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Translating Sicilianness

Translating Sicilianness

In the PSA journal's 31st edition the PSA editors asked a group of their contributors to talk about the ‘biggest issues facing translators’ of Pirandello. Amongst the numerous responses were two that dealt, crucially, with the ‘Sicilianness’ of Pirandello’s plays and the difficulties and possibilities that exist when one is translating out of such a specific language/dialect (cultural and linguistic). Elisa Segnini (Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Glasgow) and Enza De Francisci (Lecturer in Translation Studies at the University of Glasgow) both talk about translating Pirandello’s ‘Sicilian’ plays while Michael Rössner (Professor Emeritus of Romance Literatures at the University of Munich) wraps up the discussion with a note on translation in context.

We hope you enjoy the discussion, there will be more excerpts of the latest edition of the PSA journal to come!


PSA:  As you all point out, Pirandello’s history in translation can be as complicated as his stances on translation – with problems and questions but also exciting surprises. With that in mind: what do you think are the biggest issues or questions facing translators interested in Pirandello’s work? What are the biggest questions that scholars should consider when thinking about Pirandello’s work in relation to theories or practices of translation?

Elisa Segnini:  Today, the “Sicilian” plays offer interesting opportunities at a time in which we are going beyond the assumption that translations from dialect need to be mediated by national language before reaching international visibility. The key question is how to stress cultural and linguistic specificity in the target text without engaging in cultural appropriation, travesty, or even parody. Some of these issues emerged in relation to the recent adaptation of Liolà by Tanya Ronder, which was used for the 2013 production directed by Richard Eyre at the National Theatre. Eyre’s choice to cast Irish actors and use gipsy music reminded me of Crémieux’s decision to transpose Sicily into Corsica in the 1935 Parisian production of Questa sera si recita a soggetto. Both choices say something about the translator’s/director’s sensitivity to portrayals of cultural representations but, in suggesting cultural and temporal equivalence, are also problematic and controversial.

There are exciting possibilities for theatre translators and directors working with Pirandello today, although, as my experience has shown, concrete challenges remain. When, in 2014, I discussed the possibility of adapting a classic like Questa sera si recita a soggetto for the Canadian stage with theatre director Guglielmo Bernardi, we became immediately aware of the obstacles. First, the play is extremely demanding in terms of production, as it combines the Italian tradition of acting – the ability to improvise and sing – with the technology fashionable on stage in the Weimer Republic. Casting, in fact, had already been an issue for Pirandello in Berlin the 1930s! Furthermore, the play is embedded with cultural references that were immediately recognizable in Europe in the 1930s, but they are unfamiliar to contemporary Italians, not to mention to international audiences. For example, the play presupposes familiarity with Verdi’s melodramas: Il Trovatore features prominently not only at the musical level, but also thematically. By introducing allusions to Gipsies and “Gipsiness,” it underlines issues of ethnic difference and marginality. What would happen to this subtext in a production for the contemporary Canadian stage? In addition, what about the misogynistic feelings and the violent behavior that Pirandello deliberately foregrounds as typical markers of “Sicilianness?” The essentialism entailed in the representation of the protagonist, we feared, may be offensive to the local Italian and Sicilian communities. The play has, of course, been staged in the last few years both in Italy and abroad. But we felt that these issues were important, and that it would be challenging to put together a production that took them into consideration.

Enza De Francisci:  In fact, one of the main aspects in translating Pirandello which has interested me the most is how to translate the sense of Sicilian-ness (or sicilianità) of his work. If, as Pirandello states: “Una letteratura dialettale, insomma, è fatta per restare entro i confini del dialetto” (In sum, dialect literature is made to stay within the confines of the dialect, Spsv, 1208), then what happens when dialect literature comes out of its geographical borders? In Tanya Ronder’s new version of Liolà, this meant transporting the Sicilian countryside characters to rural Ireland, a decision which raises numerous questions regarding cultural translations, an approach primarily associated with scholars such as Susan Bassnett, André Lefevere, and Lawrence Venuti. Can one community be faithfully translated by another, particularly when different varieties of a language are concerned? Manuela Perteghella has identified various strategies for transposing dialect and slang in theatre, and it seems that this new version of Liolà fits in well with her definition of a parallel dialect translation:

To translate a dialect or slang into that of another specific target language, usually one that has similar connotations and occupies an analogous position in the target linguistic system. Proper names are kept as in the original, as are topical jokes, places, and other source-language cultural references. Use of actors (specified) regional accents [. . .]. This strategy will achieve the desired reception effect only if the translator works closely with director and actors. There is always the danger of mis-reception (i.e., a play perceived to be born within the audience cultural system). (Perteghella 2002: 50)

Indeed, Ronder’s version of Liolà was performed by a cast employing an Irish accent: an accent which arguably has “similar connotations [as the source language] and occupies an analogous position in the target linguistic system,” as Perteghella puts it. What was thus translated here was not just the words from Pirandello’s script but the concept of sicilianità as a type of ‘Other,’ or more specifically, a type of Ireland. From a socio-linguistic point of view, the parallel between the two islands implied that instead of being written in the “major” language the original script used a kind of “sub-language.” By introducing this linguistic element, audiences were able to recognize that the village characters were from a marginalized community and a territory detached from the mainland, without having to involve the use of dialect itself. The translation was therefore able to preserve the genetic code of the original script as well as to communicate with the British audience. From a more historical and cultural perspective, the choice resonated even more so. Both Sicily and Ireland have had a difficult history with their “major” counterparts, with Sicily often characterized as the “following political unification in 1861 and Ireland (excluding Northern Ireland) gaining independence in 1921. However, as Perteghella reminds us, “[t]here is always the danger of mis-representation in parallel dialect translations.” Arguably, the danger emerged in Liolà when the Irish-speaking actors employed Sicilian gestures on stage. Richard Eyre invited the director Luca Vullo to lead workshops on how to gesticulate in Sicilian and, therefore, the mis-representation can be said to be rooted in this mix between the Irish and Sicilian worlds (De Francisci, 2017). So for me, the biggest question to consider when translating Pirandello’s “commedia campestre” is how to go about adapting something so culturally-specific as sicilianità?

Michael Rössner:  It is the question of cultural translation which is fundamental for our world: You have to consider the contexts – the context of origin and the context of the translation or of the final reception of his work – and you have to consider the negotiation (borrowing the term from Homi Bhabha) which takes place between these contexts. Translation is not just a replacement of one series of words by another; it changes the contexts, and it is an ongoing process.




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