John Hooper’s Guardian obituary of the late-blooming writer Andrea Camilleri discusses the very interesting linguistic elements of his popular novels featuring the Sicilian detective Salvo Montalbano (or, per Sicilian Wikipedia, Salvu Muntalbanu):

In one sense, the Montalbano novels were not at all innovative: Camilleri named his hero after the Spanish author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and admitted he had given him some of the traits of Montalbán’s gourmet investigator, Pepe Carvalho. Moreover, Camilleri churned out the exploits of his most popular character in a way that was decidedly more industrial than creative. “All the Montalbano novels are made up of 180 pages, tallied on my computer [and] divided into 18 chapters of 10 pages each,” he once told an interviewer.

But in an important respect, the Montalbano stories were utterly original. What is not apparent to readers of the stories in translation or to the many non-Italian fans of the television series that sprang from them is that they are written in a language of the author’s creation: a blend of standard Italian with Sicilian dialect.

In La Lingua Batte Dove il Dente Duole (2013, literally Where the Tongue Touches the Toothache), a book-length interview with the linguist Tullio De Mauro, Camilleri explained that the idea arose from the circumstances of his father’s death in the late 1970s and inspired him to try out the technique, unsuccessfully, long before the first Montalbano book appeared.

“One day, to distract him, I said: ‘You know, Dad. I’ve thought of a story,’ and I told him the plot of my first novel … My father goes: ‘Why don’t you write it?’” Camilleri replied that he found it difficult to write in Italian, to which his father replied: “And why do you have to write it in Italian?”

To publishers, Camilleri’s linguistic mish-mash, which even non-Sicilian Italians have difficulty in understanding at first, must have seemed like a refined form of literary suicide. The author was no stranger to rejection slips. But over the course of his much-delayed career Camilleri sold more than 10m books. They were translated into more than 30 languages and adapted for a hugely successful television series that has been sold to more than 20 countries. It was Montalbano’s success on screen that turned Porto Empedocle, the model for his beat, Vigata, into a holiday destination for his many fans. So proud was the town of its most famous son’s literary creation that from 2003 to 2009 it called itself Porto Empedocle Vigata.

I have to correct Hooper’s translation of La Lingua Batte Dove il Dente Duole; it’s The Tongue Hits Where the Tooth Hurts, not “Where the Tongue Touches the Toothache.” Thanks, Trevor!


  1. John Cowan says

    I wonder if they have been translated into either Italian or Sicilian.

  2. I’d have given credit for a more poetic translation if he hadn’t written “literally.”

    Is the implication that his father died of an infected toothache? Gah!

    But perhaps he means the circumstances of Camilleri’s father’s death inspired him to use a Sicilitalian mash-up.

  3. Bill Boyd says

    Interesting that Sicilian’s orthographic rendering of the detective’s names apparently reflects the standard pronunciation–is this the case? If so, then that’s similar to Portuguese pronunciation (Brasilian, I’m really not familiar with the peninsular), although without the orthography following suit. I’ll be sure to ask Giosefina at our neighborhood gelateria how back home in Sicilia she pronounces that detective’s name.

    Thanks for mentioning the TV series. We’ll be looking for it.

  4. If the question is whether the Pepe Carvalho novel have been translated into Italian, they have. Sicilian, I don’t know. I doubt it. No one should get the idea that Camilleri was illiterate in Italian.

