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I’d spotted Giovanni Verga a few months before Christmas: he has three stories in Volume II of Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories (and also the useful fact that they give only his date of birth, setting the timing of the publication before his death in 1922, a decade earlier than I’d previously guessed). I made sure his name went up the chimney, and in due course (i.e. Christmas morning) a sooty copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories came down among the ashes of the Christmas Eve fire.

Both the title story and two others are in Hammerton (The She Wolf and War of the Saints), which enables a comparison of the translations. Somewhere down the line I’ll try to get the originans and give them a whirl too – I’m three sessions into learning Italian, but even a comparison of different English versions can teach us something. The Penguin translator, G.H.McWilliams, makes a point, in his introduction, about the poor quality of earlier translations, citing schoolboy mistakes in D.H.Lawrence’s attempts. Lawrence had more than three sessions under his belt, and may have been better than Hemingway when it comes to Italian, but he wasn’t fluent, and certainly not in colloquial Sicilian! I have no idea who did the Hammerton translating. It’s something they rarely give, unless it gets a mention in the brief introductory paragraphs to each volume. It could, I suppose, be Lawrence!

McWilliams’ translation is dated to 1999, which means that a lifetime of language has passed between it and the Hammerton versions. Within a single language, and especially one like English, that moves on, Hoovering up the bits and pieces of other language which it thinks might be useful, a lifetime of evolution moves a long way. Quoted in a paperback from thirty years ago, is the nun who wrote Over the Wall, the story of her escape from being a bride of Christ. Of all the changes in the world, she said, including cars and planes and radio, it was the changes to language that she found most striking. And was it not said, after the Berlin Wall came down, that the new generation of Poles coming to the UK, spoke a language quite different to those – around a million of them, I believe – who had stayed on, and preserved their language (and their liberty) at the end of World War Two.

Where I find the interest in this rests on the speculation that a translator of 1922, in trying to cast Verga’s direct and vernacular Italian, as spoken by his Sicilian peasants, into an English that would both be intelligent and seem colloquial to his readers would need to be quite different from one attempted nearly eighty years later for the readership of its own time.

That there are differences becomes immediately apparent. What they signify, of course, might take some unravelling. The first sentence of The She-Wolf  is rendered, respectively, thus:


‘She was tall and lean: her breast alone revealed the firmness and vigour of the brunette type; and yet she was no longer a young woman.’ (1922)


‘She was dark haired, tall and lean, with firm, well-rounded breasts though she was no longer young, and she had a pale complexion, like someone forever in the grip of malaria.’ (1999)


You can safely bet that I am eager to get my hands on the original. In a form that depends so much on building with what has preceded, the context for what will follow, I want to know in what order Verga presented his images; and whether he used semi-colons or commas; and if that malaria reference was in his first, or second sentence. And what about the paragraphing, which I haven’t even looked at yet? And while we have the breasts, let’s consider whether that firmness belongs to them, as in the 1999 version, or to the ‘type’, as in the 1922, which to my mind, is a significant divergence.