The American translation of The Betrothed by Michael Moore is released for the Modern Library editions today. The renowned Italianist Moore (former interpreter at the UN Italian Embassy and chair of the PEN in New York) proposes Manzoni’s masterpiece – which is still considered the basis of our national language nowadays – to American readers. This decade-long work rediscovers the American version after half a century – the last translation dates back to 1951 – near the anniversary of the 150th anniversary of the author’s death (which will fall in May 2023). Admired and intrigued by the charm of the enterprise, we asked Moore a few questions.
Let’s get right into the matter: what relationship does Michael Moore have with the author of The Betrothed?
Funny you should ask that. I often compare the authors I translate to houseguests: They drop by to visit and never leave! They stay until late at night and are still there in the morning when you wake up. They don’t want anything to eat or drink. All they want is your undivided attention.
The Manzoni I envision is unlike the severe figure we see in the various portraits of the era. He’s more of a bemused uncle, telling stories and staging a puppet show for your entertainment. Every now and then he gets on his moral high horse, but after preaching for a while he realizes he’s gone on for too long, and stops to tell a humorous anecdote. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong, and is indignant at the injustices suffered by the common people. He loves music and the lyrical possibilities of the Italian language. Most of all he loves the lush landscape of Lombardy, especially near Lake Como, and always stops in wonder to contemplate it, like Renzo witnessing the rising sun after his escape from Milan.
You translated authors such as Genovesi, Moravia, and Levi during your brilliant career. Why did you choose Manzoni this time? What was the greatest challenge in translating a much older and linguistically more complex text than the previous ones?
There is a psychological challenge and a practical one. First, it is always daunting to approach a canonical text, especially one so revered as I promessi sposi. Everyone in Italy has an opinion about it, and you know that your translation will be scrutinized for any choice you may have made that does not conform to their taste. On the practical side, the greatest complexity, for me, was the way Manzoni constantly shifts his writing style. In the first few pages alone, he switches from the pastiche of 17th-century Italian in the introduction, to the lyrical opening of Chapter One (Per quelramo del lago di Como . . .) to the tragicomic encounter of Don Abbondio with the bravi. Not to mention the moments when he intervenes in the author’s voice. The novel is truly an encyclopedia of style, reminiscent of what the great philogist Gianfranco Contini described as the “polilinguismo” of Dante.
In the recent article of Riotta published by Repubblica, you said that the names of the characters were particularly difficult to translate for you. Beyond the onomastics, which curiously leads us to the bravi called Scarface and Straight Shooter, to what extent did you need to detach your translation from the original text?
I had to think a lot about the nicknames. They’re comical, and tell you something important about the character. If you translate them, however, they might sound out of place, as if they weren’t Italian. I had to play a lot with syntax, and sentence structure. I wanted to keep the grand sweep of Manzoni’s phrases, but some sentences had to be shortened, otherwise in English you would completely lose track of them, and I sometimes replaced semicolons with periods. I also divided Manzoni’s paragraphs into shorter segments, whenever there was a shift in subject or the introductin of direct discourse, which in English calls for a new paragraph.
How well known and appreciated is Manzoni in the American cultural environment compared to authors like Dante or Boccaccio, who in the United States have even specific dedicated academic associations?
The Betrothed often appears on lists of “Great Books,” canonical works that librarians and teachers recommend. The truth is that people might recognize the title, but very few have read it or heard of Manzoni. I usually tell people he is the dedicatee of Verdi’s Requiem, which classical music fans might know, but I’m still trying to find a short “catchy” way to introduce people to the man and his work. There’s so much I could say!
In the end, while we are all waiting to enjoy the book in its entirety, to satisfy the greedy curiosity of the interviewer and the readers: would you please tell us some of your favorite quotations from The Bethroted both in Italian and in English translation?
I’ll give you just a few from the Introduction and Chapter One. You’ll have to get the book to find out some more!
- This is the first time that Manzoni jumps into the text, and speaks in his own voice. I wanted to capture his sense of exasperation:
“Ma, quando io avrò durata l’eroica fatica di trascriver questa storia da questo dilavato e graffiato autografo, e l’avrò data, come si suol dire, alla luce, si troverà poi chi duri la fatica di leggerla?”
“By the time I have endured the heroic effort of transcribing this story from the manuscript’s faded chicken scratch and, as the saying goes, brought it to light, who will endure the effort of reading it?”
- Here is when Manzoni decides not to throw away the manuscript, but to transcribe the story. Already we see him not only changing his mind, but lifting his mood:
“Nell’atto però di chiudere lo scartafaccio, per riporlo, mi sapeva male che una storia così bella dovesse rimanersi tuttavia sconosciuta; perché, in quanto storia, può essere che al lettore ne paia altrimenti, ma a me era parsa bella, come dico; molto bella.”
“As I was closing the messy compilation to set it back on the shelf, however, it felt wrong for such a beautiful story to remain unknown. Because it was as a story, although the reader might disagree, that I found it beautiful, I repeat, quite beautiful.”
- Some critics have complained that Manzoni made even the peasants speak in upper-class Florentine. I disagree. You can hear those Lombard accents, especially from the bravi, which gave me the welcome opportunity to use some American colloquialisms:
“- Or bene, – gli disse il bravo, all’orecchio, ma in tono solenne di comando, – questo matrimonio non s’ha da fare, né domani, né mai.
“Well, then,” the bravo said in his ear, but in the solemn tone of a command, “this marriage ain’t gonna happen. Not tomorrow, not never.”
- Everyone loves this description of Don Abbondio. Manzoni is a portrait artist in his own right, creating a character with a few short words:
“Il nostro Abbondio non nobile, non ricco, coraggioso ancor meno, s’era dunque accorto, prima quasi di toccargli anni della discrezione, d’essere, in quella società, come un vaso di terra cotta, costretto a viaggiare in compagnia di molti vasi di ferro. Aveva quindi, assai di buon grado, ubbidito ai parenti, che lo vollero prete.”
“Our don Abbondio was neither noble, nor rich, nor especially courageous. He realized, even before reaching the age of discretion, that in such a society he was like a clay pot forced to travel in the company of many an iron kettle. So he readily obeyed his parents’ wish for him to become a priest.”
- Teresa Agovino è dottore di ricerca in Letterature Romanze presso l'Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale". È cultore della materia in Letteratura Italiana Contemporanea. È professore straordinario a t. d. di Linguistica Generale presso l'Universitas Mercatorum di Roma, e docente a contratto di Lingua e linguistica italiana presso la Scuola Superiore Internazionale di Mediazione Linguistica (SSML) di Benevento; di Linguistica Italiana e Generale presso UniPegaso. Ha pubblicato due volumi: Elementi di linguistica italiana (Sinestesie, 2020) ; Dopo Manzoni. Testo e paratesto nel romanzo storico del Novecento (Sinestesie, 2017). Si occupa di ricerca in Letteratura italiana del Novecento e Duemila. In particolare studia i riferimenti manzoniani contenuti all'interno della prosa contemporanea sino agli anni Duemila (principalmente in Camilleri e De Cataldo) e l'opera di Primo Levi. Di prossima pubblicazione anche la traduzione italiana del romanzo Bones in London di E. Wallace (1921).
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