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Art and the Spirit of Place: D.H. Lawrence Translates Giovanni Verga

Maria Cristina Consiglio
p. 111-142

Texte intégral

Art and “the spirit of place”

1Lawrence spent much of his life travelling and this condition of voluntary exile, which is reflected in his literary production, brought him into contact with the Other. That “alien quality” which makes any place unique is what he called “the spirit of place.” These are Lawrence’s words in Sea and Sardinia:

The spirit of place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed. In the end the strange, sinister spirit of place, so diverse and adverse in differing places, will smash our mechanical oneness into smithereens, and all that we think the real thing will go off with a pop, and we shall be left staring. (SS 55)

2The spirit of place should not be understood as something superficial, external, or natural, that is as something simply defining the territory of a given place. Rather, it is the very soul of the place, what differentiates it from all the other places on earth and has influenced behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, the practices of the people inhabiting it. In the essay “The Spirit of Place,” which opens Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Lawrence defines the concept of spirit of place in terms of a polarity man/environment. In his view, not only does a community permeate a given place by settling there, it is also influenced by that place in the process of building its own identity, its customs, its traditions (Michelucci 22):

Every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality. (SCAL 5-6)

3The above words imply that the interaction between the place and its inhabitants is of the utmost importance in shaping a given culture, in which art and literature play a major role. In his essay “Morality and the Novel” (1914), Lawrence actually establishes a connection between a work of art and the place that has produced it:

The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe, at the living moment. […] And this perfected relation between man and his circumambient universe is life itself, for mankind. (P 527)

4The relation Lawrence is talking about is the complex web of connections a man establishes with everyone and everything surrounding him and the novelist’s task is to reveal these relationships, since the novel is to be “the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered” (P 528). In other words, literature can be seen as a direct emanation of the spirit of place.

5A first reflection on the relation between art and place can be found in Twilight in Italy (written between 1912 and 1913)—specifically in the essay entitled “The Theatre”—when Lawrence comments upon some performances he had the chance to see in a theatre in Gargnano. The first play he saw was Ibsen’s Ghosts, translated into Italian and performed by a company of peasant actors. He soon realizes that the Italian I Spettri [sic] is very different from the performance of the same play he saw in Munich:

It was such a change from the hard, ethical, slightly mechanised characters in the German play, which was as perfect an interpretation as I can imagine, to the rather pathetic notion of the Italian peasants, that I had to wait to adjust myself. (TI 136)

6In Lawrence’s view, the change is due to the different natures of the Italians and the Northeners. In commenting upon the performance of the actor-manager, he writes that “he was strangely disturbing” because he was so “dark, ruddy, and powerful” (TI 136) that “he could not be the blighted son of Ghosts, the hectic, unsound, northern issue of a diseased father” (136-137). According to Lawrence, it is the difference in “race” and culture that prevents the Italian actor from embodying the Norwegian soul; the Italian physicality and the Italian worship of the phallus as “a symbol of creative divinity” (138) both contribute to rendering the Italian version of the play something different from the original and are the reason why the Italian audience cannot understand the meaning of the play.

7He found confirmation for his idea when he attended the performance of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s La fiaccola sotto il moggio, which he considered “a foolish romantic play of no real significance” (TI 139) and which the audience, instead, loved. By comparing the reactions of the local barber to both Ibsen’s and D’Annunzio’s plays, he realized that the sort of disturbing effect produced on the audience by Ibsen was due to the difference in the nature of the languages:

It was language which did it. It was the Italian passion for rhetoric, for the speech which appeals to the senses and makes no demand on the mind. When an Englishman listens to a speech he wants at least to imagine that he understands thoroughly and impersonally what is meant. But an Italian only cares about the emotion. It is the movement, the physical effect of the language upon his blood which gives him supreme satisfaction. His mind is scarcely engaged at all. He is like a child, hearing and feeling without understanding. It is the sensuous gratification he asks for. Which is why D’Annunzio is like a god in Italy. He can control the current of the blood with his words, and although much of what he says is bosh, yet the hearer is satisfied, fulfilled. (TI 139)

8The above statement seems to suggest that language and culture are strictly interwoven since language reflects the nature and temperament of the people speaking it.

9Even more interesting are Lawrence’s comments after a performance of Hamlet in Italian. He soon realizes that the translation—as well as the performance by a group of peasants—has turned the tragedy into a farce and this is due to the fact that the intellectual sophistication of the original is totally foreign to both the actors and the audience. Considering what is at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, which is “the statement of the most significant philosophic position of the Renaissance” (TI 144), that is “the tragedy of the convulsed reaction of the mind from the flesh, of the spirit from the self, the reaction from the great aristocratic to the great democratic principle” (144), Hamlet’s questionings cannot be understood by 20th century people, particularly when these people are born and bred in a different country. This is the reason why Enrico Percevalli, the leading actor, “was detestable with his ‘essere, o non essere’” (TI 148). Lawrence suggests that the Italian actor is not able to perform Hamlet because he belongs to a different culture when he writes that “all his life he [Enrico] has really cringed before the northern Infinite of the Not-Self, although he has continued in the Italian habit of Self” (149).

10It is because of the impossibility of total mutual understanding between the English and the Italians that the Italian actors interpret Hamlet differently from the English, so that the Italian performance seems to take on a new meaning, which produces on Lawrence a disturbing effect. He is relieved when the play is over, but the audience seems to have enjoyed it, particularly the character of Ophelia and the graveyard scene; a reaction completely different from that of Lawrence, who writes that “the grave-digger in Italian was a mere buffoon” (149). This difference in reception is due to the new linguistic medium employed—he writes: “The whole scene was farcical to me because of the Italian, ‘Questo cranio, Signore’” (150)—and this suggests that works of art acquire a completely different meaning outside their original context. In other words, the form that a work of art takes on depend on the spirit of the place that has produced it and its reception depends on the audience.

