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L’Amfiparnaso: Found in Translation, part 2

April 9, 2011

by Theodore Deacon, producer of EMG’s upcoming baroque opera production: A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell, on April 15, 16 and 17 at the Moore Theatre.  Click here for more information about performances and to buy tickets. To read part one of this article, click here.

Another blog on turning L’Amfiparnaso into English! Hey, how hard can translating be? It’s just a simple matter of finding an English equivalent and doing the “Moon, June, Croon, Poltroon” bit to finish it off, right?

Well, it’s not that easy. Even in straight prose, translating is a minefield of misconstrued intent and lost subtext. Just missing the “tint” of a foreign text can turn The Magic Mountain into a literary molehill. Now imagine trying to match the stress of poetic meter, the ebb and flow of melodic lines and retain the tang of the bawdy innuendo of commedia scenarios and you get a taste of the enormous challenges facing an English L’Amfiparnaso.

Where to start? The basic outline of L’Amfiparnaso is straight out of the vast collections of commedia scenario handbooks. (Commedia dell’arte, an improvised performance style, did not preserve its dialogue.) Also, L’Amfiparnaso has an unusually large cast and occasional unconnected story lines. To help speed things along I melded similar character types together, so now there is one set of lovers and one pair of comic servants. The result is classic commedia.  A miserly father (Pantalone) wants to sell his daughter’s (Isabella) hand in marriage to a decrepit pedant (Dottore Gratiano) rather than lose her to a penniless young suitor (Lucio). With the help of the ubiquitous clever servant (Arlecchino) and the wise and wily courtesan (Hortensia) the lovers evade Pantalone’s malodorous matchmaking as well as the machinations of a horny Spanish braggart (Capitano), just in time to proclaim an absurd happy ending.

But wait! There’s more! In the original Italian, many of the jokes depend on the impenetrable regional dialects that define the characters, as when Pantalone’s crotchety Venetian collides with Arlecchino’s rustic burr from Bergamo while the lovers coo in elegant Tuscan. And then there’s the foreigner Capitano who butchers his Italian, often to uproariously obscene effect. Rather than trying to adapt American dialects – say Pantalone with a Southern drawl or a Dottore from Harvard Square – it is more effective to have the servant spout contractions and vulgarities, the elders gabble in persnickety patter, and the lovers proclaim passion in heartbreaking lyrical verse.

And what about those dirty jokes and innuendoes? Well, you’ll just have to come to show to see what happens when Arlecchino is asked to “service his lord” or find out where the Capitano “puts away his mighty poker.” It’s all in fun and very much in the bawdy, raucous style of those ancient commedia zannis whose slapstick humor has the distinct sting of truth.


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