Lost in translation

Although French was a language that Elisabetta Caminer and her team knew fairly well, the risk of divulging misunderstandings was always a concrete threat. This is the case of a review published in Giornale Enciclopedico (May 1775, p. 130) concerning the novel The married victim: or the History of Lady Villars. The text of the review is the following:


Le Victime ec. La Vittima maritata, o Istoria di Lady Villars, tradotta dall’Inglese; dal S. A., A Londra 1775, e si trova a Parigi presso Merigot, 2 parti in 12. Questo Romanzo, il cui fondo è mediocre, presenta una pittura spaventevole di tutti i mali, che una cattiva femmina può cagionare.


[Le Victime etc. The Married Victim, or, the History of Lady Villars, translated from English; from Mr A, in London, 1775, and available in Paris from Merigot, 2 parts in 12. This novel, whose basis is rather mediocre, offers an appalling picture of all the ills that a bad wife can cause.]


The French review at the base of the Italian one was published in March 1775 in the Journal des Beaux-Arts et des Sciences (pp. 528–529):


La Victime mariée, ou Histoire de Lady Villars, traduite de l’Anglais, par M. A., deux part. in-12. A Londres ;  & se trouve à Paris, chez Mérigot le jeune, quai des Augustins, 1775. Une méchante mère, un père tendre, mais foible & dominé par l’ascendant de sa femme, obligent leur fille à épouser un homme qu’elle déteste, & qu’elle a tout lieu de détester, & à renoncer au plus aimable des hommes, qui enfin meurt de la main du jaloux. Cette mort entraine celle de l’infortunée, dont le père péri de chagrin avant elle. Ce Roman offre le tableau des malheurs dont une méchante femme peut être cause.


[The Married Victim, or History of Lady Villars, translated from English, by Mr A., two parts. in 12. In London; and in Paris, at Mérigot the young, quai des Augustins, 1775. A wicked mother, a tender father, but weak and dominated by the ascendancy of his wife, compel their daughter to marry a man she hates, and that she has every reason to detest, and to renounce the most amiable of men, who at last dies from the hand of the jealous. This death leads to that of the unfortunate woman, whose father perished with grief before her. This novel offers a picture of the misfortunes that a wicked woman may cause.]


It is evident that the Italian journalist took only the last part of the original article. The differences between the two reviews and the excluded material cause some fascinating consequences. First of all, there is no trace in the French review of a judgement on the value of the novel: the Italian journalist talks autonomously about a ‘mediocre basis’. Secondly, in the Italian version there is a mistake with the article in the novel’s title, which is male instead of female (le vs la). An Italian reader who learned of this novel for the first time could possibly not realize it was a typo, and be immediately misled into thinking that the victim was a man, and not a woman. Even more interestingly, the body of the reviews seem to contain some kind of misogynistic information, since it explains how the novel in question deals with the topic of bad wives and the troubles that may arise from them. Conjugating the title and the information of the review, a reader was forced to think that this novel coming from England told an appalling (‘spaventevole’) story in which a poor man was mistreated by a mean woman. The ‘cattiva femmina’ becomes the negative protagonist of the book, and it seems like the male character is, precisely, her victim. But in the original review, the content was extremely different. As explained at the beginning of the foreign article, the real victim is in fact a young woman who is forced into an arranged marriage with a man she does not like. There is, it is true, a bad female character, namely the mother who imposed the wedding. But it appears quite clear that the omission of the first part of the French review by the Italian journalist causes a twist in the whole meaning. The information that reached the Italian audience was wrong, and it conveyed totally different values. There is no reference to the pain of the young woman, no reference to the love of the tender father (who is too weak to go against his wife but will eventually die from sadness. We are far from the stereotype of the powerful patriarch. There is no reference to the tragic epilogue, with a murder and the death of the real lovers. It is hard to tell if the omission was deliberate, or if it was an accident and the journalist did not realize the twist he had caused (we can maybe infer that the journalist was male from the way he speaks about the protagonist). In my opinion, there was no ‘forbidden’ content to be censored, not even the weakness of the father, so it might have been a simple mistake. What matters the most, in any case, is to see how the Italian readers could respond to that review and which opinion they could build about the novelty coming from England through France. Even without pushing the interpretation too far, it appears rather clear that the content of the novel, deemed as mediocre, was not in favour of women. The perspective is rather chauvinistic, as the article deals with the problems that a woman (let’s not forget that the French ‘femme’ might be translated as ‘wife’, even if the Italian journalist chose to be quite literal) can cause to a man in a marriage, excluding any possibility of reciprocity.

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