Lawrence’s translations

11Lawrence’s interest in foreign languages and literatures made him extremely curious as regards literary production outside the English-speaking world, with the result that he engaged, directly or indirectly, in the translation of Russian and Italian authors. His activity as a translator includes All Things are Possible (1920) by Leo Shestov, The Gentleman from San Francisco (1922) by Ivan Bunin, Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1923), Little Novels of Sicily (1925), Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories (1928) by Giovanni Verga, and The Story of Doctor Manente (1929) by Francesco Grazzini.

12The translations from Russian came out of Lawrence’s collaboration with his friend S.S. Koteliansky, who made most of the work since Lawrence never managed to even read Russian (Hyde 2). It is believed that Lawrence’s task consisted in correcting and even rewriting Koteliansky’s interlinear translation, a form of intralingual translation, according to Roman Jakobson’s taxonomy (114). His translations from Italian are, in contrast, forms of what Jakobson has called “translation proper,” i. e. interlingual translations, which Lawrence carried out thanks to the knowledge of the Italian language he had acquired after his repeated travels through the peninsula and by relying only on an Italian-English dictionary (which, indeed, made him make some mistakes, particularly in Mastro-Don Gesualdo). The translations were in fact all published under Lawrence’s name both in England and in the United States.

13The first record of Lawrence’s knowledge of Verga is a letter to Koteliansky dated 15 Dec. 1916, which acknowledges Lawrence’s reading of “Cavalleria rusticana,” defined as “a veritable blood-pudding of passion!” (L iii. 53). Lawrence’s first judgement is not positive—“It is not at all good, only, in some odd way, comical, as the portentous tragic Italian is always comical” (L iii. 53)—only much later did Lawrence recognize Verga’s value and decided to translate him into English as a letter to Catherine Carswell dated 25 Oct. 1921 makes clear:

I have only been reading Giovanni Verga lately. He exercises quite a fascination on me, and makes me feel quite sick at the end. But perhaps that is only if one knows Sicily. – Do you know if he is translated into English? – I Malavoglia or Mastro-Don Gesualdo—or Novelle Rusticane or the other short stories. It would be fun to do him—his language is so fascinating. (L iv. 104-105)

14It is highly probable that the translation process started soon after this letter, since before leaving for Ceylon (26 February 1922) Lawrence had already finished the first half of the novel Mastro-don Gesualdo, as he himself affirms in a letter to Curtis Brown dated 8 February (L iv. 188). He went on translating the novel while sailing to Ceylon and completed it there, the manuscript was in fact sent to Robert Mountsier on 2 April 1922, as Lawrence stated in a letter dated 3 April (L iv. 219). In the same letter Lawrence also affirms that, being unable to work in the East, he might translate some short stories from Novelle rusticane and in a letter to Curtis Brown dated 22 April he says he finished half. But the whole collection was completely translated only in September 1927 (letter to Else Jaffe 25 Sept.) and published by Cape in 1928.

  • 1 See M. Corsani, D.H. Lawrence e l’Italia (Milano: Mursia, 1965) and G.M. Hyde, Lawrence and the Art (...)

15Traditionally, Lawrence’s translation have been analysed by adopting a source-oriented perspective, which moves from the assumption that the original texts cannot but be superior to their translations which, in turn, are considered as secondary or derivative works.1 Here, in line with the most recent developments in Translation Studies, a target-oriented perspective is adopted, which implies that the present study does not aim to identify mistakes or to verify whether there is an improvement in Lawrence’s translation practice. The aim is rather to analyse the target texts in themselves and to ascertain whether Lawrence’s translation practice is consistent with his ideas about language and translation, as they emerge from his theoretical essays.

16Considering Lawrence’s particular role as author-translator, his translation choices will be evaluated in terms of domestication and foreignization, the two translation strategies identified by Lawrence Venuti. Reformulating the famous quotation by the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (229), according to which the translator can choose either to move the target reader towards the source author or to move the source author towards the target reader, Venuti proposes the two labels “foreignization” and “domestication.” He argues that the former consists in “an ethnodeviant pressure on [target-language] values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text” (Venuti 20); the latter determines “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language values” (Venuti 20). In other words, foreignization is an approach aiming to make the reader fully understand the foreign texts in its linguistic and cultural otherness whereas domestication is an approach privileging fluency and naturalness so that the reader perceives it as an original. The choice, to use Venuti’s categories, is usually determined by the assumption that author-translators generally privilege domestication, as they tend to re-write the foreign text in their own style. However given Lawrence’s commitment to otherness, the hypothesis of a tendency towards foreignization can be supported, thus exemplifying a translation strategy rarely used in the English-speaking world, as Venuti complains throughout his essay (1995).

Lawrence and Verga

17Lawrence’s interest in Verga, which dates back to 1916 (letter to Koteliansky dated 15 Dec. 1916), seems to be due to a sort of empathy he felt for the Sicilian author. As Susan Bassnett has suggested, empathy is a major force driving an author to translation; writers translate other people’s works because those are the works they would have liked to write themselves and their translation practice is, therefore, only a part of the continuum of a writer’s life (Bassnett 175). For many writers translating serves as a way of continuing to write and to shape language creatively, it can even act as a regenerating force (Bassnett 179). This may be Lawrence’s case, particularly as regards the second half of Mastro-don Gesualdo and Novelle rusticane, which he translated while travelling eastward and, as he wrote in his letters, the Orient was for him an uncomfortable place where he felt he could not write creatively.

