Vibrant Worlds, Vibrant Words

Vibrant Worlds, Vibrant Words: A Review of The Pomegranates and Other Modern Italian Fairy Tales

by Daniel A. Rabuzzi

Translating fairy tales is an especially complex, multistage process, from transcription of the story’s oral performance, with key choices to be made about representation (or not) of dialect, gendered registers and sociolect, before arriving at the more “standard” challenges of translation from one national tongue to another.

Review of The Pomegranates and Other Modern Italian Fairy Tales. Edited, Translated and with an Introduction by Cristina Mazzoni. Princeton University Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0-6911-9978-8. 226 pages. Paperback, $22.95.

Cristina Mazzoni (Wolfgang and Barbara Mieder Green and Gold Professor of Romance Languages and Cultures at the University of Vermont) in The Pomegranates and Other Modern Italian Fairy Tales presents 20 stories originally published between 1875 and 1914, all but one never before translated into English, mostly by authors little known to English-speakers (Capuana, Gozzano, Cordelia) alongside Collodi and D’Annunzio. One of the latest releases in the innovative Princeton University Press series “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales” edited by Jack Zipes, The Pomegranates is a significant contribution to the study of Italian fairy tales and folk traditions, particularly as they related to the creation of an Italian nation in the generation after unification – tales underappreciated in the Anglophone world, certainly as compared to the French, German, Russian and Scandinavian traditions. Mazzoni helps level the playing field with her superb translations. Her work is a worthy addition to the growing body of recent fairy tale translations that includes Nancy Canepa’s version of Basile’s Tale of Tales, Christopher Betts’ version of Perrault, separate versions by Philip Pullman and by Maria Tatar of the Brothers Grimm, and Tiina Nunnally’s version of Asbjørnsen and Moe. With her insightful commentary on the issues involved in translating these tales, Mazzoni also helps advance the fields of translation and reception studies.

Translating fairy tales is an especially complex, multistage process, from transcription of the story’s oral performance, with key choices to be made about representation (or not) of dialect, gendered registers and sociolect, before arriving at the more “standard” challenges of translation from one national tongue to another. Mazzoni’s introduction – at under 19 pages, a gem of concision – guides readers through the archaeology of the process for the Italian tales, subtly shaping our understanding of what “Italian” means here. She reminds us what a fragmented cultural patchwork the Italian peninsula was before unification, noting that in 1861 only 2.5% (!) of those about to become citizens of the new state could read and write in what we recognize as Italian today. The “Italians” spoke a bewildering variety of dialects, many not mutually comprehensible (anyone familiar with Italy will know that traces of such difficulties remain up to the present day). Moreover, only c. 31% could read in 1871 (doubling by 1911), with enormous regional discrepancies; for instance, the literacy rate in Piedmont in the North was c. 68% in 1871, while Basilicata in the South was c. 12% (see Basile, Ciccarelli & Groote).

Mazzoni artfully unearths the translation decisions of her predecessors, and then unpacks her own for us. As part of the nation-building exercise, collectors such as Vittorio Imbriani in Tuscany and Lombardy and Giuseppe Pitrè in Sicily gathered lore from local storytellers. Mazzoni explains: “Both Imbriani and Pitrè employed ethnological methods, carefully avoiding personal interventions and painstakingly recording the oral narratives as they heard them from their informants – who were almost exclusively women” (3). As well-intentioned as such protocols were, they could not help but be fraught with tacit assumptions, hidden biases, and power asymmetries; the very setting was artificial, lacking the context of the organic time and place for storytelling within the community, without the audience’s involvement (see Bacchilega; Ben Amos & Goldstein; Lord; O Suilleabhain; Wariner; Paradiz). In the 150 years or so since Imbriani and Pitrè’s monumental achievements (and the more than two centuries since that of the Brothers Grimm), anthropologists, sociologists, folklorists, historians and others have wrestled mightily with the concepts of orality, oral traditions, and how best to translate not only individual words but entire collective, culturally specific world-views from the spoken to the written (see Bothe; Coillie; Gingell; Mahuika; Nnamani & Amadi; Roth; Zipes). Translation studies, with its “ethnographic turn,” has joined the debate on orality as well (Bandia; Flynn in Gambier & van Doorslaer). And most, if not all, translators are deeply sensitive to the cultural context within which they work.

The next step, as Mazzoni recounts in her reception history (which would make a great addition to syllabi for introductory courses in translation theory), was to translate the story from the text in dialect to one in the emerging national standard. Classical philologist Domenico Comparetti does so in his 1875 collection of tales from various regions of Italy. Most significantly, Italo Calvino does so in his magisterial Fiabe italiane published in 1956 (translated into English by George Martin in 1980). As Mazzoni notes: “Both Calvino and Comparetti, then, were willing to transform each tale’s original language – and in so doing sacrifice its ‘purity’ – for the sake of producing an edition readable and enjoyable by all Italians even as they preserved what they saw as the essence of each tale” (6). To make such choices, the translator must be fluent in both the dialect (presumably her or his own?) and the national standard – to the extent that the auditor may also be familiar with the oral tale to begin with and is thus an “owner” of the tale as part of the story-community, the process raises fascinating questions of “self-translation” (see Fulginiti).

