Nancy Dersofi

[Text of the Translation Seminar Lecture delivered at Amherst in December 1996]

Obscenities and blasphemies punctuate the speech of the rustic characters Ruzante brought to the stage. These dialect-speaking rustics represent farmers in the pavano, the country region near Padua, in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Their speech attaches them to the territory and its culture during the troubled years of the Cambraic wars and its aftermath. Although modern enthusiasm for the author Angelo Beolco, who acted the part of his leading rustic character, named Ruzante, arises in some part from the perception that his rustics offer a true reflection of peasant life in the region, the belief that Ruzante's language exactly replicates a spoken dialect was modified by Marisa Milani, who demonstrated in a 1970 study that Ruzante and his companion rustics speak a theatrical version of pavano; (1) more recently, Ronnie Ferguson has argued that in Ruzante's time no one in the region actually spoke the dialect of the plays. (2) Nevertheless, Ruzante's stage language rings true to life, especially the obscenities and blasphemies that punctuate rustic speech. The playwright uses these expletives with skillful timing and keen awareness of their dramatic function repeating words like cancaro (3) with casual frequency, for example, while saving the more caustic pota (4) for such emotionally taut moments as Ruzante's encounter with his estranged wife in The Veteran, (Parlamento de Ruzante). Translation of these terms sets the general tone of rustic speech and affects each scenic moment. An aggressive translation may render the rustic characters boorishly unfit for the company assembled to watch them perform, while a tempered version might characterize the rustic as merely socially inferior to his audience. In this paper, I look at cultural factors at play in Ruzante's vulgarity, and at the lessons of some recent English forays into translating his obscenities.

Although sixteenth-century Venetian, Paduan, and Ferrarese audiences judged Ruzante the Plautus and Roscius of his age, his contemporaries were not always tolerant of the comedian's rude words. An entry in the Diaries of Marin Sanudo for May 5, 1523, records a performance that offended the Signoria: "a play by Ruzante was recited this winter by the Crosechieri, highly improper for performance in the presence of the Signoria." (5) Another entry in Sanudo's Diaries reports that on February 9, 1525, a "rustic comedy" ("comedia vilanesca") performed by Ruzante and Menato, was "altogether lascivious" ("tutta lasciva"), having "very dirty words" ("parole molto sporche") (6); audience indignation called for a substitute play for a performance on February 13. Ruzante addresses this issue at the end of La Betia, saying: "If some woman were to say that the play was dirty, I would reply that I said from the start that I'd speak naturally, and speaking naturally, I couldn't say it in any other words." (7) As standards of 'naturalness' acceptable to the Signoria also had a political dimension, any challenge to those standards was assumed to be motivated politically. Family interests identifying the Paduan playwright with anti-Venetian factions during the Cambraic wars may have heightened Venetian sensitivity to his rough tongue. For whatever reason, his Venetian performances came to an end in 1526.

Performing thereafter at Padua and Ferrara, the actor-author's rustic voice spoke to aristocrats whom the rustic community had opposed during the war, casting its lot with Venice under the banner of San Marco. Ruzante's close association with his patron, Alvise Cornaro, a landowner and prominent figure in Paduan cultural life, who more than once petitioned, unsuccessfully, to be enrolled among Venice's nobility, lends further ambivalence to Ruzante's rustic posture. While the playwright's Venetian provocations may have been politically motivated, it is not clear whether his anti-Venetian attitudes reflect peasant revolt or patrician anger. Performing during Carnival, a festival that licensed bawdiness, Ruzante translated the rustic voice into tones ranging from contentment to despair. With each new play he reinvented his rustic voice, responding to changing times and different audiences. At the time of his premature death in 1542 he was preparing to stage Sperone Speroni's Canace before the Accademia degli Infiammati at Padua.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, his rustic speech began a stage life independent of the circumstances surrounding the author-actor's political world and personal life. Galileo Galilei, a long-time resident in Padua, collected the playwright's work to read aloud to friends. In the eighteenth century, Luigi Riccoboni, arguing that comedy could withstand the use of dialects, pointed to Ruzante, as the comedian who had introduced to the stage "all of the most barbarous languages in Italy." (8)

Obscene expletives are part of Ruzante's theatrical vocabulary from the outset. His first play, a verse Pastoral, begins with the lines:

Cancaro a i stropiegi!
Pota, o'è andò gi osiegi
che era chì sta doman?
O pota de San...

Blast these rushes!
Where are those thrushes
that were here before?
Holy . . . !

