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II. Paratextes et enjeux politiques

The translatress in her own person speaks”1: Ada Prospero’s preface and note to I loro occhi guardavano Dio (1938)

Rita Filanti
p. 77-89


Quelques mois après sa sortie controversée en Amérique, la première traduction en italien du roman de l’écrivaine Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, paraît à l’apogée de la répression fasciste, en mai 1938. Dans cette version du roman de Zora Neale Hurston, Ada Prospero, militante antifasciste et activiste féministe, relève de multiples défis tout en s’appuyant sur diverses formes paratextuelles. Cet article a pour objectif l’analyse des stratégies spécifiques de traduction auxquelles a recours Ada Prospero, tout en tenant compte de son point de vue théorique tel qu’il est exprimé dans sa préface et dans sa note du traducteur. La spécificité du discours et du langage féminin ainsi que l’identité de genre de l’auteure et traductrice ont créé les conditions d’une égalité qui explique l’intervention d’Ada Prospero dans le texte et sa visibilité inhabituelle dans le paratexte. En quête d’un dialogue imaginaire avec le « womanisme » de Zora Neale Hurston, Ada Prospero trouve un terrain d’entente avec son auteure source, portant ainsi vers l’avant son propre ordre du jour, littéraire et politique. Elle aborde la manière de traduire le vernaculaire noir américain ainsi que le langage lorsque celui-ci est métaphorique, mais aussi, la nécessité de trouver un compromis entre les revendications théoriques et les contraintes pratiques, surtout face à un langage érotique, des images sexuelles et la représentation du corps de la femme. S’appuyant sur les récentes études portant sur la traduction et la censure dans l’Italie fasciste (Billiani : 2007 ; Rundle & Sturge : 2010), cet article s’intéresse aux questions de la retenue, de la modestie et de l’autocensure, compte tenu de la féminisation de la pratique de la traduction dans les sociétés patriarcales (Simon : 1996 ; Flotow : 1997). Se pose également la question de savoir si la traduction maintient ou bouscule les constructions de genre, et si les différences de genre sont éliminées ou bien renforcées dans les pratiques actuelles de la traduction.

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  • 1 . The term translatress entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1638. Aphra Behn was the first person to (...)
  • 2 . Hereafter referred to as TEWWG.
  • 3 . Hereafter referred to as PROS.

1A few months after the controversial release of the original novel in the United States, the first Italian translation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God2 (1937) was published in May 1938, i.e., during the height of the fascist regime. The work of a strenuous antifascist militant, women’s rights activist and prolific translator from English, French and Russian, Ada Prospero’s version of the love-and-death novel, I loro occhi guardavano Dio,3 published by Frassinelli, faced its multiple challenges with the props of several paratextual elements.

  • 4 . A. Walker coined the term “womanism” to refer to Black feminism in 1983 in In Search of Our Moth (...)

2Preceded by a preface and a translator’s note, and complete with a series of footnotes, this is the only work by Ada Prospero, and also one of the few Italian translations of the time to exhibit such a conspicuous presence of the translator. Our suggestion is that the specificity of the feminine discourse and language, the gendered identity of Hurston and Prospero, and the communion of their struggle for woman’s freedom established a condition of equality between the two that explains some of the translator’s textual choices and her unusual visibility in the paratext. Identifying her own struggle with Hurston’s African American “womanism”,4 Prospero finds a common ground with her source writer, which somehow empowers her to renounce the convention of the translator’s self-effacement and pursue her own literary and political agenda.

3According to recent studies on gender and translation, prefacing and annotating have become a common feminist practice, in that they foreground female subjectivity and make the feminine visible in language. Traditionally a trope of what women do when they enter the public sphere, translation has long been received as a specifically female form of discourse and as a sign of women’s gendered exclusion from logocentric society (von Flotow, 1997: 12). Paratexts, therefore, are the privileged way for politically engaged translators to make their voices audible, to claim their role as cultural agents and to undermine the topos of subservience. Prospero’s preface and note to I loro occhi guardavano Dio must be read as forerunners of such a practice of resistance in open defiance of Italian fascist politics.

4Drawing from Sherry Simon’s idea that women’s collaborative effort has favored the production, translation, criticism and promotion of progressive literature (Simon, 1996: 52-61), we will analyze specific translational strategies in light of Prospero’s theoretical standpoint—as expressed in the translator’s note—and discuss issues at play in the interaction of theory and practice. Specifically, we will show how praxis can confirm or negate preliminary declarations of intent, but also how doxa participates in contemporary debate on language and translation politics, thus having a transformative impact, no matter what the practice is.

  • 5 . In a key episode of the novel, Janie rebels against her husband and humiliates him publicly, say (...)

