain language of our own conversation. The simple fact is, to those who live in Trastevere, the language spoken in Trastevere is the way people talk.(14)

If it is true that every dialect, as Williams notes, is merely the natural way of speaking for people who speak dialect, then the problem of translating dialect poetry is made considerably simpler, because it does not require the translator to employ a strongly connoted language, something other than and different from the language of ordinary conversation. Yet the fact remains that dialect is by nature a distinct and marginal language with respect to a standard language, and all speakers of dialect consider it such, that is, they are conscious of speaking a language which in some way is in opposition to another, more widespread and important, even if they are in a totally dialect-speaking setting, where the opposition is only virtual. This means that translation from dialect must in some way reflect its uniqueness and diversity, even if the various solutions may take very different forms. Du Val points out, for instance, that the political and cultural power in Rome in Belli's time belonged to those who spoke Latin and Italian, and that the sonnet was the literary form par excellence; writing sonnets in Romanesco was in fact a violation of the traditional sonnet, and therefore Belli's Roman readers saw in every sonnet an act of literary and linguistic impertinence, as well as political.(15) In order to translate dialect as was perceived by those who spoke it, Williams was obliged to translate its impertinence, its potential for sedition.

Beside the use of dialect, Belli desecrates the sonnet with obscenities, with the depiction of popular scenes, with comments on the church, philosophy, theology and biblical history, all from a low, popular perspective. These other subversive factors, in fact, come to the translator's aid, because they tend to retain their iconoclastic force in the new linguistic context as well, where they can sound just as out of place and irreverent, especially in the dignified literary garb of the sonnet. A few examples of Wiliams' translation cited in Du val's article will suffice: the pope "fiddles around, snacks, debauches a bit"; "instead of making a tower they made a mess"; "one of the angels had a charley horse" and so on. It is more difficult, Du Val points out again(16), to render the complex play of words, that often mixes obscenity and religion. He cites as an example the following closing tercet of a sonnet:

San Giuseppe tratando s'ariscarda:

Doppo leva ar somaro la bbardella,

E appoggeno tre mmesi la libbarda.

The last line, "e appoggeno tre mmesi la llibbarda," literally means "for three months they put away the halberd," which means that they sponge, they freeload for three months, but also implicit is the idea of sexual abstinence and therefore e negation of the Catholic doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Williams translates this way:

"Saint Joseph, meanwhile, rubbed away the cold

beside the fire and saddled up the ass

and put his tools away for a long time."(17)

The last line remains a strongly ironic comment on the Virgin's chastity, therefore retaining the subversive force of the original.

As for his own translations of Pascarella, Du Val recognizes the differences that distinguish the various Romanesco poets: Trilussa, since the poetic voice of most of his sonnets belongs to the common people of Trastevere, in order to reproduce the estranging effect of their speech he adopts another expedient used by Williams, that is, he systematically violates the meter of the iambic pentameter, so that the constant violation of the canonical verse may reflect the Romanesco's deviation fro Italian. But in the fables, since Trilussa's voice remains above the action and comments it with ironic detachment, the way La Fontaine judges his animals, with barely a smidgen of Romanesco's insolence, the translator adopts other criteria: "In translating, I felt that I had to aim for a modified elegance and a slightly smoother rhythm than would be appropriate in the sonnets." For Pascarella instead the problem is of a different nature: unlike Belli, who larded his poetry with obscenities, Pascarella's language is relatively sober, within the limits allowed by Romanesco. "A conflict I am having," the translator observes, "whether it is from the dramatic enthusiasm of this speaker or from his obvious kinship with the characters of Belli's great work or simply from my own warped imagination, is that with every sonnet, some obscene expletive strikes me as the perfect solution to a rhyming difficulty, and in each case, I must decide whether to express the modesty of the author or the enthusiasm of his tough Romanesco."(18)

