The first of an occasional series of anecdotes on the pleasures and puzzles of literary translation
Lately I’ve been reading a collection of short stories in Italian, Novelle italiane: L’Ottocento (Italian Short Stories: The 1800’s; Garzanti, Gilberto Finzi, editor), for pleasure and also in search of something interesting to translate. One of the stories in this excellent two-volume collection is “Fortezza” (“Fortress,” 1878) by Edmondo De Amicis. It’s a tale-within-a-tale, with a thin outer crust that sets the stage for the main story in the form of an extended flashback.
Here is the grim opening sentence of the main story. It describes the bloody chaos that beset Italy during the Risorgimento, when various local powers, rebellious factions, and foreign occupiers were fighting each other for control:
Era l’estate dell’anno 1861, allorché la fama delle imprese brigantesche correva l’Europa; quei giorni memorabili, quando il PietroPaolo portava in tasca il mento d’un ‘liberal’ col pizzo alla napoleonica; quando a Montemiletto si sepelivan vivi, sotto un mucchio di cadaveri, coloro che avevano gridato: — Viva l’Italia; — quando a Viesti si mangiavano la carne dei contadini renitenti agli ordini dei loro spogliatori; quando il colonello Negri preso Pontelandolfo vedeva appese alle finestre, a modo di trofei, membra sanguinose di soldati; quando il povero luogotenente Bacci, ferito e preso in combattimento, veniva ucciso dopo otto ore di orrende tortura; quando turbe di plebaglia forsennata uscivan di notte, colle torce alla mano, a ricevere in trionfo le bande; quando si incendiavan messi; si atterravano case; si catturavan famiglie; s’impiccava, si scorticava e si squartava; e a tener vivo e accrescere il miserando eccidere venivano dalla riva destra del Tevere, armi, scudi e benedizione.
My first-pass, clunky, overly-literal translation of this passage might be something like this:
It was the summer of 1861, when the fame of brigands’ deeds ran through Europe; those memorable days when Pietropaolo carried in his pocket the chin of a ‘liberal’ with the Napoleonic bribe; when at Montemiletto they buried alive, under piles of corpses, those who had cried, ‘Viva l’Italia;’ when at Viesti they ate the flesh of the peasants who resisted the demands of those pillaging them; when Colonel Negri near Pontelandolfo saw hanging from windows, in the manner of trophies, the bloody limbs of soldiers; when poor Lieutenant Bacci, wounded and taken in combat, was killed after eight hours of horrendous torture; when mobs of mindless rabble came out at night, torch in hand, to welcome the bands in triumph; when couriers were set on fire; houses flattened; when families were seized; when men were hanged, drawn, and quartered; and to keep alive and increase the sordid massacres, arms, money and benedictions arrived from the right bank of the Tiber.
I’m sure there is plenty to argue with in this first pass, stylistically and semantically, but I think I’m at least hitting close to the mark on what the author wants to convey.
Except for this ‘PietroPaolo’ who carries a bribe-holding chin in his pocket.
First of all, who is this “Pietropaolo?” My Internet searches didn’t turn up any renowned Pietropaolo in 1860’s Italy. So I guessed that the name (“PeterPaul” in English) was a generalization—an Italian version of “the average Joe.” (Though I found no confirmation for this guess.)
So what about “carried in his pocket the chin of a ‘liberal’”? “Carried” can also be rendered as “bore” or “wore”. But “carried” makes sense with “nella tasca” (“in his pocket”), which seemed to provide little room for ambiguity. (Unless “in the pocket” means something like “as a last resort” or “just in case?”)
So what about “the chin of a ‘liberal’”? This was the most mystifying part. I couldn’t help but wonder whether “mento” (“chin”) was a typo for “mente” (“mind”). The “mind of a liberal” almost made sense in this context. In those politically sensitive times your average Italian might hide his liberal views, metaphorically placing them out of sight in his pocket. But I was reading the story in a reliable edition, and in any case it’s very dangerous to “fix” a text you don’t understand by assuming someone else has made an error.
Perhaps the rest of the phrase might hold the answer…. I knew the term “pizzo” from Italian literature and TV shows to mean protection money paid by shopkeepers to the Mafia to keep their businesses from getting burned down. But I guessed that it could easily refer to extortion money in general. So why “Napoleonic”? Well, parts of Italy were then under the control of Napoleon III’s French troops. It wasn’t hard to imagine “Napoleonic” French sentries or customs officers shaking down the locals to cross a bridge or import some goods.
