18.09.31, Rizzi, Vernacular Translators in Quattrocento Italy

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Eugenio Refini

The Medieval Review 18.09.31

Rizzi, Andrea. Vernacular Translators in Quattrocento Italy: Scribal Culture, Authority, and Agency. Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017. pp. x, 233. ISBN: 978-2-503-56785-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Eugenio Refini
Johns Hopkins University

When explored through the lens of traditional scholarly narratives based primarily on disciplinary distinctions and linguistic difference, the Italian Quattrocento looks puzzling. On the one hand, a flourishing production in the vernacular has been long obscured by the outstanding and blatantly consequential experiences of both the previous and the following centuries, traditionally pictured as foundational moments in the establishment of the Italian vernacular as a literary language. On the other hand, the scholarly acknowledgement of the indisputable impact of the Humanist turn, with the rebirth of classical Latin and the promotion of new "philological" ways of looking at the classical past, has often underplayed the intersections of Latinate and vernacular cultures that, as a matter of fact, informed and fueled it. As convincingly argued by Andrea Rizzi's Vernacular Translators in Quattrocento Italy, crucial to such intersections was the role played by the theory and practice of vernacular translation.

By uniting a series of important contributions on vernacular translations in pre-modern Europe (e.g., Rita Copeland's and Alison Cornish's), Rizzi addresses questions about the cultural, social, and political implications of vernacular translation in a time period (the fifteenth century) and a geographical area (the Italian peninsula) characterized by complex dynamics of transition, continuity, and difference that are difficult to disentangle. Vernacular translation is thus not only the primary object of Rizzi's study, but also a prism through which to explore these dynamics. Indeed, by looking at the ways in which vernacular translators conceived their function and fashioned their identity, the book provides novel insights into the productive role of translation practices in fostering forms of cultural, social, and political negotiation that have shaped a substantial part of what is traditionally labeled "Italian Renaissance."

As indicated by the subtitle, three key terms frame Rizzi's account: scribal culture, authority, and agency. Rather than addressing them as separate functions, the author looks at them as interconnected threads that inform the history of vernacular translation in fifteenth-century Italy. As such, as indicated by Rizzi in the introduction ("A New Era for Translators"), the book is not meant to "verify the literary and cultural value claimed by fifteenth-century vernacular translators for their work," but to focus on "the translators' strategies of self-fashioning" and, more precisely, on the "textual means they employed to convince readers of the translator's unique role in the dissemination of knowledge" (3). By concentrating on "first-person statements" made by translators (6), the author offers a compelling narrative that highlights the proactive and conscious contribution of translators to the construction of a system of knowledge in which translation acquires a new status, more explicitly concerned with authorial practices than with the ancillary position it held in the previous century.

Within this narrative, notions of authority and agency prove crucial to the outline of the cultural patterns that inform the work of vernacular translators as well as their agendas. Looking at translations as "objects" (29), Rizzi illuminates the ways in which translators present and frame their work within a web of relationships that include fellow scholars, patrons, and--to some extent--reading publics at large. The study of paratextual materials proves, in this respect, particularly productive: indeed, Rizzi shows how the paratext (prefaces, addresses to the reader, dedication letters, etc.) becomes a textual space that is not only aimed at introducing the work, but also serves as a platform for the legitimation of translation as an instrument able to engage with and promote forms of cultural negotiation. The exploration of the translators' self-perception as "agents" within such negotiations is certainly one of the most significant contributions of Rizzi's book, which invites modern scholars to reconsider vernacular translation as pivotal to the cultural and linguistic mobility that did inform Quattrocento Italy.

Chapter 1 ("Early Quattrocento Vernacular Translators") focuses on the elements of continuity and difference that characterize the experience of fifteenth-century translators vis-à-vis the tradition of the volgarizzamenti that had been developing throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The author provides a detailed overview of translators and translations, arguing that one of the most significant innovations in the practice of translation is the humanist background of most fifteenth-century translators. Accordingly, the inspiration behind the practice of translation acquires a higher status, with the scholarly training of translators increasing the status of translation itself. As for continuity, Rizzi shows that, in most cases, the kind of texts translated remains the same, thus making fifteenth-century translation part of a wider development in the vernacular appropriation of Latinate culture.