5TEWWG is the story of an African American woman, Janie Mae Crawford, and her quest for an independent voice through sexual fulfillment and romantic love. Set in Southern Florida in the early twentieth century, the novel narrates Janie’s life from her early discovery of eroticism to her maturity into womanhood. The child of rape, Janie is raised by her grandmother, Nanny, an ex-slave who teaches her how “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world” (TEWWG: 186) and forces her to marry Logan Killicks, the only black man in Florida to own sixty acres of land. Yet Janie abandons security to follow Jody (Joe) Starks to Eatonville, the first all-black town in the US. Not even her second marriage proves satisfactory, however, as Joe progressively turns out to be a self-centered and domineering husband. His possessiveness alienates Janie’s silent affection and provokes her outspoken reaction.5 After Joe’s death, Janie, now a well-off widow, runs away again, to follow Vergible (Tea Cake) Woods, a drifter and gambler twelve years younger than her. They move to the Everglades, a “muck” area with a reputation as a refuge for outlaws, and find happiness as bean planters. Unfortunately, the great Okeechobee hurricane hits the region and the two lovers are drawn into its destructive fury. As they escape, Tea Cake is bitten by a mad dog. In a crescendo of passion and violence, he contracts rabies and tries to kill Janie, who shoots him in self-defense. Acquitted of murder by an all-white jury, Janie, now a fulfilled and self-confident woman, returns to her “big house” in Eatonville, where she tells the whole story to her girlfriend Phoeby Watson.

6As soon as it appeared in New York in September 1937, TEWWG provoked harsh criticism, not only because of its treatment of female sexuality and overt criticism of patriarchal order, but also because of its language. The most notable hatchet job was by Richard Wright, a prominent writer of the Harlem Renaissance. In a notoriously hostile review published in 1937, Wright claimed that: “Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley” (Wright, 1937: n.p.) and he also added that Hurston voluntarily perpetuated the tradition of the minstrel technique. More importantly, Wright accused Hurston’s novel of lacking theme, message and thought, and of aiming at pleasing her white audience’s tastes.

  • 6 . In the first half of the 20th century the Turin cultural scene and publishing industry were extr (...)

7Despite the lukewarm reception in the United States, Turin-based publisher Frassinelli quickly decided to print the Italian version, I loro occhi guardavano Dio, by well-known intellectual Ada Prospero.6 According to the publisher’s firm policy, the translation had to be unabridged, made directly from the original language and prefaced by the translator herself. Meant mostly as a guide to the appreciation of the novel, Prospero’s preface provides Italian readers with a critical introduction to the source text without addressing translation issues explicitly. Here Prospero displays her knowledge of contemporary American history and literature, while demonstrating autonomy of judgment and consciousness of the interplay between aesthetics and politics. Although lacking direct reference to the translating process, this preface is key to both translating policy in general and specific theoretical matters.

8Starting from an analysis of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1831) and Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925)—both already translated into Italian—, Prospero discusses the question of the “American Negro”’s struggle for expression and emancipation. In her view, neither Beecher Stowe nor Anderson fully succeeded in their tasks. It is only Hurston who finally manages to

  • 7 . All translations from Italian into English are ours.

describe and sing the black soul, that is neither completely wild nor merely pathetic, but both at the same time, naïve and malicious, religious to the point of fanaticism and sometimes strangely indifferent and amoral, profoundly serious, but with a rich vein of humor running through it. (PROS: xvii)7

9Far from being a Romantic born too late, adds Prospero, Hurston belongs to the American realist movement initiated by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, except that, “as a woman and a Negro, […] she overwhelms us with her imaginative and picturesque richness, with her simple and touching rapture before life” (ibid.: xvii).

10At the end of her preface, Prospero enthusiastically wishes that after reading Janie’s tale-within-the-tale, the Italian contemporary audience too might experience a “sense of elevation and triumphant peacefulness” (ibid.: xx) similar to Phoeby’s feelings: “’Lawd!’ cries out Phoeby in the final chapter, as soon as her friend has completed the storytelling: ‘Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie.’” (TEWWG: 332)

  • 8 . See B. Johnson, 1998, “The Re(a)d and the Black: Richard Wright’s Blueprint”, in The Feminist Di (...)