18Lawrence’s letters are very helpful to understand the reasons why a famous writer, as he was, decided to engage in translation, an activity traditionally considered as inferior to creative writing. In the letter to Catherine Carswell already quoted Lawrence focuses on Verga’s language as he does in a letter to Earl Brewster (2 Nov. 1921):

When one gets into his really rather difficult style (to me), he is very interesting. The only Italian who does interest me. (L iv. 109-110)

19In both letters Lawrence also makes reference to the relevance of the link between Verga and his native land. It is highly probable, therefore, that Lawrence’s interest in Verga was strictly linked to the former’s conviction that human beings are tied and conditioned by the nature of their homeland. Verga’s works are rooted in the “spirit of place” and his characters are perfect emanations of the spirit of Sicily. In the “Introduction to Mastro-Don Gesualdo” (probably written soon after the translation, but only published in Phoenix II, 1968), Lawrence highlights the “Sicilianness” of Verga’s major works:

It is after he [Verga] had left the fashionable world that he wrote his best work. And this is no longer Italian, but Sicilian. In his Italian style, he managed to get the rhythm of colloquial Sicilian, and Italy no longer exists. Now Verga turns to the peasants of his boyhood, and it is they who fill his soul. It is their lives that matter. (PII 279)

20Similar considerations can be found in the other introduction to Mastro-Don Gesualdo, written in spring 1922, where Lawrence connects the artistic value of the novel to the Sicilianness of both the setting and the characters. He writes that “if you have any appreciation for the southern way of life, then what a strange, deep fascination there is in Mastro-Don Gesualdo!” (MDG 278). Or in the introduction to Cavalleria Rusticana (1928) where he writes:

What Verga’s soul yearned for was the purely naїve human being, in contrast to the sophisticated. It seems that Sicily, in some way, under all her amazing forms of sophistication and corruption, still preserves some flower of pure human candour. (CR 283)

21According to Lawrence, it is the link between Verga and his homeland that enabled him to write such great works; Verga’s early works, those he wrote when he lived in Milan, are minor works since “the man had not found himself. He was in his wrong element” (CR 280). Verga’s short-stories, in particular, are “drenched with the atmosphere of Sicily [since] they open out another world, the southern, sun-beaten island whose out-line is like pure memory” (PII 280) with their characters that “are always people in the purest sense of the word” (CR 283).

22These considerations about the importance of the link between a writer and his homeland are in line with those expressed in the essay “Morality and the Novel” where Lawrence also writes that “everything is true in its own time, place, circumstance, and untrue outside of its own place, time, circumstance” (P 528). Consequently, the novelist’s task is to reveal the multifarious relationships between man and his environment and the novel is “the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered” (P 528). Thus, Verga’s value lies in the Sicilianness of his works, which is rendered not only through landscape and the description of customs, but also and mainly through the language which Lawrence said fascinated him.

23Verga’s language is very complex also for an Italian native-speaker and, therefore, extremely difficult to translate. Lawrence was aware of the hard task inherent in translating Verga and in a letter to Edward Garnett (20 November 1921) he seems to suggest it was precisely this difficulty which made him want to engage in the process of translation:

He [Verga] is extraordinarily good—peasant—quite modern—Homeric—and it would need somebody who could absolutely handle English in the dialect, to translate him. He would be most awfully difficult to translate. That is what tempts me: though it is rather a waste of time, and probably I shall never do it. Though if I don’t, I doubt if anyone else will—adequately, at least. (L iv. 115)

24Such a difficulty is due to the fact that Verga wanted to make his characters speak in their own voices. As he wrote in the preamble to the short story “L’amante di Gramigna” (collected in Vita dei campi, 1880), his stories “reproduce” the language really spoken by the people they describe and whose events they narrate. To quote Lawrence’s translation:

I’ll tell it [the story “L’amante di Gramigna”] you just as I picked it up in the lanes among the fields, more or less in the same simple and picturesque words of the people who told it me, and you, I am sure, will prefer to stand face to face with the naked, honest fact than have to look for it between the lines of the book, or to see it through the author’s lens. (GL 256)

25Verga advocated a new perspective which would allow the reader to look beyond “progress” and get interested in those who fail, i vinti (the defeated) in Verga’s words, without judging them, as Verga wrote in Introduction to I Malavoglia (5). Verga’s peculiar realism, known as verismo, is, in fact, characterized by a sincere unaffected observation of people and events and their faithful transcription on the page. Verga’s language, therefore, constitutes the aesthetic value of his writing; it both shapes the author’s peculiar realism, based on the impersonality of narration, and contributes to conveying to the readers the main themes and the general meaning of his works.

26Yet, Verga’s language is not a real mimesis of the language spoken in “the lanes among the fields” of Sicily, where people are very likely to speak dialect, it is rather a blend of Italian and Sicilian, a sort of mental projection and reinterpretation of the Sicilian dialect (Tellini xl). It is an artful simulation which produces the effect of a direct transcription of the language really spoken in Sicily at the time Verga lived. This, on the one hand, roots the characters in their place of origin and, on the other hand, fits the author’s poetics of realism. “Stand[ing] face to face with the naked, honest fact” implies the absence of the author’s voice from the page and the elimination of the omniscient narrator. This leaves the narration to an anonymous narrator belonging to the same reality as the characters, sharing their ethics, beliefs, superstitions, and prejudices (Tellini xxii). This stylistic choice makes it necessary to abandon the traditional literary language and to adopt a new style: Verga’s language is highly colloquial, it follows the syntax of Southern Italian with several idioms, proverbs, sayings, cultural connotations and references, particularly religious, enriched by archaisms and tuscanisms (Tellini xl-xli).

