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5 June 2023

Italian literature in Catalan. An ancient history reaching far and wide

Lucio Izzo, director of the Italian Institute of Culture in Barcelona

With a very ancient history and a weighty literary dignity, thanks to Spain’s new democratic constitution, in 1978 Catalan became once again the official language, along with Spanish, of  Catalonia, the Valencian Community, and the Balearic Islands, while in eastern Aragon, although not equated to Spanish, Catalan gained recognition in the areas where it is spoken, known as the Strip of Aragon. Outside Spain, Catalan is the only official language in the Principality of Andorra and is spoken in France, in the Roussillon region, and in Italy in the Alghero area. In 2005, Catalan was also recognised as one of the official languages of the European Union. In 2022, the number of Catalan speakers in the areas mentioned above is estimated around 9.2 million, almost all of whom are bilingual.

Barcelona, together with Madrid, is the main publishing hub of Spain, with a large market in Latin America as well. Naturally, most publications are in Spanish, but around 10% of the total book publishing is in Catalan.

The Catalan-language publishing market, while giving preference to local authors, counts on a growing demand for translations from foreign languages, among which literary texts dominate (around. 25%), non-fiction divided between social sciences (around 8.5%) and applied sciences (around. 7%) and art (around 5%). These trends therefore are also reflected in the choice of works to be translated, in combination with best-seller literary or trending and feature publications, which have a critical role in influencing the public’s preferences and publishers’ choices.

A linguistic factor should also be taken into account that affects the Catalan-speaking public’s perception of Italian as a ‘close’ language: Catalan and Italian, in addition to their syntactic structure, share 33% of their basic every-day vocabulary, whereas Spanish and Catalan only share 25% of their vocabulary. Closer than Italian, there is Occitan, with which Catalan shares a staggering 75% of basic lexicon, and French, with 41%. Of course, if one considers literary and specialised vocabulary, the proximity touches 80%. This perceived proximity is undoubtedly an element that drives the more highly educated public to attempt to read Italian texts in their original version rather than resorting to translation.

The history of translation from Italian into Catalan goes along parallel lines with the emergence and spread of Romance languages. It may be worth mentioning that the world’s first translation in verse of the Divine Comedy into a vernacular language was made in 1429 into Catalan by Andreu Febrer, and only the year earlier Enrique de Villena had translated the Comedy into Castilian, but in prose. Prior to that, the focus of attention had been the courtly poetry of the Occitan area, which had in fact achieved widespread distribution in the western Mediterranean region, then largely dominated by the Kingdom of Aragon, which used Catalan as its official language. Boccaccio is the Italian writer who more than any other (Dante and Petrarch included) influenced medieval Catalan literature. This is proven by the circulation of numerous manuscripts of his works in 15th-century Catalonia and by the translations dating back to that time. Translations of Italian classics continued to be copious and of excellent quality over the centuries with significant peaks during the Renaissance and in the 18th century. The 20th century, in the face of a period of decline in Spain, saw in the emergence of a Unified Italy a new element of cultural attraction, from Spaniards and Catalans in particular, who turned their attention back to  Italy, particularly after the end of World War II, as a point of reference and a model of democracy and economic and social development. This interest has remained alive even after Spain’s return to democracy, and many protagonists of the Spanish cultural renaissance, starting from the late 1970s, recall how Italian culture was for them a vehicle of culture and a source of inspiration.

Over the last fifty years and up to 2007, 978 titles have been translated from Italian into standard Catalan, and 2 into Valencian Catalan, featuring works by 439 different writers (source: Index Translationum and Biblioteca de Catalunya). The authors with more than ten titles translated include Gianni Rodari (75 titles), ‘Geronimo Stilton’ (38), Italo Calvino (28), Umberto Eco (23), Andrea Camilleri (20), Carlo Collodi (20), Antonio Tabucchi (17), Susanna Tamaro (16), Gaia Volpicelli (14), Leonardo Sciascia (13), Alessandro Baricco (12), Luigi Pirandello (12); Francesco Alberoni (11), Primo Levi (11), Dante Alighieri (10), Cesare Pavese (10), Francesco Tonucci (10).

Since 2008, the average number of Italian books has risen sharply, and there have been around two hundred translated books annually. These include the novels by Andrea Camilleri and Elena Ferrante, contemporary classics such as Natalia Ginzburg and Dario Fo, as well as the reportages by Tiziano Terzani, the poems of Alba Donati and Salvatore Toma, essays by Adriana Cavarero and Roberto Esposito, and the latest publishing successes of upcoming writers, including the recently published novels of Daniele Mencarelli, which is also currently available in Spain in a television adaptation by Netflix.