Ottavio Fatica’s Translation in Italy: how did it come to this?
by Giuseppe Scattolini
Translated by Francesca Montemagno
This text represents the opinion of its author, Giuseppe Scattolini, who kindly accepted the invitation to write on our website. The subject was chosen by Giuseppe, and its content does not necessarily express the position of Tolkienista website. We understand that, in order to have a clearer view of the issue, we would need a greater knowledge of the language and the historical-cultural context of the country involved. Furthermore, we believe that deeper and more objective research on our part would be necessary for us to position ourselves critically in regard to the translation issues of Tolkien’s works in Italy. We acknowledge and thank the trust Giuseppe and his collaborators, Erie and Maurício, put in us. The website is always open for our Italian friends, and we add that, should the current Italian translators be interested in respectful and friendly contribution to the debate, the site is open for dialogue as well.
Since 2018, we have been experiencing a very unpleasant and painful situation in Italy. The unpleasantness derives from the fact that we are witnessing for the umpteenth time an exacerbation of a conflict between different Tolkienian organisations due to mainly ideological reasons. The pain, instead, comes from the knowledge that the values inherent in Tolkien’s texts should guide us all towards being more understanding, truthful, and honest; Tolkien should help us go against the world, not imitate it, if by ‘world’ we mean politics, war, conflicts, selfishness, untruthfulness, and ideology.
In order to understand the events of the past two years in Italy, we need to comprehend their origin. I cannot summarise here the entirety of Oronzo Cilli’s book Tolkien e l’Italia published by Il Cerchio because such an endeavour would go well beyond the purposes and wordcount available for this article. Therefore, hoping that it will soon be translated into English given the success of Tolkien’s Library, I will limit myself to two remarks.
Like princess Vittoria Alliata di Villafranca and I often agreed, since she was the first translator of The Lord of the Rings into Italian, only Tolkien’s first Italian publisher Mario Ubaldini of publishing house Astrolabio believed in the beauty and potential of this author. In 1967, very few copies of La compagnia dell’anello, the first volume of the trilogy – which, as every Tolkien fan knows, is only such due to publishing purposes, since the book is meant as one volume – were sold and did not obtain the success that was expected, which would have allowed Ubaldini to amortise expenses and to publish the remaining volumes. He was thus forced to sell the rights to publisher Rusconi, which, thanks to Quirino Principe’s revision of Vittoria Alliata’s translation and to Elémire Zolla’s preface, situated the novel within the Italian right-wing culture of the 1970s, although the text did not show any specific political orientation nor motive.
Moreover, Tolkien had never had anything to do with the esotericism and neo-paganism in which Principe and Zolla’s culture was in some ways imbued, not to mention its traditionalism: tradition in Tolkien is very important and may well be quoted with a capital ‘T’, but its meaning in his works is not as it was understood in those years and publishing context in Italy. I have heard chilling tales about that time from those who went through it, from left-wing people who had to hide the cover of The Lord of the Rings if they wanted to read it and from right-wing individuals who had to conform to the ideas of their party leaders. Italy was a country divided by the Iron Curtain and the lack of political alignment was a value that the novel acquired thanks to the sheer strength of its content.
In the past few lines I have summarised a story that is far more complex and varied than this, but the heart of the issue is that Tolkien in Italy has always had to make his way through a jungle of politics, ideology, individual ambitions, mere greed, and ideas that did not belong to him. We had put most of these ‘dead marshes’ behind us thanks to Peter Jackson’s films. For example, political debate concerning the novels had died out, but we fell back into it thanks to the never hidden, always explicit work of the Wu Ming Foundation, a group of far-left Italian authors combining the worst traits of the old and the new ways of viewing political fighting and left-wing ideology, whose declared purpose has been to oust anyone not agreeing with them or recommended by them from Bompiani, the publisher currently holding Tolkien’s translation rights.
