Mr Poe welcomes “the Betrothed Lovers” in the U.S.A.

bethrodedbethroted-5When Manzoni ‘s “The Betrothed Lovers” (I Promessi Sposi) landed in America in 1834, the book had already  become a hit in Europe. With more than 80 reprints in Italy and in Europe, “the Betrothed” had caught not only the attention of publishers and printers but also the praises of many illustrious writers of the time such as Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, who had the fortune to know Italian and appreciate the book in the original language. The problem of the language employed by Manzoni  was no minor matter, as translators found it very difficult to interpret (as Italian students nowadays). That was one of the reasons why in England, for example, “The Betrothed” received bad reviews at first. For instance, on the «Foreign Quarterly Review» in November 1827  the reviewer smashed the novel with few words: «an indifferent novel written by a highly respectable dramatist» and  points out «the unnecessary and tedious minuteness of the historical notices with which it is interspersed». Certainly,  if “the genius of an author  is […] intimately associated with the genius and the very sounds of his language”, as Andrews Norton, another (bad) translator of “The Betrothed” remarked, it would be impossible to judge the necessary from the unnecessary and hence, the fortune of a book  would be entirely in the hands of translators.

bethroded4The Betrothed” was published in America on “The Metropolitan: a Miscellany of Literature and Science” in weekly installments in 1834 and translated by George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866), polygraph and English geologist who had emigrated to the United States. He also found the novel «exceedingly difficult to translate» and added that translating «such a work of pre-eminent merit […] is like attempting to paint the fragrance of violets and roses». However, Featherstonhaugh decided to handle the text in full, as he found impossible to clearly separate the dullest passages from “comic thoughts, and the finest touches of humor“. Even if there were no visible mistakes,  the style was too refined: vocabulary and syntax were actually Italian or Latin, therefore; far from current English. Such a choice would have been unpardonable for a fervent supporter of the “living and true language” as Manzoni was. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe , who had been commissioned the review of the novel, commented:

«We regret to say that the translation has many faults. We lament it the more, because they are obviously faults of haste. The translator, we fear, was hungry; a misfortune with which we know how to sympathize. The style is, for the most part, Italian, in English words, but Italian still. This is a great fault. In some instances it would be unpardonable. In this instance, perhaps, it is more than compensated by a kindred excellence. In a work like this, abounding in the untranslatable phrases of popular dialogue, it gives a quaint raciness which is not unacceptable.» 

Despite the many faults of Featherstonhaugh‘s translation, Poe was impressed by Manzoni ‘s masterpiece and his warm enthusiasm can be seen from the very beginning of his review:

«This work comes to us as the harbinger of glad tidings to the reading world. Here is a book, equal in matter to any two of Cooper’s novels, and executed at least as well, which we receive at the moderate price of forty-two cents!»

Even if he could not regard the novel “original” in the very sense of the word as ” the writer is obviously familiar with English literature, and seems to have taken at least one hint from Sir Walter Scott” Poe praises the perfection of the machinery of the story, which makes impossible and unworthy any attempt of summarizing it:

«Well! here is something that will stick by the ribs; a work of which we would try to give a sort of outline, but that it cannot be abridged. The machinery of the story is not intricate, but each part is necessary to the rest. To leave anything out is to tell nothing.»

bethroded2Unlike other critics of the time, Poe was not fooled by the writer’s Catholic attitude: “Manzoni was as much alive, as Luther himself, to the Church abuses of That.” But what particularly impressed Poe was  the author’s expressive power, which he wanted to give proof of, quoting entirely the episode of Cecilia’s mother and commenting: “There is a power in this to which we do not scruple to give great praise.” Of course, the description of the Plague in Milan in 1628, and the details of the “uncoffined bodies naked for the most part, some badly wrapped in dirty rags, heaped up and folded together like a knot of serpents,” and the “Monalti “  the men who,” having had the plague, were considered exempt from future danger, and were employed to bury the dead“, belonged much more to his taste and it seems to have strongly inspired his Mask of the Red Death and King Pest.

That was the beginning of Manzoni‘s fortune in America. The very same year another translation appeared in New York, but with a different title and more faulty than the previous one :” Lucia, the Betrothed” published by George Dearborn and translated by Andrews Norton. The blend of gloomy atmospheres and moral message succeed in touching many hearts. One of them, Charles Sumner, future American politician,was particularly struck by a scene where Fra Cristoforo asks the pardon of the brother of the man he had murdered and said: «The Pope should remit Manzoni ten thousands years trough purgatory in consideration of Fra Cristoforo and the Cardinal Borromeo. When I read the asking of pardon by Cristoforo, though I was in a public “vettura”, and albeit unused  to the melting mood, I yet found the spontaneous tear, the truest testimony to the power of the writer». Power which eventually managed to win over the ineptitude of his translators.

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On School Books

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With this post, the trilogy about teachers’ frustration, or at least my frustration, for what concerns parents’ expectation from the school system comes to an end. Hence, having analyzed old and new attitudes towards the “pointless” habit of assigning homework, I would like to add few words on school books and how they have changed in time according to the new methodological requests.

As soon as you open a school book of your children, I guess you may promptly spot what’s new: pictures. Nowadays school books are mostly made of pictures rather than words. Even books of subjects which are less likely to require pictures, as for example, philosophy, are assembled with colorful paintings, drawings, fun activities and such. Books must be engaging and attractive, and to be attractive pictures work better than words, of course. I do understand this, because in my school days books were dull. When my philosophy teacher, for example, assigned us 12/15 pages to study, my first thought was: are there any pictures? We were really lucky if there was at least one, as once, books were made of words. If I had to study the Socratic method, for instance, I would have read pages and pages about the way Socrates succeeded in eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close logical reasoning, plus extra essays on his famous disciples like Plato, plus notes at the bottom of every page without a trace of a picture. All grey.

