Les traductions sont comme les femmes: quand elles sont belles, elles ne sont pas fidèles; et quand elles sont fidèles, elles ne sont pas belles.”

Edmond Jaloux



I know my title is quite dramatic, but to be honest, being half-Italian, half-Mexican, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Moreover, I am quite convinced that my subject requires at least a certain amount of drama. 

     It may seem idle to begin by saying that the Orlando Furioso is a monumental feat in the literary history of the West. With nearly five thousand octaves and innumerable references to literary sources, political conflicts, social issues, and either historical or fictional figures, Ariosto’s poem demands from its readers a considerable degree of reading skill. It also requires a great deal of imaginative interaction to be efficiently apprehended in terms of its artistic and poetical scope. The reading of the work demands a great deal of effort—even from cultured Italian-speaking audiences—due to its standing as one of the quintessential pieces of “high literature.” But—and I shiver just thinking about it—what does such work demand from its translators? The answer, to me, is surprisingly simple: either great bravery or great folly. So, apart from either of these two, what does it take to adapt the Furioso in such a way that new versions of the poem are respectful of both form and content? Or not? How do translations of this kind manage to convey the sense of rhetorical unity, tonal diversity, and allusive expressiveness that permeate the original? Or not? 

    Milton, a brave and talented enough poet himself, translated Ariosto, if sparsely, in his epic pursuit of “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” from which the title of this brief paper was obviously ripped off. Ariosto himself was no stranger to such tasks, since he also borrowed this kind of poetic stamina from Petrarch, who in time translated, or perhaps modelled his own creative ambitions on, Horace.

     The Furioso is a poem in which Ariosto’s sense of artistic contemplation fuses with a vein of practicality, whether it be poetic, political or even military. As Ceserani and De Federicis state, “Data from Ariosto’s biography prove that he was not an absent-minded, day-dreaming poet, as it is often assumed, but a rather wise and practical man.” (185) Even though this refers basically to his life in court, I believe the previous assertion can be applied to his overall vision of poetry and the arts. In the Furioso, the poet’s practical sensitivity to tone, both rhetorical and conversational, becomes evident even from the first words of his famous protasis.

Le donne, i cavallier, l’arme, gli amori,
le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto,
che furo al tempo che passaro i Mori 
d’Africa il mare, e in Francia nocquer tanto,
seguendo l’ire e i giovenil furori
d’Agramante lor re, che si diè vanto
di vendicar la morte di Troiano
sopra re Carlo imperator romano.

     The poet is aware not only of his duties as an artist here, but also as a communicator, and a communicator of lofty, heroic deeds to boot. Many of these are actual re-tellings of stories concerning an almost mythical, ideally chivalrous past. The excitement inherent in such stories must have gone hand in hand with the occasional political and social comment from all sorts of minstrels and storytellers. Needless to say, Ariosto’s imagination also was greatly boosted by his forerunner, the more serious—and perhaps more schematic—Matteo Boiardo. The delightful magic, love, and adventure that Ariosto sings in the opening lines of the Furioso are in themselves an agile rifacimento and continuation of Boiardo’s themes and heroic paradigms in the Orlando innamorato. It is no wonder that Ariosto’s ambitious enterprise in re-telling, adapting, and translating, I daresay, these stories, should have drawn the public’s attention with overwhelming immediacy, not only in the Italian world, but also, and perhaps more interestingly, abroad, and with enormous success. By 1549 most of the 46 cantos of the Furioso (the third edition of which had seen the light of day only in 1532) had already been translated into Spanish by Jerónimo Jiménez de Urrea, an aristocratic officer and minor poet whose fame is due now mostly to his translation of Ariosto. Of course, England was not impervious to the success of the great poem—in 1591 a good part of it was published in the language of, ahem, Shakespeare. The translator was John Harington, a courtier whose poetry was much enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth and, to a lesser extent perhaps, by King James I. I am tempted to add that Harington is mostly remembered now, however, for having invented, alas, the flush toilet.