11While ostensibly a woman’s defense of a sentimental story written by a woman writer, Prospero’s preface is in fact the militant statement of a professional writer (and translator) on the political role of literature (and translation). Far ahead of her time and in blatant opposition to the chauvinistic policy of Italian fascist rule, Prospero foresaw the value of Hurston’s work (thus the importance of translating it) long before it was first resurrected in the mid-70s by Alice Walker, and finally hailed as one of the great American modernist novels. Unafraid of dissenting from scholars of the stature of Wright, Prospero anticipates recent feminist scholarship in perceiving a misogynist undercurrent in contemporary literary criticism.8

12Although the 1930s had been a decade of unprecedented translating activity in Italy, much of which was from contemporary North American literature, TEWWG would have never met the approval of fascist censorship otherwise. Considering the predominantly feminine themes of the novel, the complexity and overt eroticization of the language, plus the harsh controversy it raised at home (even inside the black community) because of its treatment of race, the publication of Prospero’s version, on the eve of the release of the Italian “Manifesto della Razza” (August, 1938), is quite amazing. That is why we suggest that not only translation, preface, note and footnotes to I loro occhi guardavano Dio must be attributed to Prospero, but also, possibly, the initial proposal to publish Hurston’s novel. Even among translation studies scholars, a strong prejudice still remains according to which only translators—usually males—who are also writers themselves have the power to negotiate titles with their publishers, to promote translating initiatives, and to escape the narrowness of market laws. Professional translators, on the other hand, tend to be regarded as passive spectators of economic fluctuations with no impact on the cultural scene. Moreover the common distinction between translating “out of passion” (as most accomplished authors would do) and translating “for payment” is biased in that it reinforces the stereotypical feminization of translating activity as derivative, mercenary and reproductive vs. a “proper” writing activity as creative, noncommercial and original. In this way, some of those scholars who praise translation as an inventive effort tend to value it only as a function of more “authentic” writing and not per se. Such clichés are particularly inappropriate to the context of 1930s Italy, as translators (including female professionals) played a vital role in the promotion of foreign literatures, the renewal of Italian language, and the advancement of antifascist positions in outright defiance of the regime’s myopic regulations.

13Ada Prospero in particular actively contributed to her late husband Piero Gobetti’s radical periodicals Energie Nove and La Rivoluzione Liberale, participated in the clandestine movement “Giustizia e Libertà” and would repeatedly risk her life, together with her son’s and other partisans’, in the Resistance fight. She also figured among the founders, in 1942, of the political party, the “Partito d’Azione”, that played a crucial role in the final defeat of fascism. It seems unlikely that she could have been oblivious to the socio-political implications of Hurston’s novel or accepted her position as its invisible translatress. Quite the opposite, she was indeed fully participant and, in fact, eagerly supportive of Hurston’s innovative language and vision. As Prospero herself states at the end of her note,

fidelity to words is meaningless unless it is founded on a close spiritual sisterhood. And I have loved this book well enough to hope that I succeeded in rendering, at least partially, its perfume and flavor. (PROS: xxii)

14If the preface represents Prospero’s stance on the importance of making TEWWG accessible to Italian readers, it is in the translator’s note that she draws attention to her own work and clarifies her theoretical views on translation itself. She explains that the style of this book, imaginative and extremely picturesque, poses a number of problems for the translator:

First of all, the dialect: almost all the characters speak the orthographically distorted American, which has by now become the jargon of colored people. But to translate it in a distorted Italian would have been grotesque. If black vernacular is acquiring literary value and becomes a language tout court, it’ll be necessary to translate it not in a formless jargon, but in a way that renders its tone and atmosphere. (ibid.)

  • 9 . See C. Rundle and K. Sturge, 2010.

15The questione della lingua, i.e. the relation between a non-existent national language and the numerous regional dialects of the peninsula, and the attempted suppression of dialect in favor of standardization, had been a thorny issue since Italian unification in 1861. At the beginning of fascist control, in the early 1920s, a strong policy of vernacular nationalism was enforced, together with an overall tendency to normalize the language and to privilege a grammatical approach vs. less regulated forms of colloquial expression or unorthodox lingo. During the twenty years of its rule, fascist language policy progressively reinforced its emphasis on purism, and a series of censorial measures were implemented as the mild acceptance of diversity of the early years gradually turned into the autarchy of later imperialism. Despite its growing jingoism, however, fascist rule still let numerous translations be published at least until 1938, when racial laws were finally adopted and an escalation of violence, fear of contamination and brutal repression followed.9

16Within this cultural context replete with xenophobic paranoia, Prospero ventured to translate Hurston’s controversial and linguistically challenging novel. Not only did TEWWG have an assertive African American woman as its main character and explicitly deal with issues of race, sex and color, but it also used the language of the black American community quite belligerently. Janie Crawford is a physically attractive mulatto woman, whose almost exclusive focus on erotic love, childlessness and lack of permanence in her sexual relationships makes her the perfect antagonist to the masculinist rhetoric of the fascist era, with its emphasis on woman’s self-sacrifice and its sanctification of motherhood and domesticity. If this were not enough, most of the characters speak a dialect that is anti-literary to say the least, and which constantly defies the laws of spelling, grammar and syntax.

