Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.46

Leopoldo Gamberale, Plauto secondo Pasolini: Un progetto di teatro fra antico e moderno. Ludus Philologiae, 15.   Urbino:  Edizioni Quattroventi, 2006.  Pp. xii, 209.  ISBN 978-88-392-0763-0.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rosanna Lauriola, University of Idaho (
Word count: 2916 words

Translating poetry in a satisfactory way is certainly one of a translator's greatest challenges. The potential for multiple levels of meaning in poetry (including figuration and wordplay) makes the gulf between the Source Language and the Target Language even larger than in prose. Any translator must also account for cultural gaps between the two languages caused by differences in place and sometimes historical era. Hence, the two requirements of being true to the original poetic text and making it accessible to a different and contemporary audience are ineludible issues a translator has to face.

In Plauto secondo Pasolini L. Gamberale demonstrates that the eclectic Pier Paolo Pasolini, an Italian poet, novelist, screenwriter, essayist and film director in the '60s and '70s, worked with a clear awareness of these big issues when he undertook the translation of Plautus' Miles Gloriosus for performance. This translation presents a specific peculiarity, in that its Target Language is not Italian but the Romanesco, i.e., the vernacular spoken in Rome. As a matter of fact, the title given to the translated play, Il Vantone, is in Romanesco.

Despite the popular success that Pasolini's translation has had, scholars have given it little attention. Gamberale's main aim is to valorize Pasolini's work through a painstaking comparison of original text and translation, using Pasolini's own notes on the work in progress for illumination. As such, Gamberale makes it clear that he intends to contribute to a deeper understanding of both Plautus' contemporary revival and Pasolini's talents for translation (p. X). In spite of some self-indulgences in technical matters, Gamberale clearly states up front that his analysis is not strictly addressed to philologists.

The book consists of a preface and eight chapters. It is concluded by a bibliography and two indices (one of the topics and the other of the quoted texts).

In Chapter 1 ("Quasi un Intermezzo") Gamberale touches on Pasolini's very first translation of a classical text for performance, the Orestiade. The reason for this discussion is twofold: first, to identify the period in which Pasolini worked on Plautus' text (between 1960 and 1963); second, to prove that Pasolini, though not a professional translator or a classicist, had an appreciation of the questions and issues raised by translation. He was well aware, for example, of the different exigencies engendered by translations from Latin and Greek and from different literary genres. This awareness might be expected from a professional translator, but it cannot be taken for granted in a poet, director, screenwriter etc. such as Pasolini. Gamberale also makes a few technical observations concerning the translation itself, discussing some mistakes mostly due to Pasolini's misinterpretations of Mazon's French translation. Gamberale also analyzes some stylistic quirks that result from Pasolini's tendency to modernize the ancient text. Indeed, one of Pasolini's goals as a translator was to establish a correspondence not simply between Greek or Latin and Italian expressions but also between ancient and modern ideas. He thus viewed translation not as a philological exercise but as a poetic re-creation.

Chapter 2 ("Pasolini e Plauto: quando e come") concerns when and how Pasolini first encountered Plautus. His first Latin translation was Virgil's Aeneid, which already shows his tendency to modernize the ancient text, such a tendency that most characterizes the translation of Plautus' text, and that also resulted in Pasolini's choice of Romanesco. Indeed, if modernization is the common denominator of Pasolini's translations, the choice of vernacular as the Target Language is peculiar to Il Vantone. For this translation, Pasolini also adopted a distinctive meter (martelliani),1 and cut some lines of the original text. The choice of dialect has drawn the most criticism and explains why scholars have devoted so little attention to this work. A brief timeline of Pasolini's work on the Plautus translation completes the chapter.

In Chapter 3 ("Il Miles Gloriosus e il testo seguito da Pasolini") Gamberale first introduces Plautus' Miles Gloriosus both by summarizing the plot of the comedy and by focusing on some specific characteristics of Plautus' production, such as the contaminatio technique, the function of the smart servus as alter ego of the poet, and thus the metatheatrical components of plautine comedies. After this premise, Gamberale directly discusses Pasolini's translation in light of both Pasolini's own observations, and some strictly philological considerations. Among Pasolini's observations on his own work, of some interest are those concerning his craving for re-creating the text in a way to make it suitable and meaningful for the modern audience. With this aim in mind, however, Pasolini has over-emphasized the hints of social injustice and anti-militarism, which surface throughout the comedy, and the slavery issue. Pasolini said nothing about the Latin edition and translation he used, nor did he say anything about the reason for cutting several lines from the original text. On the basis of a few important correspondences in terms of identical ways of transliterating some proper names and distributing cues, Gamberale concludes that Pasolini used a popular translation of Plautus published in 1953, that of Icilio Ripamonti. Indeed, some mistakes identifiable in Pasolini's work, Gamberale explains, trace back to Ripamonti's translation.