But if Romanesco impresses translators with its impertinence, what should one say of Neapolitan, of its uncontainable expressive richness, of its proteiform embodiments not only in poetry and theater, but in narrative as well? One of the first works in Neapolitan dialect to be translated was Il Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile, published in 1634, and translated for the first time in 1713, curiously not into Italian but into the Bolognese dialect, by Maddalena and Teresa Manfredi, and then anonymously into Italian in 1754. It was later translated into German in 1946, and into English in 1848, 1983, and 1923. In his long introduction to the 1925 translation of the Pentamerone, Benedetto Croce finds the German and English translations generally better than the Bolognese or Italian ones, and then explains the criteria adopted for his own translation:

I have been very faithful to the words of the text, trying not to diminish the quantity, and to alter as little as possible the quality, of the images they contain; but I have acted freely in reworking the syntax, which in Basile is defective and often very bad, mainly perhaps because the work was published while still unfinished and in many parts still in the draft stage. I resisted the temptation, to which some one else would have given in, to substitute Neapolitan idioms with equivalent words and phrases of current Florentine usage; and I have tried to preserve not only the baroque adornments, but also a certain Neapolitan flavor of the book.(19)

The English translation of Norman Mosley Penzer of 1932 is based largely, but not exclusively, on Croce's Italian translation. In his premise the translator wishes to display a certain familiarity with the complex relationship between standard Italian and dialect, taking care to convince the reader that he also knows the original in dialect, and going as far as criticizing some of Croce's translations:

I have endeavoured to keep two main objects constantly in view first to translate literally, taking noun for noun and verb for verb, and secondly to preserve all the puns, local allusions, similes and metaphors of the original. Before speaking of the style of language adopted, I would like to give a few examples of the difficulties of translation. Take, for instance, the string of vile abuse that pours out of the old woman's throat when her pitcher is smashed by the court page (The introductory tale). She starts off as follows: "Ah zaccaro, frasca, merduso, piscialietto, sautariello de zimmaro, pettola a culo, chiappo de mpiso, mulo canzirro!" The first four words present little difficulty, but what is the meaning of "sautariello de zimmaro?" Croce gives it in modern Italian as "salterello di Cembalo," and "martellino de cembalo" something moving very quickly and causing a lot of noise, possibly our "madcap". But figuratively "martellino" can mean "torment," and "cembalo" can mean "ugly"...(20)

And he goes on in this vein for quite a while, at the same time examining the previous English translations and finally concluding that in fact Croce misread the text and that "zimmaro" really means "billy goat"; he then proceeds to reveal his own translation of "sautariello de zimmaro," namely "jumping he-goat." The same meticulous analysis is applied to "pettola a culo,"which Croce demurely translates as "falda pendente di dietro" ("flap hanging behind"), diluting much of the expressive power of the original. By studying Neapolitan dictionaries, Penzer discovers that the expression "cu 'a pettola 'nculo" means "wet behind the ears, inexperienced," but then, realizing that the concept is already implicit in the word "frasca" that appears just before, decides that it is better after all to translate "pettola a culo" with a vulgar expression, such as "ass flap." Having demonstrated his knowledge of dialect, at least theoretically, Penzer states his methodological criteria, that in a way place him in the same line as Williams and Du Val:

In the present edition I have decided to employ modern rather than archaic Chaucerian or Elizabethan English, which might be supposed to be the equivalent of seventeenth-century Neapolitan. My theory is that the modern reader in reading modern English will obtain a much better idea of what the Neapolitan book meant to the Seventeenth-Century reader than if I attempted to preserve a mock-archaic atmosphere by dragging in early English words and phrases.(21)

What is lacking here is any reference to the uniqueness of dialect, to the latent dialectical tension

between dialect and standard language, so that Penzer does not attribute any specific difficulty to the translation of Neapolitan that could not be resolved with a good dictionary.

