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Huck and Montalbano: Translating Dialectical Variety

There is a missing page in the Italian edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The second page of The Library of America edition of Mark Twain’s masterpiece, presents an eleven-line note signed by The Author under the title EXPLANATORY:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremest form of the back-woods South-Western dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect, and four modified varieties of this last.

The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Published in 1963, translated and prefaced by Enzo Giachino, the prestigious Giulio Einaudi Milenni edition of Twain’s masterpiece is complete, except for this explanatory note from the author. Its absence is easily explained. Giachino’s translation does not attempt to render the dialectical variety that Twain worked so hard to create in the original. Here is one famous dialogue between Huck and Jim, from their discussion of the fate of the heir to the French crown who is rumoured to have escaped to America:

“I told about . . . his little boy the dolphin, that would a been a king but they took him and shut him up in jail. . . .

But some says he got out and got away, and come to America.”

“Dat’s good! But he’ll be pooty lonesome – dey ain’t no kings here, is dey, Huck?”


“Den he cain’t git no situation. What he gwyne to do?”

“Well, I don’t know, Some of them gets on the police and some of them learns people how to talk French.”

“Why, Huck, doan de French people talk de same way we does?”

“No Jim; you wouldn’t understand a word they said – not a single word.”

. . .

“Is a Frenchman a man?


Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!””

It is evident even from this brief dialogue that Huck and Jim understand each other and that their ways of talking have a lot in common. But there are also some obvious differences: Huck says “that”, “the” “get” and “don’t” while Jim says “dat”, “de,” “git” and “doan’,” not to mention the wonderful “gwyne” for “gonna”.

Now look and listen to the same dialogue in the Italian translation:

“Gli parlo . . . del suo bambino, il Delfino, che doveva diventar anche lui re, ma l’hanno preso, e chiuso in prigione . . . Ma altri dicono che è uscito, è potuto scappare e è venuto in America.”

“Così va meglio. Ma certo che si sentirà piuttosto solo. Qui non ci sono mica dei re, vero, Huck?


“Allora non può farsi una posizione. Cosa può fare?

Be’, non so. Alcuni fanno i poliziotti, altri imparano alla gente a parlare francese.”

“Come, Huck, ma i francesi non parlano come noi?

“No, Jim, non capiresti una parola di quello che dicono, non una sola parola.” . . .

“E un francese è forse un uomo?”


“E allora, che il signore lo benedica, perché non parla anche lui come un uomo? Rispondetemi un po’, se ce la fate.”

Retranslating this Italian dialogue back into English gives the measure of the standard quality of the translated dialogue compared to the original.

“I talk to him . . . about his little boy, the dauphin, who was supposed to be a king too, but they caught him and shut him in prison. . . . But others say he got out and was able to escape and came to America.”

“That’s better. But he must certainly feel rather lonely. There sure aren’t any kings here, right Huck?”


“Then he can’t make a position for himself. What can he do?”

Well, I don’t know. Some join the police, others learn people to speak French.”

“What, Huck, but don’t the French talk like us?”

“No, Jim, you wouldn’t understand one word of what they say, not one word.” . . .

“And isn’t a Frenchman perhaps a man?”


“So then, God bless him, why doesn’t he talk like a man too? Answer me that, if you can.”                           


In Italian, Huck uses imparare instead of insegnare as he uses learn instead of teach in English, but other than that his grammar is fine and so is Jim’s. More importantly, there are no differences in their ways of talking. Huck and Jim both speak nearly letter-  perfect standard Italian. Or to put it as Twain might have, whether or not they are trying to talk alike they are certainly succeeding.

Does this failure to represent Twin’s meticulous recreation of dialect amount to a glaring weakness in Giachino’s translation? To the extent the use of standard Italian fails to render the richness of the language of Twain’s narrative one might answer in the affirmative. Indeed, critical assessments of Twain’s novel have consistently highlighted its brilliant use of language. T.S. Eliot called the style of the novel a “new discovery in the English language,” remarking that there is “no sentence or phrase to destroy the illusion that these are Huck’s own words.”  And Richard Chase, in The American Novel and Its Tradition, observes that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn delights the reader first and last by its language. The book makes a music of words which is beautifully sustained and modulated to the very end.”

But supposing Giachino, or any translator, had decided to try to represent Twain’s use of multiple dialects in his translation, how could he have done it? Perhaps he could have had Huck and Jim and the other dialect speakers use an ungrammatical Italian. But dialect is not only a question of non-standard grammar. A dialect also has its own lexicon and phonetics, and even its grammar, while different, is no less complex or cohesive than the grammar of the standard. Then how about using Southern Italian dialects, Neapolitan or Sicilian say, to represent the various Southern American dialects in the novel? In a certain sense, it might well be said that Neapolitan is to Italian what “backwoods South-Western” is to American English.

If you put yourself in the position of an Italian reader of the novel, however, it immediately becomes clear that the analogous relationship of dialect to standard cannot sustain the choice to substitute one dialect for another. As Twain emphasizes in his EXPLANATORY, the dialects he has chosen to re-create are tied to and evocative of place, race, and history in ways that standard American English is not. It would take an extraordinary willing suspension of disbelief for an Italian reader to accept a black American slave or a Missouri-bred white boy holding forth in Neapolitan.

Strangely enough, however, like standard English or French, standard Italian does not require the same leap of faith. Although it is obviously the product of a different place and culture than Twain’s English, Italian is not, precisely because it has become a national standard, evocative of any specific geo-cultural location. Giachino’s American characters can speak standard Italian without distracting the Italian reader from the Americanness of their story because their language does not evoke a specific region or cultural history. The reader knows that the only reason they are speaking Italian is because otherwise s/he couldn’t understand what they are saying. The standard language gives the reader access to the characters’ different world without getting in the way, as their speaking in a recognizable regional dialect certainly would.

