Logos Multilingual Portal

8. The language of puns, wit and agudeza: the comical and the satirical as markers of the boundary between the translatable and the untranslatable


c) Agudeza: for a theory of the mask

The principle of the mask concerns sarcasm more than humour. To connote it, we resort to the Spanish word agudeza, which means an analytical comicality able to wedge universal joints in the flow of the discourse, to explode the contradictions inherent in its articulations. The agudeza of mask requires a flawless construction, and is therefore situated poles apart with respect to the irresponsible ‘vital impulse’ with which the parody pun achieves its aims.

A canonical case is Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Antony shows Caesar’s body to the people, creating hatred towards Brutus the assassin by modulating his speech on the repeated apostrophe: "For Brutus is an honourable man". The classical way with which the necrology is constructed does not support the explanatory without filling it with a sense of ‘reflux’, and false movement, in the context of the argumentation. Thus, in the Italian translation, "For" is rendered as "Dacché", whose colloquial aspect opens a fault in the discourse: a linguistic fault discharging a feeling of moral corruption. In such cases, without knowing the oratory of Demosthenes and Cicero, it would be difficult to render the point of interruption of the dramaturgical situation.
A contrasting case of agudeza is well illustrated by the beginning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. What insect has Gregor Samsa been transformed into? Vladimir Nabokov, an illustrious entomologist-cum-writer, demonstrated that it concerns a "beetle", and not a cockroach, whose shell is formed of a single cartilage. This circumstance will make Gregor’s death – after being struck in the back by an apple thrown by his father – a symbolic event. The apple of sin comes from the interior separation of drives and intellect in man. The connotative detail underlined in the first sentence of Kafka’s novel "One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa finds himself..." also suggests how mankind dreams inside that collective dormitory called ‘history’. And here, as in Sterne, the time factor connotes all the discourse; however, instead of the parody, which goes through individual idiolects, the tragicomic effect is achieved by means of a recomposition of the entire Western symbolic (the sacred icons) imagination. In such a context, if the translator fails to define the details of the iconic objects with extreme precision, the whole framework will collapse. In fact, with respect to a systematic context, an iconic context (mask) exists on its own clarity of traits, and not the logic-analytical progression with which, in cases of ‘comic’ rhetoric, the language announces itself.

A third case, of disturbing complexity, is the discourse with which Adrian Leverkühn, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, addresses all those gathered in his house to listen to his oratory Apocalypsis cum figuris. The discourse reveals the syphilis that has comprised his nerve centres; it is also a sign of his now total identification with the Devil, with respect to whom, for his all of his human story, he has established a dialectic tension. The discourse is structured like a ‘mask’ of Luther’s German, that of the Psalms, and that of the sixteenth-century mystics, from Meister Eckart to Jacob Böhme. In a bewildering reverse perspective, Mann sees the mystic annulment of the limit between argumentation and discourse as the reason for the demonic fascination inherent in German culture, culminating (in the years in which the novel was written) in Nazism. Faced with such a distortion of the ‘mask’, a translator has only one choice: to go over the archetypes of mystical ecstasy common to his own national culture, and reverse their sign. In the Italian area, Bonaventura da Bagnoregio and St. Catherine of Siena, but also Machiavelli of Belfagor, are the models we will refer to.