The translations

27Even a target-oriented perspective like that chosen for the present study requires a contrastive analysis of source text and target text. As Gideon Toury has proposed in his Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond (1995), any descriptive analysis of translation needs to identify replacing and replaced segments in the texts as the only way to verify the shifts which are necessarily involved in any translation and to determine the relationship between the source and the target text (Toury 78).

28The first excerpt under analysis is the opening page of the novel Mastro-don Gesualdo, probably the first page translated by Lawrence in 1921. The novel is one of Verga’s latest works, published in 1889, the ultimate accomplishment of his craft of writing. It tells the story of Gesualdo Motta, a man who thanks to his business ability becomes very rich, but lives his life in struggle with everyone around him and he eventually dies from a cancer that devours him from within, a powerful metaphor for his unsolved in-betweenness which makes him a stranger even to his own family. But the novel is also the representation of a changing society moving from a pseudo-feudal economy to a new entrepreneurialism dominated by the emerging middle class, embodied by Gesualdo. It is thus a theme which was bound to interest Lawrence.

29This is Verga’s text:

Suonava la messa dell’alba a San Giovanni; ma il paesetto dormiva ancora della grossa, perché era piovuto da tre giorni, e nei seminati ci si affondava fino a mezza gamba. Tutt’a un tratto, nel silenzio, s’udì un rovinìo, la campanella squillante di Sant’Agata che chiamava aiuto, usci e finestre che sbattevano, la gente che scappava fuori in camicia, gridando:
– Terremoto! San Gregorio Magno!
– No! no! È il fuoco!… Fuoco in casa Trao!… San Giovanni Battista!
Gli uomini accorrevano vociando, colle brache in mano. Le donne mettevano il lume alla finestra: tutto il paese, sulla collina, che formicolava di lumi, come fosse il giovedì sera, quando suonano le due ore di notte: una cosa da far rizzare i capelli in testa, chi avesse visto da lontano.
– Don Diego! Don Ferdinando! – si udiva chiamare in fondo alla piazzetta; e uno che bussava al portone con un sasso.
Dalla salita verso la Piazza Grande, e dagli altri vicoletti, arrivava sempre gente: un calpestìo continuo di scarponi grossi sull’acciottolato; di tanto in tanto un nome gridato da lontano; e insieme quel bussare insistente al portone in fondo alla piazzetta di Sant’Agata, e quella voce che chiamava:
– Don Diego! Don Ferdinando! Che siete tutti morti?
Dal palazzo dei Trao, al di sopra del cornicione sdentato, si vedevano salire infatti, nell’alba che cominciava a schiarire, globi di fumo denso, a ondate, sparsi di faville. E pioveva dall’alto un riverbero rossastro, che accendeva le facce ansiose dei vicini raccolti dinanzi al portone sconquassato, col naso in aria. Tutt’a un tratto si udì sbatacchiare una finestra, e una vocetta stridula che gridava di lassù:
– Aiuto!… ladri!… Cristiani, aiuto!
– Il fuoco! Avete il fuoco in casa! Aprite, don Ferdinando!
– Diego! Diego!
Dietro alla faccia stralunata di don Ferdinando Trao apparve allora alla finestra il berretto da notte sudicio e i capelli grigi svolazzanti di don Diego. Si udì la voce rauca del tisico che strillava anch’esso:
– Aiuto!… Abbiamo i ladri in casa! Aiuto!
– Ma che ladri!… Cosa verrebbero a fare lassù? – sghignazzò uno nella folla.
– Bianca! Bianca! Aiuto! Aiuto!
Giunse in quel punto trafelato Nanni l’Orbo, giurando d’averli visti lui i ladri, in casa Trao.
– Con questi occhi!… Uno che voleva scappare dalla finestra di donna Bianca, e s’è cacciato dentro un’altra volta, al vedere accorrer gente!…
– Brucia il palazzo, capite? Se ne va in fiamme tutto il quartiere! Ci ho accanto la mia casa, perdio! – Si mise a vociare mastro-don Gesualdo Motta. (MDG 35-37)

30The passage opens with a view of the village from the distance. The narrator then zooms on the crowd just awakened by the church bells which function as an alarm. The people leave their homes thinking of an earthquake, they gather in the square in front of the Traos’ house that is burning. The voices of the unnamed villagers alternate with the narration, the effect being cinematic. The characters are introduced through the technique of showing, their behaviour and what they say give the reader some hints of the situation. Gesualdo is introduced abruptly without any description, just as one man in the crowd. The reader first hears his voice—and his words suggest the importance he gives to his things (la roba), symbol of his wealth—before learning his name, his title “mastro-don” ironically indicating his social ascent and the reaction of the other people to it: “mastro” refers to his humble origin as a worker while “don” is the appellation given to aristocrats.

