On Translating Giovanni Meli’s Poetry

The works of Giovanni Meli illustrate some of the problems translators meet when they are asked to translate from one language into another.

Giovanni Meli
Meli wanted to create an illustrious Sicilian. The result of his efforts was a mixture of the literary language of Italian and Sicilian. Photo by Dana Word.

The works of Giovanni Meli illustrate some of the problems translators meet when they are asked to translate from one language into another.

Translation studies have not as yet developed a comprehensive theory of the processes of translation that can be utilized as a tool of description as well as of prescription. For this reason I will not discuss its theoretical and philosophical aspects. Instead I will focus my attention primarily on the actual problems posed by the translation of Giovanni Meli as a way of illustrating some of the problems translators meet when they are asked to translate from one language into another. I think Ivan Fonagy summed up the status of translation studies well when he remarked:

“If we knew everything we know, I would not be able to talk to you about a problem that is resolved a hundred times an hour during a simultaneous translation. Fortunately for us linguists there is a considerable distance between practical competence and theoretical competence.”

Another reason for avoiding getting too involved with the philosophical problems raised by translation is that translators are pragmatic people, intent on solving specific problems that arise out of the texts they are translating. Indeed, while all translators seek the optimal solution to their difficulties, they generally opt for the Minimax Strategy, that is, when confronted by a series of possible renderings for an expression or word, they choose the one that offers the maximum effect with the minimum of effort.

My translation of Meli’s ambitious mock heroic poem, Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza, required about four years to complete, precisely twice as long as it took Meli to write his poem, a fact from which several conclusions can be drawn:

1) That Meli was a more accomplished poet than I am;

2) That he had a lot more experience with the technical aspects of writing poetry;

3) That he was not handicapped by an existing text, as his translator was. At any rate, translating over 8600 lines into iambic pentameter with the seventh and eighth lines of each octave rhymed can be trying on any translator. The problems posed by the text are enormous and require a great deal of ingenuity and creativity from the translator.

What follows is a summary of the processes that went into the translation of the work. The first problem I had to solve was the choice of language and the meter. Meli’s idiom is difficult to classify. Because of its length, the work reproduces the poet’s linguistic physiognomy in all its varieties. Meli wanted to create an illustrious Sicilian. The result of his efforts was a mixture of the literary language of Italy, that is, Tuscan in its Arcadian formulation, and of Sicilian. The interrelationship between these two components represents an essential feature of Meli’s language.

In my English rendition I tried to maintain a language that is dignified without being archaic. Consonant with the tone of the original, which obtains comic relief by mixing a highly dignified language with popular speech, I tried to keep the same combination, allowing myself to slide in the direction of archaic terms or slang, depending on the requirements of the situation. Meli often quotes entire lines from Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto and others. Different strategies could have been adopted in such cases. I chose to translate them. But it had to be made clear that the lines were quotations from other sources, because in the original the reader would immediately grasp the change of tone and diction of the quoted lines in comparison with the author’s text.

So, I had to signal that such a change had occurred. Two examples will suffice: In trying to encourage the frightened Sanciu to undertake an adventure, Don Chisciotti exhorts him by quoting a line from Petrarch: un bel morir tutta la vita onora. To differentiate the line from its linguistic environs, I introduced a more archaic/poetic term than the surrounding text: “A worthy death brings honor to thy life,” in which the possessive adjective thy, normally not used, signals its literariness. Another Petrarchan reminiscence, Povera e nuda vai, Filosofia? was translated with a similar procedure: “Philosophy, thou goest naked and forlorn!”

The choice of meter was simple: the iambic pentameter was a natural choice. It is the most common and most natural narrative meter in English. The rhyme, however, was not part of the original plan, but it became increasingly clear that Meli had placed particular emphasis on the final couplet. He seemed to have elaborated them with greater care than the other rhymes, because they served as a link between each octave and as an incentive to the reader to continue. So, to do justice to Meli, my final couplets had to be as striking as possible, without departing too much from the original. It became a kind of competition, in a way. A few examples will do:

Si chiddu si riscalda, chista adduma,

viduva è mecciu astutatu chi fuma.

If he was kindled, she was set on fire.

A widow is a flameless, smoky pyre.

Ci avìa dittu un oraculu indovinu:

«Fuiri l’acqua e unirisi a lu vinu!».

