Antony Shugaar has a good piece on the NY Times Opinionator site about his experiences in Milan in the ’80s, working for a super-fancy Italian art magazine where he met all sorts of interesting people, including the great translator William Weaver, who recently died. There are lots of nice details about translating Italian (“The Italian author refers to someone falling face-down onto the asphalt: the Italian reader knows that asphalt is what sidewalks are made of; streets are made of cobblestone or slabs of granite”), but what I want to feature here is this discussion of dealing with dialect:
I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent.
“What did you do about the dialect?” I asked him, at one of our lunches. He laughed, and replied, “Oh, I just left it out!”
At first glance, it’s a little like translating “Moby-Dick” and leaving out all references to boats. But I understood. Weaver explains it better in his introduction to the English edition: “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” In other words, supply the boats yourself.
Makes sense to me. (Thanks, Bonnie!)