Found in translation research frontiers

Quante parole so perché le ho imparate lì? Perché so anche ora, con adamantina certezza, e in barba alla mia tempesta cerebrale, che la capitale del Madagascar è Antananarivo? Lì ho incontrato termini dal sapore di una formula magica, avvittolato, baciabasso, belzuino, caccabaldole, cerasta, crivellaio, dommatica, galiosso, granciporro, inadombrabile, lordume, mallegato, pascolame, postemoso, pulzellona, sbardellare, speglio, versipelle. And Geoffrey Brock’s re-creation in English of that magic:

How many words do I know because I learned them there? Why do I know even now, with adamantine certainty, and in spite of the tempest in my brain, that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo? It was in that book that I encountered terms that tasted like magic words: avolate, baccivorous, benzoin, cacodoxy, cerastes, cribble, dogmatics, glaver, grangerism, inadequation, lordkin, mulct, pasigraphy, postern, pulicious, sparble, speight, vespillo… (p. 111-112)


At the same time, Brock was conscious of the danger of including so many allusions familiar to English readers that he would turn Yambo into “an insufferable Anglophile” rather than the sophisticated polyglot created by Eco. When he used English-language sources, he tried to select those that Eco had alluded to elsewhere in the novel, such as Shakespeare and James Joyce. In the end, he left enough Italian allusions that “Yambo’s national identity remains, I think, intact.”

In the sixth chapter, a passage presented a particular challenge. Yambo picks up his childhood dictionary and muses on the words he had discovered there many years earlier. He remembers how the words enchanted him – they “tasted like magic words.” He was more interested in their sound than in their generally obscure meanings. It is their very obscurity, Brock wrote, that “makes him (and us) more conscious of their sonic texture, and of their mystery.”

Brock’s task was to choose words that are “obscure enough and interesting enough in their sounds to have the mysterious ring of magic words.” At Eco’s suggestion, Brock used an English dictionary that would parallel Yambo’s dictionary. He searched the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for words that resembled Eco’s words in sound or appearance.

“My desire was to present a list of words that looked, at first glance, like cognates of their Italian counterparts – they are not just false cognates, but rather a kind of parody of cognates. It was a way of underlining, for myself mostly, but also for anyone who bothered to compare my translation with Eco’s original, not just the irrelevance of meaning here, but the way in which that irrelevance contributes to the magic,” Brock said.

DuVal faced the challenge of re-creation in his translation of Tales of Trilussa, a selection of poems by Carlo Alberto Salustri, which received the 2006 Raiziss/de Palchi Prize from the American Academy of Poets for translation of poetry from Italian. Salustri wrote under the pseudonym Trilussa, an anagram of his last name. Tales of Trilussa was originally published by the University of Arkansas Press, which ordered a second printing after the announcement of the award.

“The poetry of Trilussa is in Romanesco, which is the dialect of Rome – the way people speak in Rome, have spoken in Rome – an evolving language since the end of the Roman Empire,” DuVal said. “This prize has been particularly gratifying for me because the language is actually Romanesco rather than straight Italian, and I appreciate the fact that the award-givers and the judges selected a book in dialect, which 20 years ago would not have happened.

“Secondly, it is gratifying to me because this is probably the book of translations that I’ve had the hardest time writing. Trilussa is a poet of tremendous variety. Every poem is different. He has funny, hilarious poems. He has serious poems. He has sentimental poems. Each time I did a translation I felt like I was starting over again,” he said.

Trilussa, who published his first poem in1887, was able to make his living with his sonnets, fables, satires and lyrics until his death in 1950. He was already well known nationally and internationally when the fascists assumed control of Italy. Trilussa did not claim to be an anti-fascist poet. Rather, Trilussa said, he was “simply not a fascist.”

“His satire exposed the pomposity and double-talk of everyone from street thugs to cabinet ministers. The fascists, when they took power in 1922, were no exception, except that there was a new element to satirize in the new regime: terror,” DuVal said. “Such poems as ‘In the Shade’ and ‘The Last of the Bogeyman’ become increasingly complex when we realize that they themselves make their author more vulnerable to the terror they mock.”

DuVal was introduced to Romanesco by his colleague, the poet Miller Williams, who one day at a party handed him a fat volume of Trilussa’s complete poems in Romanesco, saying, “Here, John – here’s something you’ll enjoy translating.” Intrigued, DuVal taught himself Romanesco with the aid of Romanesco-Italian dictionaries and a Louisiana State University Press edition of Romanesco sonnets by G.G. Belli printed alongside what he calls Williams’ “masterful translations” into English.

“When I look back through Tales of Trilussa, I can have two different sensations,” DuVal said. “Sometimes when I just leaf through the book I’m really impressed by the variety, and I take tremendous pleasure in reading it. But too often as I look through I’m impressed with a sense of coming short sometimes of Trilussa’s poetry, as I go from one poem to the other. There’s just so much to the original.” Guessing at la lengua

DuVal is currently translating accounts by Europeans of their first encounters in North America for an anthology edited by his daughter, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Some of the accounts are reports back to Spain from governors or missionaries in what is now the southwestern United States. The spelling is “awful,” he said. “It’s hastily written and not grammatical.”

One example is the Spanish word lengua, which has three meanings in the writings of de Vaca and other Spanish explorers and settlers. In addition to “tongue” and “language,” the common meanings today, lengua was used to signify an interpreter. While DuVal often encounters puns or double meanings for words, the three different uses make the translation much more difficult. Fortunately, he has experience with Medieval French and old Spanish, and thanks to his study of Romanesco, he is “used to guessing at variations.” For lengua, he also consulted his University of Arkansas colleague, professor of foreign languages Luis Fernando Restrepo, who informed him that una lengua, as interpreter, could be either a man or a woman.

Brock also received another translation award in 2006, the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine, which he received for his translation of a poem by Giovanni Pascoli, a poem he first discovered thanks to a quotation from it in the Eco novel. Brock’s translation of Skylark Farm, a novel about the Armenian genocide by Antonia Arslan, was released early in 2007. His current projects include the anthology of 20th century Italian poetry and a second collection of his own poems, tentatively called Voices Bright Flags.

The main character in Queen Loana is an Italian bibliophile named Yambo who bears some resemblance to Eco. When the story begins, he has suffered a stroke and is awaking with a type of amnesia that has wiped out his personal memories and left only what he has learned from books. To recover his personal past, he moves into his family’s summer home with its attic filled with everything from his childhood – toys, books and school papers.

Many of the cultural allusions from the bibliophile’s attic are familiar to Italian readers and make the original humorous and entertaining. Working closely with Eco, Brock’s task was to reproduce that reading experience for English speakers. To do this, he had to replace some of Eco’s allusions to literary and popular culture with different allusions that would be accessible to Anglophone readers—but still plausibly the product of Yambo’s mind. In the case of Queen Loana, Brock said, “word-by-word fidelity would sometimes have been an infidelity.” Celebrating Living

A good translation, whether fiction or poetry “functions as a calibration of humanity,” DuVal said. Poetry is less popular in translation than fiction because of the difficulty of conveying all that a poem holds. With Trilussa, DuVal was certainly challenged by the great variety of his work – the fables, love poems, sarcastic Romanesco street scenes and philosophy in poetry. When he says he fears he fell short in translating Trilussa, he wonders about “a sense of disunity and a sense of Trilussa not coming across as a person.”