Chapter 4 ("Le scelte teatrali nel Vantone") constitutes, in my opinion, the core of the entire book. In this chapter the subtlety of Pasolini's translation fully emerges. The chapter is arranged in three sections and an Appendix. The first section concerns the linguistic choices, still better the reasons of a specific phraseology adopted by Pasolini with the purpose of making the text suitable for a performance before an audience that was certainly far different from that of Plautus. As Plautus did not only translate the comedy from the original and anonymous Greek text Ἀλαζών, but also transposed a comic plot from one cultural system (that of Greek world in the fourth and third cent. BC) to another (that of Roman world in the third and second cent. BC), similarly did Pasolini. As Plautus modified the Greek model to make it suitable for such a diversified audience as the Roman one, which was very mixed and mostly included the lower strata of the society, so did Pasolini. In other words, both of them did not translate ad litteram, rather they introduced a variety of linguistic and stylistic codes aiming at a successful reception by their respective audiences. Pasolini questioned himself about what kind of spectators would attend the performance of Plautus' comedy in translation, and what kind of Italian show would be approximately similar to that of the ancient Roman comedy. As his answer, he found a peculiar form of entertainment--and correspondingly its language--as being able to prompt a vivid interaction between audience and text to a similar degree that Plautus' comedy did: the so-called avanspettacolo (Curtain Raiser), typical of the fascist era and the postwar period. It was performed before the real event, i.e. the screening of movies; it consisted of comic sketches, and it was always regarded as specifically addressed to the masses. According to Pasolini's notes, he thus wanted to choose a language that would not be simply a literal translation of Plautus' Latin, rather a language analogous to that of Plautus. Hence the choice of the local dialect of Rome, not the pure romanesco, i.e. that of a well established literary tradition in dialect centering around the poets Belli, Trilussa and so forth, but a dialect mixed with slang, a kind of linguistic pastiche suitable both for any of the social strata of the common audience, and for any fictional characters as they would speak in real life. With reference to the latter consideration, Pasolini used a variety of linguistic codes to adapt the way a character speaks to his/her own social status. So while servants speak a stricter slang-Romanesco, masters or persons of higher social status speak a neater dialect mixed with Italian words. Moreover, Pasolini tended to change the linguistic code given to a specific character in accordance with his social status, if this character changes role and comes to assume a lower position. As Gamberale makes it clear, another evidence of Pasolini's deep care for a translation that is mostly a cultural operation rather than a merely linguistic rendition is given by the cuts made to Plautus' text. In addition to eliminating stage directions, Pasolini tended to cut sententious speeches, above all those that seem to be incongruous with the context and, as such, were suspected of being a product of the contaminatio. This is the case, for instance, in the first scene of the third episode (ll. 700 ff.) where Pasolini eliminated the pithy speech about the sons, and Periplectomenus' intention to go to the forum (an action that then does not happen on the stage nor is it supposed in the subsequent scenes), elements which are so at odds with the general context that scholars think they are due to Plautus' alteration of the Greek model. Although unaware of the contaminatio issue, Pasolini seems to have understood the incongruity and eliminated it by cutting what is at odds and restoring the linear sequence of the stage events.

The second section discusses Pasolini's choice to entitle the translated text Vantone and to keep the original proper names of the characters. As to the title, what is striking is that the term Vantone exists neither in Italian nor in Romanesco. It is a neologism based on the Italian noun vanto -- which means boasting-- and transformed into an adjective through the use of a specific modifying suffix, -one, that conveys largeness. It is analogous to existing modified nouns that are familiar both to the Italian language and to Rome's dialect, such as spaccone (loudmouth), piacione (one whom everybody likes, or who thinks that everybody likes him). That Pasolini was not content with using existing terms able to produce an ironic and humorous effect, is more evidence of how deeply he pondered his translation choices. As a native Italian speaker, I can say that Pasolini could not have coined a better noun to communicate what Plautus meant by nicknaming his comedy's main character Gloriosus. In light of this attention to an appropriate and clear communication with his audience, and given that there are no nouns as strange to Italian and Rome's dialect as Pyrgopolinices etc. are to Latin, Pasolini's decision to keep the original proper names of the characters might seem strange. They are self-evident Greek names whose meaning Plautus' audience could already miss; a maiore Pasolini's audience could miss it, too. Pasolini did attempt to adapt those names to the sounds of Roman dialect by applying the so-called troncamento, i.e. by deleting the word-endings so that, for instance, Palestrione becomes Palestrió. Notwithstanding, the impression is that of a huge discrepancy between a dialect text made suitable for a large, popular audience and high level Greek rooted names. However, Pasolini questioned himself about how to render those names, and the first solution he found -- i.e., to translate them in their components and make evident their meaning -- turned out to be too trivial and demeaning. This is, at least, Gamberale's explanation of Pasolini's decision to abandon that solution and to resign himself to keeping the original names.

