Translating Andrea Camilleri Into English

Camilleri writes in a peculiar mixture of Italianized Sicilian and Sicilianized Italian. How do translators handle the constant switching of linguistic codes?

Andrea Camilleri
A caricature of Andrea Camilleri
SerStelitano / CC BY-SA

Camilleri writes in a peculiar mixture of Italianized Sicilian and Sicilianized Italian. How do translators handle the constant switching of linguistic codes?

By Gaetano Cipolla, Arba Sicula

Andrea Camilleri — who replaced Sciascia, Bufalino and Consolo as the writer who best expresses the island’s ‘sicelitude’ — enjoys tremendous popularity in Italy and around the world. His books are ubiquitous. His novels, especially those dealing with Salvo Montalbano, a police inspector who lives in the imaginary town of Vigàta, made him the best-selling author of all times in Italy.

Even though he started writing novels when he was 69 years, he managed to publish 100 novels by the time he died in 2019. He was so prolific that a Catanese journal printed this headline in cubital letters “Basta Camilleri!” that I readily translate as “Enough already, Camilleri!” — making a rhyme without trying.

My interests in translation and the language and culture of Sicily were the catalysts for studying Camilleri’s works. He was a great writer, a master of dialogue, who developed a captivating style that made it difficult to put down a book after you started reading it. It was sparked also by the fact that his novels are practically all located in Sicily, and are written in a peculiar mixture of Italianized Sicilian and Sicilianized Italian. This feature in time became Camilleri’s signature. But it is also a feature that poses problems for translators. How does a translator handle the constant switching of linguistic codes?

Everyone who dabbles in translation inevitably asks “how in the world can you translate Camilleri?” The straight answer is that you cannot translate Camilleri, if you expect to present an English-speaking Camilleri. But I would give the same answer to the question “how can you translate Dante, Petrarch or Calvino?” Theorists of translation tell you in two hundred pages that translation is an impossible task. The reality is, however, that it has always been part of the literary world and it has been done since the beginning of time. As a practicing translator I am more interested in the pragmatic aspect of translation that accomplishes every day something that in theory can’t be done. As proof I offer the fact that Camilleri’s books have already been translated into 30 languages, including Chinese. This article addresses the problems posed to translators by Camilleri’s text. It was written early in Camilleri’s meteoric rise when only few translations had been published. I am confident, however, that the problems remains the same. I will examine two translations of La forma dell’acqua; one by Stephen Sartarelli into English and Serge Quadruppani in French.

The most difficult subtext to translate in Camilleri is his unpredictable and whimsical interspersing of the narrative with Italianized Sicilian words. Their presence, in fact, distinguishes Camilleri from other Sicilian writers such as Brancati, Sciascia or Bufalino, who used Sicilian occasionally but always with transparent goals.

Linguistic code-switching is not discussed much by academic translation theorists. But this is a serious problem, especially when you translate from Italian which is has dialects that are different languages that boast a long and important literary tradition. In my translation of Giovanni Meli’s Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza, written in Sicilian, the poet quoted one line by Petrarch in Italian: “un bel morire tutta la vita onora” that I rendered with “a worthy death brings honor to thy life,” where the archaic word ‘thy’ signaled that it was a poetic quotation. But Camilleri’s use of Sicilian goes beyond the occasional quotation. It constitutes an intrinsic part of his style and as such its function must be understood before any attempts can be made not to duplicate it — because that is impossible — but to come as close to it as possible. To develop a strategy the translator must understand what Camilleri is trying to accomplish by interjecting the Italianized Sicilian into his narrative. This task is not an easy one. But before we can offer a tentative solution, we should examine a sample of Camilleri’s narrative.

I copied a paragraph at random from one of the thirty stories in Un mese con Montalbano. Let’s read it:

Calorio non si chiamava Calorio, ma in tutta Vigata lo conoscevano con questo nome. Era arrivato in paisi non si sa da dove una ventina d’ anni avanti, un paro di pantaloni ch’ erano più pirtusa che stoffa, legati alla vita con una corda, giacchetta tutta pezze pezze all’arlecchino, piedi scavusi ma pulitissimi. Campava dimandando la limosina, ma con discrezione, senza dare fastiddio, senza spavintare fimmine e picciliddri. Teneva bene il vino, quando poteva accattarsene una bottiglia, tanto che nessuno l’aveva veduto a malappena brillo: e dire che c’erano state occasioni di feste che di vino se n’era scolato a litri.

