Tilting at the Leaning Tower: Translating Irony in two writers of the Northeast, Luigi Meneghello & Ippolito Nievo
Every worthwhile translation project has to do battle with the global wisdom about Italy and Italian literature, the Leaning Tower Canon, you might say: those books and themes that like the leaning tower of Pisa, everyone has heard of. The once largely rural Veneto and Friuli regions of northeast Italy scarcely figure in the Leaning Tower, with the exception of Trieste and the venerable sea-going republic of Venice itself. For the rest, the provincial northeast’s traditional poverty, its backwardness, its domination by conservative Catholicism, are qualities usually associated only with southern Italy. And just as the northeast is terra incognita, equally unfamiliar is the irony that characterizes two quite different authors who hail from those backwaters: Ippolito Nievo, writing of the 19th C, and Luigi Meneghello, writing of the early 20th C. When it came to portraying poverty and misery, the post-war neorealist writers and filmmakers known to global audiences did not especially favor irony. Furthermore, both the genre of memoir, as Meneghello’s Libera nos a malo is classed in English, and that of the historical novel (Nievo’s Le confessioni d’un italiano) would seem to adhere to straight faced realism. Perhaps these are some reasons why, to state a bald cultural stereotype, Italians aren’t often expected to be particularly ironic; they may be earnest or they may be sarcastic, but they are thought to lack the verbal, mental and moral complexity that irony demands. Giving full rein to the irony in these source texts demands various tactics on the part of the translator: unobtrusive provision of information the global reader needs to see paradox, heightening the coloring of a phrase or streamlining syntax to emphasize wit, stretching the English lexicon to make the translated language as interesting and memorable as possible.
Frederika Randall is a literary translator who has worked with a various trade publishers. Pittsburgh born, she has lived in Italy for 30 years. A cultural journalist for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Nation and the Italian weekly Internazionale among others, she has translated the Risorgimento epic, Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of An Italian (Penguin UK Classics) and novels by Luigi Meneghello, Ottavio Cappellani, and Helena Janeczek. Other translated works include historian Sergio Luzzatto’s Partigia (Primo Levi’s Resistance, Metropolitan, 2016), his The Body of Il Duce, and his Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, for which she and the author shared the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature in 2011. Slated for 2017 is Guido Morselli’s novel Il comunista from New York Review Books (an excerpt appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review in 2015). Awards include a PEN/Heim Translation Fund award, 2009, and a Bogliasco Fellowship, 2013.