The translator’s immobility: English modern classics in Italy

Paola Venturi

Translations are facts of target cultures, but the perceived status of source texts has a bearing on how these are reflected or refracted in the target language. This proposition is particularly evident in the case of classics: when translators have to work on literary creations occupying a pivotal position in the source/target cultures, they adopt strategies of literalness and ennoblement which betray a quasi-religious awe—on the one hand, a desire to ruffle the surface of the revered original as little as possible; and on the other, a determination to reproduce the supposed ‘classical qualities’ of the classic even when they are not present in the source. In the following article, I examine how the ‘idea of classic’ influences translation theory and practice, substantiating my theoretical observations by looking at Italian translations of English classics. A marked—and historically determined—disparity between source and target readerships, and the translators’ reverence for their prestigious originals, conspire to produce Italian versions which are much more ‘wooden’ and ‘elegant’ than their English counterparts.

Table of contents

Despite the shifting grounds of critical appraisal, some literary works enjoy the commonly accepted and rarely questioned status of ‘classics’. Being widely known and recognized as paradigms of literary excellence, these works and their translations have often been the object of single comparative studies. What seems to be lacking, though, is a wider perspective on this constellation of translated literature as a whole, and specifically on how the idea of classical literature can guide translators in their choices (be they aware of this process or not). It is this perspective that I will attempt to sketch, with particular regard to the Italian translations of a few English modern classics.

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