Humor and Translation: Translating Nonsense

By Mark Herman

Filmio, filmio, qual vista!
Illusione, illusion giustorrenda
sospeciante maddestò,
ah! tappalesa guzzobranda,
più discampo io non darò!
Niuno paro mai tilluda,
castighenza piove già!
Biecatorbia si dischiuda,
fia delitto la pietà!
—La figlia del mago, No. 12
piano-vocal score, pp.50-51

Popcide! Popcide! O horror!
Torted I, so methought, neath a nightmare,
but the fact obtrudes on fict.
Ah! ’Tis my son bearing naked smiteware!
No obsconsion, for thou art nicked!
Pity shall be hight unlawful
lest by con he loophole loose!
Be his chastigation awful:
cast him into thecalaboose!
—The Sorcerer’s Daughter, No. 12
piano-vocal score, pp. 50-51

Above is an excerpt from the “Italian” libretto of La figlia del mago / The Sorcerer’s Daughter1, followed by the “English” translation of Ronnie Apter and me. At this point in the plot, a father wakes up to see his son standing over him with a weapon, mistakenly believes the son is about to kill him, and has the son thrown into prison.

The opera (1981, revised 1991), by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero (1951- ) and librettist Marco Ravasini (no dates available), was created to introduce children to the conventions of 19th-century Italian opera. The simple story is about the love of a young couple and how they eventually prevail by magic over the opposition of their two fathers, who hate each other. The characters are as two-dimensional as those in a comic strip. The music sounds as though it was written by Giuseppe Verdi after that composer had first been subjected to torture by 20th-century atonalism, and then given relief in the form of Bugs Bunny cartoons. The libretto, nearly incomprehensible to most Italians, is reminiscent both of heroic verse (such as that of Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th-century Orlando Furioso2) and modern television commercials. It also includes some of the favorite words of 19th-century librettists and some modern slang. Its two chief features are that most of the words are newly invented and that they are funny.

Ravasini’s text uses compound nouns having no equivalent in Italian. For example, the first word in the above example is “filmio,” a contraction of “figlio mio / my son,” a word barely possible in Italian because, while it is unlikely that any Italian would say this particular word, some Italian dialects do routinely drop final vowels (in this case, “figlio”) and final vowels are occasionally dropped even in standard Italian. However, not many Italians drop consonants, as Ravasini does, for example, when elsewhere he uses “regopadre” for “il re tuo padre / the king your father.” Ravasini also uses invented, slang and dialect forms such as, in the above example, “biecatorbia,” from “bieco / grim, sinister” and “torb-,” a root indicating mud or peat, for “prigione / prison.”

So, how is such a text to be translated? Ordinary compound nouns are unusable because, unlike in Italian, compounding is a standard means of word formation in English. Written as two words, a hyphenated word, or one word, there is nothing strange about “sea serpent,” “warrior-king,” or “mothballs.” Indeed, the combination of Germanic “sea” with Latinate “serpent” is more common than the totally Germanic “sea snake.”

However, sometimes an appropriate new compound English word can be created, its strangeness coming entirely from the fact that it is new. Thus “smiteware” above. English compounds can also be strange (and funny) if the two parts clash in some obvious way, such as when the colloquial is joined to the formal, as in “popcide” (rather than “patricide”) above. And, using the “portmanteau” method of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,”3 two meanings can be run together. Thus, when a sea serpent actually does appear in the opera, our translation of the pseudo-Italian “mareserpa” is “aquaconda,” which advantageously has both the same number of syllables and the same stresses as “mareserpa,” thereby allowing it to be sung on the exact same musical notes. Also, as James Joyce showed in Finnegans Wake4, a compound word can be a pun; that is, the whole can have two or more disparate meanings. Thus, we invented “fanatachismo” to mean both “extreme fanaticism” and, because of punning resonances with “machismo,” “extreme male posturing,” an especially apt word to describe the two fathers.

Strange locutions in English can also be created by taking advantage of the fact that words can function grammatically in more than one way depending on their use. Thus, in “lest by con he loophole loose” (“lest by trickery he find some way to escape”) in the above example, “loophole,” usually a noun, functions as a verb.

Two other ways of forming new English words include back-forming different parts of speech from English words and expressions, such as the past-participle adjective “smitherated” from the expression “smashed into smithereens,” and the placement of prefixes on words that do not usually have them, such as “betatters,” “unwhited,” and “reperceive.”

Like Ravasini, we used abbreviated forms of words: “tuit” for “intuition,” “mystere” for “mysterious,” and “pelled” for “compelled” or “impelled.” The strangeness and/or humor of these words is more apparent in context than in isolation, because only in context do they clash and/or resonate with the ordinary or other strange locutions around them: “hanging by a tuit of hope” (“holding on to some intuition of hope”), “stymied am I by a tremor mystere” (“I am held back by mysterious fear”), and“I am pelled to disabuse thee” (“I am forced to contradict you”).

As can be seen from “thee” in the preceding paragraph, we followed Ravasini in using old-sounding, archaic, and esoteric words, such as second-person familiar English pronouns (though of course second-person familiar Italian pronouns are ordinary words). Also like Ravasini, we used contemporary slang and extreme modernisms. Here, too, context is required to discern the diction clashes between contemporary “diss” and the slightly old-sounding verb “brook”:

for brook I scantly will a willful will to diss me
(for I am rarely tolerant ofdisrespect towards me)

And we underlined the childish temperaments of the two fathers by having them declaim infantile expressions in their arguments with each other:

Prepare to cry!
Mud in your eye!
You tookmy tyke!
You take a hike!

Finally, we inserted two operatic in-jokes.

In many 19th-century operas, when a character is upset by what is happening or by what he or she is hearing, the character exclaims “orrore!” Victorian and Edwardian translators frequently translated this as “O horror!” a translation risible today. However, we thought it would be appropriate in La figlia del mago and so, although no character actually says “orrore!”, we inserted it into the example shown at the beginning of this column. Another operatic clicheis the use of the word “amor / love” over and over and over and over again. And so, we decided to insert “amor” into our translation by translating homophonically:

Spenza nostral alfin ancor…
Deh, fato ribello,
dèlico amore straziano già,
a- a- a- a- a- a- a- a- amor!
—La figlia del mago, No. 13
piano-vocal score, pp.62-63

Yet we adore forever more.
Ah! Fate calcitrangent,
prisonment plangent
lessen our store, yet have we the more,
ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,ah, ah, more!
—The Sorcerer’s Daughter, No. 13
piano-vocal score, pp. 62-63

1. La figlia del mago / The Sorcerer’s Daughter, a comic opera in two acts with music by Lorenzo Ferrero and libretto byMarco Ravasini, translated by Mark Herman and Ronnie Apter, Milan, Italy: Casa Ricordi, 1993, © 1981, 1991, 1993, all rights reserved.

2. Orlando furioso (literally Raging Roland) is an Italian epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). The earliest version appeared in 1516, and the complete poem in 1532.

3. “Jabberwocky” is a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-98) about the killing of a creature called the Jabberwock. It is included in Carroll’s 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). There are many translations of “Jabberwocky” into many languages.

4. Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce (1882-1941), London: Faber and Faber, 1939.


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