One Language

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byAnn Goldstein

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 horhaveva, and havuta is etymological, from Latin, and not pronounced, and is absent from the modern Italian words.)

Finally, in 1757, Pope Benedict XIV relaxed the ban on Italian translations, and Antonio Martini, a priest who was later named archbishop of Florence, made a new version. His version, published in 1781, was based on the Vulgate, but he consulted with a rabbi on the Hebrew of the Old Testament. His first sentence of Genesis 11 is quite straightforward: Or la terra aveva una sola favella, e uno stesso linguaggio, or, “Now the earth had a single speech and the same language.”

Until the first half of the twentieth century, Martini’s was the only approved translation for Italian Catholics, and not until after Vatican II (1962-65) was there a flowering of new translations and editions, thanks in part to the fact that Mass was now celebrated in Italian, not Latin. In the current official Catholic Italian version, called the CEI, or Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, published in 1974 and revised in 2008, we find Tutta la terra aveva una sola lingua e le stesse parole: “The entire earth had a single language and the same words.” Here we have the common modern word for language, lingua—literally “tongue,” a body part that, unlike the lip, seems to have survived metaphorically.


Verse 3 of the Babel passage describes the building of the city and the tower. I won’t quote all the versions in Italian, but here’s the basic sentence: “One said to another: ‘Come and let’s make bricks and bake them with fire.’ And they used bricks instead of stones and bitumen instead of mortar.” Most of the versions use the normal word mattone for brick (or bricks); but the bricks are baked or cooked “with” fire, “on the” fire, or “in the” fire; brick or bricks are used “for” stones, “in place of” stones, or “instead of” stones. “Mortar” is calcina or malta until the twentieth century, when it becomes cemento. The 1471 Bible is the only one that doesn’t have bricks but, perhaps more vividly, says, “Let’s make stones out of earth and bake them with fire, and they had baked stones for rocks.”

You can get a sense from these examples—and it’s even clearer if you look at the entire passage chronologically—that the sentences seem to get plainer, less ornate, use fewer and, understandably and inevitably, more modern words. Verb forms and spellings change, as one would expect. But then there are also words that don’t change, like bitumen and bricks. Still, without making any assumptions about why the translator made his choices, we can certainly appreciate how many choices he had to make. If you were to translate these five Italian versions of the first sentence into more idiomatic English, with the idea of preserving something of their individuality, you might have sentences like these:


There was on the earth one tongue and a single speech. (1471)

And all the earth was of one tongue and the same words. (1532)

Now all the earth had a single speech and a single language. (1607)

Now the earth had a single speech and the same language. (1781)

The entire earth had a single language and the same words. (2008)


What’s being described in all these versions sounds like a golden age of harmony and understanding, but without the differences, we wouldn’t have the fun of comparisons, and translators would be out of work. 


by Ann Goldstein
Translator of Elena Ferrante