  5. I just read “La rivoluzione della luna” on a recent trip to Sicily. For an Italian speaker, with little exposure to Sicilian, it is a tough slog at first, but rewarding. My sense is that that novel, which is about the 27 day rule of the only female Viceroy in Sicilian history – Eleonora de Moura y Corterreal y Moncada de Aragón, duchess of Nocera, and marquise of Castel Rodrigo – is more Sicilian and faux-archaic than the Montalban novels, but it works. He liked to play with language – characters further down the social totem pole sound more Sicilian than the nobles. Even the omniscient narrator sounds more Sicilian than the educated medical doctor character. Eleonora herself speaks Castilian in the beginning of the novel, but her language gradually acquires more Italian vocabulary and features as the novel goes on, so by the end of book she is speaking like this:

    Ringrazio tutti por la fiducia presente y futura. Pero lo che vorrei dire es che le illuminate decisioni, como le avete definide, che io ho preso hasta ahora sono solo el fructo de un apredimento elementare che he conseguido negli anni en che vivevo en convento, y cioè che Dios ha creado el uomo a su imagen y semejanza.

    The normal language in the book is more like this:

    Don Angel ed Eleonora erano sposini in quanto che si erano maritati tri misi avanti. Di Donna Eleonora si seppi subito ch’era ‘na vinticinchina d’una biddrizza da fari spavento, ma nisciuno ebbi modo di scantarisi pirchì nisciuno ebbi modo di vidirla

    That is basically Sicilianized Italian, not Sicilian. Notice how Camilleri also helps the reader by using first standard Italian “spavento” (fear) and then following that with Sicilian “scantarisi” rather than “spaventarsi”. Even if you don’t know Sicilian, the context makes it clear. (He also, interestingly, uses “ddr” to indicate the Sicilian retroflex ɖː, rather than just the “dd” you usually see).

    Seems like a significant challenge to translate a book like this, where the language is half the fun.

  6. I’m guessing a Russian/Ukrainian mix would work very well.

  7. True, it is kind of an Italian surzhik.

  8. David Marjanović says


  9. John Cowan says

    Perhaps you could translate it into somewhat pidginized (as opposed to actual pidgin) English.

  10. For the German edition the translator just used Hochdeutsch and has Eleonora throw in the occasional Spanish word into her German know and then. That is a shame because the plot of the novel is fairly perfunctory, it is the language that makes Camilleri enjoyable to read.

    There doesn’t seem to be a Russian translation, maybe there is an opportunity for someone creative.

    For the English edition, someone should represent the Sicilian with Scots, and have Eleonora speak Dutch.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Or even High Dutch.

    Could a German translation use some form of Low German for Sicilian and maybe Swedish for Castillian? There are probably also High German dialects that are different enough to stand in for Sicilian, but my guess is that the regional dialects and mesolects are too established to be messed with.

    A Danish or Norwegian version might perhaps use Faroese and High German. Swedish could possibly turn to Övdalian for Sicilian, but I’m not sure the mixed registers would work.

    (I haven’t read the book in any language, so I have no idea what I’m talking abut.)

  12. David Marjanović says

    too established to be messed with

    Yeah. If you want the mixture to work, you’re practically limited to the Swabian “diaglossia” with its apparently continuous mesolects between basi- and acrolect. On any other basis the mixture would look as artificial as it is.

    On top of that, German dialect speakers cannot read their own dialect at a normal speed. That’s because the Schriftsprache is the only kind of German with a living written tradition, and part of the reason for that is the fact that few if any dialects have a sound system that can be represented by existing conventions as effortlessly as Sicilian can be written with Standard Italian conventions plus dd.

    Even the Low German dialects have diversified so much in this respect that they can’t be straightforwardly written using Middle Low German conventions either. And the Low Saxon Wikipedia has split in two, one for Germany, one for the Netherlands.

  13. Roberto Batisti says

    This article discusses the rendering of local dialects and regional Italian in the Spanish and Catalan translations of one of Camilleri’s non-Montalbano novels.
    Basically, the Catalan translator substituted Catalan dialects for Italian ones, even aiming for some kind of geo-cultural consistency in the parallelisms, while the Spanish one into leveled everything into Castilian. I do not know the novel firsthand – actually I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by the man, even though I kind of watch the Montalbano TV episodes when they pop up. They’re not bad as far as televised entertainment goes. The Sicilian is of course further watered down for national audiences.

Speak Your Mind