This did an Oracle for him divine:

«Beware of water, but make friends with wine! ».

E chiddi ch’’un si quadranu a sta scola,

nun li quatra lu ferru ni la mola.

And he who will not profit from this school,

no matter what, will always be a fool.

In connection with the rhyme, special problems were posed by Meli’s technical virtuosity in Canto VII. Here Meli introduced the song of a peasant-turned poet during a lull in the adventures of Don Chisciotti and Sanciu. They are parodies of love songs, similar in nature to those that Ruzante wrote in imitation of Petrarch. A peasant who writes in an apparently awkward style a poem that is in reality a considerable tour de force of technical and prosodical abilities. In all, the peasant-poet sings seven octaves, almost exclusively rhymed with feminine endings, which vary only in the accented vowel: ìviri, òviri; àuli, èvuli; and àniu, ìniu, as in the following octave:

La curatola bedda pri cui smàniu

chidda ch’avi di mia lu predomìniu

punci comu na macchia di piràinu

ed apporta la frevi e lu sdillìniu;

un vermi mi ficcau dintra lu cràniu

pri cui mi criju juntu all’estermìniu.

Ma ohimè, ch’è dura chiù di rùvulu,

ed eu n’abbampu comu cosunùvulu.

Although I did not attempt duplicate the rhyme scheme, because English is poor in feminine rhymes, I felt it necessary to raise the level of difficulty in my translation, and I chose an unusual but manageable rhyme scheme: AAABBBCC, which mimics the Sicilian àniu, ìniu with the English ine, and ane:

The steward’s lovely lass for whom I pine,

the one who’s mistress of this heart of mine,

stings me as though she were a porcupine,

giving me fever, driving me insane.

She stuck a worm inside my sorry brain

which makes me think l’ve reached the last domain.

Alas, she’s even harder than an oak

and l am just consumed like burning coke.

The parodic element underscored by the feminine rhyme is present in the English version in the too facile rhyme of ‘pine’ with ‘mine’ in which the inversion, this heart of mine signals on purpose the peasant-poet’s inexperience and lack of sophistication. Naturally, translators know that perfect equivalence, intended as synonymity, cannot be achieved.

What are some specific problems posed by translating from the Sicilian? I think the problems are basically the same as those of translating from any Romance language. Generally speaking, linguists recognize two main sources of difficulties in translation: those that arise from the inevitable linguistic differences between the source language and the target language and those that arise from the cultural differences that exist between the two. The distinction is not quite so clear cut, for as J. Lotman said: “No language can exist unless it is steeped in the context of culture; and no culture can exist which does not have at its center, the structure of a natural language.” Naturally, at this level, even translating such words as butter into another language poses almost insurmountable problems. In fact, butter and the Italian burro are not exactly equivalent. In Italy burro is used differently, carries different cultural connotations and even looks and tastes differently.

For the sake of brevity, I will begin with a few problems of a linguistic nature, that is, with problems arising from the different structures of Sicilian and English. In my translation of Meli’s Favuli morali, published in 1988, a number of linguistic structures posed serious difficulties and challenged what little ingenuity I possess. The difficulties were also magnified by my choice to translate the fables with the same rhyme scheme as the Sicilian. In addition, there were specific problems of a different nature. One example will be sufficient to make the point. In the third fable of the collection, L’Aquila e lu reiddu (The Eagle and the Kinglet), Meli plays with the word Reiddu, the name of a tiny bird, common in Sicily.

The fable relates how, having to elect a new king, birds decided to test the candidates’ intelligence and qualities. Eagles, being the most powerful, pushed for a test of strength and it was agreed that the new king would be the bird that flew the highest. Naturally, an eagle flew higher than all other birds and thinking it had won the test, came down to claim victory. But without the eagle’s knowledge, a tiny kinglet had stowed away on top of the eagle’s head, and technically had flown highest. Thus, the kinglet was declared the winner, for, as the birds said, talent and intelligence should be prized above brute strength in a civilized society:

Chist’aquila a li stiddi sinni va,

e ‘n vidennusi oceddi a lu so latu,

ritorna gluriusa e dici: “Olà!

sù Re, pirchì chiù in aùtu aju vulatu”;

m’addunannusi l’autri di chiddu

ch’aveva in testa, gridanu: “Re iddu!”