     It should not be completely ridiculous to think, I believe, that a man so concerned with hygiene was also very preoccupied with transparency and cleanliness in terms of translation. This entails a number of problems, mostly when the translator is aware of the magnitude of his attempt. “My ground is barren and too cold for such dainty Italian fruits, being also perhaps over-shaded with trees of some older growths,” claims Harington in his dedication of the Furioso to Queen Elizabeth. Apart from the understatement, what stands out here is the agricultural metaphor. What Harington is doing is, almost literally, putting forward his need to find new ground for poetical adaptation, not only translation. And here is a taste of the all-too-English kind of fruit that these transformations yielded:      

Of Dames, of Knights, of armes, of loves delight,
Of courtesies, of high attempts I speake,
Then when the Moores transported all their might
On Africke seas, the force of France to breake:
Incited by the youthfull heate and spight
Of Agramant their King, that vow'd to wreake
The death of King Trayano (lately slaine)
Upon the Romane Emperour Charlemaine.

     Much in the vein of what Wyatt and Surrey previously had done with Petrarch’s poetry, Harington strives, and largely succeeds, in finding an iambic equivalent for Ariosto’s endecasyllables. However, tension is no stranger to Harington’s enterprise. Notice how, in order to keep rhyming, Harington is forced to “speak” where Ariosto “sings.” Also, he is compelled to evidence the Moores’ “might”—where the Italian obviates it—in order to ensure the appearance of “love’s delight,” no doubt a charming metonymy. Similarly, and in order to guarantee an efficacious final couplet, Harington feels forced to provide us with an explanatory flashback (“lately slaine”) as well as with the Emperor’s full name. This, for Ariosto, both metrically and historically, proves unnecessary (Carlo vs. Charlemaine).         

     Costanzo di Girolamo, an expert in Italian versification from the Università degli Studi di Napoli, has stated that “The metrical structure of a poetic text may be considered a kind of organised violence, in the context of a convention, against standard language.” (88) One can’t help but noticing that this sounds like war. Moreover, tensions increase when “one,” the translator, is trying to adapt the poetics of one language (or tradition) into another, often by way of poetic form. In this respect, Italian and English have managed, once and again, to find peace, albeit after much hostility. The case is supposed to be different with Spanish, a language that, due to its morphology, has been for the most part on the side of Ariosto’s tongue. But has it? By these standards, one would think that Jerónimo de Urrea had the upper hand when it came to translating the Furioso, but once again, metrics sometimes gets in the poetic way, for better or for worse. Here is Urrea’s version of the Furioso’s opening octave:

Damas, armas, amor y empresas canto, 
cavalleros, esfuerço, y cortesía,
d’aquel tiempo que a Francia dañó tanto
pasar Moros el mar de Bervería,
d’Agramante su Rey siguiendo quanto
con juvenil furor les prometía,
en el vengar la muerte de Troyano,
sobr’el Rey Carlo emperador Romano.

Here, naturally, Urrea sounds much more faithful to Ariosto in terms of both vocabulary and syntax, even if his Agramant only “promises” vengeance. Nevertheless, if we take a closer look, the Spaniard’s war, not only on Ariosto’s “tuscanised Ferrarese,” but also on “standard Castilian,” becomes evident. For instance, even though the synaloepha is common in Spanish metrics, its graphic representation as an elision (v.g. “d’aquel”, “d’Agramante,” and “sobr’el”) is a clear borrowing from the original. Urrea is also profiting here from an advantageous—in terms of rhyming schemes, that is—morphologic peculiarity of the Spanish language: the “-ía” ending. This ending is common to a considerable number of Spanish nouns (as is the case with “cortesía” and “Bervería”) and verbs, in their imperfect past tense (such as “prometía”). Now, even if all of this betrays a certain tendency to doggerel rhyme, “Bervería,” which translates into English as “Barbary,” is still an arresting choice on the part of Urrea. The term was used in 16th-century Spain to refer, sometimes derogatorily, to the inhabitants of the coastal regions of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. Against Ariosto’s and Harington’s Africa, or “Africke,” this is a clear synecdoche. Of course, Urrea is resorting to the tetrasyllabic term in order to complete his metre, but as we know, not every Moor—even if from Africa—was necessarily a Berber.