17When North American literature started to circulate in the Italian literary circles of the 1930s, the so-called American slang, and the way to translate it divided generations of intellectuals. Many literary critics, such as Emilio Cecchi, condemned American slang because it changed too quickly, multiplied useless words, and passed rapidly from fashion. It was the respected Americanist Mario Praz, however, who was responsible for the most complete dismissal of the American “dialect” in L’Americano (1937). “American is an undeterred (imperterrita) language,” Praz states at the opening of his essay. “Anybody can coin neologisms, from tramps to gangsters, but it is only to poets that Horace would grant license.”(Praz, 1951: 268) He adds:

If the vividness and picturesqueness of the new transatlantic language can seduce at first, it doesn’t take long to be convinced of the haphazard and dreadful lack of economy of American slang. […] Its richness is illusory, […] All those words and expressions useful only to ‘chat and gossip’! (ibid.: 269)

  • 10 . We do not know how many copies Frassinelli managed to print in May 1938, nor the circulation tho (...)
  • 11 . Even the most recent Italian translation of TEWWG distorts the Bahamian workers’ dialogue in clo (...)

18The formless nebula of Dionysian American should be controlled and filtered through Apollonian English, Praz insists. It was not only the opposition of fascist bureaucrats, therefore, that Frassinelli and Prospero had to face when translating and publishing I loro occhi guardavano Dio, but also the resistance of Italian literati, who failed to grant the newborn and crossbred language a visa into the realm of poetry.10 Even more so if such a “dialect” happened to be the distorted jargon of the colored people whose honos and gratia would have been lost on many of them. Only a few skilled translators (and visionary publishers) ran the risk of doing so, with Italian Resistance writer Cesare Pavese among them. It was Pavese, in fact, who first managed to have his translation of Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925), mostly written in the black dialect of the Ohio Valley, accepted for publication, again by Frassinelli, as early as 1932. According to Pavese, contemporary American writers had succeeded in mixing literary language and spoken language in a new harmonic volgare, better apt to represent modernity (Ferme, 2002: 129). But Pavese could not resist the temptation to sometimes mimic black people’s speech, thus reducing it to a caricature. In this way he followed a practice that would become an established pattern at the time, and is still occasionally revived today.11 He also included in his translation terms imported from Piedmontese dialect, thus compensating for the supposed “artlessness” of the source language, in a way that is controversial and debatable.

Lif’ up the skillet, put down the lid,
Mama’s go’na make me some a-risen bread.

An’ I ain’t go’na give you
None of my jelly roll.”
(Anderson, 1970: 85)

“Prendi la pentola, metti il coperchio
E mia mammina mi cuoce del pane!

E io non ti dare niente del mio panino. (Anderson, 1932: 88)

19Prospero, on the contrary, adamantly refuses, both in theory and in practice, to ever ridicule black speech, or to participate in that perpetuation of the minstrel tradition that makes the “white folks” laugh. She realizes that to distort Hurston’s language would be grotesque, reducing it to clownish discourse that would belittle its literary and political stance. Prospero believes that if black vernacular has to broaden the range of dialect in literature—which she is positive it will—its translation must divorce it from the conventions of the burlesque. Thus she creates a plain Italian that is grammatical without being ornate, neither elaborate nor regionally inflected, she includes lexical variety and invention without being verbose, and is always respectful of the uneducated characters’ diction and vision of the world. Although there is humor in places, to render Southern black rhythm in terms of an exotic dialect, or an unlettered lingo, would have completely failed to capture Hurston’s subtle handling of language (Jones, 1993: 147, 151).

20Janie’s beauty, for example, which is mostly the result of her “coffee-and-cream complexion and luxurious hair” (TEWWG: 288), makes her irresistible to both men and women in Eatonville, who equally fetishize her non-Negro features. Her hair, in particular, is a constant subject of gossip in the chorus-like free indirect speech of the town, in the direct speech of individual characters, and also in the third-person narrative that weaves it all together. “It was hard to love a woman that always made you feel so wishful” (ibid.: 269), says Hurston’s impersonal narrator in standard American. Prospero deftly renders the simultaneously envious and admiring “voiceover” with a figure of speech that reinforces the statement by negating its opposite, while adding a rhetorical question mark that makes it sound truly spontaneous: “Come si fa a non essere indispettiti con una donna che suscita tanti desideri senza app agarli?” (“How can you not be hacked off by a woman who stirs so much desire without satisfying it?”) (PROS: 152) And when Joe, Janie’s second husband, forces her to cover her hair—a synecdoche for her body—to express his power and control over her ravishing femininity, an anonymous woman in town says:

Whut make her keep her head tied up lak some ole ’oman round de store? Nobody could git me tuh tie no rag on mah head if Ah had hair lak dat. (TEWWG: 214)

21Such a comment seems to sum up the view of the whole female community and their shared sense of revolt against patriarchal oppression. Prospero joyfully joins in the women’s choir and translates:

E perchè mai le fa portare un fazzoletto intorno alla testa, quand’è in bottega, come se fosse una vecchia? Con dei capelli simili nessuno potrebbe costringermi a coprimerli con un cencio. (PROS: 66)

22Far from reinforcing existing prejudice against black dialect and obeying the convention of either parodying it or reducing it to folklore, Prospero takes black speech seriously and in so doing paves the way for its inclusion in the realm of poetry, for the recognition of its linguistic complexity and its definitive break from minstrelsy. She demonstrates that dialect has more literary sophistication than admitted and that it can be the stuff that fiction is made of.

