Her Italian Resembled the Iliad.

The world-conquering Elena Ferrante has invaded our household as well; my wife is on the second novel in the Neapolitan series and has passed the first, My Brilliant Friend style=, on to me. I’m enjoying it greatly — it’s one of those unputdownable books — but I was stopped by an expression in chapter 2 of the second section. A teacher is said to speak “Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad,” and since the Iliad is not in Italian, I was puzzled. I checked the original, L’amica geniale, in Google Books, and sure enough: “il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade.” Of course there are translations (here’s one), but why would the Iliad be taken as a measuring-rod for Italian?

Update. Biscia provides the answer in the comment thread:

I asked my Italian partner what the phrase made him think of (without giving any other context) and he instantly said, “Monti’s translation of the Iliad, i.e., solemn, pompous language.”

Addendum. I just ran into another bit of text that badly needs added information. The narrator’s father takes her to the center of Naples, where she’s never been, and shows her the sights: Piazza Carlo III, Via Foria, Piazza Dante, etc. Then he takes her to Piazza Municipio, where he works, tells her everything has changed, and adds “the only old thing left is the Maschio Angioino, but it’s beautiful, little one, there are two real males in Naples, your father and that fellow there.” I asked my wife what she had made of that when she read it, and she had guessed the same thing I had, that it must be a masculine-looking statue. But no; Google tells me it’s the popular nickname for the Castel Nuovo. Now, how the hell is the English-speaking reader supposed to know that? Again, if you don’t want to footnote it, shoehorn the information into the text somehow.

Comments

  1. The Greek class here (starting at 5′ 47″) may give some background to Ferrante’s prejudice.

  2. Would it be terribly insulting to wonder if “Iliad” was an uncaught thinko for “Aeneid”?

  3. But that’s not in Italian either…

  4. True, but if you said, for example, “His English sounded like that of Beowulf” I don’t think many English speakers would object, and this is even truer for Japanese speakers mutatis mutandis. (I don’t know how the average Italophone feels about their linguistic history, admittedly.)

  5. Mark Twain tells us of a headline on an editorial saying “Our Opponent’s Rhetoric Resembles the Peace Of God” (i.e. it “passeth all understanding”).

  6. SFReader says:

    She obviously means that her teacher spoke in long and unintelligible sentences. Like this, for example:

    Cantami, o Diva, del Pelìde Achille
    l’ira funesta che infiniti addusse
    lutti agli Achei, molte anzi tempo all’Orco
    generose travolse alme d’eroi,
    e di cani e d’augelli orrido pasto
    lor salme abbandonò (così di Giove
    l’alto consiglio s’adempìa), da quando
    primamente disgiunse aspra contesa
    il re de’ prodi Atride e il divo Achille.

  7. Is that unintelligible? It doesn’t look that bad to me, apart from a few words displaced from their expected positions. Anyway, it’s still weird to refer to the Italian of a translation of the Iliad as “the Italian of the Iliad”. And why the Iliad, rather than say Dante?

    “The English of Beowulf” — yes, but do Italians think of the Aeneid as written in (Old) Italian? I very much doubt it.

  8. john burke says:

    The line “Her Italian resembled the Iliad” cries out to be incorporated in a limerick, doesn’t it? Something with “Gilead”? Anyone?

  9. “Amica geniale” looks perhaps redundant, but no, the English word “genial” has taken some interesting turns.

  10. There was a Greek sea dog named Gilead
    Whose Italian resembled the Iliad.
    At the wheel of his carrack
    He drank too much arrack
    And by morning he’d scribed the Siciliad.

  11. Anyway, it’s still weird to refer to the Italian of a translation of the Iliad as “the Italian of the Iliad”.

    Don’t people do a similar thing in English? when people want to sound “biblical” they use a kind of King James Version style speech which sounds biblical even though the English is a translation and not the original language. Maybe a similar thing happens in Italy. Maybe the Iliad in translation is familiar enough from studying it in school that it’s associated with a particular style of Italian.