     These adaptations should come as no surprise, however. Urrea, like Harington, warns us about his scope and his approach from the very beginning. Although not as poetically as Harington does before his Queen, Urrea excuses himself, in his warning to his readers, for “taking too much liberty in hollow, idle places.” He refers here to his efforts in adapting the Furioso to the Spanish taste by substituting certain names and anecdotes for local references, characters, or situations. Obviously, there will always be some who will consider these substitutions as pretexts for simplicity, rather than aspects inherent in rifacimenti. Take Cervantes himself, who in his Don Quixote turns one of his characters into a critic of Urrea’s work: 

[Barber] "Well, I have him [Ariosto] in Italian," said the barber, "but I do not understand him."

[Curate] "Nor would it be well that you should understand him," said the curate, "and on that score we might have excused the Captain [i.e. Urrea] if he had not brought him into Spain and turned him into Castilian. He robbed him of a great deal of his natural force, and so do all those who try to turn books written in verse into another language, for, with all the pains they take and all the cleverness they show, they never can reach the level of the originals as they were first produced.” (I, vi)

      As crude and partial as this may sound (and with all due humour an irony) Cervantes’s curate has hit the nail on the head by referring to translators in terms of pain and cleverness. After all, the most efficacious translations and rifacimenti (and I am talking purely in terms of reception here) are usually those that strain the original, those that take the representational possibilities of the language to rhetorical extremes. After all, the ideal of achieving faithfulness (“the levels” to which Cervantes’s curate-turned-literary-critic refers) is only that, an ideal. Poetic faithfulness, at least in the case of that devoted to Ariosto’s Furioso, is perhaps most manifest in his translators’ infatuation with the Italian language and the forms that it finds most suitable. And infatuation, as we all know, is an inexhaustible source of both idealisation and pain.  Let’s take a look at canto 44, octave 61, where Bradamant sends a passionate letter to Ruggiero:  

Ruggier, qual sempre fui, tal esser voglio
fin alla morte, e più, se più si puote.
O siami Amor benigno o m’usi orgoglio,
o me Fortuna in alto o in basso ruote,
immobil son di vera fede scoglio
che d’ogn’intorno il vento e il mar percuote:
né già mai per bonaccia né per verno
luogo mutai, né muterò in eterno.

     Here Ariosto uses a commonplace notion (the flightiness of love and fortune) to elevate the lover to an ideal of constancy in the face of violent natural phenomena (highly symbolic in themselves) and even inexorable death. For Ariosto’s translators, the problem here consists not only in trying to preserve Bradamant’s visuality and sensorial intensity, but also her elevated register. All of this, we shouldn’t forget, must respond to the needs of Ariosto’s strict notions of metre and rhyme. But, how can the poet-translator reproduce, for instance, the evocative response provoked by the auditory contrast between the liquidness of “voglio,” “orgoglio,” and “scoglio” and the roughness of “puote,” “ruote,” and “percuote” (no to mention the dramatic ruggedness of the couplet “verno/eterno”)? Let’s see what Harington does: 

My deare, as erst I was I still will bide,
While life shall dure, yea ev'n when life is past,
Though toward me, love shew his grace, or pride, 
Or fortune raise me up, or downward cast:
My stable faith shall never faile nor slide,
For calme, nor storme, but as a Rocke stand fast,
Against the surging waves still unremoveable,
So shall my faith stand firme and unreproveable.