(Pastoral, Proemio a la villana, 1-4) (9)

This early work, a comedia a la villana, introduces Ruzante as a rustic speaker accustomed to using obscenity even in the ordinary act of bird-trapping. Although he shares his rustic world with Italian-speaking shepherds and a nymph, his obscenities are less confrontational than expressive of his natural style. Not yet translated into English, the play offers the challenge of a text divided between pavano verse, based on a local poetic tradition, and Italian verse modeled on works of Dante, Petrarch, Poliziano, and Sannazaro.

The expletives that begin the first two verses of the Pastoral, cancaro and pota, occur throughout the plays and are Ruzante's most frequently used dirty words. In Ruzante's "personalissimo pavano," (10) words sometimes parody their common sense: cancaro (also canchero and cancro), for example, meaning "canker" or "cancer" sounds enough like cardine, meaning "hinge" or "pivot" to refer to the cardinale (cardinal) on whose authority the gates of Heaven turn. (11) The word pota functions as an obscene expletive that is applied, observes Giorgio Padoan, to saints, diseases, to Ruzante's father, and even to the bad-mouthed speaker himself: "Pota de mi!" (Twat that I am!). (12)

Among the plays written after the early Pastoral there are some plays written entirely in pavano. Two of the monolingual plays composed in the years 1529-30 are masterpieces of realistic intensity. In La Moscheta, a five-act play structured like Plautine comedy, the plot turns on Ruzante's attempt to test his wife's fidelity by approaching her in disguise and speaking in lingua moscheta (fancy talk; an affected Tuscan). The few words he utters in Tuscan betray him, reinforcing the claim he makes in various prologues and monologues that the new, bookish Italian betrays the more natural, native dialect of the rustics. A shorter Dialogue of the same year, called Il Parlamento de Ruzante che iera vegnú de campo (Ruzante returning from battle), conveys the misery of a rustic who had fought for Venice, then returns home to learn that he has lost his land, his wife, and his dignity. In Bilora, a short play that combines rustic speakers with Venetians and a Bergamask Zany, the rustic protagonist murders the elderly Venetian who had become his wife's master and lover. In these plays obscenities occur frequently and to pointed dramatic effect. In English, as in pavano, the dirty words set the tone and establish an overall interpretation of the work.

In a recent translation of La Moscheta, Antonio Franceschetti and Kenneth R. Bartlett make "Damn it" (13) their English equivalent for "cancaro" in Menato's opening speech; then, in the same speech, when Ruzante uses the term more emphatically ("A'gh'ón el cancaro ch'a ne magne" (14)), they give the more literal translation: "We have this curse that eats away at us." (15) Their close rendering of cancaro as a malevolent force consuming country life, like a cancer, serves the original text literally and effectively. Elsewhere in their translation, expletives like "damn it" and "bloody hell," repeated without special emphasis, convey plain rustic vulgarity.

The expletive pota occurs at the moment when Ruzante's wife, Betía, all but yields to her disguised husband, asking him: "Mo se 'l se saesse po, e che e 'l lo saesse me marío? A' guagi mi," eliciting her husband's response: "Deh, pota de chi te fe!" (2.4.32) (16) Franceschetti and Bartlett translate this passage as follows:

Betía: Now, if that were to get out, and my husband found out about it? Poor me!

Ruzante: Well, you cunt, you bloody cunt! (17)

Their translation of pota is consistent with the denigration of female sexuality that moved Ruzante to test his wife in the first place. The plot turns against the hapless rustic when his words drive his wife into the bed of a Bergamask soldier. Throughout the plays, the expletive pota has two aspects: one epitomizes the author's negative portrayal of women, while the other sadly regrets the failure of marriage, family, and home in the rustic world. The Franceschetti/Bartlett translation, somewhat anachronistic for Ruzante's world, and aggressive, to my ear, for the gullible, misled protagonist of La Moscheta, does recognize that Ruzante's female rustic characters have little of grace or dignity.