  12. Her Italian resembled the Iliad
    And her French was arcanely Massilia’d.
    It was only when wed
    That it entered his head
    What a poly-Ionian shill he had.

  13. Maybe the Iliad in translation is familiar enough from studying it in school…

    According to Wikipedia students at a “Liceo classico” study Ancient Greek so maybe for some school kids a familiarity exists with it in the original language.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liceo_classico

  14. She may be referring specifically to Monti’s translation, in hendecasyllabic blank verse. (My guess is that the “Italian of the Iliad” means Monti’s verse by default.) Compare Vasisualy Lokhankin’s unrhymed iambic pentameters.

  15. I asked my Italian partner what the phrase made him think of (without giving any other context) and he instantly said, “Monti’s translation of the Iliad, i.e., solemn, pompous language.”

  16. I greatly admire people who can make classical metres work in modern languages. Otto Steen Due channeling Homer:

    Syng os gudinde om vreden der greb Peleiden Achilleus
    vreden den fæle som voldte Achaierne tusinde kvaler,
    sendte behjertede sjæle af talrige helte til Hades
    og lod dem selv blive slængt som æde for hurtige hunde,
    grådige gribbe og ravne så Zeus´s vilje blev fuldbragt
    helt fra den første stund da striden begyndte imellem
    folkenes drot Agamemnon og gudernes lige Achilleus

    Mainly stress-based, but main caesuras in each line, pretty good correspondence between heavy syllables and metrical longs (but some heavy syllables to be read short, spondees with heavy/light, and one foot with three lights in this sample). Without being stilted.

  17. Sir JCass says:

    but do Italians think of the Aeneid as written in (Old) Italian?

    E.R. Curtius claimed that the Spanish saw such a continuity between Roman and modern Spanish literature:

    Even more noteworthy is the fact that the Iberian authors of the Imperial [Roman] Age are considered to belong to Spanish national literature. The two Senecas, Lucan, Martial, Quintilian, Pomponius Mela, Juvencus, Prudentius, Merobaudes, Orosius, Isidore, and others appear in the most widely circulated modern textbooks, which herein faithfully follow the practice of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

    Borges alludes to the idea in his Otro poema de los dones (“Another Poem of the Gifts”), in which he gives thanks:

    Por Séneca y Lucano, de Córdoba,
    Que antes del español escribieron
    Toda la literatura española…

    “For Seneca and Lucan, both of Cordova,
    Who, before there was Spanish, had written
    All Spanish literature…” (translated by Alan Dugan)

  18. I asked my Italian partner what the phrase made him think of (without giving any other context) and he instantly said, “Monti’s translation of the Iliad, i.e., solemn, pompous language.”

    That will be the answer I was looking for; many thanks!

  19. And it occurs to me that that’s exactly the sort of thing the translator should somehow explain in the translation; obviously you don’t want footnotes in a novel intended for the general public, but you could have, e.g., “Italian that slightly resembled the solemn, pompous language of the Iliad,” or even “of Monti’s translation of the Iliad.” Or, of course, just omit it. As it stands, it’s meaningless to the English-speaking reader.

  20. Quest’ è Monti poeta e cavaliero,
    Gran traduttor de’ traduttor d’Omero.

    Ugo Foscolo, whose own Esperimento managed only the first book.

  21. What does it mean, translator of the translator of Homer? Googling reports that Monti knew very little Greek: was he working from someone else’s translation, possibly into Latin or French? WP.it suggests, not too definitely, that Rajmundo Kunić’s Latin version was the “predominant model”, but that to my mind merely suggests that Monti intended to make the same kind of translation as Kunić’s, not that he actually translated it.

  22. traduttore dei traduttori, I think. Cantù says both Latin and Italian versions.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Otto Steen Due channeling Homer:

    So much alliteration!

  24. Indeed — I never consciously noticed that, but whenever there’s a choice it’s alliteration that wins. It does make it more fun to read aloud.

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