The third section of this core chapter 4 discusses the way Pasolini dealt with one of the most compelling problems in a translation, that of being true to the original text. With reference to this problem Pasolini's observations -- as Gamberale notes -- are a bit inconsistent since on one occasion he claims to have re-elaborated or freely translated Plautus, and in another to have translated ad litteram -- claims that remind one of those similarly expressed by Plautus and Terence. Gamberale states that overall the translation is true to the original text and the modifications that Pasolini introduced turn out to be designed for a specific purpose, that -- as said -- of modernizing the context and making it accessible to the contemporary audience and its cultural acquisitions. It is in this light that one should examine some cuts made to the text and classifiable as a form of synthetic translation. So, for example, some obscure mythological references have been omitted; as a result, the text becomes shorter and easier to understand. Far more interesting are those modifications that concern the linguistic and conceptual facies, in that they equate Plautus' language to common and colloquial idiomatic expressions familiar to modern Italian culture. The best example of this kind of modifications occurs at ll. 685-700. While explaining the reason why he would not like to get married, Periplectomenus enumerates all virtues and flaws of women with some emphasis to their insistent request of money. Where the excuse for getting money is to buy a present for the mother in occasion of the Matrons' Festival, on the Kalendae Martiae (i.e. March 1st), Pasolini, in a wonderfully witty way, substitutes the Matrons' Festival with la festa delle donne (= Women's day). This is a significant festivity in Italy, even more important during Pasolini's time given that it was when the first feminism movements aroused. This Women Day is celebrated at the beginning of March (namely on March 8th). As Plautus had contextualized the original Greek text by Romanizing -- so to say -- the monologue with the introduction of elements peculiar to Roman culture, such as the Kalendae, so did Pasolini by introducing an event typical of the popular culture of contemporary Italy, such as l'otto Marzo (= March 8th, by antonomasia the Women Day), with an inevitable witty dig at some feminine traditions.

In chapter 5 ("Ripensamenti, suono e metro"), Gamberale discusses some second thoughts Pasolini had about his own translation choices, most of them often caused by the poetic meter. Pasolini has paid careful attention to the meter and, thus, to the musicality of the text. He has tried to preserve the phonetic effects of the original and to preserve the effects provoked by specific figures of speech, such as anaphora. Gamberale argues that Pasolini's choice to use the martelliani was very likely due to the fact that this kind of meter prompts sounds that otherwise one could not find either in standard Italian or in dialect. Moreover, the fact that the martelliani belong to a comic tradition which traces back to Moliere's theater, and were also typical of some Italian popular poetry, led Pasolini to consider that meter more suitable for a text in dialect.

In chapter 6 ("Un' idea di Plauto") Gamberale discusses the idea that Pasolini had of Plautus. In a polemic between Pasolini and the critic Aggeo Savioli, Pasolini admitted he exaggerated two issues, namely the anti-militarism and the slaves' condition. To Gamberale's eyes the way in which Pasolini re-interpreted the issue concerning the slaves' condition is what most mirrors Pasolini's idea of Plautus, an idea that --according to Gamberale -- does not properly do justice to Plautus's comedy itself. Pasolini seems to charge the slaves with some kind of civic commitment. By doing so, as Gamberale observes, Pasolini missed the fundamental trait of Plautus's slaves, that is their fecund and witty creativeness, which both makes the slave a sort-of alter ego of the poet himself, and shows the basic aim of Plautus' comedy, that of amusing the audience without making any civic claims.

Chapter 7 ("Ἀλαζών, Miles gloriosus, Vantone: dopo Pasolini") mostly focuses on what happened to Pasolini's translation after the first season of performance. Gamberale hints at some changes in terms of a different distribution of lines among the performers and new adaptations due to different settings. He makes precise references to the most recent re-performances of the Vantone in 2001. This chapter together with chapter 8 ("Prima di Pasolini, Salvatore Cognetti de Martiis Traduttore di Plauto") would have been better located in a final Appendix, due to the fact that they add little to the main topic of this book. The report concerning Salvatore Cognetti de Martiis (chapter 8) is certainly detailed and interesting strictly from a philological point of view. The fact that De Martiis was been the first to use the martelliani while translating Plautus gives this chapter some relevance, in that it identifies a precedent for the use of this specific meter in Plautus' translations. Yet, a more concise note would have been preferable and appropriate to the overall context.

Despite these very few shortcomings and, sometimes, the impression of being repetitive, the book is pleasant to read and, in places, funny due to the appropriate emphasis on the brilliant way in which Pasolini adequately rendered Plautus' text in the local dialect and contemporary, popular culture of Rome. Gamberale has reached his aims well through this book by demonstrating how Pasolini approached Plautus' comedy with a theatrical sensibility rather than a textual one, how Pasolini was aware that a good translation depends upon a cultural mediation, and how he was seriously committed to that activity by posing to himself the questions a professional translator should ask. The textual cuts, the modernizations, the stylistic variety, the choice both of a specific meter and a specific language (Rome's dialect) were dictated by Pasolini's wish to create a living text, such a text that, though centuries old, could speak to a contemporary audience. By both being true to the text and yet re-creating it, Pasolini treated Plautus the same way Plautus had treated the Greek models. And, as Plautus is not Menander or Philemon so Pasolini is not Plautus; each of them must then be appreciated in his own right. Therefore, Pasolini's Vantone must be seen as both a new chapter of Plautus' modern reception and an important piece of Pasolini's dramatic writing.


1.   In Italian this is the term for double septenarius verses arranged in rhymed couplets and occasionally capable of double scansion.

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