     Notice that Harington has substituted the hero’s name for the warm, iambic epithet “my deare.” (Is Harington consciously avoiding the difficulty in pronouncing something like “Ruggier [itself an iamb], as erst I…?”) This is, perhaps, a marked contrast with Bradamant’s unsentimental directness in addressing Ruggiero by his name. And then, for the sake of his own tradition, Harington needs to resort to monosyllables that, comparatively speaking, may sound mild (“bide/pride”, “cast”/”fast”). (A tad more difficult to justify are the long, seemingly unmelodic “unremovable”/”unreproveable” of the closing couplet.) The rhetoric pain that this entails, however, is soundly made up for by the cleverness of some of Harington’s solutions and paraphrases. Take, for example, “My stable faith shall never faile nor slide.” Being the subject here, Bradamant’s faith acquires character-like independence against Ariosto’s somewhat ordinary metaphor “son… scoglio.” Similarly, Harington’s “surging waves” make a more vivid visual impression than the Italian “mar.”

     In contrast, Urrea’s solutions are perhaps a bit too clever, or even plainly safe. What he does is basically try to remain faithful to Ariosto, as thoroughly as he can. He does this to the extent of even committing certain trespasses against the Castilian language in his efforts to “Italianise” it. The final couplet, as an evident instance of this, has been practically plagiarised, to the point that Urrea closes his octave with an obvious Italianism: “en eterno.” The main problem here is that Urrea’s faithful imitation conveys the meaning of eternally—or for eternity—from the original “in eterno” only by semantic approximation. The irony in this is evident. Bradamant’s steadfast devotion probably has been betrayed, in the Spanish ear, by the translator’s sincere act of faithfulness.   

     But beyond any translation strategy that either Harington or Urrea may be using in these passages, their procedures speak of their sensitivity to their public’s experience of literature and life. This also implies an understanding of their audiences’ tastes and their royal patrons’ personalities and humour, of course (Urrea dedicates his work to Prince Philip). So, how do they deal with what Harington surely knew to be some of the most appealing passages of the Furioso? I am referring, of course, to those scenes having to do with sex and bawdiness. The following passages describe Angelica being taken advantage of by a hoary hermit:

VIII, 49 

Egli l’abbraccia ed a piacer la tocca
ed ella dorme e non può fare ischermo.
Or le bacia il bel petto, ora la bocca;
non è chi ’l veggia in quel loco aspro ed ermo.
Ma ne l’incontro il suo destrier trabocca;
ch’al disio non risponde il corpo infermo:
era mal atto, perché avea troppi anni;
e potrà peggio, quanto più l’affanni.


Tutte le vie, tutti li modi tenta,
ma quel pigro rozzon non però salta.
Indarno il fren gli scuote, e lo tormenta;
e non può far che tenga la testa alta.
Al fin presso alla donna s’addormenta;
e nuova altra sciagura anco l’assalta:
non comincia Fortuna mai per poco,
quando un mortal si piglia a scherno e a gioco.

     Here, Ariosto is being maliciously playful. His sexual allusions are based upon a contrast between “destrier” (a steed) and “rozzon” (a nag). The old man wants to possess Angelica, whom he has duly drugged. However, and due to his great age, he cannot perform, so to speak. Urrea is more or less faithful to the original, even if he uses the word “rocín” (“nag”) twice, and blatantly simplifies Ariosto’s “loco aspro ed ermo” (“a rugged and barren place”) by inserting “vallejo” (“a meadow”) to ensure the rhyme with the unavoidable “viejo” (“old”). The idea that the broken-down horse cannot get his head up remains intact, however, as does the lascivious groping of Angelica on the part of the hermit.

     Harington’s approach is, most definitely, a horse of a different colour. Harington’s version of these two octaves is the best example of the straining that a translation, taken to the levels of a rifacimento, requires to operate in a new, transposed cultural environment. Interestingly enough, the English poet-translator transposes, between one stanza and another (41-44), Ariosto’s sexual and sensual images. Not only is Harington more detailed than Ariosto himself as to the fondling of Angelica, but he also postpones her blushing, while Ariosto is rather quick in mentioning it. However, when Harington’s Angelica responds to the old man’s advances, she does it quite violently—not only does she thrust him back, she also “revil[es] him with many a spitefull name,/Who testy with old age and with new passion,/ That did him now with wrath and love inflame…” (42, 4-6). Neither Angelica’s verbal rage, nor the consequent arousal of the hermit, is so evident in either Ariosto or Urrea. (In Ariosto, she “sdegnosetta lo percuote,” and later on “lo rispinge.”) Also, it seems that, once Angelica has fallen asleep, Harington’s hermit kisses her more extensively and more eagerly tan Ariosto’s. And, in keeping with his audience’s lewd preferences, Harington intensifies the penis-related metaphors by adding to the image of the horse that of useless armoury. He says: “His weapon [the hermit’s] looked like a broken launce” (44-46). Suffice it to say that this kind of humour, in Urrea, only amounts to a diminutive: “no comiença fortuna por poquito,/ cuando quiere abatir un pobre aflito” (literally, “fortune doesn’t settle for petty things, when she wishes to bring down a poor bastard”). This Harington does not translate.

