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Shakespeare in Italian

Manuela Perteghella discovers Italian translations in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library and sheds light on the reception of Shakespeare in Italy.

Manuela Perteghella

How many ages 
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library is a wonderful treasure trove for anyone interested in the translation and dissemination of Shakespeare in different languages and cultures. In fact, I’d like to argue its collections are where we can fully understand, through the hundreds of translations, adaptations and critical texts which are carefully catalogued and lovingly preserved by the Trust, the making of Shakespeare as the greatest playwright of all times. Most importantly, we can really appreciate both how and why his plays have been and still are staged and performed all over the world. Translations in different languages - and retranslations, adaptations at different historical and social times - have enabled what German intellectual Walter Benjamin calls the Fortleben of these plays, their continuous progression through language, space and time, which only the act of translation can engender. 

Naturally, the relation between the English Shakespeare and the translated ones is mutually beneficial. While stage productions by foreign theatres offer a drive for new interpretations and new readings at home, the Elizabethan source texts have contributed to the enrichment and development of literary systems, and even to the establishment of national theatres. These translations of Shakespeare in so many languages and performed in different countries offer a continuous renewal of the plays, and ensure their survival in multiple texts. 

As an Italian, Shakespeare has always occupied a special place in my literary world: an anglophone writer, poet and theatre maker from a market town in the pretty English countryside, with a penchant for setting his plays in imagined or real Italian places, creating Elizabethan representations of Italianness, and reworking stories linked to the cities of my native country. I recall vividly visiting as a child Juliet’s (alleged) house and her silent, poignant tomb many times, in my father’s hometown of Verona, and while growing up in Rome, imagining the location – among the chattering of tourists and noise of traffic jams – where Julius Cesar was assassinated by his political rivals, lying in a pool of red blood. Or looking into the Gulf of Naples on holiday, I would conjure up in my mind the terrible storm that shipwrecks the Duke of Milan onto Prospero’s, or rather Caliban’s magical island. And in calling on these places, my mind would recollect Shakespeare’s own words – in Italian – of Romeo e Giulietta, of Il Giulio Cesare, of La Tempesta, accompanied by images of scenes from the many stage productions and film adaptations by Italian directors, further translators of his plays, working from the verbal to the performed text. In my further studies, and subsequent academic research, I often compared Shakespearean translations into Italian, analysing the translator’s or adaptor’s approach, the subtle or bold textual changes and finally the possible audience reception of Shakespeare on international stages at particular social times. I was therefore excited to be able to consult several Italian language translations of these plays, in particular first editions of landmark translations which promoted the discovery, and influenced the reception of Shakespeare in Italy, as well as illustrated translations and dialect translations which seek to (re)appropriate Shakespeare for particular Italian audiences and readers.

It is in the eighteenth century that Shakespeare becomes a truly global playwright, with France finding herself the critical and literary arbiter of European Shakespeares. In Italy the fact that already established authors such as Voltaire, La Place and Ducis were also translating Shakespeare meant it was above all through Neoclassical French versions that Anglophone literature was disseminated in the country.  In fact, Shakespeare was becoming known in Italy through the criticism by Voltaire and his own duality towards Shakespeare’s ‘wild’ and ‘strong’ genius and the playwright’s controversial subversion of the rules of drama. Even playwright and translator Antonio Conti (1677-1749), who lived in England for three years, commented when first reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘Sasper is the Corneille of the English, only far more irregular than Corneille’. (Conti quoted by Lacy Collison-Morley in his seminal Shakespeare in Italy, a history of Shakespearean translations in Italy from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, published in 1916).

In 1756 Domenico Valentini, who at the time was Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Siena, published what is regarded to be the first Italian full-length translation of Shakespeare, Il Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) into Tuscan vernacular and into prose. 

Il Giulio Cesare (1756) frontispiece
Julius Caesar in Italian, 1756

Despite the influence of neoclassical French Shakespeare in the country, Valentini, who did not speak English, did not use one of the many French translations and adaptations circulating in Italy at the time, but rather enlisted the help of his British friends resident in Italy (English migrant communities had established themselves in Venice, Turin and around Tuscany), who, eager to promote British culture abroad, explained the tragedy to him and assisted him in his translation. Valentini also included a lengthy Translator’s Preface, defending the position of translators in the literary system and discussing the practice of translation itself, the skills needed to translate literature (concluding with the issue of translating without knowing the language of the original text). He also highlights the cultural contribution that these migrant communities have made to the circulation of British literature in Italy. Most importantly, Valentini’s preface positions the figure of the translator as a highly visible agent, central to the dissemination of texts and ideas.

Il Giulio Cesare (1756) preface
Julius Caesar in Italian, 1756

The practice of translating through an intermediary other-language text seemed to fade away in the eighteenth century, with Italian translators preferring to work from the original language: already in 1769 Alessandro Verri began translating Hamlet (which he completed in 1777, the first complete Italian translation of this play) from the English into Italian, as he found contemporary French translations too free.

Despite the interest in Shakespeare during the eighteenth century, later also promoted by the German Romantics, it was only from the nineteenth century onwards, with the combination of gifted actors such as Tommaso Salvini, Ernesto Rossi and Adelaide Ristori, and translators such as Giulio Carcano and Carlo Rusconi, that a translation (and retranslation) project of all Shakespearean plays began in Italy. Among the gifted translators, Giulio Carcano in particular holds an important position, with his Teatro Scelto di Shakespeare (1843), a project of verse translations of selected plays. 

Teatro di Shakespeare, 1860, cover
Teatro di Shakspeare, 1860

Some of these actors were also responsible for creative practices unique to touring theatre, the most significant being that of the ‘polyglot performance’, or presenting on tour plays in bilingual performance to a different language-speaking audience. Another practice was to perform foreign works in translation to a foreign audience: these two practices often overlapped. The strolling players and comedians of Renaissance Europe had already been performing their own plays in their native language around the continent, but here we have something quite new: the ‘star’ actors appropriate, often even instigate the translation of a foreign work because it's suitable to their acting style or qualities. They then tour Europe and beyond, performing in their native tongue, often with a foreign cast, as it is the case with Italian performers bringing Italian language Shakespearean plays to Europe and North America.

Romeo and Juliet in Italian, 1876, act 1, scene 1
Bilingual performance text for Rossi's production at Drury Lane in May, 1876.

Among the nineteenth century translations, we find the ‘Illustrated Shakespeare’ published in 1876 by Libreria Editrice in Milan. Made up of individual volumes, this edition mostly employed the prose translations by prolific Shakespearean translator Carlo Rusconi. The plays are accompanied by beautiful black and white engravings, with some full-page illustrations (possibly by different artists). This publication is an interesting addition to the project of developing an Italian language body of Shakespeare’s plays, because of its use of images to both enhance and illustrate particular scenes in the plays. It also contributes to the tradition of contextualising drama as a literary genre, targeted to the individual reader rather than produced as scripts for actors, ultimately for the immediate reception of a theatre audience. 

Teatro di Shakespeare, 1876, group view
Teatro di Shakespeare,1876

My journey into exploring the transformations of Shakespeare’s plays, from their Elizabethan context to neoclassical Italy and beyond, has also pointed to the fundamental role translation has played in the transmission of literature, and therefore I’d like to propose that we think about translation as a particular cultural practice which has the power to shape literary identities. I look forward to continuing this journey and discovering further Italian afterlives of Shakespeare’s plays.

Manuela Perteghella is Associate Lecturer in Translation at the Open University, and a writer, curator and creative producer. 

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