Of course, the same holds for translations in the opposite direction, as in the case of the American versions of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. One of the reasons for Camilleri’s enormous success among Italian readers is his brilliant interweaving of Sicilian dialect into his otherwise standard Italian narratives. Even the made-for-TV film versions of the stories use some of the recurring words and phrases: “Montalbano, sono,” “macari” for “anche” (also) or “taliare” per “guardare” (look) or “spiare” per “domandare” (ask).

Here is a brief example of the Siculo-Italian interweaving from La voce del violino with the dialect words in bold:

Montalbano trasi nella Chiesa gremita, la funziona era appena principiata. Si taliò torno torno, non racconiscì nisciuno. Tamburrano doveva essere in prima fila, vicino al tabbuto davanti all’altare maggiore. Il commissario decise di restarsene dov’era, allato al portone d’ingresso: avrebbe stretto la mano a Tamburrano quando il feretro nisciva dalla chiesa. Alle prime parole del parrino dopo già tanto che la messa procedeva. ebbe uno sbalzo.

Now the same passage from Stephen Sartorelli’s translation:

Montalbano entered the crowded church. The service had just begun. He looked around and recognized no one. Tamburrano must have been in the first row, near the coffin in front of the main altar. The inspector decided to remain where he was, near the entrance. He would shake Tamburrano’s hand when the coffin was being carried out of the church. When the priest finally opened his mouth after the Mass had been going on for some time, Montalbano gave a start.

While Camilleri’s narrator peppers his account with about 10 percent Sicilian words and phrases, Sartorelli’s narrator uses standard English. The Italian reader might encounter some difficulty reading smoothly through the narrator’s description but his impression of the narrative voice will be flavored by all the associations and allusions expressed by the peculiar regional musicality of the language. The American reader of the translation will have access – through the proper names, the ceremony, the architecture of the church, other elements of the story – to the foreign place and culture but the access will be limited by the absence of the special musicality of the dialect.

Another regular character in the Montalbano mysteries, the entry level police officer and station receptionist Catarella, offers us another point of view on the question of dialect translation. Here is a dialogue between Catarella and Inspector Montalbano, again from La voce del violino, which resonates curiously with Huck and Jim’s dialogue about Frenchmen:

“Domando pirdonanza e compressione, dottori. . . . Tre giorni passati cercarono proprio lei di lei, dottori, lei non c’era, però io me lo scordai di farle riferenza.”

“Da dove telefonavano?”

“Dalla Flòrida, dottori. . . .

“Levami una curiosità, come vi siete parlati?”

“E come dovevamo parlarci? In taliano, dottori.”

“Ti hanno detto che volevano?”

“Certo, tutto di ogni cosa mi dissero. Dissero così che morse la mogliera del vice-questore Tamburrano.”

[Montalbano] tirò un sospiro di sollievo. . . . Non dalla Flòrida avevano telefonato, ma dal commissariato di Floridia, vicino a Siracusa.

At first glance, it seems that Catarella is speaking in dialect while Montalbano, a college graduate, uses standard Italian. A closer reading, however, reveals that, rather than dialect, Catarella is speaking bad Italian. He is a sort of Sicilian Mr. Malaprop, and Sartorelli renders Catarella’s mangled Italian with an analogous brand of mangled English.

“’Beckin’ pardon, Chief, for the ‘sturbance. . . . Tree days ago somebody calls for you, Chief, wanted a talk t’ you in poisson, but you wasn’t ‘ere ‘n I forgotta reference it to you.”

“Where were they calling from?”

“From Flòrida, Chief. . . .”

“Tell me something. What language did you speak with them?”

“What langwitch was I aposta speak? We spoke ‘Talian, Chief.”

“Did they tell you what they wanted?”

“Sure, they tol’ me everyting about one ting. They said as how Vice Commissioner Tamburrano’s wife was killed.”

“Montalbano breathed a sigh of relief. They’d called not from Flòrida but from police headquarters in the town of Floridia, near Siracusa.

So Sartorelli was able to render the difference in the way of talking between Montalbano and Catarella, but it is important to observe that what is at stake here is not dialectal variety but the difference between correct and incorrect standard language. Catarella’s malapropisms evoke not regional specificity but comically poor language skills. This kind of language difference is easier for the translator to represent, although one might remark that in some instances, at least to my ear, Catarella’s erroneous speech – “in poisson”, “everyting about one ting” – sounds a little too much like vaudeville Brooklynese, and to the extent that we hear that local resonance, Catarella may sound out of place.

What can we conclude from these examples taken from the Italian and English translations of these two masters of dialect, Twain and Camilleri? Rather than a definitive conclusion, I prefer to hazard the hypothesis that dialectical variety may indeed be one of those things that is inevitably lost in translation. Beyond that, it strikes me that this hypothesis, if true, may also be somewhat paradoxical. Our inability to translate dialectical variety may deny readers access to the very aspects of foreign cultures that are expressed by the peculiar and fascinating musicality of natural human speech.


(l’articolo è stato pubblicato in precedenza in www.studiumbri.it)


Gregory Conti
Gregory Conti
Gregory Conti, born and raised in Pittsburgh he has been living in Perugia since 1985. His translations include works by Rosetta Loy, Sebastiano Vassalli, Emilio Lussu, Paolo Rumiz and Elisa Biagini.