In the Parlamento de Ruzante, Ruzante's words upon arriving in Venice are: "Cancaro ai campi e a la guera e ai soldè, e ai soldè e a la guera!" (18) In a recent translation of both the Parlamento (The Veteran) and Bilora (Weasel), Ronnie Ferguson offers: "The soldier's life, and war, and soldiers, and war: sod all that!" (19) Here, the sense of cancaro as a wasting disease yields to perversion as the motive for its use, although when Ruzante refers to sodomy in L'Anconitana (The Woman from Ancona), he associates the topic with upper-class, university society rather than with the rustic world. Varying his translation of cancaro, Ferguson produces a forceful, supple language. In the same opening speech: "Cancaro a'son vegnú presto" (20) becomes "Hell's bells, I got here quick!" (21) A moment later "Cancaro me magne!" is "Sod me for a bloody fool," followed by "No bloody way," "Goddamit," "Jesus Christ," "Christ Almighty," "Bloody hell," and "Buggar it!" (22) For "Cancaro i magne igi!" he translates, "Up theirs, more like!" (23) Effective in constructing a dirty-talking, character, reliant on his native tongue when all else has failed him, Ferguson's parolacce give Ruzante a performable vigor, although his introduction of blasphemy invites offense of a kind that the original avoids in this speech.

A 1958 translation of the Parlamento by Angela Ingold and Theodore Hoffman translates this same opening line: "To hell with war, and battlefields, and soldiers!" (24) "I made good time getting here" is given where Ferguson translates "Hell's bells! I got here quick." For the most part, the translators render cancaro with the dated but not unfamiliar expression "Pox!" which is consistent both with the sense of cancaro as a disease and with the work's archaism. Very much to the point is their version of Menato's reproach to Ruzante for the folly of his pretending to speak Italian in La Moscheta: "A pox on your fancy talk, good neighbor Ruzzante!"

In the Parlamento, the playwright's use of the word pota controls the tense meeting in Venice between Ruzante and his wife, Gnua. Gnua greets her husband with the words: "Ruzante? Si? Situ ti? Ti è vivo, ampò? Pota!" (scene 3. 58). (25) Her expletive is a reminder of the sexuality she denies her husband, whom she has left for a man who can feed her. Ruzante pleads in vain that he is a faithful, loving, spouse. In their brief encounter, husband and wife exchange the word pota eight times; then a Bravo appears and Ruzante falls, a cowardly victim, to the blows of his wife's lover. In this scene, the term pota, relentlessly repeated, acquires thematic force, emphasizing that the marital relationship is at issue, and driving home that the conjugal tie is broken.

Translating this scene, Ferguson turns Gnua's first speech ("Ruzante? Situ ti? Te è vivo, ampò? Pota!") into the English: "Is it you? You're alive, after all? Buggar me!" (26) Later in the Dialogue, when Ruzante begins each of four speeches with pota and Gnua responds with pota, Ferguson keeps repeating "Buggar it!" This English exclamation emphasizes the failure of marriage and procreativity. Ruzante desires his wife's love and her body; but she has given him up because, in her words, "Mo el besogna che a magne ogni dí"(3.3.66) (27) ("I've got to eat every day" (28)). Plunder is what she expects from her veteran-husband, and her body's need for food is foremost in her thoughts. Ferguson's term expresses the frustrated sexuality their dialogue dramatizes. It is more pertinent than "Hell and damnation!" given by Ingold and Hoffman in one of the few instances when they translate pota at all. Their omission of the expletive results in an efficient translation, that puts the message of the words into high relief, although their less explosive version of the passage cannot prepare the audience for the scene's violent finale.

In addition to their thematic significance, Ruzante's obscenities generate humor. In Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud says that dirty words, or smut, represent a kind of exposure of the person to whom they are directed. Naming sexual organs expresses a desire to see them, and calls on the person assailed to see them and to realize that the speaker imagines them. A joke requires the further presence of a third person, "who laughs at smut... as though he were the spectator of an act of sexual aggression." (29) Using words as if they were weapons, the rustics demean one another: "By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable, or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him— to which the third person, who has made no efforts, bears witness by his laughter." (30) From this perspective, the rustic obscenities give audiences both the universal pleasure of released repression and the comfort of superiority over bad-mouthed rustics, who are diminished by their dirty talk. The dirty words make pavano a language that betrays its speakers, although when Ruzante recites passages bubbling with harsh invectives, his only listener is his audience, who then becomes the victim of his brutte parole (bad words). (31)

The play most demeaning to the rustic world is Bilora, where the protagonist's desire to be reconciled with his wife drives him to murder his Venetian rival in cold blood. Violence is the keynote to his character and his language. Among his first words are the exclamation: "Pota an l'amore!" (Twat on love) (32) followed by "Cancaro! he bio bombe."(Pox! I know those apples.) (33) Both expletives echo through his lines, alone, and in various combinations, such as "Pota del mal del cancaro!" (Twat of a pox-curse). Their frequency accentuates Bilora's pain and desperation at having lost his wife to a Venetian whom she prefers to her ragged, starving husband.

