Translators and Their Ghosts: Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s “Fantastic Tales,” Translated from Italian by Lawrence Venuti

By Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova

Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s Fantastic Tales (Archipelago Books, 2020) is a reprint of the 1992 Mercury House edition translated from Italian by Lawrence Venuti, one of the most influential scholars of translation today. Tarchetti (1839-1869) was an author of some renown who is credited with introducing the Gothic genre to Italian literature. A prolific writer, journalist, and translator, he was associated with a group of intellectuals in Milan who called themselves scapigliati – the disheveled ones. Their goal was to express their bitter discontent towards the political establishment of the newly formed Italian state by disturbing bourgeois respectability through a combination of aesthetic and literary acts of rebellion. The scapigliati fancied themselves eccentric individuals living an unruly bohemian life or even, as Cletto Arrighi, inventor of the term, portrayed them: “a personification of the madness outside the insane asylums; a reservoir of disorder, of recklessness, of the spirit of rebellion and opposition against all established norms” (our translation, 27-8).1 “personificazione della follia che sta fuori dei manicomi; serbatoio del disordine, della imprevidenza, dello spirito di rivolta e di opposizione a tutti gli ordini stabiliti”

Going against the grain of the Italian literary canon entailed rejecting the monolingual tradition of literary realism that dominated the scene ever since Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827) had finally given a voice to the national novel, imposing a linguistic uniformity to the fragmented and polyglot literary landscape that characterized Italy as a geopolitical entity before the unification of 1861. By experimenting with style and advocating the use of a linguistic pastiche that included vernacular words, neologisms, foreign words, and latinisms, the scapigliati attempted to invigorate a stagnating literary realism and simultaneously debunk the myth of a truly achieved political unity which the standard Italian language used by Manzoni in the final edition of this novel signified. In sum, they produced literary texts that were inventive and socially engaged, often turning to foreign literature for models and sources of inspiration. 

Tarchetti was a case in point – in his Gothic stories we find the traces (and at least one direct appropriation) of the nineteenth-century masters of the supernatural E. T.A. Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, Théophile Gautier, and Edgar Allan Poe. His works in turn inspired twentieth-century masters of the fantastic tale such as Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino, and Tommaso Landolfi. But Tarchetti did not merely integrate foreign plot lines and tropes in order to unsettle the Italian cultural establishment. By imbuing his stories with Gothic and fantastic themes, he aimed to trigger “destabilising feelings” of social unrest (Billiani 482) and undermine the sense of collective identity that the Italian historical novel was meant to convey. The relief and contentment that the end of Risorgimento should have brought about were replaced by the irrational fears that eerie foreign tropes instilled in the readers. As Venuti puts it in the introduction to the 1992 edition:

Although he used foreign texts in a project designed specifically for an Italian situation, he was practicing not so much a cultural imperialism abroad as a cultural restoration at home, importing a genre that was nonexistent in Italy because it was not compatible with prevailing values. (17)

In reviving Fantastic Tales, the publisher has opted not to include Venuti’s 1992 extended introduction which provides the literary-historical context for understanding Tarchetti’s contribution to Italian literature, alongside Venuti’s own theory of the translator’s invisibility. While this scholarly framework was crucial to introducing Tarchetti to the Anglophone reader almost thirty years ago, perhaps it is less urgent today. Venuti’s theory is widely known, while Tarchetti’s novels Paolina (1865) and Fosca (1869) have both been translated in English since the first edition of Fantastic Tales. Paolina appeared in 2017 in Jonathan Hiller’s translation while Venuti himself translated Fosca, first published as Passion (1994) and then reprinted as Fosca (2010). In other words, Tarchetti is better known in English translation today than he was in 1992. And Venuti’s long-standing project, as he states in the 1992 introduction, to translate “a writer who would give a new visibility to the neglected and misunderstood work of the translator” (17) is now a key component of translation studies. 

On the other hand, in omitting the scholarly paratext of the 1992 edition, the 2020 edition allows the reader to approach the text on its own, to discover its intertexts and influences, and delight in its plots, language, and imagery. In Fantastic Tales, Venuti has gathered the five stories originally published in 1869 as Racconti fantastici and four others – “Bouvard,” “The Elixir of Immortality,” “The Lake of the Three Lampreys,” and “Captain Gubart’s Fortune.” He has in effect edited his own collection of Tarchetti’s texts to exemplify the translator’s power to create and shape the life of the translated text from its “birth” in the target language to its reception and after-life in translation. 