     In a lucid essay on Harington’s Furioso called “Translating the Pope and the Apennines,” Jane E. Everson states that “translation is an activity fraught with value judgments, cultural as well as linguistic, but surely dependent above all on empathy between author and translator, and translator and audience.” (655) In a few words, the act of translation is an act of creative and poetic writing. Most of the time, when one reads a translation, it is because, like Cervantes’s barber, one does not understand the original. (How many of us, I wonder, have read works in translation without knowing— upon first approaching them—that they are translations?). The natures of Harington’s and Urrea’s modifications, additions, and omissions (in short, the empathies that they create) undoubtedly constitute some of the reasons for the virtual turning of their works into vulgates. They also bear witness to Harington’s and Urrea’s expertise as poets, their knowledge of the world (whether it was the Italian, the English, or the Spanish one), and most of all, their admiration for Ariosto’s work, its contents, and of course, its form. Their infatuation with the Furioso, along with the conflicts and vicissitudes it has gone—and still goes—through, continues to have strong echoes in our perception of Ludovico’s monumental enterprise.       








I, 1


Le donne, i cavallier, l’arme, gli amori,/

le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto,/

che furo al tempo che passaro i Mori/ 

d’Africa il mare, e in Francia nocquer tanto,/

seguendo l’ire e i giovenil furori/

d’Agramante lor re, che si diè vanto/

di vendicar la morte di Troiano/

sopra re Carlo imperator romano.

I, 1


Of Dames, of Knights, of armes, of loves delight,/

Of courtesies, of high attempts I speake,/

Then when the Moores transported all their might/

On Africke seas, the force of France to breake:/

Incited by the youthfull heate and spight/

Of Agramant their King, that vow'd to wreake/

The death of King Trayano (lately slaine)/

Upon the Romane Emperour Charlemaine.


I, 1


Damas, armas, amor y empresas canto,/ cavalleros, esfuerço, y cortesía,/

d’aquel tiempo que a Francia daño tanto/ pasar Moros el mar de Bervería,/

 d’Agramante su Rey siguiendo quanto/

con juvenil furor les prometía,/

en el vengar la muerte de Troyano,/

sobr’el Rey Carlo emperador Romano

XLIV, 61


Ruggier, qual sempre fui, tal esser voglio/

fin alla morte, e più, se più si puote./

O siami Amor benigno o m’usi orgoglio,/

o me Fortuna in alto o in basso ruote,/

immobil son di vera fede scoglio/

che d’ogn’intorno il vento e il mar percuote:/

né già mai per bonaccia né per verno/

luogo mutai, né muterò in eterno.

XLIV, 61

My deare, as erst I was I still will bide,/

While life shall dure, yea ev'n when life is past,/ Though toward me, love shew his grace, or pride,/ Or fortune raise me up, or downward cast:/

My stable faith shall never faile nor slide,/

For calme, nor storme, but as a Rocke stand fast,/ Against the surging waves still unremoveable,/

So shall my faith stand firme and unreproveable.

XLIV, 61


Ruger, qual siempre fuy tal ser yo quiero/

hasta la muerte y más si es más posible,/

o sea me amor benino, o séame fiero,/

o fortuna contrario o aplazible:/

peñasco firme soy de fe y entero,/

qu’entorno al viento y mar hiere terrible,/

ni jamás por bonança, o por Invierno,/

lugar mude ni mudaré en eterno.

