Scowling or unsmiling?

One of the greatest pleasures of doing art translations is working with the images discussed in the text. In some cases, access to the relevant images while translating is essential for understanding what the art in question actually looks like (more on this in a future post), especially in the field of contemporary art, when even the best, most lucid verbal descriptions can leave one uncertain as to the nature of the artwork being described. But in other cases, images can come to the rescue when a source word can be translated in more than one way—and thus the various translation possibilities would describe quite different imagery.

Saint Andrew the Sullen?

My favourite recent example of a situation in which looking at an image made it possible for me to choose the right translation—and thus preserve the integrity of the author’s text—was a brief but ambiguous description of the facial expression of Saint Andrew in the stained glass windows of the choir in Santa Croce, Florence. The saint was described as being an accigliato type, an adjective which the Zingarelli unabridged Italian dictionary defines as corrucciato, meaning either sullen or cross, and Hoepli defines as having furrowed brows. It seemed odd that an image of Saint Andrew would depict him as sullen or cross, or even frowning, and in fact the Ragazzini Italian/English dictionary does offer a less fraught definition, suggesting ‘unsmiling’ as an option following frowning, scowling and glowering.

What to do? Since the Italian verb on which the adjective accigliato depends, accigliare, means to have furrowed brows, I did not want to water down the description to merely ‘unsmiling’ if the image in question truly was of a scowling Saint Andrew. And so I went on a hunt for the image.

Going straight to the visual source

Knowing from the essay I was translating that the saint was to be found in the ‘north windows’ of the church, I visited a website I had discovered during my research that provides extremely high-resolution close ups of the entire chapel and figured out which set of windows was ‘north’ based on my own knowledge of the space and clues provided elsewhere in the text. The north windows feature no fewer than ten different saints, all unlabelled, and so I used my knowledge of the iconography of Saint Andrew during that historical period (longish, grey, shaggy hair) to narrow down the options. The distinctive saint was not hard to spot, surrounded as he is by bishop saints, youthful saints and female saints, and so it was that I was able see the image that had inspired the author’s choice of the adjective accigliato. And what I found was not a scowling Andrew, nor one with furrowed brows—but simply an Andrew with a downturned mouth, an unsmiling Andrew, as it were. You can judge for yourself in the image at left of the first paragraph of this post—that is him!

A scowl by any other name

Does it seem like a bit too much legwork for deciding between the two adjectives ‘frowning’ and ‘unsmiling’? Perhaps. I could have of course played it safe and chosen ‘unsmiling’ without hunting down the image, since that adjective would have covered all bases, albeit in a rather flat way if the author had meant to emphasis an actual frown. But that is precisely why I opted to do the legwork: since the meaning of accigliato leaned heavily toward furrowed brows, and especially angrily, or disdainfully furrowed brows, I did not want to risk depriving the translation of its descriptive power by unnecessarily choosing a ‘safe’, generic term. And as it would happen, recourse to the actual image revealed that the more emotionally descriptive translation options would have been overkill, and that ‘unsmiling’ was in fact the most accurate choice.