The italics are mine and indicate Sicilian words and expressions that the author uses as an intrinsic component of his style. Their employment has a definite impact on the reader, each word is charged to express bits of meanings, nuances and color that cannot be completely ignored by the would-be translator without flattening the text, reducing a stereophonic sound into a single speaker.

The author here is making great demands on the translator. The italicized words are in effect Sicilian words that have been modified to sound Italian by changing a vowel or two, and they can be understood because the author placed them in a context that even non-Sicilians can decipher, even though they may not know the exact meaning. But a reader who understands Sicilian and Italian will get a richer context from the paragraph.

Calorio is the Sicilian equivalent of Calogero, but it is not Caloriu, which is the exact Sicilian name. The word paro is the same as paio in Italian, but in Sicilian it would be written as paru. We can guess why Camilleri uses paro instead of paio (it’s easier for Sicilians to pronounce paru instead of paio). The etymological equivalent of pirtusa in Italian is pertugi (holes), but in Italian this learned word identifies physical holes in structures, not holes in clothing, as the Sicilian pirtusa does here.

“Dimandando la limosina” would be “domandando l’elemosina” in Italian, but “dumannannu a limosina” in Sicilian. The double “d” of “Senza dare fastiddio” identifies it as Sicilian, owing to the common practice of doubling the consonants after a stressed vowel. “Senza spavintare fimmine e picciliddri” in Italian would be “senza spaventare donne e bambini” and in Sicilian “senza fari scantari fimmini e picciliddri”. The ‘ddri’ ending of picciliddri identifies the speaker as a person from the area of Agrigento where the cacuminal sound of ‘ddu’ as in Turiddu is pronounced as “Turiddru.” Accattarsene might not be readily understood as the equivalent of comprarsene if the context did not come to clarify it. In Sicilian, of course, the verb accattari, from the French ‘acheter’, commonly replaces the Italian comprare.

The use of Italianized Sicilian or Sicilianized Italian was originally thought to be an impediment to non-Sicilians. In fact, in the first edition of Il filo di turno, the editor at Mondadori required Camilleri to add a glossary of the Sicilian words to help non-Sicilian readers. This feature was dropped from later books as unnecessary. Italians can understand the text because Camilleri has become more skilled in creating a context for their use. Even if the terms are not understood exactly, they have a good idea of the possible meanings.

All of the nuances, color and information we uncovered in our brief linguistic analysis would be lost if the translator makes no attempt at rendering the code switching. The problem for non-Italians reading Camilleri in Italian is probably insurmountable because those who have learned Italian in school in a foreign country are notoriously poor at making connections between words that vary even slightly from the dictionary meanings. Such people have difficulty equating limosina with elemosina, paro with paio.

It is difficult to understand why Camilleri developed his style of writing. The presence of Sicilian interjections is highly subjective and unpredictable. Sometimes Camilleri uses them when the Sicilian is more expressive and better translates what he had in mind. But in general, there does not seem to be any logic, either linguistically determined or contextually driven for the interjections. But their presence adds color and context in addition to identifying the locale as Sicilian. A more important reason may rest in Camilleri’s desire to make a connection with his reader, taking him into his confidence, by speaking a language that by its restrictive nature constitutes a secret jargon that both the writer and his listener understand. It’s a form of captatio benevolentia with which he draws the readers into the web that he is spinning.

Sicilians have been historically conditioned not to speak in Sicilian to strangers or anyone whom they do not know or trust. Camilleri throws in his Sicilian expressions as hooks to draw readers into his world. As a literary ploy, this is not new. Boccaccio established the same kind of relationship with his readers, a complicity between author and reader that excludes some of the characters themselves. As Boccaccio lets us be a knowing audience, participants in the joke, Camilleri by using his Sicilianized Italian or Italianized Sicilian is forming a bond with the reader who understands — the trick is that after a while everyone understands — and the use of a different code does not exclude anyone.

These somewhat tentative conclusions may be sufficient to start working on a strategy for the translation. Following is a straightforward rendition of the paragraph without making any attempt at signaling the linguistic shift in the code.

Calorio’s name was not Calorio, but in Vigata everyone knew him with that name. He had come to town, — nobody knows from where — about twenty years back, with a pair of pants more holes than fabric, tied at the waist with a rope, with a little jacket with so many patches he looked like a Harlequin, barefoot, but with very clean feet. He begged for a living, but discreetly, without bothering anyone, or scaring the women and children. He could hold his wine well, when he could afford to buy a bottle, so much so that nobody ever saw him even slightly drunk, in spite of the fact that there had been times during feast days when he had put away quite a few liters.

