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, 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.


  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. 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.


  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.

  25. I just read a story which can’t help but share.

    Once we went to Slovenia, and from there we decided to drive to Venice for a day. One day. Everything was fine, but in the first three hours of tourism, we were robbed. They took everything from my bag: credit cards, cash and passports. Passports with VISAS, and the worst thing is, with the UK visa, because I had to fly to London in three days to sing a performance. The coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi. One of the main roles. The thrifty English did not bother to get a replacement/extra singer.

    I had a nervous breakdown. We immediately called the consulate (the nearest was in Milan), but summer, lads, summer! Consul is on vacation. Lol.

    We went to the international police at San Marco. But this is the international police in Italy! They do not speak English. But I didn’t speak Italian at the time either. What to do? My brain, seething with heat and adrenaline, gives an original solution: try to communicate with phrases from operas with the carabinieri (since I always translated the texts of the operas verbatim).

    I began with a mixture of “Coronation of Poppea” and Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck:

    – Son disprezzata e sconsolata! Io manco, io moro … (I am rejected and inconsolable! I am fainting, I am dying….)

    The policemen almost burst into laughter, but seeing my distraught face and general hysterical state, they sat me down and gave me water. Further it was necessary to somehow outline the essence of the problem. I decided to continue with Orpheus and Eurydice, especially since in my view the words “Eurydice” and “passport” could be used interchangeably.

    – Che faro senza mio passaporte? Dove andro senza mio passaporte? (What will I do without a passport? Where will I go without a passport?)

    It worked. The police were active. They began to show me photos of various thieves and pickpockets, until I saw a lady in a hijab that crashed into me on the bridge.

    – Ecco la donna maledetta! Vorrei smembrarla! (This is the damn woman! I want to dismember her!)

    Having recovered from the shock, the police gave us a certificate according to which we were to be taken free of charge to the place of our departure (Trieste), they gave us water and rations, and promised to keep us informed. All the way to the train station, I prayed to the spirit of Signor Monteverdi, whose opera was to remain without prima.

    At the train station we got a call – an excited policeman asked me to return to the police. When we came back, all the policemen lined up at the entrance with happy faces, shaking our passports – it turns out that the thief threw them out with credit cards in the men’s toilet in San Marco, where they were found by a boy from Bangladesh who brought them to the police.

    Dying from the happiness that suddenly fell on us, I cried out:

    – Signore cavalliero! Vi benedico per la vostra bonta e gentilezza! (Signor Knight, We bless you for your kindness and affection!)

    The shocked policeman said goodbye to me:

    – Signora, la sua lingua e molto elegante! (Signora, you have a very elegant Italian)

    (c) Maria Ostroukhova, Russian opera singer (mezza-soprano)

  26. That’s an absolutely wonderful story!

  27. David Marjanović says

    I think the appropriate response is…


    *is ded*

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