This eagle flew so high it reached the stars,

and when he saw there was no one abreast,

with pride he flew down saying: “There you are!

l’m now your King-Elect. I flew the highest!”

The others, noticing the bird-vedette

just pointed at him and cried: “King-elect!”

Of course, the play on words between the actual name of the bird, reiddu and the re iddu which is equivalent to saying he is the king, not you! is lost. I had to resort to a play of a different nature between ‘King-Elect’ and ‘Kinglet’ which offers a less demonstrative image, but which retains some of the playfulness of the verbal game.

Less serious problems were posed by Meli’s fondness for coining epithets in Sicilian by combining nouns and one or two suffixes, as in armalunazzu, which is a combination of armali, (animal) uni, the suffix for large and azzu, the pejorative suffix for ugly or dumb. Since English does not have the same structural system of accretion, various combinations of adjectives and nouns render the Sicilian fairly accurately. Armalunazzu became in my version You big dumb ox! Similar problems were posed by a series of names invented by Meli for a group of devils. In Canto IX, a magician called a council of devils to advise him on the best way to seduce women. The names that Meli gave to his devils obviously were intended as humorous. At times, they are simple strings of echoing sounds, such as Ciciamiciacia, and in this case I let the sound be my guide as well, transcribing the names phonetically as Chèecha-meechàcha; in other cases, the names were a combination of meaning of phonemes, and here I translated them: Carrittigghiu became Little Cart; Smargiazzu, Loud Mouth; Tizzuni, Burned-out-Log; Vurpigghiuni, Great Sly Fox; Catapocchiu and Pisca a Funnu became respectively Gotchatite and Goflyakite, to accommodate the need of the rhyme.

As regards difficulties arising from culturally determined differences between Sicilian and English, the list is endless. I will give only a few of the most troublesome cases from the Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza and from the Favuli morali. At the end of Canto I, Don Chisciotti sees fires in the ears of Ronzinanti and Sanciu’s donkey and, convinced that the animals are harboring witches in their bodies, he heroically strikes at them, killing the animals as well. When Sanciu saw his dead donkey the next morning and was told that it had been a witch, he was torn between compassion for his dead ‘friend’ and anger for having been betrayed by the hypocritical donkey, and he exclaimed in frustration:

“Parivi un coddu tortu, un Marabbutu!

E tu eri bonu, lu beccu curnutu?”

The problems here are many. To begin with, the Sicilian expression “coddu tortu” signifies a hypocritical being, someone who is crooked, devious in nature. The noun Marabbutu, in Sicily, refers to a Muslim holy man who is also regarded as insincere and crafty. Translating the first line literally, You seemed to be a crooked neck, a Marabout, simply would not do, for crooked neck in English does not suggest hypocrisy. At best, it might suggest a birth defect. And the noun Marabout would mean exactly the opposite of the Sicilian. In fact, the Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language defines Marabout as a Muslim holy man, honored, and revered in religious and secular affairs. After several different versions, the two lines were rendered with:

“You were a Pharisee, a hypocrite!

A worthy ass, indeed! A dumb misfit!”

The substitution of Pharisee for Marabout seemed legitimate because it means for an American of today what the term Marabout meant for the Sicilian of the 18th century. After some reflections, I decided I had gone too far by using Pharisee and changed them to:

Crooked you seemed, a devious Marabout!

A good and worthy ass you were? My foot!”

Another example of what Catford would designate as culturally untranslatable comes to mind when Meli uses the expression liccannusi la sarda. In the context, Meli was arguing that a smart father who wanted to see his patrimony grow should leave it to a son who will increase it by living frugally and making every penny count. The line is: E l’accrisci liccannusi la sarda. Obviously, licking a sardine is something Americans may find strange, if not distasteful. In Sicily, however, where sardines are considered staple for the poor, eating sardines, or better, licking them, conveys the idea of making it feed many mouths. Thus the expression means, living frugally, making little go a long way. Thus, the line was translated with the following:

To guard and to increase

by living on plain bread and goatherd’s cheese.

In Canto IX, the magician to whom I referred earlier, addressed his audience, to ask them advice on how to seduce women. When he finished his harangue, the hall began buzzing with the devils’ comments and Meli adds with his typical sly humor:

“Dissi e un oscuru ciarmulìu s’intisi

‘ntra tutta d’Accademia curnuta”.