In the sixteenth century, the most renowned dialect poet of his time is a Sicilian, Giovanni Meli. Meli's Sicilian is a very particular language, that shows how the question of dialect is so intimately connected to Italian literature and that requires a specific treatment, as Gaetano Cipolla explains in his introduction to his translation of Don Chisciotti e Sanchu Panza, first published in 1787:

While Meli may have intended to create an "illustrious Sicilian," the result of his efforts was a mixture of the literary idiom of Italy, that is, Tuscan, especially in its Arcadian tradition, and of Sicilian. The interrelationship between these two components represents an essential feature of Meli's language. This interrelationship may be articulated along an axis that includes a highly literary Tuscan (a direct quotation from Petrarch, for example), passing through a line of expression that is structurally Tuscan but with Sicilian superimposed on it. A third point of the axis might consist of "illustrious Sicilian," that is, purified from its local Palermitan dress and distilled from a variety of idioms spoken in Sicily, and finally there might be a line or expression which comes from the every-day jargon of the streets. I have tried to reproduce such sliding along the axis whenever possible... Consonant with the tone of the original which obtains comic relief by mixing a highly dignified language with popular speech, I have tried to maintain the same combination in English, allowing myself to slide in the direction of archaic terms or slang, according to the situation.(22)

I have quoted Cipolla at length because, unlike Penzer, the latter takes on directly the problem of the various expressive registers, of the tension generated by the relationship language-dialect, dialect-dialect, popular language-literary language, proposing various concrete solutions I his translation. Consider for instance the mixture of styles in Sanciu's answer to the lofty "bel morir tutta la vita onora":

"Comu! rispusi Sanciu, e chi scacciati!

Ch'aju a muriri pr'esseri onoratu?

Pirdunatimi, è grossa asinitati;

mi sentu megghiu eu vivu, sbrigugnatu,

chi Achilli e Ulissi morti, decantati;

pirchì eu, o tintu o pintu, avennu ciatu,

la cìnniri di st'omini valenti

la scarpisu, e perciò sù chiù potenti". [Canto I, 11]

"What are you telling me?" then Sanciu asked,

"Am I to die so honor can be mine?

Forgive me, but that's really asinine!

Alive, though in disgrace, I feel much better

than both Achilles and Ulysses, for

they're honored but quite dead, and since I breathe,

good man or bad I am the stronger, then,

for I can tread the dust of those brave men."

In more recent times, one of the most interesting phenomena in contemporary Italian literature is undoubtedly the current flourishing outcrop of neodialect poetry, exceptional in so many ways. I would like to dwell briefly on two of the best neodialect poets, Giose Rimanelli and Achille Serrao, whose work I translated into English. Rimanelli recently published Moliseide(23), a book of poems in the Molisan dialect with my English translation in which the problem of dialect is complicated by the extreme literariness of the text, systematically contaminated by references to troubadour poetry, medieval Latin poetry, American and French poetry, jazz and blues. It is a text characterized by diverse languages and styles, and by a rich variety of meter, from free verse to the ballad, from hendecasyllables to double seven-syllable lines, with an abundance of rhymes and assonances. The dialect is therefore the trunk on which are grafted multiple linguistic and literary experiences. The search for dialect thus becomes a search for the poetic word, with the awareness that the greatest difficulty lies more in the cultural and literary layering of the text and in the pursuit of a rhythm suited to the internal movement of the verse, than in the peculiarity of dialect.

The untranslatableness of dialect, that is, its semantic opacity, is proportional to the idiomatic use of words, slang and jargon, limited to local color. On the question of the untranslatableness of dialect insists, for instance, Hermann Haller, who translated into English the poems of his important anthology Hidden Italy, opting however for a literal, rather than literary, translation.

I have chosen a literal prose translation at the cost of some stylistic and rhythmic elegance, aware of the difficulty of translating the unique expressiveness of each of the dialects.(24)

And further on:

The result of this pluralistic operation is a poetry that can barely be translated. Words such as the Milanese cagabizet or cagoni, the Piedmontese brandèv, or the Triestine povaro can cannot be rendered accurately... The sound of each dialect is different, the phonosymbolism of each adding a special musical effect: the rather somber, melancholy sounds of Sicilian; the happy tonality of Neapolitan, expressing love for life; the cordial timbre of Romanesco and the airiness of Venetian; the powerful gallic intonations of Milanese.(25)

On the other hand, the translatableness of dialect, as Franco Brevini points out in a fundamental study of dialect poetry, Le parole perdute. Dialetti e poesia nel nostro secolo(26), depends precisely on the elimination of the more strictly vernacular elements, the overly pronounced idiomatic peaks, as is the case with Giotti, Marin, Noventa and finally Rimanelli. Let's take as an example the very first stanza of the first poem in Moliseide:

Quanne t'èzzíccche a i vríte du pènziére

e fóre chiagne u sole, ze fa' nòtte,

u sanghe te ze chiátre, sie' strèniére:

a vije da terre tíje dónde sta'?