23The second problem that Prospero had to face in translating TEWWG is that not all the characters speak dialect, and that there is a constant battle of voices between the protagonist (and main storyteller), the free chorus of black folks, and a disembodied third-person narration. As she writes in the note,

[W]hile the secondary characters in the novel speak incorrectly and with a certain gross coarseness, the main characters (Nanny, Janie, Tea Cake) express themselves in a tone partly lyric and partly inspired. But this is precisely the tone of the book, which is due to the race’s spirit itself, wavering continuously between an almost obscene materiality and a lyric sense of poetic liberation. (ibid.: xxii)

  • 12 . See also, by the same author, 1993, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston and the Speakerly Tex (...)

24The risk here, for the Italian translation, was to slip into facile sentimentality and reinforce stereotyped ideas about black people’s life as constantly oscillating “in that safe and narrow orbit […] between laughter and tears” (Wright, 1937: n.p.), between humor and pathos. More specifically, the problem was that of finding a language balance between the mimetic possibilities of the speaking voice and the rhetorical strategies inherent in the act of writing. Janie’s road to self-discovery and expression, in fact, consists precisely in the enunciation of her own doubled self, in the split between what H. Louis Gates, Jr. calls her “speakerly voice” and “the written yet never uttered voice of free indirect discourse, which is the predominant vehicle of narrative commentary in Hurston’s novel” (Gates, 1988: 243)12.

25We can see how Prospero addressed the issue in one of the most vilified passages in TEWWG, Janie’s tale of her first sexual awakening, in Chapter II. Janie is telling Phoeby about her younger years and the time when “conscious life had commenced at Nanny’s gate” (TEWWG: 182). At a certain point in the chapter, third person narration intervenes and takes the podium:

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her daily chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. (ibid.: 182-3)

  • 13 . See von Flotow’s idea that no act of writing is ever neutral (von Flotow: 43).
  • 14 . A similar strategy is at work later on when the male personification of Death and Night (both gr (...)

26The narrative goes on with the story of how seeing bees pollinating the pear tree buds had revealed to the sixteen year-old girl the pleasures of love embrace and inspired her to kiss her shiftless neighbor Johnny Taylor. Her behavior had provoked the anger of Nanny, who, in turn, goaded her into marrying Logan Killicks. The whole passage employs a highly eroticized language, with pollination as the main metaphor for sexual intercourse, and the identification of tree as female and bee as male at its core. However, while these personifications are evocative in English, in Italian and other gender-marked languages merely suggesting things or maintaining ambiguity proves much harder. Specifically, all fruit trees are grammatically masculine in Italian, while bees happen to be feminine, and leaving images up to the readers’ imagination, no matter what gender agreement requires, can sometimes lead to confusion in translation, if not real bafflement. Prospero makes a radical choice by disrupting grammar and feminizing the pear tree (“Oh, essere un’alberella di pero… una qualsiasi alberella in fiore!”, PROS: 17 / “Oh to be a female pear tree—any female tree in bloom!”, TEWWG: 183), thus showing that no act of writing, and/or translating, can ever be neuter.13 Far from being another example of explicitation, i.e. one of those “universals of translation” identified by corpus-based linguistics, Prospero’s feminization of the pear tree is a one-of-a-kind case of language experimentation.14

27The whole excerpt (often quoted in bits and pieces by reviewers who, like Wright and Locke, wished to emphasize Hurston’s alleged lack of political depth and easy indulgence in sentimentalism) nearly invites the translator to fall into the trap and use an overcharged language that might sound derisory instead of liberatory. Hereafter follows the passage in its entirety:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (TEWWG: 183)

28Prospero accepts the challenge and translates erotic talk in duet with Janie’s split consciousness. Instead of looking for an impossible wholeness, Prospero welcomes the protagonist’s self-division and helps her articulate her bivocality. Through the refined choice of vocabulary, delicate use of figurative language and elegance of the prose, all of which echoes the longstanding tradition of Italian love poetry, she unfolds all the lyricism of the novel’s polyphonic chant.

