Let’s start with Michael Moore as reader of I promessi sposi in Italian. When did you first come across the book and what was your gut reaction to the original?
Although I lived in Como for several years, where ferries, restaurants and cafés are named after characters in the novel, it wasn’t until I got to graduate school in the United States that I read the novel, three times, for three different courses and for my exams. I think I was lucky to read this, in a way, since I didn’t have to suffer all the “baggage” that often comes with it when you read it in Italy. The first time I read it, I was fascinated by the story. In my later readings, I came to enjoy the language more and more.
You have so far translated some demanding masterpieces, including Alberto Moravia’s Agostino and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, but I promessi sposi is unparalleled in its grandeur, almost intimidating. An Italian would ask, “chi te l’ha fatto fare?” What made you do it?
I could answer the way that Manzoni does in his introduction: “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 beautiful, I repeat, quite beautiful.” But I’ll say more. As a translator, I feel a vocation to help American readers get a fuller understanding of Italy and the Italian language. Manzoni forged modern Italian, and is, in my opinion, Italy’s greatest writer. And it seemed unfortunate that he was not better known in this country. When I looked at the previous translations, I understood why: they failed to convey the beauty of his language, the irony of his voice, the deep compassion in his depiction of humanity, especially the poor and downtrodden. I hoped that a better, more modern translation would introduce this great book and great writer to readers of English.
The Betrothed is still relevant in today’s Italy — and still entertaining — because Manzoni captured so many traits, flaws and failings of the Italians, like later 20th-century maestri of literature and cinema, such as Moravia, Risi and Monicelli. He created characters that are archetypally Italian, and timeless: we still refer to someone who is irritatingly meek as a “Don Abbondio,” or to an obnoxious bully as a “Don Rodrigo.” Every Italian bumps into an “Azzeccagarbugli” — a master in manipulating legal jargon — at least once in their lifetime… Is it difficult for an American reader to relate to The Betrothed and its seemingly distant cosmos of 200-year-old characters?
That’s an interesting question. Of course I lived in Italy many years, and worked on my translation both in Italy and at home, so I recognized these quintessentially Italian characters. But Manzoni is such a great artist, giving you an immediate picture of the various characters, that I think Americans will recognize them as well. Not to mention that we have quite a few “Azzeccagarbugli’s” of our own! In Ireland I read the part about the first attempted kidnapping of Lucia, that night when everything goes wrong. The listeners said it reminded them of Fellini! And nothing could be more up-to-date than Manzoni’s description of the Bubonic plague. When the Coronavirus pandemic broke out, I had to go back and revise my translation of those important chapters, since what Manzoni was describing for 1630 is almost exactly what we were living in the early months of 2020.
A new translation of a classic is an event we should all cheer. For a translator — and I am saying this as a translator myself — it means both a wild adventure and inescapable accountability. Could you tell us how you navigated the fun and responsibility that come with the challenge?
The fun part was working on the novel while I was in Italy. I spent one month in Bellagio, on Lake Como, with a beautiful studio that overlooked Lake Como. Rather than stare at my computer all day I wrote the translation out in longhand, so I could look up from my notebook and see the stunning landscapes that Manzoni describes. I went to Milan, and in the hustle and bustle of the city I could feel the crowding, the chaos and the noise that he captures so well in his account of the bread riots. The challenge was my awareness that every Italian knew the novel, and had a strong opinion about it. I sometimes imagined that there was a little Italian professor sitting on my shoulder, telling me that I’d completely misinterpreted a word or phrase!
The Italian of I promessi sposi is a language we Italians recognize — and to a degree still speak nowadays — but at the same time it smacks of the 19th century: the sprawling sentences that wind down the page to the reader’s delight, and the translator’s despair. How did you close this gap in times and languages? What did you do with those endless paragraphs?
From the outset, Manzoni had decided to write his novel in modern Italian. But a modern, national standard Italian did not exist at the time, so he created it, drawing on the literary tradition and on the language of contemporary Florence, as well as, despite his best efforts, plenty of expressions typical of Milan. To be true to his dictates, I felt that I should use modern English, by which I meant some kind of synthesis of the best writing in English in the twentieth century: I said modern, not contemporary! Every time I had doubts, I would look up a word in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, which gives you the date that a word was first used, so I could avoid new words. My sentences are long, by English standards, but wherever I could break them into smaller pieces, without breaking the “flow,” I would. When his long paragraphs had a shift in subject or dialogue, I broke them into smaller pieces. Ending a sentence with a period does not feel nearly as violent in English as it does in Italian!
