Header photo: Eduardo Castaldo/HBO
In the Neapolitan novels, a four-book series by Elena Ferrante that has seen enormous success in Italy and around the world, a fundamental role is given to language; in particular, the books highlight the dichotomy between the Neapolitan dialect and standard Italian, which punctuates the series’ events like a leitmotif.
Yet despite being mentioned regularly, Ferrante never uses dialect in the series’ Italian-language narration (except for some slang expressions, like strunz, càntaro, tàmmaro and uommen’e mmerd). The author often reminds us that the characters are speaking in dialect, but their dialogues are, in fact, written in standard Italian.
For example, in a memorable scene in the first book My Brilliant Friend, when Lila threatens Marcello Solara by pointing a knife at his throat, the narrator writes,
The presence of the dialect is important, almost omnipresent, but it’s never shown explicitly. During an interview with Katrina Dodson in Guernica, Ferrante’s American translator Ann Goldstein shared an interesting reflection on the reasons for this choice: “The obvious reason Ferrante doesn’t use dialect is because many Italians wouldn’t understand it. But a second reason may be that, as an Italian professor at CUNY was saying, Neapolitan dialect is very much a spoken language, and if she were writing it, there would be no point, in a way. It would lose the character that it has as a spoken language.”
So it’s not by chance that the characters in the TV series based on My Brilliant Friend speak in the Neapolitan dialect, perhaps exactly because it’s a natural medium to bring across the essence of the spoken dialect.
The dialect–standard Italian duo closely concerns the two main characters of the Neapolitan novels, Elena and Lila. They both use language to convey their identity in the world.
For Elena, who is unhappy in the poor and violent circumstances of her childhood, adopting standard Italian is a way to emancipate herself from her neighborhood. But at the same time, it becomes a barrier that separates her from her family and her friends. There’s a wonderful and poignant scene where Elena, back in Naples after getting her diploma in Pisa, forces herself to talk to her mother and discovers a new barrier to communication:
In Pisa, Elena feels excluded because of her Neapolitan accent, but in Naples they call her “the Pisan” and mock her for speaking standard Italian.
The question of mastering a language as a means for inclusion on one hand and exclusion on the other not only concerns the general social sphere, but also interpersonal relationships.
At the beginning of the book, speaking standard Italian brings Elena and Lila together. As children, they enthusiastically speak “in the language of comics and books,” which inevitably excludes others in their neighborhood. However, the situation changes shortly afterward, when standard Italian becomes more often the language of concealment — as opposed to dialect, which is the language of authenticity — becoming an obstacle destined to divide the two protagonists. Narrating one of her last conversations with Lila, Elena says,
A Difficult Translation
With a text like Neapolitan novels, so closely linked to Naples and Italian history, transposing into another language is far from a piece of cake, and the problems go past just dealing with Italian dialects.
Beyond the descriptions of the city and the historical, political and cultural references, one of the concepts that gave translators the most difficulty is smarginatura: “On December 31st of 1958 Lila had her first episode of dissolving margins. The term isn’t mine, she always used it. She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.”
Ann Goldstein explains that smarginatura is a technical term from the field of typography which means “cutting off the margins of a page.” She started with the literal translation “trimming the edges,” “losing the edges,” then “dissolving the margins” or “dissolving the boundaries,” ending up with “dissolving margins,” an expression that – according to her – “better expresses the emotional substance and the original meaning of the word at the same time.”