Translating a Dream

A discussion with translator and scholar Carlo Alberto Petruzzi about his translation of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s “visionary text”, Venise la nuit: rêve (Venice at Night: Dream), in its second printing this year

Readers of YtaliGlobal most likely know that I translate many of Ytali’s Italian articles into English. In fact, translation is my main work, and outside of YtaliGlobal I translate Italian historiography – and a lot of business documents. The point here isn’t my career, but rather that the specific types of texts I work with are all literal, factual, linear, and most importantly of all, verifiable. When I encounter details in texts that I am not sure of, I can easily look them up or I can ask the authors themselves.

That said, I am certain that my ‘branch’ of translation is considerably different than that of translating fiction or poetry, which I imagine demands levels of cultural and linguistic interpretation that I simply don’t encounter in my work. So, I have a certain curiosity about this more artistic type of translation which was immediately piqued by Carlo Alberto Petruzzi’s recent translation from French into Italian of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s work Venise la nuit: rêve (Venice by Night: Dream), a very unique and challenging text that was first published in Paris in 1886.

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (

Edmond (May 26, 1822 – July 16, 1896) and Jules (Dec. 17, 1830 – June 20, 1870) de Goncourt “were French brothers, writers and constant collaborators who made significant contributions to the development of the naturalist novel and to the fields of social history and art criticism” ( Early in their careers, in 1856-57, the brothers traveled in Italy and returned with writings that eventually became Venise la nuit. Carlo Alberto Petruzzi’s brief and essential Introduction and Note on the Translation provide more detail about the book and this unusual translation project, which involves a text that de Goncourt admirer Vittorio Pica described as follows:

In it Venice is represented as an enchanted city, as a city seen through the phantasmagorical veils of a dream, and is described in a poetic prose which bears the fascinating exuberances of color of the last great Venetian painter, Tiepolo.

This aspect of the work really caught my attention – how would one approach translating a text that is well over a century old and written in such a fantastic style? Bear in mind that the real goal of any translation is for the text to be rendered as if it was written by the author in the second language. It is clear that Petruzzi took a careful, informed and scholarly approach to translating the de Goncourt’s work, but there is also a strong aspect of art and poetics involved as well. To offer a small taste of the text (and hopefully whet the reader’s appetite for more), here is a short excerpt taken from a scene set in the Frari. As it is in the book, the original French is presented alongside the Italian. The rhythm of the text, itself referring to music, and the rhyming of the Italian is quite striking:

Il flottait dans toute la nef un musiqe suave, soupirante et gazouillante. Il semblait ce fu l’éveil et la prière du matin de l’aube, prenant voix part toute la terre. Des refrains, des chansons, des airs à danser, et des marches et des susurrements qui s’enhardissaient, et des trémolos badins, et des rythmes légers, et des gammes ondulantes et balancées, et des crescendo, que l’archet brise et renoue;

Aleggiava in tutta la navata una musica soave, sospirosa e cinguettante. Sembrava che fosse il risveglio e la pregheria mattutina, che prendesse voce da tutta la terra. Ritornelli, canzoni, arie di danza, e marce, e sussurri che diventano sempre più forte, e tremoli scherzosi, e ritmi leggeri, e gamme ondulanti e bilanciate, e dei crescendo, che l’archetto spezza, e rispezza, e riannoda

I was intrigued to learn more about Petruzzi and his experience working with this text. Translation is a practice often associated these days with machine translation and AI, and technology has empowered the work of translation tremendously, to put it mildly. However, the work still requires rigorously informed human intervention, no matter what kind of text it is. Making the genuine associations intended in the original text is work for humans, not computers. This is even more true with a text like Venezia la notte, over a century old and written in a unique, experimental style. Here the translator must not only be a textual interpreter, but a cultural and historical mediator as well.

Carlo Alberto Petruzzi was kind enough to share some of his time and answer a few questions about his work. Our conversation follows.