Among those in agreement with them, or recommended by them at any rate, are the Associazione Italiana Studi Tolkieniani (AIST) and, consequently, the new Lord of the Rings translator Ottavio Fatica, since Wu Ming 4 (aka Federico Guglielmi) is a founding member of AIST and he recommended Fatica to Bompiani for this task as well as another AIST member, Giampaolo Canzonieri, as their representative for the technical and scientific revision of the translation. Said revision aimed at making Fatica’s translation ‘as Tolkienian as possible’, as recently declared by AIST president Roberto Arduini at Turin International Book Fair 2020.
This was the way in which we were told that Fatica’s translation was giving us ‘the true Tolkien’. We shall leave aside the matter of ‘the true Tolkien’, who may be found in the original text rather than a translation – supposing, of course, that a ‘true Tolkien’ exists at all, given how he used to write and then re-write the same stories several times. Indeed, this is not the point; the purpose of the entire operation was to separate the Tolkienian universe from its father J.R.R. Tolkien, since all those who do not like this translation and the methods that saw to its birth are ‘hooligans’ at best. Only AIST members and those who support it in some capacity are entitled to criticising it on specific occasions if the translator makes a small mistake. Surely translating ‘ranger’ as forestale [‘forester’] is not considered a mistake, since Wu Ming 4 conducted a ‘philological’ study on the term ‘ranger’ whence it follows that forestale is an excellent translation; it is of no consequence to him that, by reading forestale, people are reminded of ‘forestry workers/rangers’ rather than what Rangers really are in Tolkien’s universe, that is, people who lost their power and home because of Sauron and the wars against the Kingdom of Angmar.
After all, Italians are acquainted with Wu Ming 4’s philological finesse thanks to his masterpiece Stella del mattino, published by Einaudi in 2008, where Tolkien becomes, in the imagination of the author, a mental patient who wets himself – in The Two Towers, Fatica translated ‘they could hear it tinkling away’ (Tolkien, 1968/2007: 424) as l’udivano spisciolare [T. N. a Central Italian verb meaning ‘to flow out slowly’ and containing the root piscio, ‘piss’] – and hallucinates. He looks like a psychiatric case rather than a great philologist, who instead of writing novels and teaching at university should be taking medication and treated in a hospital ward. After all, as Wu Ming 4 recounts, the very inspiration for the One Ring came to Tolkien from T. E. Lawrence, more widely known as Lawrence of Arabia. To me this looks like nothing but an ugly caricature of an intellectuel maudit, which Tolkien was not.
Not even his wife Edith Bratt is spared neo-Marxist Guglielmi’s absolute lack of respect: their marriage is depicted, without foundation nor consideration for them as people and for their privacy, as an extremely problematic and conflicting one, due to Tolkien’s faith and his open madness. Let us not forget that the first edition of W. G. Hammond and C. Scull’s impressive reference guide The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide was published a year before Stella del mattino, but it seems Wu Ming 4 did not take it into account, as he did not take into account Carpenter’s classic biography either. Wu Ming 4’s Edith speaks of the Sacrament of Confession as a medieval practice and, at some point, she even appears to be threatening to divorce her husband if he refuses treatment.
I shall leave all further remarks concerning this novel to an article on Oronzo Cilli’s blog Tolkieniano, but it is not like Ottavio Fatica, the new Italian translator of The Lord of the Rings, has a radically different opinion from Wu Ming 4’s. At the Tolkien Lab event in Modena in February 2020, although he sought to distance himself from Wu Ming 4, who was there too, by pointing out that he had been engaged by Bompiani and not by Wu Ming, their opinions did not differ much. By the way, Tolkien Lab is organised by the Istituto Filosofico Studi Tomistici, whose president Claudio Antonio Testi is a founding member and former vice-president of AIST. On that occasion, Fatica stated that he had translated ‘rangers’ as forestali because a native English speaker would think of Chuck Norris’ Walker Texas Ranger or Yogi Bear’s rangers upon hearing this word, and not of Tolkien’s ones.