When you get near the glasspanes of your thoughts

and outside the sun weeps, and darkness falls,

your blood turns into ice, you are a stranger;

the road back to your land, where can it be?

It should be noted that in this stanza there is no word or expression that presents particular difficulties for the translator; they instead are hidden in the tone, in the rhythmic modulation and the metrical structure, so that in the translation I was forced to leave out the rhyme, which would have considerably affected the possibility of following the subtle musical patterning of the text. Quite different is the case of Achille Serrao from Campania, who in his book 'A canniatura (The Crevice), also accompanied by my English translation, does not use the Neapolitan dialect, but the peripheral dialect of Caivano, much blunter and harsher than Neapolitan. The resistance of the linguistic medium is compounded by the programmatic avoidance of sentimentality and subjectivity by Serrao, whose text therefore appears extremely concentrated, deliberately antimelodic, refractory, granular, aiming at more subtle, more secret harmonies. To try to render into English the harshness of Serrao's diction would lead to a forced quest for consonantal sounds and broken and antimelodic rhythms, which would sound artificial in English. My strategy in this case was instead to attempt to capture to basic tonality of the text, the melancholic intensity that subtends the apparent impersonality of the poetic persona. Moreover, there is the question of Serrao's philological precision, evident in the glossary he appended in order to explain his linguistic choices. I cite the poem "Nu tiempo c'è stato" as an example:

Nu tiempo c'è stato ch''e pparole

nun cagnavano ll'aria, addu nuje

frièvano cu' ll'uoglio

d''a jacuvella aréto 'a vocca, attenùte

pe' ppaura, cummeniènza che ssaccio...

There was a time when words

didn't change the air, around these parts

they fried in the oil

of cunning, held in the mouth

by fear, expedience maybe...

Anyone familiar with Neapolitan probably will have difficulty only with "jacuvella," which is explained as follows in the glossary:

s.f.: "intrigue, cunning, blandishments, fondling." Etym.: from the French Jacques = Giacomo (James), which has the metaphorical meaning of "fool, simpleton," at least since the XIVth Cent. (in fact, in 1358 rebellious farmers were disparagingly called Jacques Bonhomme; the personal name "Giacomo," in its Latin form Jacbus gave Jàcovo in Neapolitan; the expression Jàcovo Jàcovo ("to waver") is derived from the name "Giacomo": the name Coviello, a mask from the Neapolitan farce that stands for "buffoon, oaf," is a diminutive form of "Giacomo."

Not being possible to render in translation even part of the connotative richness of the word, I had no choice but settle for the generic and unsatisfying "oil of cunning," betting instead on the economy and compactness of the diction.

About to be published, to remain in the area of contemporary dialect poetry, is a trilingual anthology of the dialect poetry of southern Italy that I have edited, and I asked some of the translators who collaborated to provide a few observations on the difficulties they encountered in translating dialect. It has to be premised that from the translator's perspective the problem of translation is affected by his knowledge of the dialect in question. Those who do not know the dialect are forced to avail themselves of the Italian translation and as a consequence remain essentially outside the dialect experience. The best situation is that of the dialectophone who is also perfectly Anglophone and can therefore deal with dialect from the inside; or to go even further, the ideal situation might be that of the bilingual writer who translates himself, as we shall see in Zanzotto's case. For Michael Palma, translator of Gozzano and Valeri, who translated Neapolitan and Calabrese poems for the anthology, a poor knowledge of dialect is a determining factor:

I would point out two immediate problems that I have encountered in translating dialect poetry. The first is my unfamiliarity with the dialects in question. There is always a concern with what is lost in the translation process; under these circumstances, there is a concern over a potentially double loss...