Further complicating matters is the influence of written tales on the oral tradition. Just as an author / translator may draw on oral tales for the story, storytellers may incorporate elements from broadsides and chapbooks until the origin is obscured and the composition a marvelous hybrid (the debate over the oral vs. written origins of fairy tales is an ongoing and very lively one, for which see Bottigheimer & Meyer). Perrault’s Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (1697) was a pervasive influence on Italian fairy tales, especially via Collodi’s translation in 1876. Appreciating Collodi’s deployment of sharp, visceral Tuscan idioms, Mazzoni elucidates how Collodi “domesticated” Perrault’s tales for the Italian working and middle classes, and how she in turn rendered them into modern English. I love her example of Collodi transforming Perrault’s abstract “les vicissitudes de la vie” into (in Mazzoni’s translation) “misfortunes are roof tiles that fall on the king’s head” (41). Mazzoni offers many further insights in her introduction: on D’Annunzio’s shift in translation strategy and style over two decades, on Deledda’s decision to publish in Italian rather than in Sardinian, on the poet Gozzano’s use of fairy tales within his wider initiatives, and much more.

The translations themselves propel the fairy tale world into the modern reader’s imagination: “the pig wanted to stick his nose everywhere, but ‘Zack!’ she stabbed his snout with her fork so hard that he was injured” (24); “he wept like a cut vine-twig” (42); “the entire palace was built with smooth boulders of salt and pepper so firmly kneaded together that they looked like marble” (77). Mazzoni deftly captures the tension between the tale and the telling, between the world-views of the peasants and of the bourgeoisie. For instance, Gozzano’s version of “The Three Talismans” begins with a classic oral storyteller’s formula: “When every chicken had its teeth / And all the snow that fell was black / (Children, children, listen up) / There was then, there was… there was… / … an old peasant who had three sons” (201). One can see the upturned faces, increasingly rapt. Gozzano, born and raised in Turin (son of an estate-owning engineer, grand-son of a senator), shifts then to literary diction. The sons are not simply “the oldest” or “the youngest,” as is typical in most original fairy tales, but are named “Cassandrino,” “Sansonetto,” and “Oddo.” The idiom is decidedly not that of the peasant. In Mazzoni’s translation, a chef “cackled contemptuously” (204), venison is “exquisite” (204), islands are “sun-drenched” (204), a magical cloak “abolishe[s] every distance” (206), individuals are “on the brink of despair” (208), screams are “heartrending” (209). Thanks to Mazzoni, we experience both Gozzano’s language and the adventures of the three sons, without either overpowering the other.

The same balance of traditional fairy tale structure, earthy wisdom and elevated vocabulary can be found in nearly all the stories Mazzoni has selected. Emma Perodi’s “The She-Mule of Abbess Sofia” begins like a Tuscan family history: “…the Lord of Pratovecchio was called Count Guido of the Guidi family. His wife, Lady Emilia, had given him just a son, Ruggero, and a daughter, Sofia” (127). In the midst of the specificity (so atypical for fairy tales), the narrator inserts herself with the traditional comment about the vague time-period in question: “…a long, long time ago – over seven hundred years ago, I think…” (127). Cordelia (Virginia Tedeschi Treves) in her very mannered “Fiery Eyes” nevertheless lets the voice of the peasant be heard in passages such as this one: “Finally, a donkey, who was smarter than some people…” (163). Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini), best known to Americans as author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, refers to the proverb “Marriage is the grave of love” (41), hardly the stuff of bourgeois romance. Hunger and sickness – primary concerns encountered in most fairy tales – figure prominently in these stories, for instance in Perodi’s “The Madonna’s Veil”: “People flocked to her in droves from the farthest reaches of the Casentino region, and as soon as Lisa touched the sick with that veil, reciting prayers that no one had taught her, they were fully healed” (156). In Deledda’s version of “The Three Talismans,” we witness a fundamental human fantasy, one treasured not least by impoverished Italian peasants: “All sorts of dishes, fruits, sweets, and fine wines appeared on this strange table. People ate and drank to their heart’s desire, and yet the more they ate, the more food appeared in abundance on the table” (125-126). 

Above all, Mazzoni’s translation powerfully conveys the sheer strangeness of fairy tales. A rude prince must find “the girl made of milk and blood” (25). A man makes a “pact in blood on an ivory tablet” (158). “The Prickly Fairy present at the baptism looked at the girl and said: ‘Here is a nice little morsel for the Bear King’” (163). “And with every word she uttered, a forked-tailed scorpion crawled down her body” (216). The fairy tale’s world is one of stark contrasts, where “the wretched girl went to die at the edge of the woods” (60), and also “where the moonlight and jasmine scent still lingered” (114). Vibrant worlds need vibrant words – which Mazzoni has provided for us, along with the rationale behind her approach.

Daniel A. Rabuzzi lived eight years in Norway, Germany and France, and has translated Norwegian (also Danish and Swedish), German and French in commercial and archival/scholarly settings. He has degrees in the study of folklore and mythology, international relations, and modern European history. He lives in New York City with his artistic partner & spouse, the woodcarver Deborah A. Mills. See and @TheChoirBoats.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 15, 2022

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