Nowadays, it would impossible to propose such a book and I would not do it myself either. All these words would cause a shock to the Instagram , Facebook, “Why bothering about writing, there are emoticons” generation. The same topic, very likely , would be better and easily explained on modern books just using three drawings, yes, three would be enough. The first one would show Socrates while speaking to his disciples who look at him in silence😕, then in the second one he starts to asks questions and questions thus catching his disciples’ attention 😮and the final one the enlightened devotees eventually start to speak while Socrates displays his satisfaction 😄. His method had worked 👍.

Teaching has become mostly visual nowadays, which is fun for us teachers too. However, I have noticed that too often when our students are asked to read, because it happens sometimes, and analyze a text, they don’t understand the meaning of many words. For example, one day in a class with students of about 19 years old, we were talking about the “welfare state”. I gave for granted that they knew the meaning of the word, as even if we have borrowed it from the English language, it is commonly used on newspapers and political debates every day. However; nobody, and I say nobody, knew exactly the meaning of the word “welfare”and things did not improve significantly, when I translated it into the correspondent Italian “stato sociale”. A thick fog surrounded them. They were 19 and potential voters.We are so focused in transmitting knowledge with the help of images that we do not realize that words are starting to become meaningless for many of them and us too .

Hence, I cannot help but wonder, when every now and then we are asked to give our opinion on such “irrelevant” matters like Brexit in the U.K. or to vote the reform of the Italian Constitution, as it will happen here in Italy on the 4th of December, we should assume that all these people are informed as they can read and fully understand what they read, otherwise, upon what ground will they choose? I guess that the 40 something millions of citizens who are demanded to decide to vote YES or NO for the reform of the constitution, should, as prerequisite, at least be acquainted with the 139 articles which form the constitution plus the various sub-paragraphs and then analyze carefully the amendments to form an opinion. All this without the help of explanatory pictures? I have my doubts.

On the Necessity of Parents’ Doing their Children’s Homework.

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As I said in the previous post, rebellion is in the air. A rebellion against the oppression of homework and the tyrannous teachers who spoil the quality of students’ life assigning it. However, while analyzing these vigorous movements, I have realized that here in Italy, as usual, there is an anomaly. In fact, they do not seem to be grown out of the necessity of those “ill-treated” students, as it would be normal to assume, but rather, their parents’. It seems a kind of weird, I know, but it actually explains the nature of the phenomenon and why this generation of parents feels haunted and frustrated about homework habit: THEY do their children’s homework, that is all .

pin3Of course, I cannot but unconditionally sympathize with them, as that was the “duty comes before pleasure and leisure” generation, my generation. Our parents would  have never dreamed of questioning the necessity of homework or openly criticizing teachers and I would have never dreamed of complaining with them about the loads of work to do. Had I tried, their only solution would have taken the form of the reduction of my extra activities, which I didn’t want, of course, therefore ; I tried to organize myself the best I could and in a way or another, I managed to survive. Hence; not only these parents were regularly and unquestionably in the habit of doing their own homework, but  somehow, they feel compelled to do their children’s as well, sparing them the trouble of doing it, but why?

Of course, it cannot be pure masochism, as it would seem at first glance. Therefore; I can only guess that if, after a long, tiring day, those parents are still willing to take books, pens and paper to live their old homework doing nightmare again, their drives must be powerful indeed and from my experience I can single out two of them in particular: fear of failure and lack of time, better known as “let’s find a shortcut”.

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This happens, because  homework is generally considered only as the boring acquisition of notions, but it is not or at least it shouldn’t. Homework, actually, concerns the consolidation of what has been done in class and above all, work organization. Hence; those parents who constantly help their children do/organize their homework, actually, don’t trust them. They don’t let them grow and test their own learning method and besides they might undermine their self-esteem, as the subliminal message given is that without their help they would not be able to reach the goal otherwise. Believe me, this is how it works.

I have witnessed my sister-in-law for years, undergoing all this since first grade. Her constant presence had made the time dedicated to homework odious for my nephew and disappointing for her (and the entire family as well). Year after year, he had learnt to accomplish his duty only to avoid his mother’s pressures and shouts or to please her. Therefore;  homework was something pointless with a lot of drama added every day, which he did only for her mother and not for him. When she could not help him any longer, guess what? He failed, because in all those years he had not learnt how to manage his time, as her mother did it for him and worst af all, he had not developed any effective learning method. He had only learnt notions which were soon forgotten once the minimum goal was achieved.

For what concerns parents’ habit of doing homework as a sort shortcut to finish sooner, this point cannot be understood if we don’t comprehend how  adolescents have changed in time. The life of an average student nowadays is, let me say: busy. Teenagers practice at least one sport three or four times a week plus other extra activities of any kind, spend a lot of time facebooking, whatsapping, playing with video games, hanging out etc., hence; it seems difficult to find any extra, quality time for any additional effort. The point is that their parents are just fine about it, they are happy to see their children “have a life” (I’m employing the words they used in the many letters of complaint) and don’t want this routine to be spoilt,  that’s why they often replace their children in doing their homework.

My dear parents, you’ll be surprised, but I also think that your children need to have a life, all teachers work in order that they might have the best life possible, but we can’t do this without parents’ support. Let’s try to co-operate for once so that WE might have a life, as well. Therefore; stop doing their homework, and help them only if they ask you. Let them  “err“, “fall” and learn from their mistakes so that one day they might “find open before” them” the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)