Meli, of course, was playing with the double meaning of curnutu (endowed with horns), which refers to their horns as their normal attribute. Meli was underlining the fact that devils are sly and mean. The comic effect, however, is provided by a third and most common meaning of curnutu, that is, cuckold, even though technically it could not be applied to devils because they have no wives. The two lines were rendered with:

He spoke and a dark whispering was heard

to rise among that horned Academy.

Instead of horned I had toyed with horny, whose primary meaning is today eager for a sexual encounter, but I had to abandon it because the stress would have fallen on the wrong syllable and because it would have added something that was not in the spirit of Meli’s line. The various meanings of curnutu had to be given in a note.

Another example of cultural untranslatability: Meli refers to a Sicilian delicacy known as sfingi which consists of a small semicircle of thin dough filled with a number of ingredients (ricotta, usually) which is deep-fried and covered with sugar afterwards. The two lines in question somewhat equivalent to the Christian dictum, he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone! are

“ma la quaddara ch’a fattu li sfingi

po’ diri a la padedda: tu mi tinci?”

and they were rendered with

But can the skillet where the fish was fried

of greaseness the pan accuse and chide?

I will mention one other type of difficulty encountered by all inexperienced translators, which is what I was when I began translating Meli’s Origini di lu munnu. I am referring to the trap set by faux amis, by words, that is, derived from the same root which have evolved differently in the two cultures, and which mean different things in the two languages. We already saw two such words in Marabbutu and Marabout. The list is endless and the problem challenging to all translators, even the most experienced ones. This book deals especially with this problems and will be very helpful to any would be translator in avoiding the trap. The examples I will provide here could be multiplied endlessly. I will start with a few examples from the Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza: When Don Chisciotti died, Sanciu carved the following inscription on his tomb stone:

“La cinniri ch’è sutta sta balata

fu spogghia d’un eroi di desideriu.”

My first rendition was:

“The dust that lies beneath this slab of stone

is what remains of a hero of desire.”

Of course, in Sicilian un eroi di desideriu refers to Don Chisciotti’s yearning to be a hero, in his imagination. My first version made Don Chisciotti appear as a hero in whom sexual desire had heroic proportions. The second line, therefore, was changed to read:

“is what remains of one who would be hero.”

In Canto VI, frustrated by his difficult and harsh life, Sanciu, complained:

“ma la mia vita e la mia morti foru

o cucini carnali oppuru soru.”

My first version of the couplet had been:

“My life and death, however, must have been

either two sisters or just carnal kin.”

It took several readings to make me realize that I had transformed an innocent relationship between first cousins or blood relatives (cucini carnali) into an incestuous affair. The second line was changed to read: “either two sisters, or just kith and kin.”

It is not unlikely that many more such cases will be discovered by sharp-eyed critics or by me. Translators are notoriously critical of one another and of themselves. That’s why describing one’s translation runs the risk of becoming a confession of sins, minor and major, committed knowingly and unknowingly. In conclusion, translating poetry is, as Dryden said, an act of sympathy. In my own case, I think it was something more than that. I felt like an advocate pleading a special case: Giovanni Meli’s poetry as the embodiment of the Sicilian soul.

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  1. My heart skipped a beat when I saw this article and it wasn’t until a week or two had passed that I had the time and mental energy to read it respectfully. There is probably nothing I find more interesting than literary translation and this article raised some really engaging questions for me. I will discuss just one in this comment. One passage in particular piqued my interest:

    “Of course, the play on words between the actual name of the bird, reiddu and the re iddu which is equivalent to saying he is the king, not you! is lost. I had to resort to a play of a different nature between ‘King-Elect’ and ‘Kinglet’ which offers a less demonstrative image, but which retains some of the playfulness of the verbal game.”

    The idea and ability to substitute one kind of wordplay for another strikes me as a particular form of genius. The translated poem, in addition to faithfully rendering the original meaning of the work, needs to succeed as a poem in and of itself; form, not just function . . . or feeling and not just meaning . . . needs to come through in the final product. How a translator/poet does that in the delicious medium of language constitutes an endless field of fascination for me. Thank you for publishing this remarkable piece.

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