The original five stories vary in tone, length, and thematic scope. The opening tale, “The Legends of the Black Castle,” is perhaps the one most committed to the Gothic genre, mixing a host of its classic figures–a burnt manuscript, a doomed first-person narrator, a mysterious castle, terrible crimes (incest, murder), supernatural events, and an enigmatic woman. “A Spirit in a Raspberry” and “A Dead Man’s Bone” shift in tone and present morbid yet humorous narratives of the dead visiting the living. “The Fated” has as its protagonists two hommes fatales who bring about the destruction of those around them, while “The Letter U” is the deranged confession of a man obsessed with the horrifying power of that letter (which notably is the “U” of Tarchetti’s middle name, Ugo). 

One common trait shared by these tales is the pseudo-scientific gaze of the narrator who advocates for himself the role of impartial witness of an extraordinary event. For example, we read in “The Fated”: “I limit myself to recounting facts that pertain to this superstition” (150); and in “A Spirit in a Raspberry”: “I shall attempt to relate this amazing occurrence with the greatest possible exactness” (31). Even in the extravagant first-person narration of the “The Letter U,” the displacement caused by the howling tones of the narrative voice is redressed by the final cursory note warning the readers that “the unhappy man who wrote these lines died in the insane asylum of Milan” (145). This is the sign that, after all, Tarchetti did not just aim to emulate his Gothic models but strived and succeeded in creating his own style which, on the one hand, anticipated elements of the great naturalistic novel by Zola and Verga while, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of expressivity in an experimental direction. Proof of the latter is the expressionistic tension of “The Letter U” in which Tarchetti plays with the shape and font size of the printed letter “U” in a symbolic way that can be traced back to a master of the eighteenth-century humoristic tradition, Lawrence Sterne, and, looking forward, to the iconoclastic “verbal-vocal-visual” games of the futuristic avant-garde (Pomilio 42).

The four other stories Venuti has chosen to include in this volume demonstrate Tarchetti’s literary range as they shift from philosophical-lyrical examinations of artistic genius, beauty, and love (“Bouvard”) to the  agency of the natural landscape channelling dark powers against the humans (“The Lake of the Three Lampreys”), sketches of the comical but opportune outcomes of chance and error (“Captain Gubart’s Fortune”) and, most significantly for Venuti’s selection, a narrative about the eternal quest for immortality and its effects (“The Elixir of Immortality”). “The Elixir of Immortality” is, as Venuti discusses at length in the 1992 introduction, an almost literal translation of Mary Shelley’s story “The Mortal Immortal” (1833), but without Tarchetti acknowledging his source text. Shelley’s story is a feminist satire of bourgeois society and in Venuti’s reading, Tarchetti draws on this text to enact his own provocative disruption of nineteenth-century literary taste and accepted literary norms. 

In a 1992 article in the New York Times, provocatively titled “The Awful Crime of I. U. Tarchetti: Plagiarism as Propaganda,” Venuti rationalizes and in fact extols Tarchetti’s brilliant appropriation of another’s text: 

I came to realize that the very act of plagiarism may have carried social significance for Tarchetti. It flouted bourgeois property relations and upset the distinctions on which the Italian literary establishment was grounded. Not only did a translation pass for an original work and a translator for an author, but a feminist satire that celebrated occult science passed for the first Gothic tale written in the language of Manzoni’s canonized novel. Tarchetti’s text wouldn’t have had the same impact if it had been identified as a translation; he had to smuggle Shelley’s tale into Italy as a text written originally in Italian. Mary Shelley, daughter of radical democrats and wife of a revolutionary poet, might have applauded.

Whether or not Tarchetti had genuinely intended to pass Shelley’s tale as his own and, more significantly, whether or not his readers were aware of Tarchetti’s appropriation – weakly signalled by the use of the expression “dall’inglese” (from English) following the Italian title – is still open to debate. Similarly, Venuti’s use of Mary Shelley’s literary authority to sanction Tarchetti’s project is somewhat problematic: the image of a woman writer applauding a male writer’s theft of her work, even if for the purposes of subversion, would not necessarily bolster his point. In any case, as Venuti explains, there was no question of copyright infringement since according to nineteenth-century English and Italian law, Shelley’s text was in the public domain. Translating and adapting foreign texts to the exigencies of a national literary language and culture was not an uncommon practice prior to the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, translation has always played an important role in the formation of national literary traditions (Damrosch). 