31This is Lawrence’s translation:

They were ringing sunrise mass at san Giovanni; but the village still slept heavily, because for three days it had been raining, and on the plough-land you sank half up to your knees. All of a sudden, upon the silence, there was an uproar, the shrill bell of Sant’Agata ringing for help, doors and windows banged open, people running out in their shirts, crying: ‘Earthquake! – Saint Gregory the Great!’
“No! No! It’s a fire!… Fire in the Trao house! … Saint John the Baptist!”
The men came running, shouting, with their trousers in their hands. The women put a light in the windows; all the village, on the hillside, swarming with lights, as if it were the Good Friday eve, when they ring the second hour of the night; something to make your hair stand on end, if you saw it from a distance.
“Don Diego! Don Ferdinando! –” you could hear them shouting at the bottom of the square, and somebody banging at the entrance door with a stone.
Out of the street up from the big square, and from the other alleys, people arrived continually; a continual clatter of heavy boots on the cobblestones; from time to time a name called from the distance; and always that insistent banging at the big entrance door at the bottom of Sant’Agata Square, and that voice calling:
“Don Diego! Don Ferdinando! Are you all dead?”
From the house of the Traos, above the dilapidated cornice, you could now actually see in the paling dawn globes of dense smoke billowing up, sprinkled with sparks. And a ruddy reflection, showered down from above, lit up the anxious faces of the neighbours gathered in front of the battered door, their noses in the air. All at once you heard a window rattle and a shrill voice crying from above:
“Help! – Thieves! – Christians, help!”
“The fire! Your house is on fire! Open the door, Don Ferdinando!”
“Diego! Diego!”
From behind the frantic face of Don Ferdinando Trao now appeared at the window the dirty nightcap and the flying grey hair of Don Diego. And then the hoarse consumptive voice also shrieking:
‘Help! – Thieves in the house! Help!’
‘What thieves? Why, what would they want up there?’ jeered somebody out of the crowd.
‘Bianca! Bianca! Help! Help!’
At the weary moment Nanni l’Orbo appeared, swearing he had seen the thieves, in the Traos’ house.
– ‘With my own eyes! One of them trying to escape out of Donna Bianca’s window, and he had to climb in again, seeing the people coming!’
‘The mansion is burning, do you understand! All the neighbourhood will be in flames. And I’ve got my house next here, by God!’ began to shout Mastro-don Gesualdo Motta. (MDG 11-12)

32Lawrence tries to follow the source text as closely as possible, he even chooses to leave the names of the churches in Italian, which is a form of foreignization, but translates the names of the saints when they are used as exclamations and the toponym “Piazza Grande.” His syntax also tries to follow Verga’s style and some idioms are translated verbatim, such as “with their trousers in their hands” instead of “holding their trousers up” which would be more meaningful to an English reader, or “their noses in the air,” which in English is used to indicate that someone is showing disapproval or feels superior to other people whereas in Italian “con il naso in aria” means that people are amazed and/or curious about something. The metonymy “heavy boots,” indicating peasants in Italian, is also maintained. Yet he prefers to make explicit the reference to the Easter rite, probably having in mind a Protestant reader who might not be accustomed with Catholic customs. Lawrence chooses to maintain the characters’ names in Italian, which makes it clear that the action is taking place elsewhere, but which thus renders the irony of the appellative “mastro-don” completely inaccessible to any English reader.

33The second passage under analysis is the short story “Libertà,” first published in 1882 in Domenica Letteraria and collected in Novelle rusticane, published in 1883. It is based on the historical events of the Bronte revolution (1860) after the landing of Garibaldi in Sicily and the consequent massacre ordered by Nino Bixio. Like other stories collected in Novelle rusticane, “Libertà” is a choral story whose protagonist is the crowd in revolt. This is the opening of the story:

Sciorinarono dal campanile un fazzoletto a tre colori, suonarono le campane a stormo, e cominciarono a gridare in piazza: “Viva la libertà!”
Come il mare in tempesta. La folla spumeggiava e ondeggiava davanti al casino dei galantuomini, davanti al Municipio, sugli scalini della chiesa: un mare di berrette bianche; le scuri e le falci che luccicavano. Poi irruppe in una stradicciola.
– A te prima, barone! che hai fatto nerbare la gente dai tuoi campieri! – Innanzi a tutti gli altri una strega, coi vecchi capelli irti sul capo, armata soltanto delle unghie. – A te, prete del diavolo! che ci hai succhiato l’anima! – A te, ricco epulone, che non puoi scappare nemmeno, tanto sei grasso del sangue del povero! – A te, sbirro! Che hai fatto la giustizia solo per chi non aveva niente! – A te guardaboschi! Che hai venduto la tua carne e la carne del prossimo per due tarì al giorno!
E il sangue che fumava ed ubriacava. Le falci, le mani, i cenci, i sassi, tutto rosso di sangue! – Ai galantuomini! Ai cappelli! Ammazza! ammazza! Addosso ai cappelli! (L 255)

The passage opens with the narrator’s voice relating the events of the revolution. The omission of the subject indicates that everybody is involved in the action. This suggestion is reinforced by the metaphor of the crowd as the sea, which “spumeggiava e ondeggiava.” The reference to the “berrette bianche” is a social indicator as, at that time, only the aristocracy—the “galantuomini” who attend the brothel (which is quite ironic) wore hats. The word “i cappelli” at the end of the quotation, in fact, refers metonymically to the rich people of the village. The voices of the people in revolt are given in a direct form, without any reporting clause. Verga also avoids any individualization of the people speaking—thus reinforcing the idea of the crowd acting as a collective force—through a mode of narration where each reported clause has the same structure, starting with “a te.” The use of words like “nerbare” and “epulone,” which belong to a higher register than that of the peasants in revolt, seems to suggest that the people’s voices merge with and overlap that of the narrator. This is an example of what Bakhtin (Discourse in the Novel, 1934) called heteroglossia, that is the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech: the speech of the characters, the speech of the narrator, and even the authorial instance are mixed together in order to express authorial intentions in a refracted way.

