Comparing different English translations from different eras of the same work is not so unusual, but I recently had the chance to compare different Italian translations of the same work over a span of five centuries. That work was the Bible. I’m not a historian or a linguist or a philologist, but from an amateur point of view, I became fascinated by how the language in a single passage changed over those centuries.
The earliest Italian translation, published in Venice in 1471, was made by Niccolò Malermi, a Venetian monk, and was based on the Latin Vulgate. The so-called Malermi Bible that I was looking at was a 1492 edition, illustrated with woodcuts, and on my first encounter with it I happened to open to Genesis 11, the passage that recounts the story of the Tower of Babel.
Most of us know this story: the whole world speaks a single language, and the people decide to glorify themselves by building a city with a tower that reaches to heaven. To punish them for this sin of pride, God scatters them and confuses their language so that they can no longer understand one another.
Malermi’s first sentence is: Era nela terra uno labro e uno medesimo parlare, literally, “There was on the earth one lip and an identical speaking.” Labro (or modern labbro) is “lip,” which, perhaps analogously with the English “tongue,” could mean speech or language—a mouth part standing for speech. And parlare is the verb “to speak,” used as a noun, “speaking.”
The second Italian Bible, also published in Venice, in 1532, was that of Antonio Brucioli, a Florentine layman who worked from the original Hebrew. (He was said to have Protestant leanings and in fact was tried three times by the Inquisition.) His first line is: Et era tutta la terra d’uno labro & delle medesime parole, or, literally, “And the whole earth was of one lip and identical words.” So while the structure has changed slightly, he also uses labro, “lip,” in the sense of language, and medesimo, “identical” or “the same,” but Malermi’s verb parlare has become parole, “words.”
The third translation, published in 1538 and revised in 1546, was done by Santi Marmochini, a Dominican monk who claimed to have worked from the original Hebrew but is thought to have in fact relied on Brucioli’s version. His first line is: Et era tutta la terra d’un medesimo linguaggio & parlare, literally, “And the whole earth was of an identical language and speaking.” So he has eliminated the second modifier and introduced the word linguaggio, “language,” but has returned to the verb parlare.
Then, in 1559, Pope Paul IV published the first index of prohibited books, and on it were the Italian translations of the Bible. All printing and reading of vernacular versions of the Scriptures without the permission of the Holy Office was banned, and for the next 200 years no Catholic translated the Bible into Italian.
However, in 1607 an Italian translation by a Protestant was published in Geneva. The author was Giovanni Diodati, a Hebrew scholar whose family, threatened by persecution, had left Lucca for Geneva. His version, revised many times over the years, is still the standard Italian Protestant Bible. Diodati’s Genesis 11 begins: Hor tutta la terra haveva havuta una sola favella, & un sol linguaggio, literally, “Now all the earth had a single speech and a single language.” It’s a more balanced sentence, using two ordinary nouns for “speech” and “language,” favella and linguaggio, and repeating sola/sol. (The “h” of hor, haveva, and havuta is etymological, from Latin, and not pronounced, and is absent from the modern Italian words.)