The other problem occurs at the other end of the translation process. Obviously, there is no equivalent in English for the Italian tradition of dialect poetry. Translating into slang or any other non-normative English dialect "So I says to him, I says," or some such thing would be totally inappropriate; it would fail to catch the spirit of the original and it would make for some rather bizarre-sounding English poetry. The only real solution was to translate these poems in the same idiom as any others: if there was any concession to the supposed flavor of the originals (and even this notion of "flavor" is debatable, if the dialects are in fact the normal language of their speakers), it was a slightly greater tendency at moments toward more informal expression --(27)

Palma's remarks are along the line of those made by Miller Williams, as he considers dialect the norm for dialect speakers, so that translating into slang, that is, deviating from the norm, would be inappropriate and out of place. A similar course is followed by Anthony Molino, translator of Magrelli and De Filippo(28), who translated the poetry from Abruzzo for the anthology:

Many people have asked me how does one manage to translate from the Neapolitan - apparently implying that the rendition of a "dialect" into English can pose more or different problems than would a more widely known language. I've always believed that a translation is successful to the extent that the culture and language that nurture a text can be fully assumed, indeed known, by the translator. In this, there is something of an anthropological dimension, something akin to the ethnographer's capacity for "going native". Though not of Neapolitan origins, I'd been exposed to a number of Southern Italian dialects and traditions, first as a child and later via my own experience in the Abruzzi, Rome, Sicily and Matera, where altogether I've spent ten years of my adult life.(29)

Here Molino touches on another, extremely important question concerning the problem of dialect, taken up by another translator, Justin Vitiello, who translated from Sicilian and Apulian. Vitiello enumerates some of the most important factors in the translation from dialect:

1) A work of conservation of disappearing cultures (and here Vitiello gives a global perspective on the problem).

2) The translation of dialect poetry gives back a cultural-global voice to the excluded, those whom Franz Fanon calls the damned of the earth.

3) Is this a politically correct discourse? No, look at Dante, father Dante, even he is rooted, in his revolution of literary language, in a dialect.(30)

Vitiello's observations are very much to the point and would need to be expounded and clarified, which would take us too far afield. It must be noted, though, and this is one of the aspects of dialect that cannot be ignored, that dialect has a tragic core, because the anthropological universe that it expresses has almost entirely disappeared. As Luigi Meneghello, whose understanding of the dialectal condition is uncommonly profound (see his books Libera nos a malo and Jura), reminds us, things disappear, but words remain. Dialect is a tragic language because its referents have vanished. This is precisely its inner contradiction: on the one hand, dialect is seen almost universally as the language of concreteness and corporality; on the other, its external reference points have been concretely erased, so that the substance of dialect is in fact manifested as a ghost of memory, as inner resonance. The specific difficulty in translating from dialect, therefore, also hinges on the fact that the dialectal word has been torn out of its original humus of determinateness, of total identification with the object.

The ideal situation, it was noted before, perhaps occurs only when the bilingual writer becomes a translator of himself. In an essay on Zanzotto as a translator, Giovanni Meo Zilio remarks that "the translator of someone else's text, even in the best of cases, namely when he is perfectly bilingual and effectively possesses the "internal form" of the language from which he is translating (which is not very frequent) runs into every kind of semantic difficulties (which are added to stylistic and melodic difficulties), such as polisemy, ambiguity, intentional obscurity, contextual reference of a historical, sociocultural, biographical nature etc., which do not exist for the translator of oneself."(31)

Zilio provides a long and very detailed analysis of Zanzotto's Italian translation of one of his stories in the Venetian dialect entitled "La storia del barba zhucon / La storia dello zio tonto" (The Story of the Witless Uncle). He concludes that Zanzotto adopts a criterion of rigorous faithfulness, but that within this fundamental faithfulness there are here and there in his translation certain stylistic choices (lexical, syntactic, melodic etc.) that depart from the original text and that in such a careful and controlled writer cannot be accidental. These differences are grouped into two categories:

a) Deviations from literariness: in the sense of choice of words or syntagms ( less familiar or less plebeian or less rural than those of the original text).

b) Deviations from essentialness:in the sense of a greater sobriety (restraint, expressive discretion), which includes simplification, rationalization, downplaying (anti-theatricality), with respect to the original text.