What led you to translate this particular work? Did you have experience with other esoteric French texts?
I had previously translated in Italian two short-stories by Guillaume Apollinaire (Le Gastro-astronomisme and L’ami Méritarte). As for Venice by Night: Dream (Venise la nuit: rêve), I immediately found the very peculiar way in which the brothers Goncourt depicted Venice to be fascinating. It’s a great visionary text conceived by two authors who would later turn towards Naturalism.

In your Notes on the Translation you mention that there is an earlier translation of this work. Did this earlier translation influence your work?
A previous Italian translation of the text was published in 1944. It’s a very good translation. In my edition, I decided to publish the original text in French alongside my translation to enable an instant comparison between the two. I have also included an introduction and a note where I discuss my translation criteria. In Venice by Night, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt continually refer to the city of Venice, its history, literature, and arts. To help the reader, I have incorporated several footnotes that clarify the context and the identity of the personalities evoked in the text.

Can you talk about some of the challenges involved for you as a translator with following the very non-linear and ‘dreamy’ character of a text like this, where the narrative voice switches abruptly and is often very allusive?
In order to reach a dreamlike dimension, when referring to the history and art of Venice, de Goncourt’s prose deliberately confuses different historical eras. At times the syntax becomes very complex and hard to follow. To preserve the same rhythm of the original, I opted for a plain literal translation, which mostly worked out, thanks to the proximity of French and Italian.

Another interesting element of the translation is your effort, as you put it, to maintain the “inaccuracies” of Venetian and Italian words and phrases as heard and recorded by French speaking writers. Can you discuss this part of the translation?

As I said, there are several inaccuracies in the text that could be explained by the surreal and oneiric atmosphere of the story, not to mention the difficulties that two French men could have encountered while dealing with Italian or Venetian phonetic. When the book came out, Vittorio Pica, an admirer of the Goncourt brothers, complained that the text was “full of words in an Italian that was way too bizarre”. I tried as much as possible to maintain those “bizarre terms” as they seemed to raise a beneficial distance between today’s reader and the world of the Republic of Venice. In the Italian translation I have only amended some names that were misspelled (Michele dall’Agata instead of Michele dell’Agata, Pietro Albogheti instead of Pietro Alborghetti; Zitta instead of Zita – the meaning of the former is “silent” whereas the latter is a female name).

Is there a particular passage in the text that stands out to you in some way as particularly significant? For example, you mention preserving rhetorical figures “in all their evocative and imaginative force”. Can you talk about a particularly successful and/or challenging example of that?
Probably the long sequence with the funeral of Antoine Watteau, the French painter who worked on many subjects of the “Commedia dell’arte”. During carnival, the narrator/main character transforms himself into the Lion of Venice. From the top of the column in Piazza San Marco/Saint Mark’s square he can admire the dominions of the “Serenissima” – from Cyprus and Crete to the inner domains of Bergamo and Brescia – in all their beauty. The capitulation of Venice due to Napoleon’s troops is rendered beautifully. A French soldier sits at the bottom of the column smoking a pipe and gradually the whole city collapses and plunges in his cloud of smoke. But suddenly the narrator is awakened by the cannon announcing the opening of the port of Venice.

Finally, congratulations on the second printing of the book this year. Do you have plans to publish other translations in the future?
I am currently focusing on a book series of opera librettos in a Chinese translation which I launched/started with a colleague a few years ago. The language of opera is often archaic and poetic, making it hard to grasp the full meaning of librettos even to native speakers. Opera librettos usually derive from pre-existing literary sources and their cultural references – Italian or European History, the Bible, Greek mythology, or simply to Western culture and habits – can also be hard to understand for students with a full proficiency in Italian. There is a great need for similar tools.

Venezia di Notte (Sogno) is available online from Damocles Books in Venice.

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Translating a Dream ultima modifica: 2024-06-01T20:59:05+02:00 da PAUL ROSENBERG
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