This is a faithful rendition of the Italian text in terms of the information conveyed. What is missing is the writer’s voice, his gently mocking tone that emerges from his problematic use of the dialect. Having lost the metalinguistic component, i.e. the use of the dialect, the rendition is flatter than the original. What options are open to a translator? It seems to me that if he wants to maintain a multilevel linguistic code, he must couch his rendition with at least two, and possibly more, linguistic codes that would be accessible to the readers. If the audience for the novel is English, the translator could try to use standard English with American English as subtext. If he is American, he might utilize expressions and idiomatic sentences that can be identified with a local dialect to render the Sicilianized Italian expressions. For example, whenever possible he might interject Brooklynese or a local jargon of some kind into the stream of standard American English.

Naturally, the risk is great that the translator would introduce an alien dimensions into the novel, disregarding the fact that the action takes place in Sicily and such interjections would be considered out of sync with the environment. Failing this option, the translator would need to develop his own multiple level language made up of sequences that he himself considers normal and interjecting expressions that deviate in a consistent way from the dominant language. The types of deviation naturally would depend on the translator’s background and preparation and they would not have to coincide with Camilleri’s code switching. So, let us try a different rendition of the same excerpt.

This might be an improvement:

Calorio was not his name, but in Vigata the whole town knew him as Calorio. About twenty years back, he had turned up in town from God knows where, with a pair of britches that were draftier than a barn on account of the many holes, tied with a rope around his waist, and with a raggedy jacket so patched up he looked like a circus clown. He walked barefoot, but his feet were spotless. He scraped along by begging but without making a nuisance of himself, never bothering nobody, or scaring the womenfolk or young’uns. He held his booze so well, when he could scare up enough to buy himself a bottle, that nobody ever saw him even slightly pickled; although there had been times on Feast days when he had put away quite a few quarts.

The italicized words were chosen to convey a subtext normally associated with a slangy, folksy, homespun, southern vocabulary that mimics what Camilleri is doing. Questionable grammatical structures like “never bothering nobody” or the use of local jargon “womenfolk and young’uns” or colloquial terms like “scare up,” “pickled,” or “scraped along” produce a multi-voiced narrative that is akin to Camilleri’s. No doubt this is only an approximation of Camilleri’s style. No translator expects a perfect correspondence between his version and the original. Translation is like riding a seesaw with the translator sitting on one end and the original author on the other. It is impossible to synchronize his movements to match the author’s. The important thing is to maintain a balance. Sometimes the translator will overshoot the target, sometimes he will come up short.

The sample translation of Camilleri’s text was simply meant to point the way. I think that after a while the translator would develop a sub language that would serve him well whenever his fancy called for it. But it would be almost like speaking in falsetto. The danger of overdoing it probably dawned on Camilleri himself, for as his stories develop, he lightens the code-switching to a minimum, often dropping it. In the Forma dell’acqua, for example, in the last few chapters, except for one or two words, Camilleri uses standard Italian. Perhaps he wanted to develop his conclusions without distractions.

When I learned that Stephen Sartarelli had translated La forma dell’acqua I bought a copy to see how he had solved the problems discussed above. And I must say, he solved the problem by completely ignoring it. In all fairness to him, I think Sartarelli did a creditable job. His translation is highly readable, accurate in terms of the content of Camilleri’s text. Nevertheless, Sartarelli’s English text is monolingual, with one exception where he translates some Sicilian dialogue with American slang or colloquialism. But the code-switching is completely ignored. And I must say that the French translator who addressed the problem and claimed that he would occasionally intersperse his translation with Francitan terms, that is, a kind of modern Provençal, does not seem to do much of it. Let’s compare the three texts:

Pino e Saro si avviarono verso il posto di lavoro ammuttando ognuno il proprio carrello. Per arrivare alla mànnara ci voleva quasi una mezzorata di strada se fatta a pedi lento come loro stavano facendo. Il primo quarto d’ora se lo passarono mutàngheri, già sudati e impiccicaticci. Poi fu Saro a rompere il silenzio.

“Questo Pecorilla è un cornuto” proclamò.

“Un grandissimo cornuto” rinforzò Pino.

