NEA Literature Fellowships

Michael F. Moore

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(2016 - Translation)

Excerpt from The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

[Translated from the Italian]

Don Abbondio (as the reader will have noticed) was not born with the heart of a lion. From his earliest years, the realization had been forced upon him that nothing could be worse, in those days, than to be an animal without claws or fangs yet no particular inclination to be devoured. The forces of the law did nothing to protect a peaceful, innocuous man from whom others had nothing to fear. Not that there was any shortage of laws and penalties against acts of personal aggression. Indeed there was an abundance of them. The crimes were enumerated and specified at meticulous, tedious length. The penalties were wildly exorbitant and, what's worse, almost any of them could be arbitrarily increased at the whim of the law-maker and his hundreds of executors. Trials were devised for the sole purpose of freeing the judge from any impediment to passing sentence. The excerpts we have quoted of edicts against the bravos are a small but accurate sample. Despite or rather because of this, those edicts – republished and reinforced from government to government – served as little more than bombastic proof of their authors' impotence. Whatever immediate effect they had was mainly to add to the many vexations already suffered by the weak and peaceable at the hands of their tormentors, and to increase the cunning and violence of the latter. Impunity was systematic, with roots that the edicts did not touch or could not budge.

Such were the immunities and privileges of certain groups: in part recognized by the forces of the law, in part tolerated in resentful silence or impugned in vain protest, but maintained and defended by those very groups through partisan actions and obstinate jealousy. Threatened, censured but not destroyed by the edicts, this impunity of course had to muster new efforts and new forms of self-preservation at every new threat and insult. And this is what happened in effect. When edicts against them were posted, the violent would seek the most opportune means among their actual forces to carry out the proscribed actions. At every step they could easily make life more difficult for a good man with no forces or protection of his own. To have every man under their control, and to prevent or punish every crime, they subjected every action by a private citizen to the arbitrary will of all kinds of executors. But if before committing a crime, a man had arranged to take asylum in a monastery or palace, where the police did not dare set foot, or had no other protection than the livery he wore obliging him to defend the vanity and the honor of a powerful family or an entire clan, then he was free to do as he pleased and laugh at the rambling of the edicts.

Original in Italian

About Alessandro Manzoni

It's about time to take the novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni off the list of recommended reading and turn it into a book that people enjoy reading. One of the great historical novels of Europe, it is the literary work that best defines the Italian people, their precarious balance between deference and rebellion, and the value system that forges their common culture. Every Italian has favorite passages and characters. Whether they love The Betrothed or hate it, they know that no author has ever portrayed Italian society more thoroughly, accurately, and lyrically.

Michael F. Moore is a translator/interpreter from the Italian. He received his Ph.D in Italian from New York University. His published translations range from twentieth-century classics – Agostino by Alberto Moravia and The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi – to contemporary novels, most recently Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi and Lost Words by Nicola Gardini.

Moore is the chair of the Advisory Board for the PEN-Heim Translation Fund. In addition to his work as a translator, he is an interpreter at the United Nations and freelances for Italian cultural events in New York City and for major American news broadcasters. He is a full-time staff member of the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations.

Photo by Lilia Pino Blouin

Translator's Statement

When I was little I wanted, briefly, to run away and join the circus, so I went to the library and found a book on juggling. The problem is I could never keep more than two apples in the air at one time. Little did I know that I'd spend my life trying to keep three, four, five projects going at the same time. And literary translation is something I have to do, "nei ritagli di tempo" – literally, in snippets of time. This grant allows me to put everything down, leave New York City behind, and spend a few months translating by the shores of Lake Como, the setting for the first part of The Betrothed.