Venuti’s analysis takes us back to the issue that was seemingly the closest to Tarchetti’s heart: blurring the boundaries of cultural and geopolitical identities – national and foreign literatures, authorship and translation, science and superstition, original text and copies – in order to upset the establishment and question its solidity. To this end, Tarchetti and other scapigliati strove to create surreal scenarios in which ethical categories were overturned and traditional hierarchies questioned: in the oppositional couples of beauty-ugliness, health-illness, good-evil, life-death, reality-dream, the first and second terms constantly negotiate their hegemonic places. This fluidity also relates to gender in one of the most provocative tales of the collection, “A Spirit in a Raspberry.” Usually praised for its reference to metempsychosis, this story is clearly also a powerful attempt to explore queer subjectivities by describing the process of a man experiencing female emotions and desires whilst turning, in body and mind, into a woman.

Along the road he stopped often to contemplate objects or people who had never before stirred the slightest interest in him, viewing them from a perspective entirely different from the one he had previously adopted. […] And from that moment on the strange doubleness spread to all his senses; he saw double, heard double, touched double, and – what was even more surprising – he thought double” (39-40).

Venuti’s translation of Tarchetti, a writer who channeled the Gothic imagination of many Anglophone authors, relies on the archaic lexicon and syntax of Poe and Shelley to produce a strange yet familiar English language. Those influences are already perceptible in the opening story, “The Legend of the Black Castle”:

I was walking for a definite reason, fixed beforehand, some purpose that drew me to that place, but of which I was ignorant. High over the far end of the valley rose a sheer cliff, perpendicular, massive, grooved with cracks from which not one liana sprouted. At its summit stood a castle that commanded the entire valley, and that castle was black. Its towers were protected by crossbows and filled with soldiers, the gates of its bridges were lowered, its turrets were packed with men and weapons of defense. (14)

The Gothic architecture, the dramatic natural setting, and the mesmerized first-person narrator recall Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Venuti elaborates further, “My translation in fact uses some of the same words and phrases that Shelley uses – after I discovered Tarchetti’s hoax, her writing joined Poe’s in serving as my resource for English archaisms” (“Introduction,” 18). The translator of Fantastic Tales is thus facilitated by the existence of a rich and accessible Gothic literature in English and by the impact of that literature on the source text. In other words, Venuti re-introduces Poe and Shelley, mediated and rerouted through Tarchetti’s Italian language and the social and cultural agenda of the scapigliati writers. 

Tarchetti, Iginio Ugo. Fantastic Tales. Translated by Lawrence Venuti. Archipelago Books, 2020.

Enrica Maria Ferrara is a tenured Teaching Fellow in Italian at Trinity College Dublin, writer of non-fiction, poet, and translator. She has published widely in the fields of Italian studies, comparative literature, and film. Her most recent publication is the volume Posthumanism in Italian Literature and Film: Boundaries and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan 2020) of which she is the editor. Enrica is currently working on the last draft of her debut novel.

Stiliana Milkova is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Oberlin College and the author of Elena Ferrante as World Literature. She has translated from Italian works by Anita Raja, Adriana Cavarero, Antonio Tabucchi, Alessandro Baricco, and others. She is the editor of Reading in Translation.

Works Cited

Arrighi, Cletto. La Scapigliatura e il 6 febbrajo, Milan: U. Mursia Editore, 1988.

Billiani, Francesca. “Delusional Identities: The Politics of the Italian Gothic and Fantastic in Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s Trilogy Amore nell’arte and Luigi Gualdo’s Short Stories, ‘Allucinazione,’ ‘La canzone di Weber’ and ‘Narcisa.'” Forum for Modern Language Studies 44- 4, October 2008: 480–499.

Damrosch, David. “Translation and National Literature.” In A Companion to Translation Studies, edited by Sandra Bermann and Catherine Porter. Wiley & Sons, 2014.  

Pomilio, Tommaso. “Scapigliatura spasmodica: presagi di espressionismo.” L’illuminista 37-39, 2013: 41-63.

Venuti, Lawrence. “Introduction.” Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, Fantastic Tales.  Translated by Lawrence Venuti. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992. 

Venuti, Lawrence, “The Awful Crime of I. U. Tarchetti: Plagiarism as Propaganda.” August 23, 1992. New York Times.  


  1. Dorothy Potter Snyder · · Reply

    Good heavens, what an interesting review. I am reminded of how Borges ripped off Mark Twain, though he did it more cynically I think. Brilliant review.

  2. I love Tarchetti’s work in prose. It is unfortunate there is not that much to read left by him.

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