I promessi sposi is also a wondrous sound system in the way different literary genres, tones, themes and voices seamlessly coexist. How did you handle such an impressive — arguably unprecedented — polyphony where history, religion, lyricism, drama, irony, tragedy, Gothicism, essay, all tune, and somehow never seem to jar?
I found a wonderful recording of the novel on the Raiplay website, “Ad Alta Voce.” I listened to the voice actors reading the novel. I also listened to a lot of opera, mostly Verdi, of course! As you said, he does mix many different styles, so depending on my mood, I would work on one part or another. For example, I did the famous “gride” or decrees at the end, after everything else was finished. I went through a period where I worked only on dialogue. By the way, an audiobook of my translation is also available. It was great fun choosing the actor to be the voice of Manzoni!
Manzoni was also a champion of concision, what we call nowadays “less-is-more.” One example is the iconic “E la sventurata rispose”: when the Nun of Monza succumbs to sin. The narrator just hints at her doom with this lightning-quick statement that every Italian knows — and giggles at. It must have created quite a conundrum for you.
Short sentences are harder to translate than long ones, since you have to say so much with so little. In the example you give, Manzoni tells a big story in just five words. That sentence has many different levels that a word-for-word translation could never convey. He calls the nun “sventurata,” but what was her “sventura”? Being forced to become a nun? Choosing to enter into relations with the sketchy man next-door? The sentence also has a dramatic function, creating suspense, curiosity about what would follow. And it sounds great. I wrote many versions of this sentence before settling on, “And she gave her fateful reply.” Six words, not five, and with the idea of doom attached to her reply, but I think it’s very effective, and true to the style of Manzoni, with that hint of something terrible to come.
“Translating Burroughs is like lying in a dung heap and watching the stars,” translator Franca Cavagnoli describes in these apt terms her grueling-yet-gratifying experience of translating Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Which was your dung-heap moment, and your stargazing moment?
My worst moment was thinking that I was done, only to realize that I had accidentally skipped half a chapter! The novel was never easy, but it became particularly hard after Lucia was rescued, when it turns from a gothic tale of a maid in distress to a conversion story. The conversion of the Nameless one takes a very long time, and then come the long sermons of Cardinal Borromeo. They were a struggle! My happiest moment was probably when Renzo escaped from Milan, and finally found his way to the Adda River. He looks up and sees, “The sky above Lombardy, so beautiful when it’s beautiful, so splendid, so serene.”
This new edition by Modern Library is extremely rich: it comes with an introduction by you, a preface by Jhumpa Lahiri, a map of Northern Italy in 1628-1630, a post-textual section with the historical background and the historical characters. Tell us a bit more about your involvement in planning such an accurate edition.
Manzoni did tons of research for this novel, combing through old archives. I didn’t do nearly as much, or I would never have finished! The novel has a very concrete sense of place and time, and relates a very complicated period in Italian history. I felt that adding these extras would give the American reader a handy guide and allow them to enjoy the novel even more.
What would you say to an American reader who knows nothing about Manzoni and The Betrothed to convince them to pick up the book and start the journey?
In its review of the novel, the Wall Street Journal said it best: “It feels strange to have had a bona fide canonical classic hiding in plain sight for all these years. But with Mr. Moore’s vigorous and companionable translation, the book is now here for everyone to see.”
Michael F. Moore will be presenting his translation at the NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò on Tuesday, October 11, at 6:00 pm (http://www.casaitaliananyu.org/events) and at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York on Thursday, October 20, at 6:00 pm, in the context of La Settimana della Lingua (https://iicnewyork.esteri.it/iic_newyork/en/). Registration can be made online at the respective websites.
Sara Fruner received her degree in English literature and language at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. She has translated works by Dionne Brand, Monique Truong, Marie-Helene Bertino, Jane Hirshfield and W.S. Merwin. In 2016 she moved to New York, where she teaches Italian at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She writes poetry in both languages, and is the author of two novels: L’istante largo (Bollati & Boringhieri, 2020), which received the second prize at the Severino Cesari National Award for Debut Novel in 2021, and La notte del bene (Bollati & Boringhieri), which was released in May 2022.