Era sdraiata supina sotto il pero, immersa e perduta nello stridulo canto delle api affaccendate, nell’oro del sole e nel leggero ansimar della brezza, quando sentì per la prima volta la voce impercettibile del tutto. Vide un’ape carica di polline affondare nella corolla d’un fiore: i mille calici della pianta aprirsi per accogliere l’abbraccio d’amore e il brivido estatico dell’albero dalle radici sino al più piccolo ramo, palpitante in ogni fiore e fremente di gioia. Ecco l’amplesso nuziale! Era stata chiamata ad assistere a una rivelazione. E allora Janie sentì una sofferenza dolce e senza rimorso che la lasciò come vuota e piena di languore. (PROS: 16-17)

29The last and most complex problem Prospero had to deal with when translating TEWWG is the text’s abundance of metaphors and similes, some of which were, in the translator’s own words, “too decisively far from and foreign to our sensibility and practice” (ibid.: xxii).

30Deeply interested in theories of language, Hurston thought that “the American Negro ha[d] done wonders to the English language” and that although she had introduced no African words, she had made over a great part of the tongue to her liking and succeeded in having her revisions accepted by the ruling class (Hurston, 1995a: 831). In her manifesto of black folk speech, Hurston recognized in what she called the “will to adorn” one of the “characteristics of Negro Expression”, and celebrated the use of metaphor and simile among African Americans’ greatest contributions to the English language. TEWWG is no exception, with a copiousness of images, mostly drawn from the natural world and domestic life, to enrich the luscious and impromptu eloquence of its characters.

31Prospero discusses the difficulty of translating Hurston’s figurative language at length in her note, and seems to be aware of the risks involved in each and every choice:

I was often perplexed whether to preserve the image as it was, or to change it into an Italian one with approximately the same meaning. A literal translation would have too quickly lent itself to ridicule: on the other hand, a translation that normalized everything, by blurring any oddity, would have made the book tasteless, by removing that pungent and nostalgic tone that constitutes its peculiar fascination. (PROS: xxii)

32As is known, in Poetics and book III of Rhetoric, Aristotle develops his theory of figures of speech and argues for their key role in both poetry and prose. Metaphor in particular “gives style clearness, charm and distinction as nothing else” (Aristotle, 1997: 141). However, he also addresses the question of bad taste and adds that when inappropriate, metaphor becomes ridiculous, and when far-fetched, it becomes obscure. If either happens, says Aristotle, the expressions fail to carry the hearer with them and provoke a breakdown in communication (ibid.: 144-5).

33Generally speaking, there is a tendency in Prospero’s rendition of metaphor towards simplification, paraphrase, or even deletion, and towards the privileging of familiar words over less common synonyms. One can also notice the habit of substituting general names (“bestia da lavoro”, PROS: 23; “una grossa bestia stanca” ibid.: 202) for more specific names (“work-ox”, TEWWG: 187; “a tired mammoth” ibid.: 307), and of repeatedly converting metaphors into similes. Translating metaphorical language thus turns out to be the place where theory and practice ultimately collide and show their lack of reciprocity.

34Hereafter follow a few examples of Prospero’s strategy in translating metaphor (all bold characters mine):

She was an iron board with things throwed at it. (TEWWG: 288)

Sembrava un asse da stirare su cui avessero appeso diversi oggetti. (PROS: 182)

She was a wind on the ocean. (TEWWG: 231)

Ella era come un gran vento sull’oceano. (PROS: 93)

Ah don’t want no trashy nigger, no breath-and-britches, lak Johnny Taylor usin’ yo’ body to wipe his foots on. (TEWWG: 185)

Non voglio che un mascalzone di negro, come Johnny Taylor, possa calpestarti come se tu fossi uno straccio. (PROS: 19)

Mah mama didn’t tell me Ah wuz born in no hurry. So whut business Ah got rushin’ now? Anyhow datain’twhutyouse mad about. (TEWWG: 199)

Ih, che fretta! Cosa c’è il fuoco nel pozzo forse? Eh, lo so, va, perchè sei arrabbiato! (PROS: 43)

35Prospero’s tendency to describe instead of naming, or to change a living metaphor into an idiomatic or commonplace expression, weakens the effectiveness of Hurston’s imagery, thus diluting their power to surprise and making longer, and less attractive, what was originally outright and seductive. Metaphor, however, is not simply a rhetorical ornament, as Aristotle clearly saw, but a way to “represent things as in a state of activity” (Aristotle, 1997: 159), and to express ideas more aptly than through elaboration.

36As Prospero herself claimed, “I didn’t follow a uniform criterion and preserved as much as I could of the original text, while simply avoiding falling into the grotesque and the ridiculous” (PROS: xxii). However, some of her interventions in the text do not seem to be justified by either fear of ridicule or obscurity, and produce a pattern that is at odds with her theoretical stance. In particular, a domesticating practice that translates the characters’ imaginative metaphors and neologisms into worn-out Italian clichés seems to be at work whenever the representation of woman’s body and the suggestion of sexual abuse are concerned. The semantic field of sexuality always causes problems in translation, and to reclaim some of the vocabulary that has long been used derogatorily, or to develop new terms that have not slipped into stereotypes yet, is the hard task of the translator.

