A PreviewThe Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
January 30, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
There could be no purer form of “slow reading,” on which we are about to embark together, than translation. While the ideal slow reader might imagine copying out an entire novel, translators actually do so, several times, writing and revising as often as it takes to get it right. They keep returning to the original text to see whether in rendering the outward style of a sentence or paragraph, some subtlety hidden just below the surface has been lost. Or, like a landscape painter, they take a step back to see whether their intense focus on detail has temporarily blinded them to the broader picture, the narrative in which the word or sentence is embedded.
When I set out to translate I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), I asked myself how I might inhabit this novel, in all its intimidating glory. The stacks of my research library were brimming with volumes dedicated to every aspect of Manzoni’s language, right down to his commas. One-hundred and fifty years of Italian scholarship had come to settle on the book, like the dust and candle smoke that had obscured Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel for centuries. The commented editions that Italian schoolchildren were forced to read had made the book almost impermeable. My aspiration was to get beneath that crust and reveal the dynamic, colorful, and modern novel that I knew it to be. But how?
In my more fanciful moments, I imagined taking the approach of a method actor, by dressing up like Manzoni, eating and drinking as he did, and writing by candle or gaslight.
While I did spend some time doing research at Casa Manzoni in Milan, I didn’t think I’d feel very comfortable in that getup. Not to mention that my apartment in Queens could hardly compare to his household. There was room for common ground, however, in his writing process.
Manzoni labored over this novel—his only one—for a good twenty years. Before first publishing it in installments between 1825 and 1827, he had already written two complete drafts. After publication of the first edition, he was still dissatisfied with the language. As I describe in my introduction, Manzoni aimed to forge a modern national Italian on the basis of contemporary Tuscan, which was not his native tongue. In too many places he felt that this first edition was antiquated or incorrect. So he went at it again, toying with individual words and sentences rather than making any changes in the plot or structure. He self-published this second edition between 1840 and 1842, which is why scholars refer to it as the “Quarantana,” an adjective that could also refer to forty days or a coin worth forty soldi. This is the definitive edition, the ones that Italians read and the one that I have translated.
Detailed records have been kept of Manzoni’s various drafts, correspondence regarding the novel, and miscellaneous other material. To commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the date he started to write the novel, in 1821, a selection of his manuscripts were posted online. You get a good idea of his tortured writing process from these first few pages, illustrating his struggle to come up with the right opening for chapter one:
Sentences and paragraphs are crossed out or shifted around, while entire pages are reshuffled and renumbered.
The website also includes the line edits to the first edition suggested by two native Tuscan friends, the poet and playwright Giambattista Niccolini and the philologist Gaetano Cioni. Their “correzioni” consisted primarily of fixing the spelling of some words or replacing them with the proper Tuscan term.
As I look at these images, I remember my own tortuous writing process. I began the translation way back in 2004, but was only able to work on it in the bursts of time that I was able to steal from my full-time job. Not to mention the simultaneous pressures of the PhD dissertation I had been trying to finish for several years, and contracts to translate contemporary Italian novels I felt bound to fulfill.
Occasional stays at writers’ residences in Canada, Italy, and Ireland helped to shield me from these competing projects, sequester me from the distractions of modern life, and enter more fully, though briefly, into the world of Manzoni.
When I’d worked with contemporary authors, I’d always tried to translate quickly, typing furiously on the keyboard of my computer, in the hopes of capturing the natural cadences of the English language by moving forward without hesitation. I’d highlight the words and expressions I did not know and go back to them only later, once my first draft was complete. With Manzoni, I had to take a different approach. He takes the reader on a longer journey, with many stops and detours along the way, in no rush to tell the story, basking in the luxuriously-written periodic sentence. Many of his paragraphs are structured more like the stanzas of a poem, riffing on a single word or playing with syntax, writing a sentence and then rewriting it in reverse order.
To be more attuned to his rhythms, to hear where the stress fell on his phrases, I listened to an audiobook of the novel available on the RAI website. If you know Italian, or are just curious to hear how certain sections sound in original, please do check it out. I also listened to operas by Manzoni’s great contemporary, Giuseppe Verdi, especially Un ballo in maschera, whose articulation into overture, aria, duet, and concertato reminded me of how the plot of I promessi sposi was organized. (Verdi’s great Requiem mass, you might know, was written to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Manzoni.) Many aspects of the novel are indeed operatic, with the sharply drawn figures of good and evil, moments of high drama, and even quotations from the popular opera comica, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, “zitti, zitti, piano, piano.”
The most consequential decision that I made was to write out my first draft by hand, using a fountain pen. Fortunately, I had learned cursive in elementary school. There is something tactile, even sensual, in the swirling motion of the pen across a line, the slender trail of ink that it leaves in its wake, the liquid ink drying before your eyes. Whether the quality of the writing is good or not, it always looks beautiful. Then there is the visceral satisfaction of crossing out a line, impulsively, or crumpling up a sheet of paper in frustration. And when your concentration starts to lag, and your imagination runs dry, your calligraphy collapses into a scribble, telling you it’s time to stop.
I find word processing, by contrast, dull and uniform, making me feel as if I am writing words rather than sentences, and erasing every trace of my struggle.
The other great advantage to handwriting, I found, is that when you look up from your notebook, you see not a computer screen but the environment surrounding you. This was especially appreciated during the month that I spent at a residence in Bellagio, in the middle of Lake Como. When I would look out from the window of my studio, there before me was the landscape that Manzoni describes so vividly in the opening paragraph of chapter one.
Eventually I did have to transcribe my notebooks to the computer, and subject the printouts to multiple rounds of revisions. And that was before I consigned the manuscript to my editors, who queried not so much what I had written, as what Manzoni was after. Why was he so circuitous? Why is he using two adjectives that mean almost the same thing rather than one? What are these repetitions doing here?
After answering every query, taking note of suggestions from copy editors and proofreaders, I wrote my introduction, and I waited.
Finally, after a couple of delays in the publication date, one fine day my copy of the finished book arrived by messenger. I placed it on the coffee table in front of me, almost afraid to touch it. For years I’d pored over dictionaries, read detailed commentaries, and compared my translation to previous versions. I was always filled with doubts, wondering whether I had interpreted the Italian correctly, and found the best solution in English. After two days of staring at the book, I finally picked it up. I felt like I was holding my life in my hands. And in that moment, all my uncertainties vanished. I knew I had achieved what I wanted, and brought The Betrothed back to life in a manner faithful to Manzoni’s style, and in the language of our time.
I am happy now to share this book with you, and to join you as a reader. As we would say in Italian, “Buona lettura!”