34Here is Lawrence’s translation of the passage:

They unfurled a red-white-and-green handkerchief from the church tower, they rang the bells in a frenzy, and they began to shout in the village square, “Hurray for liberty!”
Like the sea in storm. The crowd foamed and swayed in front of the club of the gentry, and outside the town hall, and on the steps of the church—and a sea of white stocking-caps, axes and sickles glittering. Then they burst into the little street.
“Your turn first, baron! You who have had folks cudgeled by your estate keepers!”
At the head of all the people a witch, with her old hair sticking up, armed with nothing but her nails. “Your turn, priest of the devil! for you’ve sucked the soul out of us!” “Your turn now, rich glutton, you’re not going to escape no matter how fat you are with the blood of the poor!” “Your turn, police sergeant! you who never took the law on anybody except poor folks who’d got nothing!” “Your turn, estate keepers, who sold your own flesh and your neighbour’s flesh for twenty cents a day!”
And blood smoked and went drunk. Sickles, hands, rags, stones, everything red with blood! The gentry! The hat-folks! Kill them all! Kill them all! Down with the hat-folks! (L 125-126)

35In the first line Lawrence makes explicit the political meaning of the handkerchief displayed by the people in revolt by indicating the three colours that make up the Italian flag. Another explicitation can be found in the last line, where he uses the word “hat-folk” instead of “hats” probably because he believes that the new readership is not able to interpret the reference as they probably do not identify the different social status which the metonymy indicates to an Italian reader. Yet, the colloquial quality of the word “folk” conveys to the reader the idea of a crowd made up of people of low social rank. The overlapping of registers is evident in the use of words like “cudgeled” and “glutton” as well as the anaphora of the reported speech (“your turn”). The passage also presents a few misinterpretations: the sentence “ricco epulone, che non puoi scappare nemmeno, tanto sei grasso del sangue del povero” means that the man is so fat that he cannot run and therefore cannot escape; Lawrence mistranslates it, probably misinterpreting the function of “tanto”; both “campiere” and “guardaboschi” are translated by “estate keeper,” which is the correct equivalent in the former case, the latter would be better translated by “forester.” The word “casino,” which actually means “brothel,” is domesticated and perhaps censored in “club,” a typical English institution, completely absent in the Italian reality. Another example of domestication is the translation of the Italian “tarì,” an ancient Sicilian currency, into “cents.”

36The last text we shall analyse is the short story “Rosso Malpelo,” first published in 1878 and collected in Vita dei campi, published in 1880. It is one of the stories that mark Verga’s poetical turning-point and one of his first attempts at verismo. It tells the story of a very young boy nicknamed Malpelo because of the colour of his hair, which is believed to be a mark of his wickedness. This makes him an outsider, both at home and in the “red-sand pit” where he suffers terrible working conditions and where he eventually dies, as his father did.

37This is the opening of the story:

Malpelo si chiamava così perché aveva i capelli rossi; ed aveva i capelli rossi perché era un ragazzo malizioso e cattivo, che prometteva di riescire un fior di birbone. Sicché tutti alla cava della rena rossa lo chiamavano Malpelo; e persino sua madre col sentirgli dir sempre a quel modo aveva quasi dimenticato il suo nome di battesimo. (RM 134)

38The expression “Malpelo si chiamava così” sounds like the statement of a general truth and seems to indicate that the narrating voice shares the popular belief that people with red hair are bad, a concept repeated again and again throughout the story. Such a perspective eliminates any form of sentimentalism or social reformism, as the narrator represents a peripheral culture rooted in patriarchal rites and customs and the naivety of an ancient wisdom codified in proverbs. He can be seen as a sort of “villain,” unable as he is to feel affection for the losers as he obeys a violent logic that fits the utilitarian rules which shape his reality, one where any form of redemption is denied and where the only motive force is the fight for survival (Tellini xxiii).

39Here is Lawrence’s translation of the passage:

They called him Malpelo, which means “evil-haired”, because he had red hair; and he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, with every premise of growing up into a first-rate rascal. And so all the men at the red-sand pit called him Malpelo, till even his mother had wellnigh forgotten his baptismal name, hearing him always called by the other. (RM 240)

40Lawrence chooses to maintain the nickname in Italian, a form of foreignization, adding an explanation in form of a gloss. “Malpelo,” indeed, is not Italian; it is the Italianized form of a dialectal expression formed by the adverb “male,” used as an adjective, and the word of Spanish origin “pelo” (in Sicilian “pilu”) meaning “hair.” The opening sentence is translated with the personal pronoun “they,” which can be considered as a shift in meaning since the personal pronoun “they” can be interpreted as a cataphoric reference to “all the men.” This interpretation creates a separation between the narrating voice and the popular belief, as if only the men in the pit used to call the boy by his nickname, with all the possible negative connotations. In the last part of the quotation Lawrence prefers to change the word order to make the sentence sound more standard.