According to Fatica, the term ‘ranger’ is unintelligible to the native reader, hence it should be so to anyone reading the text in translation as well. One of the fundamental criteria of the new translation is, in fact, the unintelligibility of the text, heightened by the presence of many borrowings from regional dialects, which are, therefore, not even strictly speaking Italian. This criterion is the opposite of the one adopted by previous translator Vittoria Alliata, which consisted in a complete and immediate comprehension of the text, together with musicality. The latter is nearly absent in Fatica’s translation, whereas Tolkien recommends it in his Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings (Hammond and Scull, 2014: 752), which contains instructions for the translators and where he describes, for example, his translation of Imladris as ‘Rivendell’. The author states having privileged the musicality of the name above the translation’s sense and ‘philologicity’ (to quote a term that AIST holds dear).
However, the issues concerning the Nomenclature are not the most problematic aspect of Fatica’s translation. In his rendition, not only did he use regionalisms, but he also inserted archaisms, which would be perfectly fine had he not done so in a way that is the opposite of what Tolkien writes in letter 171, where he explicitly affirms that employing obsolete words in a text does not equate to making it archaic. This is precisely what Fatica did by using archaic Italian terms every now and then, without following a precise criterion, merely to ‘embellish’ the translation, as if he were winking at the reader and telling them ‘see how good I am at looking terms up on a dictionary?’.
This is the exact meaning of the ‘philologicity’ of Ottavio Fatica’s translation, much praised by his AIST editors: the prowess showed in consulting Italian dictionaries. The most consulted one was the Thesaurus, widely used to find one thousand ways to express the same concept, for example forra, poggio, valle, vallea, etc., all variations on the theme of ‘valley’. Fatica’s Théoden speaks precisely as Tolkien says he should not, and what is most bizarre is that the author’s letters have recently been re-translated by Lorenzo Gammarelli, another AIST member. Is it perchance a lapse of memory on the part of those who were charged with making the translation ‘as Tolkienian as possible’?
With regard to Fatica’s translation, there are only a few more aspects that I would like to mention. For example, the new translator makes use of terms that are fully Italian, such as procacciare [‘procure’] in chapter 7 of The Two Towers, ‘Helm’s Deep’, but in an acceptation that is different from the most common one. When Italians hear the verb procacciare, they immediately associate it with food; according to prestigious Treccani dictionary (2014a), this verb means ‘to procure by means of hunting’. However, Fatica uses it to translate ‘gain respite’ in ‘The sortie upon the Rock gained only a brief respite’, rendering it as La sortita sulla Rocca aveva procacciato solo una breve tregua. This is one of the ways in which he makes the text harder to understand for the reader, by employing terms that have a given usual meaning in an acceptation that is far from it. Another ‘oddity’, if one may call it that, is the presence of refined terms such as daffare, in one word, which I have never seen replace da fare in current usage, or the verb incalzare [‘to chase’], used in the sentence Davanti a loro il nemico, anziché diminuire, sembrava essere aumentato, e nuovi rinforzi lo incalzavano dalla valle attraverso la breccia [‘The enemy before them seemed to have grown rather than diminished, and still more were pressing up from the valley through the breach’] to translate ‘press up’, thus suggesting that the backup of the besieged is attacking the besiegers, while in reality said backup belongs to the enemy.
I also cannot fail to mention the verb palpeggiare [‘to fondle’, ‘to grope’], employed by Fatica in its acceptation of tastare [‘to touch’], a less common one according to Treccani (2014b), while in common usage it does not refer to simply touching, rather to ‘caressing, touching someone’s body, specifically their erogenous zones to elicit or experience sexual arousal’. Here Fatica goes as far as to commit outrage: anyone not acquainted with Tolkien, reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time in this translation, will find La prima cosa che vide fu Gollum che, così gli parve, ‘palpeggiava il padrone’, while the original English quote read ‘The first thing he saw was Gollum – “pawing at master”, as he thought’. We are on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, when Gollum is back from his mistress Shelob’s lair and feels a prick of conscience. It is a crucial moment in the novel and Fatica spoils it by having first-time readers learn not what is actually happening, that is, Gollum caressing Frodo, but instead fondling him, touching his private parts to seduce him.
