Translating Italy for the Nineteenth Century

Translators and an Imagined Nation in the Early Romantic Period 1816-1830s

by Mirella Agorni (Author)
©2021 Monographs 182 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 288


In 1816, the publication in Italian of Madame de Staël’s essay “On the Spirits of Translation” marked the beginning of a controversy between classicists and romantics. The theoretical principles and practices of translation received special attention in Italy, a territory that was trying to define itself in terms of culture, given the impossibility of a unitary political project in this historical period. Translation became the means of enriching Italian language, culture and literature. A Translation Studies perspective focusing on the foreign, rather than the indigenous, traits of Italian culture, will demonstrate how difference, via translation, became one of the constitutive elements of new definitions of Italian national identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Italy in the early nineteenth century
  • 1. Italy in the early nineteenth century: Imagining a nation
  • 2. The myth of “Italy” as the origin of European culture
  • 3. Did an Italian Romanticism exist?
  • 4. Romanticism and Risorgimento in a stateless nation
  • Chapter 2 Intercultural mediators in the early Romantic period
  • 1. The role of intellectuals as border crossing mediators
  • 2. The “cultural manufactory” in nineteenth-century Milan
  • 3. The new book market and roles of Italian intellectuals
  • 4. Intercultural mediators as intellectual manufacturers: Publishers
  • 5. Intercultural mediators as intellectual manufacturers: Translators
  • 6. Copyright and censorship and the fragmentation of the Italian territory
  • Chapter 3 Debates on translation in the Italian territory in the early nineteenth century
  • 1. Germaine de Staël’s article on translation
  • 2. The role of Italian periodicals in the controversy between Classicists and Romantics
  • 3. The early reactions to De Staël’s article: The Classicists’ response
  • 4. The Romantics’ response
  • Chapter 4 The new tasks of the translator in the early Romantic period
  • 1. The impact of the Classicists vs. Romantics controversy on translation
  • 2. Translation from English
  • 3. Translation reviews in the Italian periodicals
  • 4. The new proposal of a “mediated fidelity”
  • 5. Translation, cultural self-identification and the tasks of the translator
  • 6. The new visibility of the translator
  • Chapter 5 A Romantic approach to translation
  • 1. The rise of the historical novel and the flood of Scott’s translations in the Italian territory
  • 2. A Romantic approach to Scott’s translation
  • Chapter 6 Gaetano Barbieri: Walter Scott’s translator
  • 1. The Italian translator of Scott
  • 2. A life in translation
  • 3. Barbieri’s method of translation
  • 4. Barbieri’s translation approach in his footnotes
  • Conclusion: Beyond Scott’s translations
  • Bibliographical references
  • Index of names and topics
  • Series index

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As early as 1975, George Steiner wrote, “Though the Index translationum issued annually by UNESCO shows a dramatic increase in the number and quality of books translated, though translation is probably the single most telling instrument in the battle for knowledge and woken consciousness in the underdeveloped world, the translator himself is often a ghostly presence” (284). We should forgive Steiner’s use of a few terms that are perhaps no longer appropriate, but his thought is still extremely relevant. In spite of the fact that translation phenomena have always occupied a central position in the development not only of literature but also of entire cultural systems, the subject of translation and translating is still struggling to gain greater recognition in many fields of study.

However, Translation Studies as a discipline has come a long way since its beginnings in the 1970s (Bassnett 1993). The descriptive paradigm has proved to be the main driving force of a field strongly characterised by an empirical goal, namely the description of translation processes and their products as they manifest themselves in the reality of experience (see Holmes 1972/1988). Toury’s 1995 research model, firmly anchored in the descriptive approach, paid particular attention to the reception of translations in the target cultural system, thereby enhancing the so-called target approach.

Toury had obviously been influenced by Even Zohar’s (1979, 1990) polysystemic approach, which saw translation as the catalyst for any development, not only literary but also sociocultural in a broader sense. The centrality of translation phenomena is particularly evident in periods of transition and crisis, when the traditional forms and models of a given source system are perceived as obsolete. Interaction with the Other, which is foreign to a given cultural system, makes it possible to rapidly introduce innovations into the system of origin. These innovations can be formal, in terms of repertoire of literary genres, or they may concern content, with topics and themes never dealt with before in the native culture. Once these elements have been introduced into ←7 | 8→the receiving system through translation, they become models that will influence the native production, often resulting in highly creative and original outcomes.

In order to produce a complex – but by no means exhaustive – view of the translation phenomena in the period 1816–1830 in the Italian peninsula, I will supplement system theory with a methodological approach fruitful for historical research on translation, namely localism (cf. Tymoczko 1995, 1999; Agorni 2002, 2007). Localism stands for a descriptive research model focused on specific translation activities and designed to map the details of the linguistic, social and historical context surrounding translations. It consists of a fine-grained contextual weaving, committed to following the seemingly loose threads leading to those intercultural spaces that host translations (Agorni 2018: 323–324).

Rundle has drawn a methodological distinction between two different models of research in translation history, one focusing on translation as “a historical object in its own right”, as distinct from another that looks instead at “what translation can tell us about history” (Rundle 2012: 49). In a later article, however, he brought these two perspectives together in a fruitful combination that emphasised the importance of adopting a multidisciplinary approach (2014: 7). This latter development seems to go in a similar direction to the localism model, since it deals with the actual texts of translations as well as with the function that translation plays within the specificity of a given historical context.