But that still doesn’t explain “the chin of a ‘liberal’.” I latched on to the fact that the word “liberal” is in quotes in the text. Perhaps it was a brand name, maybe of cigarettes or tobacco. There was once, after all, a common Italian brand of cigarettes sold under the brand “Nazionali” (“Nationals”).
So what? Well maybe the average Peter-Paul was in the habit of stashing protection money in a “Liberal” tobacco tin in his pocket in case he got stopped by French troops…what do you think? Of course, that didn’t really solve the “chin” problem.
I researched the Italian words for “chin” and “pocket” for metaphorical meanings and usage in figures of speech. No help. I looked for a “liberale” product or trademark, same result. Still, I was almost ready to believe the phrase could be rendered as something like:
“[…]those memorable days when Italian men walked around with cash-filled tobacco tins in their pockets, for ‘bribes alla Napoleon.’”
But this rendering relied much too heavily on pure supposition. It was a literary house of cards.
I was only reading the story for fun—so I could have just let the mystery be. The odd phrase didn’t prevent me from enjoying or understanding the rest of the story. But it really bugged me. I don’t like to impose on my Italian friends for help in understanding texts except in emergencies (or unless they’re getting full credit as a co-translator). It feels like asking your plumber neighbor across the street to help you fix a leaky toilet for free. So I stewed over it for several days. I finally gave up (and in) and asked an expert—Dr. Tullio Pagano, a professor of Italian literature at Fairleigh-Dickinson University, for help.
He pointed out that “pizzo,” besides protection money, also could refer to a small beard. He surmised that this Pietropaolo wore this kind of beard. So what was a “pizzo alla Napoleonica?” Well, I googled images of the then-reigning Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and sure enough, he’s shown sporting a cute little VanDyke.
But even Tullio couldn’t explain what was meant by “in his pocket.” One of my theories was that this Pietropaolo carried a fake little beard—a “chin” —in his pocket, in case he needed a quick disguise. Another case of the mind trying to fill in what it doesn’t know with invention.
Meanwhile my friend Dr. Pagano asked a colleague of his, Luigi Cepparrone—an expert on literature of the period and on De Amicis in particular, who teaches at the University of Bergamo—what was meant by this phrase. Dr. Cepparrone’s answer came back, brutal, astonishing, and shockingly straightforward:
La frase fa riferimento alla ferocia dei briganti, schierati con i Borbone e con il Vaticano e particolarmente avversi ai liberali fautori dell’Unità. La frase vuol dire che il brigante Pietropaolo aveva trucidato un liberale, appunto, e portava come scalpo nelle tasche il mento con il pizzo alla napoleonica staccato dal viso di questo liberale. De Amicis fa riferimento a un fatto storico, di cui aveva letto nelle cronache del tempo. Il personaggio cui si fa riferimento era un vero brigante di nome Ferdinando Pietropaolo della nota banda del brigante Crocco. Una sentenza pronunciata contro Ferdinando Pietropaolo afferma: “Considerando che la ferocità di Pietropaolo è posta in evidenza anche dalla scoperta di un mento umano con pizzo alla Napoleone (imperiale) tolto a qualche disgraziato di opinioni liberali, e che Pietropaolo portava barbaramente seco».
“The phrase refers to the ferocity of the brigands, aligned with the Bourbons and the Vatican and opposed to the liberal proponents of a unified Italy. The phrase means that the brigand Pietropaolo had in fact murdered a liberal and carried in his pocket, like a scalp, the chin with the Napoleonic beard cut from the face of this liberal. De Amicis is referring to an historical fact, which he had read about in the newspapers of the day. The person to whom he refers was a real brigand named Ferdinando Pietropaolo, of the famous Crocco gang. A sentence pronounced against Pietropaolo specifies: ‘considering that the ferocity of Pietropaolo is affirmed even by the discovery of a human chin with a beard alla Napoleone cut from some unfortunate of liberal opinions, which Pietropaolo barbarically carried around.’”
So I was mistaken on every single aspect of this brief phrase. Pietropaolo was an actual person. He quite literally carried a chin in his pocket. The chin had a beard, not a bribe. The ‘liberal’ was a liberal, not a box of snuff or a pack of cigarettes.
So what are the lessons of this tale?
First: it’s dangerous to satisfy your confusion about the meaning of a text by just guessing what would make the most sense, and hoping for the best.
Second: context, context, context! If I had kept the rest of that sentence in mind, I would have seen that the phrase in question had to be something pretty grisly.
Third: sometimes the literal meaning is…the meaning. Sometimes a chin carried in a pocket is just…a chin carried in a pocket!
Fourth: sometimes there is no substitute for an expert opinion! My thanks to Tullio Pagano and Luigi Cepparone for untying this knot for me.