When 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.
“The 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.»
Unlike 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.