“An almost general custom in Italy is to deny Mothers the most precious gift, which is their Daughters’ education, which leaves them nothing but the sweet title of Mother” (qtd. in Calvani 10). Venetian author and translator Giustina Renier Michiel penned this lament in her introduction to her translation of three Shakespeare plays. As a matter of fact, Giustina was the first person to translate the Bard into Italian, with the goal of providing her daughters with a morally instructive set of examples. It seems apt to mention her today, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, as a Venetian connection to the Bard’s life.
Giustina’s girls—Elena, Chiara, and Cecilia—could learn from the experiences of strong characters who take their fates into their own hands. Marry for love, not custom, like Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, or direct a kingdom’s destiny, like Lady Macbeth, but learn the disastrous consequences of avarice and superstitious belief. Giustina explained that she translated Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus to prepare for her daughters “a reading, which can, whenever possible, give them joy and instruction, contributing to their happiness and moderating their growing passion with examples” (10). Or, as Giustina’s biographer Susan Dalton, points out, “she often evokes the ideals of civility: of modesty, sensibility, reason, and self-discipline” (Dalton, Engendering 84). Much of Giustina’s writing focused on these goals and ideals, fueled by her love for her daughters.
Giustina was a modest woman. Though she was born into the noble class, she chose to dress in simple linen or wool gowns, unadorned except for roses in her hair. Her paternal grandfather Paolo Renier had served as next-to-last doge, and her maternal uncle Ludovico Manin served last. Giustina married Marc’Antonio Michiel, and, though it was an arranged marriage, they found happiness together and had three daughters. However, this did not last, and the couple later separated. Giustina created a life for herself, hosting a literary salon and taking on translation work.
Giustina’s notes prove that she had to make countless discerning choices in order to create plays that were true to their author’s voice. “Soul and wit are perhaps more essential to the accurate transportation of sentiment and taste from one language to another than the ability to write philosophical works,” Giustina wrote. “A sprightly and animated style covers and even embellishes the faults; whereas a languid and cold one makes the grace itself vanish” (qtd. in Calvani 8). Giustina made editorial choices, such as omitting racist lines against Othello (Calvani 13), and she eliminated stage directions since she translated the plays to be read, not performed (14). Wherever she omitted lines or changed them drastically to match Italian idioms, Giustina provided the literal translation in her notes and explained her choices. “Most of all,” she believed, “it is necessary to strive to make the Authors speak in the language into which they are translated, as they would speak themselves, if they wanted to communicate their ideas in that language” (qtd. in Calvani 8). Giustina was fluent in English, French, and Italian to the point that she could capture the essence of Shakespeare’s dialogue, its “soul and wit.”
Giustina knew that, though translation work was generally deemed acceptable for women to undertake, she still would face criticism from male scholars. Her own early biographer, Vittorio Malamani, accused Giustina of not actually doing the work herself but of taking credit for Melchiore Cesarotti’s work (Calvani 7). Well aware of the prevailing prejudices against women writers, Giustina accepted the advice of Cesarotti, and she quoted previous translators to lend her work credibility. As noted earlier, Giustina chose to translate Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus for their educative qualities, both in morals and in emotional insights, particularly on marriage and parent/child relationships. Emotions, she noted wryly, “may be the only topic a woman can discuss without fear of accusations by men” (qtd. in Calvani 9). Calvani also comments that these plays in this order “[offer] to young women the image of a woman’s life, from youth till maturity” (10).
No reviews survive to mark how the translations were received when they were published in 1798, but the fact that they were reprinted in 1801 suggests that they enjoyed a decent popularity. As Alessandra Calvani contends, “to translate means to have authority over the original text and over the translation reader at the same time” (2). In this way, Giustina created work of the same value as other scholars, despite what any misogynist detractors might have said.
Shakespeare pops up in Venice in a number of places: It’s the setting for The Merchant of Venice and Othello, for example. But probably few people know that a Venetian woman was the first to translate this famous writer’s words into Italian. So today, besides celebrating the works of this amazing playwright, I’m also celebrating the talents of Giustina Renier Michiel.