Contextualisation is a much debated issue not only in Translation Studies but in most of the humanities. The polysystemic model produces an ordered and hierarchical structure that risks hiding those elements of chaos and confusion that are intrinsic to most social phenomena. For this reason, correctives have been developed to study translators, institutions or texts in their broad historical, social and cultural context, which do not exclude, but rather complement, traditional systemic approaches. Localism is one of these correctives, and another one is the network map discussed by Pym as early as 1998. By mapping translator networks and translation activities, a complex picture of their context could be produced, shedding light on those elements that usually escape standardisation and removing some of the binarisms inherent in systems theory (Pym 1998; Tahir-Gürçağlar 2007). In other words, this ←8 | 9→model seems to work on a logic of association and connection, which characterises metonymic modes of representation, rather than the logic of the same that is typical of metaphoric models.

The metonymic nature of translation as a form of “partial” or “relational” representation has rarely been highlighted in Translation Studies, which have traditionally preferred metaphorical or substitutive models, as the endless debates on equivalence demonstrate. However, other disciplines, such as ethnography, have long experimented with similar interpretive turns. Geertz’s (1973) “thick description” methodology goes beyond a simple descriptive framework: it establishes a firm connection between local and specific experiences and their broader sociocultural context.

Dichotomies derived from a metaphorical logic have come under close scrutiny recently: their either/or perspective makes it difficult for researchers to investigate the nuanced patterns that characterise translation activities. A different, metonymic logic, working by association and connection between texts and their contexts, stories and history, cultural agents (translators, publishers, critics, reviewers, etc.) and their sociocultural environments, could avoid the risk of producing images frozen in a set of static frames, whether in terms of places, languages, cultures, nations or sharp disciplinary boundaries. It is necessary to represent the complexity of translation activities, which move across and beyond territorial, cultural and disciplinary frames. This seems to be all the more important when the context under examination was trying to define itself as a single national and cultural unit, as was the case with “Italy” at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

By working through association and connection, rather than in a logic of substitution, the central feature of translation, namely its ability to disseminate meaning, will come to light. Every act of translation is a dynamic process in which meaning is circulated. Circulation and transmission are signifying and creative processes in themselves, as Erll (2011), among others, has well explained. In this book, I will use her insights on “travelling memory” and apply them to translation, an activity which effectively makes content and form travel across languages, space, time and disciplinary boundaries. Coldiron too has highlighted the mobile dimension of texts, in spite of the fact that we ←9 | 10→normally “stabilize” them in order to analyse them (2015: 201). Looking at patterns of translation and circulation allows us to trace the ways in which the foreign was incorporated into an Italian target culture that was trying to redefine its identity2. Thus, the diachronic perspective of localism will be complemented by a spatial and transcultural dimension, in order to analyse translation activities in motion, as well as an Italian cultural awareness in the making.

The relationship of Italian culture to the European Romantic movement has always been portrayed as complex: witnesses of the time in the Italian peninsula were initially perplexed, then deeply divided, but were always aware of the far-reaching effects of the Romantic wave. To what extent they were influenced by it is still difficult to say, and we shall see later in this volume that some critics went so far as to deny the existence of a distinct Italian Romantic movement. But the writings of those authors who declared themselves to be most in favour of the new ideology had very limited, if any, popularity abroad. On the other hand, these same Romantic writings have attracted considerable critical attention in the disciplinary field of Italian Studies, starting with the works of Avitale (1959), Bellorini (1943) and Calcaterra (1951). These critical works, however, have rarely paid attention to the practice that self-proclaimed Italian Romantics, such as Berchet (1783–1851), Borsieri (1788–1852) and Di Breme (1780–1820), had advocated, namely translation.

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The quantitative dimension of translation phenomena in the period under examination has been brought to the fore in recent research, especially by book historians. Qualitative studies, on the other hand, are still scarce. When conducting qualitative studies on translation, especially with reference to distant historical periods, it may not be useful to assess the quality of translation according to criteria that are necessarily time-dependent and closely linked to the positionality of the researcher. Rather, it seems more productive to identify the characteristic elements of translation activities and try to discern their underlying strategies. This is an ambitious task, made even more difficult by the scarcity of information on most translation-related phenomena. Moreover, the main difficulty of translation research is due to its fundamentally hybrid nature, which requires research models spanning different methodological and disciplinary areas.

The profound transformation that a cultural system aiming to be recognised as “Italian’” underwent with the advent of the Romantic Movement serves as a pretext, rather than a “text”, for this volume. By this I mean that this study is not intended to be part of Italian Studies on the one hand or Cultural Studies on the other, focusing on the influence of British literature on Italian culture. Rather, the “Italian” culture of the first decades of the nineteenth century provides the context for a study of translation as a fundamental practice for the renovation of a given cultural system during an important phase of its evolution. Adopting some of the insights developed in Coldiron’s seminal text Printers Without Borders (2015), I would like to present an account of how translation became a means of introducing the “foreign” (an English and contemporary foreign) to produce a renewal of the Italian literary system in the early nineteenth century. A Translation Studies perspective will therefore allow me to concentrate on the foreign, rather than the indigenous, traits of Italian literature and culture and see how, by means of translation difference, it became one of the constitutive elements of new definitions of Italian literary identity.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 182 pp.

Biographical notes

Mirella Agorni (Author)

Mirella Agorni holds a PhD in translation studies from the University of Warwick (GB) and teaches applied translation and translation theory at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Her research interests are mainly focused on translation history, translation theory, pedagogy and ESP.


Title: Translating Italy for the Nineteenth Century
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