As for the greater literariness of the Italian text, Zilio concludes that while the original is taken from the dialect folklore of Treviso, in the Italian text the author is less conditioned by the psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic forms with which that folkloric material was handed down. But there is another mechanism at work, "which acts more or less in all dialect speakers when they go from dialect to the national language. It can be articulated, with various results, under the label of "hypercorrectionism" (stylistic, in this case) and it consists, as is well known, in a psycholinguistic reaction that produces effects of excessive self-censure towards the natural tendency for contamination."(32) It should be noted that this difference in literariness between Italian and dialect texts in Zanzotto occurs in the translation rather than in the original writings, since his dialect poetry is no less literary than the Italian.

This essay does not deal with the inverse operation - perhaps even more problematic and in need of critical study - that is, the translation from standard language into dialect, which has produced various versions of the Divine Comedy, a Calabrese version of Jerusalem Delivered, a Neapolitan Aeneid in ottava rima and so on. I would like to mention, however, at least the recent attempt of a dialect poet, Giuseppe Jovine, to render in dialect an author as complex as Montale..(33) I mention it also for the methodological clarity with which the author undertakes an apparently unfeasible task:

With respect to the translation of Montale, which could be contested on the pretext of the untranslatableness of elaborate and psychologically complex texts into a vernacular that is assumed to be lacking stylistic complexity and refinement, it must be noted that Montale's great themes of life and beyond, of the search for the ultimate form of being, of the "word that scans from every side our shapeless soul," of human passing, can well find a place in the vernacular. All those themes have a linguistic equivalent in dialect, if it is true, as I believe, that folklore encompasses all the surviving and contaminated documents of all the conceptions of the world and of life that have been held throughout history, as Gramsci observes.(34)

As for the results, once over the initial moment of disorientation and estrangement, the very least one can say is that the attempt is undoubtedly interesting and provoking:

Come Zaccheo

Si tratta di arrampicarsi sul sicomoro

per vedere il Signore se mai passi.

Ahimè, non sono un rampicante ed anche

stando in punta di piedi non l'ho mai visto.

[da Diario del '71 e del '72]

Chi sa se passa u' Patraterne

Ze tratta da 'nghianà

'ncopp'a n'albere de chiuppe

Nze pò sapè! Pessotte pò passà

da nu prichinde all'atre u' Patraterne.

Ma se mmanche na' luna l'ànne viste

'gna le pozze vedè se nen m'arrizze

manche 'npunte de pede pe le calle?

[da Chi sa se passa u' Patraterne]

Who Know If the Almighty Will Go By

You have to climb on a poplar tree.

You never know! The Almighty

could go by at any moment.

But if he hasn't been seen even on the moon,

how can I see him if I can't stand

on the tip of my toes because of calluses.

It would be useful, in further studies, to analyze the texts in translation in order to measure and evaluate their literary and stylistic rendition in a concrete manner. In the end, however, we are forced to aknowledge the obvious: namely that it is impossible to find a conclusive answer to the problems of translating dialect. I have pointed out some possible paths to explore, but the success of any attempt can ultimately only depend on the the linguistic and literary sensibility of the translator.