41The following passage shows Malpelo and his friend Ranocchio going to see the carcass of the old donkey that had died working in the pit. The passage is extremely interesting since it presents an alternation of different forms of speech presentation:

I cani scappavano guaendo, come comparivano i ragazzi, e si aggiravano ustolando sui greppi dirimpetto, ma il Rosso non lasciava che Ranocchio li scacciasse a sassate. – Vedi quella cagna nera, gli diceva, che non ha paura delle tue sassate; non ha paura perché ha più fame degli altri. Gliele vedi quelle costole! Adesso non soffriva più, l’asino grigio, e se ne stava tranquillo colle quattro zampe distese, e lasciava che i cani si divertissero a vuotargli le occhiaie profonde e a spolpargli le ossa bianche e i denti che gli laceravano le viscere non gli avrebbero fatto piegar la schiena come il più semplice colpo di badile che solevano dargli onde mettergli in corpo un po’ di vigore quando saliva la ripida viuzza. Ecco come vanno le cose! Anche il grigio ha avuto dei colpi di zappa e delle guidalesche, e anch’esso quando piegava sotto il peso e gli mancava il fiato per andare innanzi, aveva di quelle occhiate, mentre lo battevano, che sembrava dicesse: Non più! non più! Ma ora gli occhi se li mangiano i cani, ed esso se ne ride dei colpi e delle guidalesche con quella bocca spolpata e tutta denti. E se non fosse mai nato sarebbe stato meglio. (RM 141)

42The first two lines can be considered as a narrative report spoken by the narrator’s voice. There follow a few sentences in direct speech spoken by Malpelo in a highly colloquial Italian—repetition of the verb “non ha paura” and use of the pleonastic pronoun “gliele.” The last part is a form of free indirect discourse whose markers are the use of the past tense, the use of exclamations and a colloquial word order as in the fourth line with the subject “l’asino grigio” put after the verb between two commas that seem to indicate the intonation of the sentence. The passage is also an example of Malpelo’s “queer ideas”—those which the others, who could not understand and do not accept him, think he has. Yet, such a nihilistic philosophy of life, seen as a continuous struggle for survival, as well as the reflections on death are too intellectual to be realistically attributed to a young illiterate boy. This can be considered as what Bakhtin defined double-styled hybrid construction, that is an utterance that by its grammatical (syntactic) and compositional markers, belongs to a single speaker, but that actually contains, mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two “languages,” two semantic and axiological belief systems (1992, 54). It is a discourse often used in Vita dei campi, where Verga wants to highlight the separation between his protagonists and the world around them, which marks their diversity and marginalization.

43Here then is Lawrence’s translation of the passage:

The dogs made off, yelping, when the boys appeared, and they circled ravenously on the bank across the gap, but the red-headed brat would not let Frog drive them off with stones. (NRSA)
“You see the black bitch,” he said, “who’s not a bit frightened of your stones? She’s not frightened because she’s more hungry than the others. See her ribs?” (DS) But now the grey donkey suffered no more, but lay still with his four legs stretched out, and let the dogs enjoy themselves clearing out his deep eye-sockets and stripping bare his white bones, and all the teeth that tore his entrails could no longer make him arch up his spine as did the merest blow with the mattock-handle which they used to give him to put a bit of force into him when he was going up the steep gang-way. And that’s how things are! Oh, the Grey one had had blows from the pick and slashes on the withers, and even he, when he was bent under the load and hadn’t breath to go on, would look back with glances from his big eyes that seemed to say as they were beating him: ‘No more! no more!’ But now the dogs could eat his eyes; and his stripped mouth, nothing but teeth, grinned henceforward at all beatings and slashes on the withers. And it would have been better if he had never been born (FIS). (RM 250)

44In translating the text Lawrence respects the alternation of the forms of speech presentation. In the narrative report he chooses to clarify the adjective “il Rosso,” here used as a noun, and to translate the nickname of the other boy, two forms of domestication; the addition of the noun “brat” can be seen as a sort of compensation. It seems that Verga prefers to use only the adjective “il Rosso” instead of the nickname Malpelo to create a sort of identification between the boy and the dead donkey called “il grigio.” Lawrence’s translation choice eliminates such a parallelism. The direct speech also presents incorrect questions—without the auxiliary verb—for the second sentence spoken by Malpelo, which in the source text is an exclamation. The free indirect speech is characterized by the use of the short forms “that’s” and “hadn’t,” by exclamations as in the source text and is reinforced by the addition of the exclamation “Oh.”

45The translated excerpts here proposed allow us to make a number of evaluations. The first text would seem to be more source-oriented than the passages taken from the short stories. Lawrence tends to translate the novel more literally and the effect is a text which sounds “foreign” to an English ear. In the short stories, by contrast, he tends to domesticate the texts more, probably because of his better knowledge of the Italian language and his improved skill as a translator. The effect is a text sounding more English, but the presence of several cultural references which the English reader may not know maintains the otherness of both the characters and the setting. All translations tend to reproduce the source texts faithfully and are, therefore, attempts at foreignization.

Practice and theory

46This brief analysis enables us to reach certain conclusions about Lawrence’s translation technique and the value of his translations. Contrary to the common belief that author-translators privilege the strategy of domestication, as they usually tend to translate the foreign author into their own idiolect, Lawrence’s privileged translation strategy, apart from a few shifts and misinterpretations, was foreignization. The main reason for this choice may be linked to Lawrence’s interest in the Other and its specificity and to his consequent conviction that language is tightly linked to the culture it communicates and to the nature of the people speaking it.

47In his introduction to the translation of the novel The Mother by Grazia Deledda (by M.G. Steegmann, London: Cape, 1928), Lawrence highlights the tight connection between language and culture when he writes that “in the mouths of the simple people [Sardinians], Italian is a purely instinctive language, with the rhythm of instinctive rather that mental processes. There are also many instinct-words with meanings never clearly mentally defined” (P 265). The clash between Italian primitive naturalness and English mental precision seems to be the reason why “the book, of course, loses a great deal in translation, as is inevitable” (P 265) since, in Lawrence’s view, “it is almost impossible to reproduce [the sensuous Italian language] in the more cut-and-dried northern languages, where every word has its fixed value and meaning” and he adds that “a language can be killed by over-precision, killed especially as an effective medium for the conveyance of instinctive passion and instinctive emotion” (P 266). Such statements imply that the translator should pay a particular attention to the nature of the source language, since each language has its peculiar quality which differentiates it from any other. It follows that only a faithful, quite literal translation can capture the quality of the source language and convey to the new readership the real essence of the source text.