37Hereafter follow some examples:

The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets. (TEWWG: 176)

Gli uomini osservavano la saldezza dei suoi fianchi simili a frutti maturi. (PROS: 4)

[…] her pelvis […] stuck out in front of her so she could always see it. (TEWWG:288)

[…] il bacino […] lo sporgeva avanti per vederlo sempre. (PROS: 181)

Heah, Ah just as good as take you out de white folks’ kitchen and set you down on yo’ royal diasticutis. (TEWWG:199)

Ma guarda un po’: l’ho tirata fuori dalla cucina dei bianchi per tenerla come una regina. (PROS: 43)

[…] he had done raped mah baby and run on off just before day. (TEWWG:190)

[…] s’era presa la mia bambina e poi se n’era scappato prima di giorno. (PROS: 28)

[…] de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you. (TEWWG:190)

[…] uomini, bianchi o neri, possano calpestarti sotto i piedi. (PROS: 29)

38In Prospero’s defense, however, one should add that to use an explicitly erotic language in 1930s Italy might have provoked a violent reaction from Mussolini’s bureaucrats and blocked the publication of the novel. Prospero’s downplaying of Hurston’s imagery often seems the result of preventive self-censorship and decorum more than an attempt at clarification, and provides a very interesting case for the analysis of this translating strategy in fascist Italy. If it is true, in fact, that—in Jakobson’s words—“the efficiency of a speech event demands the use of a common code by its participants” (Jakobson, 1956: 241); it is also true that, in none of the cases presented, a literal translation would have resulted in a lack of sense or “aphasia”. More likely, a straightforward reference to female corporeality and rape would have incurred the veto of the Italian translation altogether. It is significant that the most consistent practice of normalization, in clear contradiction to Prospero’s theoretical statement, takes place precisely where metaphorical language is involved, metaphor being not so much a deviation from ordinary use, but Hurston’s privileged instrument for the creation of new meaning and, as such, a crucial weapon of disruption, subversion and liberation. Now, if metaphor is not another way to say the same thing, but the only way to say something radically different, Prospero’s failure to retain or retrieve figurative language in her Italian version points to a definite departure between theory and practice.

39Hurston’s inventive mimicry displays all the liveliness of a language in its nascent state, not only because it is not encumbered by literary tradition yet, but also because it tells the story of how a silent woman finally learns to speak, both literally and metaphorically. Her characters’ words are still in that fluid and sensuous state of availability between non-meaning and signification, which precedes language proper. As Hurston herself claimed: “Negro speech is a weird thing” (Hurston, 1995a: 845), because it is based on descriptive words, imitation and action, contrary to “highly developed languages [that] have words for detached ideas” (ibid.: 830). Hurston’s theoretical discourse on black dialect, as opposed to written language, finds in the use of metaphor its distinguishing feature precisely because, in her words, “Negro speech” is still a “primitive” language, and action comes before speech.

40To translate the “speakerly” voice of Hurston’s drama in the written prose of a finished language with a longstanding literary tradition at a time when the constraints imposed by fascist rule were at their most severe, was not an easy job even for a professional translator, intellectual and feminist like Prospero. Despite its weaknesses, however, the 1938 translation of TEWWG remains an extremely courageous enterprise that foregrounds the role of the translator as an indispensable cultural and political agent, and promotes her action as leading to language research, innovation and experimentation. Ada Prospero’s work thus participates in the theoretical debate over black American vernacular, provides invaluable insight on its literary import and breaks new ground on the way to translate it. Through its rich paratext, Prospero’s translation makes her voice clearly audible to contemporary readers, while joining in the battle for woman’s liberation from self-effacement, injustice and violence.

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Corpus texts

Anderson, Sherwood, 1970 [1925], Dark Laughter, New York, Liveright.

, 1932, Riso nero, trans. Cesare Pavese, Torino, Frassinelli.

Hurston, Zora Neale, 1995a [1934], “Characteristics of Negro Expression”, in Folklore, Memoirs & Other Writings, New York, The Library of America.

, 1995b [1937], Their Eyes Were Watching God, in Wall, Cheryl A. (ed.), Novels and Stories, New York, The Library of America.

, 1938, I loro occhi guardavano Dio, translated and edited by Ada Prospero, Torino, Frassinelli.

Works cited

Aristotle, 1997, Poetics, translated and with a commentary by George Whalley, John Baxter and Patrick Atherton (eds.), Montreal and Buffalo, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Billiani, Francesca (ed.), 2007, Modes of Censorship and Translation: National Contexts and Diverse Media, Manchester, UK, St. Jerome Publishing.

Ferme, Valerio, 2002, Tradurre è tradire, Ravenna, Longo Editore.

