‘The Nitty Gritty’ by Mike Smith

One of my favourite short stories is Giovanni Verga’s lust in the dust tale, The She Wolf.

I have it in three versions. The first is Verga’s original Italian, the second the Penguin Classics 1998 edition, translated into English by G.H.McWilliams, and the third a Hammerton translation published in the early 1930s.

I have a smattering of Italian, and a dictionary. All three versions agree on the title: La Lupa (the wolf, with the feminine ‘a’ ending), translated in both cases as The She Wolf. McWilliams uses a hyphen. So far, so good, but the divergences begin with the opening sentence.

‘Era alta, magra….’ Verga begins, and Hammerton’s translator takes it word for word, almost: ‘She was tall and lean’. That ‘and’ stands in for Verga’s comma, but we surely wouldn’t quibble. McWilliams knows better: ‘She was dark haired..’

True, the next words are ‘tall and lean’, and I presumed that it was trying to get the same ideas as those conveyed by Verga’s words, but just not in the same order. Verga leaves the hair until the end of the line, in his long, opening three line sentence, incorporating it in the phrase ‘vigoroso da bruna’, which Hammerton has as ‘the vigour of the brunette type’. Perhaps even then ‘type’ could have been left off and the sense still carried.

Italian sentences, I’m beginning to realise, are often longer than English ones. Both translators split Verga’s opener into two. His three and a bit lines sentence becomes four and a bit in McWilliams, five and one word in the earlier translation. Some of this is to do with the compressions that we find in languages that distinguish between the sexes: for that ‘a’ we have to add ‘she’ in several places as well as the title. Verb endings too can reduce the need for additional words.

The sentence carries three packages of information. The first is about La Lupa’s general appearance – tall, thin, firm breasts (‘seno fermo’, and brunette vigour), the second, about her age, ‘non en più giovane/no longer young/no longer a young woman’ narrowing to her pallor (‘pallida’ in Italian), which makes her look malarial, and the third to a more specific feature: that her eyes and lips make her look as if she wants to eat you.

‘due occhi grandi cosi, e delle labbra fresche e rosse, che ci mangiavano’

‘a pair of huge eyes and fresh red lips that looked as though they would eat you’ (1998 English)

‘two such great eyes and lips so fresh and ruddy that they seemed to devour you alive’ (1930s’ English)

This final package is different to the preceding ones because it carries a threat. It imbues La Lupa with an intention that might impact on the ‘you’, which includes not only the more general ‘one’ of the world in which she lives, but the specific you who is reading the story. In the Italian, by my dictionary, ‘ci’ is given as ‘us’, which makes a similar point, and perhaps a little more strongly.

In the days when I worked with creative writing students one of my ‘schticks’ involved a bag of tennis balls – each with a crudely drawn face upon it. They represented the author, the narrator, the reader, and the characters of a short story. For any story, it seems to me, you could you lay them out upon a table in a way that would illustrate, to some extent, the relationship between those diverse individuals. At the very least you could represent the distances between them; whether the author’s narrator was closer to the author, for example, or whether closer to the reader than to the characters; how close the reader might feel to the characters – as in a second person narrative.

In this Verga tale the reader seems to stand alongside the third person narrator. We are onlookers in a tale about ‘them’, rather than about ‘us’. We see as the She-wolf lusts after, seduces and drives to almost madness the young soldier turned farm-worker, Nanni. We watch as she sacrifices her daughter and her house to her desires. The story ends with Nanni facing off her approach with an axe in his hand:

‘,,,e mangiandoselo con gli occhi neri. – Ah! malamo all’anima vostra!

balbettò Nanni.’

‘….devouring him with her coal-black eyes.

“Ah!” Nanni stammered. “May your soul rot in Hell!”’ (1998)

‘…her black eyes devouring him

 “May your soul go straight to hell!” said Nanni brokenly.’ (1930s)

‘Stammered’, ‘said brokenly’, ‘balbettò’. Of course, it’s the original that sets the bar. My dictionary gives ‘Stutter, stammer, babble’. Babble sounds similar, but doesn’t carry the urgency and desperation that I feel sure is in Nanni’s voice. For me stammered doesn’t cut the mustard, but ‘brokenly’ is weakened by needing that ‘said’. And ‘coal’ could have been used by Verga if he felt that ‘neri’ didn’t do it alone. Hell, with or without its capital letter might be implied in the original, but it isn’t explicit in ‘malamo’. ‘Damn your soul!’ would be my attempt, or perhaps I’d use ‘curse’.

Three issues about translation come out of these examples. The first, a sort of language mechanics issue, is of how many words you need to make the sense. Some languages are slicker in this.

The second involves the order in which we reconstruct the sentence. Does this shift the emphasis as well as making it read more fluently in the second language? If it does, are we doing it at a place where that emphasis is important? Knowing La Lupa is dark haired before we know she’s tall and thin might not be a problem, but all stories work by accreting information in a specific order to maximise whatever revelations we want to make or want to defer.

The third is about the choice of individual words, and how much potency they carry, and even within a single language, I’m guessing that varies from person to person. That’s because we don’t learn the vehemence of words from our dictionaries, but from the contexts in which we encounter them. What’s ‘said brokenly’ to you might be more appropriate than what’s ‘stammered’, but I wonder what Verga’s ‘balbettò’ means to a first language Italian speaker? Getting the right verb in both languages must be the most important element.

We could perhaps identify a fourth issue raised by translation. That might be that when we get a couple of versions to compare it will highlight the different ways in which, within a single language, we can go about telling the same story.

This little exploration barely scratches the surface, looking at minor changes in a couple of sentences, but a journey isn’t just about where we start and where we end. It’s about what we go through getting between the two, and what that might do to our perceptions of where we’ve come from, where we’ve arrived and where we’re going next.

There will always be subtleties of language, nuances of meaning that escape those who are equipped only with a smattering and a dictionary. That shouldn’t put us off though, from struggling with both originals and translations where we can, and learning about both from the struggle.

Even in our ‘own’ languages there is always the chance that meaning will slip by unnoticed. If that were not the case we’d have only sarcasm where irony is intended. Language might be precise in intention, but when it’s not in practice we will often impose our interpretation of precision upon it. Barely a day goes by, even on BBC Radio 4, when I don’t have to guess what is meant where what has been said is nonsensical or obviously not intended. It might be literally raining cats and dogs where the presenters are, but here it tends to rain them only metaphorically.

About the contributor

Mike Smith
Mike Smith writes poetry, plays and essays – mostly on the short story form, in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. He lives on the edge of England within sight of a sliver of Solway Firth.

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