"Weasel" is a literal translation of the word "bilora" and Ferguson makes it the English name of his protagonist. He translates Bilora's invective against love ("Pota an l'amore!") into "Love? You can stuff it!" A 1933 translation of this Dialogue by Babette and Glenn Hughes (who keep the title Bilora) renders the same line: "Love—hell!" (34) Ferguson's translation of Weasel's invectives is consistent with his translation of the parolacce in the Parlamento: "Cancaro! he bio brombe" is "Buggar it;" "Tamentre, al sangue del cancaro" is "goddammit." Elsewhere he gives "Jesus Christ" for cagasangue, "Buggar and sod it!" for "O pota del cancaro!" The Hughes' translation gives "By all that's holy" in the first instance, "Damn it all!" in the second, and repeats "damned" for both cancaro and pota. "Damnation" points to the play's tragic outcome, for in Bilora, the aggressive nature of the rustic obscenity is converted into action. The words that Bilora directs against his personal enemy, the Venetian Andronico, fall short of their mark; Bilora's wife fails to recognize him; then she chooses to stay with her Venetian lover, however distasteful she finds him; finally, she hands Bilora some coins in order not to take food from the Venetian's house, a gesture that emphasizes her servile role in the household. Words fail Bilora, driving him to commit an act of murder that destroys not only his Venetian antagonist but also the image of a rustic figure struggling to salvage his humanity in the face of terrible adversity.

In the play that is arguably Ruzante's last work, L'Anconitana, the Venetian Andronico has a counterpart character in the equally decrepit Venetian Sier Tomao. Sier Tomao, lusting for a courtesan named Doralice, sends his well-fed, enterprising servant, Ruzante, to negotiate a meeting. Ruzante, meanwhile, pursues his own amours with his former rustic sweetheart, now Doralice's maid. Ruzante's role in this busy plot precludes outbursts of obstreperous rusticity, and he uses obscenity mainly to punctuate his entrances. In Act Two, Scene Two, for example, he comes on stage with the words: "Cancaro a i Turchi e a i Muori, e an a i pigè preson da' Turchi!" (35) In my translation of L'Anconitana, I give "Blast the Turks and the Moors and Turkish prisoners too!" (36) "Blast" has a burly sound and can signify a sudden infection and was therefore my translation for cancaro in most cases. Although there is an incantatory quality to Ruzante's repetition of the word "cancaro" as a kind of motif running through his speeches, some variations on the theme are wanted; in such cases I used "pox" or "damn," as in Ruzante's ending to the speech cited above, where for "Cancaro, l'e la bela noela!" I gave "Damn, a fine new tale!"

It is more problematic to find an English equivalent for pota. The term I adopted was "twat," a word most dictionaries omit. There is a singular instance when the Venetian Sier Tomao explodes in frustration at Ruzante's prolonged recapitulation of his progress in organizing a night of love for his master and Doralice. Sier Tomao finally exclaims: "Va', pota de Santa Cataruza, semo intro i primi termeni!" which I translated: "Go on! Saint Pussy-Kate, we're back to the very beginning!" hoping the reader would respond to a humorous, faintly archaic style, and might recognize the irony in the Venetian's insulting reference to the church of Saint Catherine in Padua. There is further irony in Sier Tomao's having to resort to blasphemy in a pathetic attempt to hurry his servant's performance: in the fourth verse of his Proemio to the Pastoral, it is Ruzante who exclaims "Oh, pota de San..." (Holy [whore]...)

English-speaking audiences with access to five translations will find that English versions of Ruzante depend in large part on each translator's interpretation of the author's complex and highly ambivalent text as well as on the translator's assessment of how the new reader/listener will probably react to the texts' dirty words. The original language holds a spectrum of tonalities, its obscenities and blasphemies representing inner helplessness, angry hostility, or artful ambiguity, often commenting ironically on the Italian it supplants. Recognizing Ruzante's many-textured voice, the translator will want to reinvent the play on words that invites audiences to contemplate all aspects of Ruzante's mondo roesso—an upside down, topsy turvy, ass-backwards, bottom side-up world.

*The original version of this paper was written expressly for and will appear in Harvard University Studies in Honor of Dante Della Terza, ed. F. Fido, P.D. Stewart, and R. Lamparska, Florence: Cadmo, 1998.


