The importance of re-naming Ernest? Italian translations of Oscar Wilde

Adrian Pablé
Université de Neuchâtel (Switzerland)

The present descriptive study considers different translation strategies adopted by Italian translators of Oscar Wilde’s The importance of being Earnest (1895). The focus of attention is on the phenomenon of the pun involving the speaking name Ernest, whose homophony with earnest is exploited in the play’s title. Italian translators of The importance have thus been faced with the bind of having to decide on whether to render the said wordplay, even though only unsatisfactorily, by replacing the transparent name Ernest with a target language ‘equivalent’, or safeguard the cultural-onomastic ‘reality’ of the play, i.e. leave the Victorian given name Ernest in its source text form. It turns out that the latter policy is generally compensated for—as part of the metatextual/metalinguistic discourse—within prefaces, glosses and, more significantly, via intratextual additions. The translators opting for replacing Ernest with an Italian counterpart, in turn, have, as a direct consequence of their basic choice, been able to enrich their versions of The importance with unprecedented puns, which underlines the ‘creative’ dimension involved in producing literary translations. Besides the two core translation policies described above, the translators have also opted for introducing the nativized form Ernesto, thus showing little concern with the questions of ‘cultural purity’ or punning, respectively. The present paper suggests that translators make very different demands on themselves and have very different ideas of what constitutes the ‘optimal’ strategy with regard to punning and the representation of the source cultural world.

Table of contents

Oscar Wilde’s hilarious comedy The importance of being Earnest (1895), which Kaplan and Bernays (1997: 172) have aptly called “a play about names [ p. 298 ]and a play on names”, constitutes a rewarding object of enquiry for the translation scholar interested in onomastics. I subscribe to the historical-descriptive paradigm (Toury 1985 and 1995) in the present study, for which a selected corpus of 20th-century Italian translations of The importance has been subject to scrutiny. As the translations into Italian of Wilde’s renowned play are conspicuous for their diversity, a comparative study offers a remarkable insight into the various working processes and the different (overall) policies adopted by the translators. By way of the latter’s metadiscourse and my own inferences I thus hope to give account respectively of the motivations underlying each target text and of how variable strategies may influence the reception of a translation with respect to the original. I have also seen fit to include theoretical considerations in order to highlight the unexhausted translatability potential when it comes to translating The importance into Italian. I have confined my descriptive analysis to three textual norm-governed elements, i.e. personal names, wordplay and title translation, as they function in the target texts under examination, both independently and in relation to the original: in fact, as I will underline in my discussion of the source text, “plot, theme, comedy, and motivation all owe their pulse to one heavily freighted homonym, earnest/Ernest” (Kaplan and Bernays 1997: 172); it is upon this “heavily freighted” homophonous pair that Oscar Wilde’s onomastic wordplay and the play’s very title entirely depend. As will become clear, the present study supports earlier empirical work in Descriptive Translation Studies, according to which the overall orientation of a translation is set within the target culture. I have shunned an evaluative approach and as a consequence refrained from labeling the translations as ‘good’, ‘bad’, or the like. Along the same line goes my rejection of a “philologically inspired concern for a maximally accurate image of the original text” (Manini 1996: 173), which, in the eyes of many a critic, is supposed to guide the ‘serious’ literary translator through his/her decisions. In fact, such a notion, reasonable as it may sound in abstracto, lends itself to unfair criticism of translations for not being what one expects them to be.

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