Gates, H. Louis, Jr., 1988, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Oxford, O.U.P.

Jakobson, Roman, 1956, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances”, in Jakobson, Roman and Halle, Morris, Fundamentals of Language, The Hague, Mouton, p. 239-259.

Jones, Gayl, 1993, “Breaking Out of the Conventions of Dialect”, in Gates, Henry L. Jr., and Appiah, Kwame A. (eds.), Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, New York, Amistad, p. 141-153.

Locke, Alain, 1 June 1938, “Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God”, in Opportunity, (all URLs referred to in this chapter were accessed on 22 August, 2018).

Praz, Mario, 1951 [1937], “L’Americano”, in Cronache letterarie anglosassoni, vol. II, Roma, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Rundle, Christopher and Sturge, Kate, 2010, Translation under Fascism, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Simon, Sherry, 1996, Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission, London and New York, Routledge.

Von Flotow, Louise, 1997, Translation and Gender: Translating in the ‘Era of Feminism’, Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing.

Walker, Alice, 1983, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, New York, Harcourt Inc.

Wright, Richard, 5 October 1937, “Between Laughter and Tears”, New Masses, 22-25,

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1 . The term translatress entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1638. Aphra Behn was the first person to define herself as translatress, in a marginal gloss to her translation of Book VI of Liber Plantarum (Book Of Plants) (1689) by Abraham Cowley. See M. Roberta Falcone, 2010, “Aphra Behn: traduttore o traduttrice?”, in O. Palusci (ed.), Traduttrici, Napoli, LiguoriEditore, p. 23-35.

2 . Hereafter referred to as TEWWG.

3 . Hereafter referred to as PROS.

4 . A. Walker coined the term “womanism” to refer to Black feminism in 1983 in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, NY, Harcourt Inc. The title essay for this volume was first published in 1974.

5 . In a key episode of the novel, Janie rebels against her husband and humiliates him publicly, saying: “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” (TEWWG:238) With these words she robs him of his illusion of maleness and precipitates him towards his imminent death.

6 . In the first half of the 20th century the Turin cultural scene and publishing industry were extremely vibrant, with some outstanding left-wing intellectuals in the lead. Among them, Piero Gobetti, Ada Prospero’s late husband, whose indefatigable political activism, intellectual rigor and commitment to cultural promotion would prove inspirational for the generation that followed his untimely death in 1926.

7 . All translations from Italian into English are ours.

8 . See B. Johnson, 1998, “The Re(a)d and the Black: Richard Wright’s Blueprint”, in The Feminist Difference, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, p. 61-73.

9 . See C. Rundle and K. Sturge, 2010.

10 . We do not know how many copies Frassinelli managed to print in May 1938, nor the circulation those copies had at the time, but a reprint of Prospero’s work came out in June 1945 when she was vice mayor of Turin. The translation of Hurston’s novel is not listed in the Bollettino Bibliografico Italiano and, despite the growing academic interest in fascist language and translation policy, no scholarly attention has been devoted to it so far.

11 . Even the most recent Italian translation of TEWWG distorts the Bahamian workers’ dialogue in clownesque fashion, for instance that of Adriana Bottini (Cargo, 2009), p. 208-9. This 2009 edition is in fact a revision of a previous version by the same translator published in 1998 by Bompiani under the title Con gli occhi rivolti al cielo. The 1998 edition mistakenly claims to be the first Italian translation of Hurston’s novel, thus ignoring Prospero’s work, published sixty years before.

12 . See also, by the same author, 1993, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston and the Speakerly Text”, in H. Louis Gates and K. A. Appiah (eds.), Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, New York, Amistad.

13 . See von Flotow’s idea that no act of writing is ever neutral (von Flotow: 43).

14 . A similar strategy is at work later on when the male personification of Death and Night (both grammatically feminine in Italian) is concerned.

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Rita Filanti, « The translatress in her own person speaks”: Ada Prospero’s preface and note to I loro occhi guardavano Dio (1938) »Palimpsestes [En ligne], 31 | 2018, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2018, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Rita Filanti

Titulaire d’un doctorat en Études de traduction & littératures anglo-américaines de l’université de Bari en Italie. Actuellement professeur d’anglais et traductrice littéraire, elle a été chargée de cours pour l’enseignement de la langue italienne pendant plus de dix ans et a enseigné dans plusieurs universités australiennes et nord-américaines. Elle a publié des articles dans des revues et volumes universitaires sur la censure dans l’Italie fasciste, la traduction et l’exil, le genre et la traduction, ainsi que les questions d’adaptation littéraire et cinématographique. Elle a traduit en italien une anthologie de poésie américaine et coédité de nombreuses traductions de l’italien vers l’anglais. Sa traduction en italien du mémoire de Maxim D. Shrayer, Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, est en cours de publication.

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