Gollum’s repentance is transformed into sexual arousal through an eager search for terms and acceptations that even the most learned readers do not know. What Sam sees is, in fact, one of Gollum’s paws touching his beloved master (‘pawing at master’ in the source text), so, in Italian, it would mean that Gollum metteva le sue zampacce addosso al padrone [‘was putting his ugly paws on his master’]. And in that moment only a simple person such as Sam would have thought, ‘hands (or paws) off my master!’, given how little he trusted Gollum.
Something that is no oddity but, rather, a mistake, and a serious one at that, is the use of the indicative mood instead of the subjunctive. There is much debate and concern in Italy regarding the loss of richness in the language due to a tendency towards using the imperfect indicative instead of many other tenses, which is unfortunately what Fatica often does. This sort of thing often gets overlooked, but one may then wonder where Bompiani’s editor is, who should have corrected such mistakes, as well as thorough reviser Giampaolo Canzonieri who, despite this not being his task, has always said that he had pointed out any mistakes he encountered. Here is a small example: in chapter ‘Helm’s Deep’, Fatica translates ‘Taking his leave, he returned to the walls, and passed round all their circuit, enheartening the men, and lending aid wherever the assault was hot’ as Preso commiato, tornò sulle mura e ne percorse tutta la cinta, incoraggiando gli uomini e prestando aiuto ovunque l’assalto imperversava. Here it is not correct to use imperfect indicative imperversava, as it should have been imperfect subjunctive imperversasse. Reading this would make the eyes bleed to anyone as fond of grammar and of the expressive richness of a language as Tolkien was and, in my opinion, as any Tolkien fan and anyone else should be.
Since I could not cover here all the topics with the care they deserve, I shall quote a part of a comment by Francesco Cotrona on our Radio La Voce di Arda; he does not belong to any Tolkienian society but, like the vast majority of Tolkien admirers in Italy, he did not like this whole ‘new translation’ business. He believes that there is
a generally condescending, conceited attitude. Critics, even those who argue their point, are treated with hasty nonchalance. […] That AIST and Wu Ming’s operation on Tolkien is based on ideology is no mystery, as one of Wu Ming’s aims, clearly stated in a 2017 post, was, and here I quote, ‘to oust from guaranteed revenue the old fogeys that had poisoned the wells for decades by associating Tolkien’s poetics to that of their favourite authors by means of a cynical, ideological manoeuvre’. If said thinkers are Julius Evola and co, it is said elsewhere. In a January 2020 post they rejoiced because – I quote again – ‘neofascists of varied order and gradation, who have been accustomed for decades to considering Tolkien as their own stuff, now witness all this in shock’ – ‘all this’ refers to the operation led by Wu Ming – ‘they call it a “Neo-Communist” or “Maoist” plot […] and are whining because they have been divested of their national authority over the writer’. One, however, may wonder what ideology has to do with a translation. The way I see it, Wu Ming want to control the text. It should not matter how a certain social group interprets the text, as long as all other groups are free to interpret it as they prefer. The point here is imposing an interpretation over the others, which is easier if you control the text and no one may touch nor modify it. If your own version is the only valid or existing one, you control its interpretation to some extent. Frankly, I never got the impression that fascists controlled the text. Maybe they did in an academic sense, I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel overly important. The text is loved by millions of people of all political orientations in Italy for many different reasons. I have never perceived, in the thirty years since I first read the novel and I have been part of the fandom, that this was a book made for fascists. I see this new translation as a necessary step towards ousting anyone having had something to do with Tolkien in Italy until now, in order to gain interpretative supremacy over the text. They are essentially doing what they accuse the fascists of doing, but if they themselves do it, it is fair. They hide this behind higher and stronger academic conscientiousness, and an alleged philological adherence to the text that is sometimes there, but usually it is not. Wu Ming are happy that the old translation disappeared, they blog about it, they talk about it triumphantly. I think it is undeniable that these are the motivations behind the incoercible