Italo Calvino’s The Two Hunchbacks in translation

Last week I took part in a recital featuring Italo Calvino at the sort-of local library (40km away, the downside of Escaping To The Country) where I’m a voluntary reader. We delved into Calvino’s world of ogres, bandits, princes, witches, priests, kings, thieves and …..hunchbacks which, in my case, was also the world of the I Due Gobbi. The Two Hunchbacks… English translation here. It’s not mine,  I found it on Georgy Whitty’s blog.

due_gobbiLike all good fables, I Due Gobbi / The Two Hunchbacks has lots of surprises, from an innocent young man heading out to find fame and fortune to grisly dismemberment in the woods, not to mention a handy moral for the parent of an eight-year old: don’t copy anyone else if you’re not 100% sure what you’re doing! Otherwise, you might end up with two hunches instead of one: one on your back and one on your front!!

But that’s not the main thought that filled my mind as I reflected on the evening the next morning (jogging round my usual running route). What I was thinking, as most translators do, was how I’d translate the bit about the hunchback being butchered in the forest.

IT…”presero una sega di burro, gli segarano la gobba, gli unsero la schiena con un uguento, lo fecero tornare sana che non si vedeva niente, e la gobba l’appesero all’albero.”

EN … “And with that, one of the hags produced a butter knife and sliced off his hump, fixed up his back with some magic ointment, and hung his old hump on the branch of a nearby tree“.

The main thing I pondered, as I went happily catching raindrops this morning, was that butter knife isn’t really what Calvino intended with “sega di burro“.  He uses the unusual term in Italian to create in the listener’s imagination the image of a saw ….. but not a nasty, dangerous dismembering one. Calvino catches the reader on the back foot, telling us it’s a saw.. aahh, shock horror, but it’s okay, it’s made of butter.

The second thing that struck me about the Italian, and which I would definitely recreate in the  English translation, is the rhythm. Throughout the tale, I’d noticed that things often come in threes. There are three old hags, they come out of a hole in the ground, one after the other. 1. 2. 3. The song that they sing, which ends up having three beats (not two, not four) when the hags start to sing Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, 1, 2, 3 but don’t like it when Tuesday is added to make 4. So three is better than two, and four is definitely wrong. When we recreate this in the English version, the placing of commas and conjunctions becomes critical, and the slightest re-positioning can completely change the rhythm, and the musicality of the story.  When you’re trying to read stories out loud late at night in the library, musicality is often the key to keeping your audience awake!!

When the older brother decides to venture into the woods, the return to threes makes the fate that is about to become him so much more momentous: he sets off on the same journey, he goes into the same woods, he climbs up the same tree.  But alas, he then climbs down from the tree, the hags take his brother’s hunch, and they stick it onto his chest. 1,2, 3. That’ll teach you, say the hags!

One last comment, Italians do like to get physical. I’ll never forget the lipstick I translated once… a marvel of modern cosmetics that was going to work wonders for my mucous membranes. Ehhm. No. Not in English, I said.  Likewise in the Italian version of I Tre Gobbi. Calvino’s old hags rub some plain old pomade onto the open freshly-hacked back so that “you can’t see it anymore“, immediately implying that “it” is the blood-spurting wound. Our anonymous translator, on the other hand, goes with “a magic ointment” and says no more!

And I shall say no more too… !

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