48Similar considerations emerge in Lawrence’s review of “Pedro de Valdivia by R.B. Cunningham Graham” (first published in Calendar of Modern Letters, April 1927). There, by comparing extracts of the source text (given by Graham in the footnotes) with their translation, Lawrence criticises the translator’s choices, particularly the numerous “fatuous and irritating” footnotes (P 359) and “the peculiar laziness and insesitiveness to language which is so great a vice in a translator” (359), which fail to capture the “spirit” of the source language (359).

49In spite of Lawrence’s interest and engagement in translation practice, there is only one text in his critical output explicitly dealing with translation. However an interesting testimony to Lawrence’s ideas about translation is provided by the German translator Elizabeth Mayer, who spent an afternoon with him in September 1927. They talked about her translation activity, which included the works by Italian 20th century writers. Lawrence advised her to translate Verga’s works into German, pointing out the difficulty of translating dialect. Her words:

Lawrence said that the major problem in handling dialect is how to avoid the two over-simple and absolutely wrong solutions: the first, to translate the dialect of the original into another dialect which is spoken in a geographically existent region (in my case it was Germany) and in a particular locality. For example, one must never have Sicilian fishermen talk like fishermen of the North or the Baltic Sea, or have Sicilian peasants express themselves in the equivalent German or Austrian country idiom. Every dialect has inevitable overtones of the landscape, the character of the people and their native customs, inherent to their special locality and radically different from another and foreign region. Morals and manners, valid in Sicilian terms, would seem absurd when twisted into the sounds of a German way of life. On the other hand, it would be just as wrong to transplant the real Sicilian, together with his native peculiarities, into the German-speaking ambience and simply verbally reproduce his dialect: it would not ring true at all. Lawrence’s advice, therefore, was to avoid both cheap solutions and try to invent a new dialect, coined in German words but free from any reference, from any flavour of a special region, yet preserving the flavour of some sort of relaxed, uncitified, untutored mode of speaking. Of course, he did not suggest an artificial or synthetic dialect. (Moore 1961, 141-142)

50The long quotation is revealing about the importance which Lawrence attached to fidelity in translation and about his awareness of the meaning and effect which the use of dialect may have in literature. His considerations are much ahead of his time, when the practice was either to eliminate the source text dialect by using the standard language or to substitute a target language dialect. The first choice may completely change the characterization of the characters and eliminate their geographical specificity, a procedure which would not render what Lawrence called the spirit of place. The second choice is also highly problematic, as the use of an existing dialect may convey to the reader “an inappropriate set of social associations” (Andermann 71), engendering a shift in the general meaning of the text. In the case of literary works, where any linguistic choice is meaningful, it is extremely dangerous to substitute for the source text dialect an existing dialect of the target language, as the latter cannot be equivalent on every level. Whereas it is always possible to achieve a denotative equivalence, as words or expressions in the target dialect may well refer to the same concept expressed by the source dialect, a connotative equivalence is extremely difficult to achieve, as the words in the source dialect and those in the target dialect may bring to the respective readers’ minds a quite different set of associations (Andermann 71).

51Lawrence’s comments about translation, though randomly scattered in various documents, point to the importance which language specificity and its close connection to the culture it communicates had for Lawrence. The consequence is that his translation aims to move the reader towards the original text.

52The perspective adopted in this study has allowed us to go beyond the mere enumeration of mistakes and misinterpretations, an approach which has prevailed in the habitual criticism of Lawrence’s translations. As has already been hinted at, in their source-oriented perspective, which considers the source text as superior to any translation, most critics have underestimated Lawrence’s translations by considering them as the minor attempts of an amateur translator with little knowledge of the Italian language. The study of Lawrence’s translations in themselves, on the contrary, allows them to stand as a testimony of Lawrence’s conviction that art is an emanation of the spirit of place; as a consequence, his attempts to be as faithful as possible to the source texts has given birth to a strategy of textual foreignization which perfectly conveys the specificity of Verga’s style and setting to the new readership. In this sense, translation becomes a meeting with the Other and cannot be considered as incidental in Lawrence’s life. Rather, there is a fil rouge between his translations and his creative writing, both being integral part of his development as an artist and as a man.

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1 See M. Corsani, D.H. Lawrence e l’Italia (Milano: Mursia, 1965) and G.M. Hyde, Lawrence and the Art of Translation (Houndsmill/London: Macmillan, 1981).

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Maria Cristina Consiglio, « Art and the Spirit of Place: D.H. Lawrence Translates Giovanni Verga », Études Lawrenciennes, 44 | 2013, 111-142.

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Maria Cristina Consiglio, « Art and the Spirit of Place: D.H. Lawrence Translates Giovanni Verga », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2014, consulté le 25 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.190

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Maria Cristina Consiglio

Maria Cristina Consiglio completed her PhD in Translation Studies with a dissertation about Neoclassical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Her present post-doctoral research is about the relationship between D.H. Lawrence and Italy. She has published on Nahum Tate’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Richard II, on the translation of multilingual novels and on corpus stylistics.

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