Chapter 2 ("Translators at the Court of Naples") concentrates on the Neapolitan court as a particularly fertile context for the production of translations in the vernacular inspired by concurrent trends in the vibrant humanist culture of the city. Particularly, the Neapolitan example allows for a detailed discussion of the multifaceted task performed by translators: this is, for instance, what happens with Ghinazzone da Siena, who is described as "messenger or interpreter of the Latin text, agent for the promotion of his dedicatee, and self-promoter" (68). By looking at lexical choices and instances of social interaction, Rizzi shows that translators such as Ghinazzone were indeed acting as mediators between the humanist contexts and their vernacular, lay counterparts.

On a similar note, chapter 3 ("Early Quattrocento Humanists and the Dignity of the Vernacular") engages in a fascinating discussion of the ways in which the tensions between Latinate and vernacular cultures found a ground for interaction in the theory and practice of translation. Indeed, instead of highlighting the hiatus, Rizzi argues that the study of vernacular translation and, particularly, the dynamics outlined by translators, help us reassess the productive interaction of Latin humanism and concurrent development in vernacular literacy.

The argument is, so to speak, proved by the following chapters, which tackle four concepts that lay at the core of the experience of translation. Chapter 4 ("Bruni and the 'New' Quattrocento Translator") explores the crucial role played by Leonardo Bruni in the establishment of translation theory and practice as an instrument for the dissemination of knowledge. Considering the multilayered interaction of orality and writing as media that foster different uses of language, Rizzi provides a portrait of Bruni that, in a way, overcomes long-lasting questions about the alleged contradictions that characterize the profile of the humanist. With Bruni, translation "harks back to antiquity in order to promote an approach to translation that blurred the boundaries between independent creativity and deference to the start text: in Bruni's hands, history writing and translation became a single practice" (102). At the same time, as Rizzi argues at the end of the chapter, Bruni's innovative idea of translation (where the "rhetorical" approach is preferred to the "grammatical" one) has important repercussions on the vernacular domain, where the "negotiation between Latin eloquence and vernacular intelligibility" (113) is felt with urgency.

The problem is at the core of chapter 5 ("Between Elegance and Intelligibility"), where the author explores a series of interconnected tropes that affect the ways in which translators talk about their task. Along with a veritable anxiety for eloquence and elegance--which, in a way, mirrors similar concerns in the Latinate domain--the most pressing matter is that of the difficulty posed by the translator's task itself. As indicated by Rizzi's analysis, vernacular translators engaged in a sort of contest with their sources, thus performing their role in accordance with developments in Latin translation. By doing so--as suggested by the lexicon employed to describe their work--vernacular translators make translation not only a tool to bring a text from one language to another, but also an instrument to contribute to the ennoblement of the target language.

Crucial to such developments in the theory and practice of translation are the themes explored in the two last chapters, collaboration and friendship. Chapter 6 ("Collaborative Transformation") focuses on the effective interaction of rulers and translators in the production of translated histories, showing that the translation process is far from a fact of mere erudition. Indeed, the case studies discussed in this chapter show that translation stems from dynamics that entail utilitarian exchanges and the interaction of agents across social layers. As suggested in chapter 7 ("Friends Gifting Vernacular Translations"), friendship is the frame within which most of these exchanges take place. Translators, dedicatees, and readers join a space of interaction that, through friendship, lets them "strengthen links between the personal, public, and political realms that underpinned the production of texts" (163). Rizzi convincingly describes such interactions as "transactions" where the goods exchanged are "cultural and symbolic forms of capital" (173). By describing the phenomenon in these terms, the author manages to provide a dynamic model for the study of vernacular translation that sheds light on its interstitial nature. As stressed in the conclusion of the book, the multiplicity entailed by the translators' self-fashioning provides us with a better understanding of vernacular translation not only as a form of cultural negotiation with the past, but also as pivotal to the promotion of writing and reading practices that cut through linguistic difference and cultural hierarchies.

The book closes with an appendix ("List of Quattrocento Vernacular Translators for the Years 1392-1480") that lists the variety of sources identified by the author throughout the research. The list is not only a useful complement to the book, but also a tool per se, for it provides a clear outline--both chronological and geographical--of the ways in which vernacular translation developed in Italy across the fifteenth century.

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