I have added the italics to the words that represent Camilleri’s code-switching. Here is the French translation:

Pino et Saro se dirigèrent vers leur lieu de travail en tirant chacun sa carriole. Pour arriver au Bercail, il fallait une demi-heure de route, quand on la suivait à pas lents comme eux. Le premier quart d’heure, ils le passèrent sans mot dire, dejà tout pegueux de sueur. Puis ce fut Saro qui rompit le silence.

—Ce Pecorilla est un cornard, proclama-t-il.

—Un cornard de premiere grandeur, rajouta Pino.

And here is Sartarelli’s rendition:

Pino and Saro headed toward their assigned work sector, each pushing his own cart. To get to the Pasture it took half an hour, if one was slow of foot as they were. The first fifteen minutes they spent without speaking, already sweaty and sticky. It was Saro who broke the silence.

“That Pecorilla is a bastard,” he announced.

“A fucking bastard,” clarified Pino.

As you can see, neither translator has acknowledged the code-switching or made an attempt to go beyond the surface meaning of the words and even at that level one could be picky and find infelicitous renderings. Monsieur Quadruppani actually has Saro and Pino pulling a two wheeled “carriole” behind them when they are pushing a four-wheel cart in front of them. Carriole is a Provençal word described as having two wheels, thus not equivalent to the one-wheel Italian carriola with which he probably wanted to mimic Camilleri’s code-switching. In the process, however, he mistranslated the sentence.

One could argue minor points in both translations, but let’s take one word that both translated in a similar fashion: mutàngheri. Surely it means more than “sans mot dire” and “without speaking”. The word does not exist in Italian, but it’s understood because of the context. In Sicilian it means more than “taciturn,” “unspeaking,” it means an unwillingness to speak, a sullenness brought about by being engrossed in one’s thoughts, by mulling over things. It also means an inability to speak.

Mutàngaru in the region of Agrigento describes also a deaf-mute who cannot speak clearly because he cannot hear. I would have said “brooding silently,” or “in bleak silence” or “stubbornly silent” or something like that. The word ammuttando is also more than “pushing” or the French “pulling” because the Sicilian is more than “spingere.” The word is strangely onomatopoeic. I can’t seem to pronounce it without moving my body forward, which is exactly why Camilleri chose it. He wanted to convey the considerable energy required to make the carts move forward. Simply pushing or pulling would not do.

I suppose it’s fair to ask how I would translate this passage. So here is my tentative version:

Pino and Saro started out toward their assigned work area, each leaning forward on his cart. It would take half an hour to walk to the Pasture if you moved one foot after the other as slowly as they did. They spent the first quarter of an hour, already sweaty and sticky, stubbornly clinging to their silence. Then Saro was the first to speak.

“That Pecorilla is a cuckold!” he blurted out.

“A major cuckold” Pino added.

I suppose Sartarelli’s use of the word “bastard” is more appropriate, but in using “cuckold” I wanted to retain a measure of the strangeness evoked by the code-switching in Camilleri’s text. Americans generally do not use the word, and some would have to look it up in a dictionary. Hence “cuckold” would work almost the same way for Americans as one of Camilleri’s Sicilian words for Italians.

In conclusion, while it is possible to achieve a similar effect in the English, it is very likely that the translator would adopt the minimax strategy, that is, he will try to obtain the maximum effect with the minimum of effort and in real life it takes too much time to imitate Camilleri’s style. Hence the translations of his work will inevitably be monovocal.

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece on translation. I have to say that I preferred the first ‘flat’ translation. I have read some translations of Camilleri where one of the characters seemed to be speaking in ‘Brooklynese’ and I found it grating, maybe because I dislike the accent or dialect wherever it is used, or maybe because it is overused. You will often find working class characters speaking with such on accent even on tv shows that are set in San Francisco or LA; it is a device that directors and actors use to convey a ‘tough guy’. Similarly, the use of ‘young’uns’ threw me off because I was suddenly transported to the US south, and I am just not sure that Tom Joad knew what a ‘Feast day’ was. The problem of translation fascinates me and I had never before read about the special problem that code switching poses in the process, so I am really grateful to Professor Cipolla for this discussion of it.

  2. Hence “cuckold” would work almost the same way for Americans as one of Camilleri’s Sicilian words for Italians.

    Agreed that “cuckold” will stop an American reader (like me) cold; but a translator today has a variant of the word to express a lower-class resentment for a boss doing some unpleasant bossing: “cuck,” an insult coined by the right-wing crowd for insufferable entitled superiors.

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