VIII, 49


Egli l’abbraccia ed a piacer la tocca/

ed ella dorme e non può fare ischermo./

Or le bacia il bel petto, ora la bocca;/

non è chi ’l veggia in quel loco aspro ed ermo./

Ma ne l’incontro il suo destrier trabocca;/

ch’al disio non risponde il corpo infermo:/

era mal atto, perché avea troppi anni;/

e potrà peggio, quanto più l’affanni.


Tutte le vie, tutti li modi tenta,/

ma quel pigro rozzon non però salta./

Indarno il fren gli scuote, e lo tormenta;/

e non può far che tenga la testa alta./

Al fin presso alla donna s’addormenta;/

e nuova altra sciagura anco l’assalta:/

non comincia Fortuna mai per poco,/

quando un mortal si piglia a scherno e a gioco.

VIII, 43 

With this he sprinkleth both the damsel's eies,/ (Those eyes whence Cupid oft his arrowes shot)/ 

Straight sound asleepe the goodly damsell lies,/ Subjected to the will of such a sot:/

Ne yet for ought he did or could devise,/

He could procure his curtall stir a jot,/

Yet oft he kist her lips, her cheekes, her brest,/

And felt and saw the beauties of the rest.


The dullerd jade still hangeth downe his head,/ Stirring or spurring could not make him praunce,/ The sundrier wayes he said, the worse he sped,/

His youthfull dayes were done, he could not daunce,/

His strength was gone, his courage all was dead,/

His weapon looked like a broken launce:/

And while himselfe in vaine he thus doth cumber,/

He falleth downe by her into a slumber.


(Harington hace una serie de trasposiciones del texto de Ariosto a partir de su estrofa 41)

VIII, 49


Abràçala a sabor y a placer toca,/

ella duerme y le da buen aparejo./

Ora la besa el pecho ora la boca,/

sin que le puedan ver en tal vallejo./

Al encuentro el rocín flaco se apoca,/

que al desseo no cumple el cuerpo viejo,/

de muy anciano poco le valía,/

y menos puede cuanto más porfía.




Todos los modos y las vías tienta/

Mas el torpe rocín muy menos salta:/

En vano tira el freno y atormenta,/

que no puede traer la cabeza alta./

Al fin sobre la dama se adormenta,/

y nueva desventura allí la assalta,/

no comiença fortuna por poquito,/

cuando quiere abatir un pobre aflito.






Ariosto, Ludovico (1976). Orlando Furioso. Ed. by Cesare Segre. Milan: Oscar Mondadori.


Cervantes, Miguel de (1981). Don Quixote. Trans. by John Ormsby. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. Norton Critical Editions


Ceserani, R. and De Federicis, L. (1986). IL Materiale e l'immaginario. Laboratorio di analisi dei testi e di lavoro critico. Vol. 2, La società dell'Antico regime, Turin: Loescher.


Di Girolamo, Costanzo (1983). Teoria e prassi della versificazione. Bologna: Il Mulino.


Everson, Jane E. (Jul. 2005). “Translating the Pope and the Apennines: harington’s Version of the Orlando Furioso” in The Modern Language Review, vol. 100, no. 3, www,jstor.org/stable/3739118.


Harington, John (1634). Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse. EEBO Editions, ProQuest (July 13, 2010).


Segre, Cesare, and Ma. de las Nieves Muñiz Muñiz (eds.) (2002). Orlando Furioso, 2 vols., trans. by Jerónimo de Urrea. Cátedra: Madrid. Letras Universales




MARIO MURGIA is a full-time professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where he has also been Head of the English Department (Open University) for the last three years. He is also a poet and a literary translator from English and Italian into Spanish. His most recent translations (which he has also prologued and annotated) include Spanish versions of AreopagiticaThe Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and the Ludlow Masque by John Milton. This paper was originally given as a talk at the ALSCW 18th Annual Conference, held at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California, March 9-11, 2012.


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