1. M. Milani, "Snaturalitè e Deformazione nella Lingua Teatrale del Ruzzante," L. Vanossi, M. Milani, M. Tonello, D. Battaglin, P. Spezzani, eds., Lingua e Strutture del Teatro Italiano del Rinascimento, Padua: Liviana, 1970, pp. 111-202.
2. R. Ferguson presented this view in a paper given at the Giornate del Ruzante - IV Edizione, Padova, 18-20 maggio 1995.
3. Cancaro: indicates an ulcerlike sore on the body, especially the mouth, although in a general sense the term signifies a sickness or rot pervading the rustic world.
4. Pota or potta: female genitalia, an expression that intensifies the sexual and domestic aspect of the disease and disorder afflicting the countryside.
5. "Una comedia fata per Ruzante, qual questo inverno fu fatta ai Crosechieri, cossa molto discoreta da far davanti la Signoria." (Diarii, XXXIV, 124), cited in E. Lovarini, Studi sul Ruzzante e la Letteratura Pavana, ed. G. Folena, Padua: Antenore, 1965, p. 85.
6. I Diarii, vol. XXXVII, 559-560, cited in E. Lovarini, Studi sul Ruzzante, pp. 88-89.
7. "Si ghe fosse qualche femena the diessa che la [dicesse che la commedia fosse stà sporca, a'ghe rispondo che a'ghe dissi ananzo de dirla naturalmén non se posséa dire con altre parole," cited in E. Loavrini, Studi sul Ruzzante, p. 93.
8. "Tutte le piu barbare [lingue] dell'Italia," in L. Riccoboni, Discorso della Commedia all'Improvviso e Scenari Inediti, ed. I. Mamczarz, Milan: Edizioni Polifilo, 1973, p. 28.
9. A. Beolco /Il Ruzante, La Pastoral, ed. G. Padoan, Padua, Antenore, 1978, p. 62. My English translation appears in N. Dersofi, Arcadia Stage: an Introduction to the Dramatic Art of Angelo Beolco, called Ruzante, Madrid: P. Turanzas, 1978, p. 36.
10. M. Milani, Snaturalitè e Deformazione, p. 133.
11. See M. Milani, Snaturalitè e Deformazione, p. 186. The passage is from the first Oration, in Ruzante, Teatro, ed. L. Zorzi, Turin: Einaudi, 1967, p. 1197. Zorzi's edition of Ruzante is cited throughout.
12. G. Padoan, ed. La Pastoral, p. 60, n. 3.
13. A. Beolco, (Ruzzante), La Moschetta, trans. with an Intro. and Notes by A. Franceschetti and K. R. Bartlett, Ottawa, Canada: Dovehouse Editions Inc., 1993, p. 55.
14. Ruzante, Teatro, ed. L. Zorzi, Turin: Einaudi, 1967, p. 585. This text of La Moscheta is cited throughout.
15. A. Franceschetti and K. R. Bartlett, trans., La Moschetta, p. 55.
16. Ruzante, Teatro, p. 619.
17. A. Franceschetti and S. R. Bartlett, La Moschetta, p. 72.
18. Ruzante, Parlamento de Ruzante, ed. L. Zorzi, p. 517.
19. R. Ferguson, Angelo Beolco (Ruzante), The Veteran (Parlamento de Ruzante) and Weasel (Bilora), New York: Peter Lang, p. 68.
20. Ruzante, Teatro, p. 517.
21. R. Ferguson, The Veteran, p. 68.
22. Ibid., pp. 68-69.
23. Ibid., p. 71.
24. A. Beolco, "Ruzzante Returns from the Wars,: in The Classic Theatre, ed. E. Bentley, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1968, p. 61.
25. Ruzante, Parlamento, p. 533.
26. R. Ferguson, The Veteran, p. 79.
27. Ruzante, Teatro, p. 533.
28. R. Ferguson, The Veteran, p. 80.
29. S. Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. and ed. by J. Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton, 1960, p. 97.
30. Ibid., p. 103.
31. I wish to thank Professor Benno Weiss for calling to my attention N. Galli de'Paratesi, Le brutte parole, Turin: G. Giappichelli, 1964.
32. Ruzante, Bilora, ed. L. Zorzi, p. 549.
33. Ibid., p. 549.
34. A. Beolco [Il Ruzzante], Bilora, trans. and ed. by B. and G. Hughes in World Drama, ed. by B. H. Clark, New York: Dover Publications, 1933, p. 1.
35. Ruzante, L'Anconitana, ed. L. Zorzi, p. 803.
36. Ruzante (Angelo Beolco, L'Anconitana/The Woman from Ancona, trans. with an introduction by N. Dersofi, Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1994, p. 67.