Luigi Bonaffini

Brooklyn College

1. Franco Brevini, Poeti dialettali del Novecento, Turin: Einaudi, 1987, p. X. 2. (3)3. The Hidden Italy, edited and translated by Hermann Haller,

Poesia dialettale del Molise. Testi e critica / Dialect Poetry from Molise Texts and Criticism, trilingual edition, edited by Luigi Bonaffini, Giambattista Faralli and Sebastiano Martelli, Isernia: Marinelli Editore, 1993. 4. Abandoned Places, by Tonino Guerra, edited and translated by Adria Bernardi, Toronto: Guernica, 1997; Love Poems, by Salvatore Di Giacomo, translated by Frank Palescandolo, Toronto: Guernica, 1997; 'A canniatura / The Crevice, by Achille Serrao. Trilingual edition. Edited and translated by Luigi Bonaffini, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995; Lu pavone and La sdrenga, by Giuseppe Jovine. Trilingual edition. Edited and translated by Luigi Bonaffini, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1994; The Poetry of Nino Martoglio, edited and translated by Gaetano Cipolla, New York: Legas, 1993; Moliseide, by Giose Rimanelli. Trilingual edition. Edited and translated by Luigi Bonaffini, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1992; The Discovery of America, edited and translated by John Du Val, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1991; Malidittu la lingua / Damned Language, by Vincenzo Ancona, edited and translated by Gaetano Cipolla, New York: Legas, 1990; Tales of Trilussa, edited and translated by John Du Val, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1990; 5. The Portable Mark Twain, edited by Bernard De Voto (New York: The Viking Press, 1968) 193. 6. John Du Val, "Translating the Dialect: Miller Williams' Romanesco", Translation Review 32-33 (1990): 27. Mark Twain's comment appears at the beginning of the article..7. Le avventure di Huckleberry Finn (Milan: Garzanti, 1992).8. David R. Sewell, Mark Twain's Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 67.9. Judson Rosengrant, "Toads in the Garden: on Translating Vernacular Style in Eduard Liminov", Translation Review, 38-39 (1992): 16. 10. Henry G. Schogt, "Langue étrangère et dialecte et leurs rapporte avec le texte principal: un probleme de traduction", Contrastes, (Décembre 17, 1988): 21-38. 11. Brian Altano, "Translating Dialect Literature: the Paradigm of Carlo Emilio Gadda," Babel 34.3 (1988): 152-156. 12. The following is Weaver's translation, quoted by Brian Altano, "Translating Dialect Literature" 155:

"Get your roast pork here! Pork straight from the Areca with a whole tree of rosemary in its belly! With fresh, new potatoes, too, right in season!... I'm here to tell you. Taste them for yourselves." He rested for a moment to catch his breath. And then, exploding: "One-ninety the slice, roast pork! We're giving it away, ladies! It's a crying shame, that's what it is, ladies! You ought to be ashamed to buy it so cheap. One-ninety, easier done than said! Step right up, cash in hand, ladies! If you don't eat you can't work."... Then, to a local beauty, lowering his tone: "What about you, pretty girl?" The girl, at that tone of authority, couldn't restrain her laughter. "A half pound of pork?" and, sotto voce, to her, but with a glance at the penniless tooth-puller: "I'll give you the best part, that's a promise. You're my type, all right. You're too pretty!13. Brian Altano, "Translating Dialect Literature" 156.14. Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1981) XXII. 15. John Du Val, "Translating the Dialect" 27-28.16. Ibid. 28.17. Ibid. 2818. Ibid. 31.19. Giambattista Basile, Il Pentamerone, translated by Benedetto Croce (Bari: Laterza, 1925) XXX-XXXI.20. The Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile (London-New York: E.P. Dutton, 1932) VIII.21. Ibid.22. Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza (Ottawa:Canadian Society for Italian Studies, 1986) XXXI.23. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1992.24. The Hidden Italy (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986) 22.25. Ibid. 45.26. Turin: Einaudi, 1990.27. 26.In a letter to me, answering a few questions on translating from the dialect. 28. The Nativity Scene, by Eduardo De Filippo, Toronto: Guernica, 1997.29. In a letter to me, answering a few questions on translating from the dialect. 30. In a letter to me, answering a few questions on translating from the dialect. 31. 30. "Come Zanzotto traduce se stesso." Quaderni veneti, 14 (December 1991): 95-107.32. 31.Ibid. 106.33. 32.Giuseppe Jovine, Chi sa se passa u' Patraterne (Rome: Il Ventaglio, 1992).34. 33.Ibid. 9-10.