conceit with which they treat critics, even competent ones, tarring everyone with the same brush. In my opinion, to defend their translation means to defend their ideological position. No critique is ever legitimate because each critique to Fatica’s work is a critique to their noble endeavour. To me the problem is a sloppy translation and there is nothing political to it. I am probably as left-wing as Wu Ming are, perhaps even a little more. Nevertheless, I strive to be honest: in my opinion, of all the reasons that come to mind to revise a text, political ones are the most unsavoury. […] For instance, I discussed with several people the issue of the term undicentesimo [T.N. Fatica’s translation of ‘eleventy-first’], which I consider a mistake and struck me a lot because it is in the very first line of the first tome, right at the beginning. Undicentesimo? I think it is a blatant mistake. Tolkien was justified in trying to calque Old English by using ‘eleventy-first’, while Fatica had no philological reason to calque Latin: undicentesimus means ‘ninety-ninth’ in that language. All of a sudden, Bilbo is 99, not 111. If Fatica so wished to give an archaic flavour to the term, he could have used centundecimo or centoundecimo; they don’t exist in Italian anyway but at least they don’t distort the meaning. But no, undicentesimo is right because it is ‘more faithful to the text’ according to them. I think it is a specious argument.
Personally, I do not have anything else to add apart from the fact that Vittoria Alliata’s translation has currently become available again, at least for a short time, after Bompiani had been forced to remove its copies from the market. This was done last January under pressure from princess Alliata herself thanks to a letter in which she let all Italian Tolkien fans know that her translation’s rights had not been paid for years and that Bompiani treats Tolkien as ‘a washing machine detergent box’. The figure made known by Alliata for the renewal of the rights, which has not been denied by the publisher, is €880 per year for a re-publication of her translation ‘under supervision’. Such ‘supervision’ was not denied by the publisher either, but we do not exactly know by whom it might have been exercised, although the established facts speak for themselves.
Adolfo Morganti’s publishing house Il Cerchio has started selling remainders of the Serie Oro edition of The Lord of the Rings, three volumes with a silver cover, published by Bompiani in 2007. Together with the good news that Tolkien fans may be able to choose between two translations for a while come the not-so-good ones of the style adopted by Morganti’s advertising campaign, which, speaking of ‘cultural justice’, sported a similar vein to the language used in the 1970s-1980s, which all Italians had happily set aside. We hope that this right-wing media campaign of ultra-traditionalist style does not cause a chain reaction. Unfortunately, the premises are not great.
I thank Cristina Casagrande, a Brazilian friend who asked me to write an article for her prestigious website Tolkienista, and the Tolkieniani Italiani, the entity that I contributed to create and found, which comprises not only the society I founded and of which I am president, the Cavalieri del Mark, but also the Società Tolkieniana Italiana (STI), many unrecognised groups and individual enthusiasts and scholars, whose merit transcends the academic dimension to reach that of sincere, beautiful and unselfish friendship. We are now the only ones left in Italy to discuss Tolkien’s work without any hidden ideological, political and economic motives.
I would specifically like to mention Costanza Bonelli, Paola Cartoceti, Rachele Loricchio, Francesca Montemagno and Enrico Spadaro for their research and advice on this article, and Simone Claudiani’s work on our Radio La Voce di Arda, where our scholar friends often intervened on this translation with instructive contributions. Their knowledge has been fundamental for this article, since I am no translator nor philologist, merely a philosopher, and without theirs and other people’s friendship, Tolkien would sound just like any other name to me.
All my Tolkienian work is especially dedicated to three people: the late Dante Valletta and friends Greta Bertani and Gianluca Comastri, without whom nothing would make sense. They are the people for whom it is worth going on, making the entire world know of Tolkien-related events in Italy, a country for which one day, sooner or later, aurë entuluva, day shall come again.
Treccani (2014a) Vocabolario on line.
Hammond, W. G. and Scull, C. (2014) The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1968/2007) The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins.