I’ve just gotten around to reading J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Trieste in the Sept. 26 NYRB, and there’s an interesting passage on his use of language I thought I’d share here.

Svevo’s home language was Triestine, a variant of the Venetian dialect. To be a writer he needed to master literary Italian, which is based on the Tuscan dialect. He never achieved this mastery. Furthermore, he had little feel for the aesthetic qualities of language and in particular no ear for poetry: to his friend the young poet Eugenio Montale he remarked that it seemed a pity to use only part of the paper when you had paid for the whole of it. P.N. Furbank, one of Svevo’s better translators, labels his prose “a kind of ‘business’ Italian, almost an esperanto—a bastard and graceless language totally without poetry or resonance.” When it first came out, Una vita was criticized for its grammatical errors, for its unwitting dialectal usages, and for the general poverty of its prose….

To a degree the controversy about Svevo’s command of Italian can be ignored as an affair among Italians, irrelevant to outsiders who read Svevo only in translation. For the translator, however, Svevo’s Italian raises a substantial question of principle. Should its defects, which run the gamut from wrong prepositions to archaic or bookish turns of phrase to a general laboredness of style, be reproduced or silently improved? Or, to put the question in converse form, how, without writing a deliberately clotted prose, does the translator get across what Montale called the sclerosis of Svevo’s world, seeping up from his very language?

Svevo was not unaware of the problem. His advice to the German translator of Zeno was to translate his Italian into grammatically correct German but not to beautify or improve it.

Svevo disparaged Triestine as a dialettaccio, a petty dialect, or a linguetta, a sub-language, but he was not being sincere. Much more from the heart is Zeno’s lament that outsiders “don’t know what it entails for those of us who speak dialect [il dialetto] to write in Italian…. With every Tuscan word of ours, we lie!” Here Svevo treats the step from the one dialect to the other, from the Triestine in which he thought to the Italian in which he wrote, as inherently treacherous. Only in Triestine could he tell the truth. The question for non-Italians as well as Italians to ponder is whether there might have been Triestine truths that Svevo felt he could never get down on the Italian page.

I love that quote “With every Tuscan word of ours, we lie!”—and I suspect it would resonate with authors attempting to write in literary languages around the world, from Viennese writing in Hochdeutsch to Cairenes writing in Classical Arabic to Javanese writing in Malay.


  1. …or is it easier to render someone who does not fit the language they wrote in like hand in glove, because more of their meanings are prosaic and ‘central’ and can be captured more accurately in another language?

    As if a writer not completely comfortable with the language they write in has already done some of the simplifying and blurring beforehand for the translator?

  2. In the process of providing an archived link for the post, I noticed this in the article:

    “Italo Svevo” (Italo the Swabian) is of course a pseudonym.

    Surely the translation in parens should be “the Italo-Swabian”!

  3. David Marjanović says

    What mark said.

    and I suspect it would resonate with authors attempting to write in literary languages around the world

    That depends, obviously, on how well they actually know the literary language. I’d be surprised if any Viennese author I’ve heard of had this kind of trouble.

  4. In the case of diglossia it is not just about knowlege.

    But when you talk to people, you don’t feel like this even when you barely know the langauge (you rather suffer from lack of sensual/emotional associations with the words you use).

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