Italy

Sanantonio Mondadori

Dominique Jeannerod, Queen’s University, Belfast

Jean-Marie Le Ray, Translator, Rome-Paris

With our thanks to Gianni Rizzoni and Daniel Magennis

Italy was not the first country to translate and adapt the investigations of Detective San-Antonio, the French bestseller whose 183 novels have sold more than an estimated 100 million copies in his country of origin. Initial translations into English, in 1954, did not meet with any success and faded almost without trace. San-Antonio had greater success in Francoist Spain, where translations were published, and sometimes reissued, from the early 1960’s. The first translation of the Italian “Sanantonio” was not until 1970, the first title being La Gioconda in blu (Pass me the Mona Lisa). What sets Italy apart from other countries is the large number of translations published there and their high quality. 120 of the 183 original novels were translated there, as well as two comics. Including reissues and reprints, the total number of San-Antonio books published in Italy from 1970 to 2015 amounts to 190. Throughout these 45 years—by no means uninterrupted— San-Antonio was picked up by five different Italian publishing houses. The most significant of these was Mondadori who, between July 1970 and the end of 1977, published 90 original translations at a rate of one every month.

The present article tries to put into perspective San-Antonio’s apparent success in Italy. It seeks to reassess the Italian San-Antonian corpus, following the recently published book San-Antonio International (Artiaga & Jeannerod (dir.), PULIM, 2020) which challenged the narrative of San-Antonio’s success abroad, a narrative that so often blurs the realities of its reception. Far from being an unqualified success around the world, the story of San-Antonio in translation takes the form of a series of mishaps and commercial disasters. In fact, the number of Italian editions imply a success that appears to be at odds with an otherwise depressing worldwide tendency; an exception to the observations made in all the other countries investigated in this study.

Certainly, several valid explanations to this Italian idiosyncrasy are highlighted in the book, not least the exceptional skills shown by the Italian translators, with their ear for French slang and their flair for finding equivalences in the Italian language. Success in Italy was further bolstered by the long tradition of circulation of French popular fiction in Mediterranean countries; the cultural proximity between France and Italy, reinforced in the 1970s by Franco-Italian cinematic co-productions, most notably comedies and crime films, two genres to which the universe of San-Antonio owes a great deal. The covers of the Italian editions of San-Antonio recall the striking figure of Jean-Paul Belmondo. San-Antonio also responded to the wide demand for entertaining and “light” literature and, perhaps the most significant factor of all: with Mondadori the San-Antonio novels found in Italy what had been the key to their popularity in France: A powerful publisher that dominated the popular fiction market. Fleuve Noir in France, Mondadori in Italy. In many ways the more prestigious, better established and more internationally connected, Mondadori offered a better platform than Fleuve Noir. So ideal, in fact, that San-Antonio in Italy may have become a victim of its own success. After all, what series’ characters can keep pace with a new novel released every month for 90 straight months?

This was the rhythm adopted by publisher Fayard (“Le Livre Populaire”), for the original Fantômas series by Souvestre & Allain. But it had lasted “only” for 32 novels, from February 1911 to September 1913. The 1970’s Italian public was offered more than three times this number of San-Antonio novels for almost an entire decade.

Is some modicum of readers’ fatigue not to be expected? By 1978, Mondadori had called it quits and handed San-Antonio over to two successive publishing houses, Editoriale ERRE and Edizioni Rosa & Nero. Neither would ever recapture the early commercial success of Sanantonio. Both houses were directed by Gianni Rizzoni, who had played a decisive role in Mondadori’s translations of San-Antonio. Of the eight translators who were responsible for translating San-Antonio to Italian between 1970 and 1986, Rizzoni ranks second behind only Bruno Just Lazzari for the quantity of texts translated.[1] However, Rizzoni’s activities in the promotion of San-Antonio in Italy far exceed translation, and it is no exaggeration to see in him the series’ main Italian “fixer”. In a 1986 article in Il Corriere della Sera, Alfredo Barberis presented Rizzoni to its readers, on the occasion of his second creation of a publishing house (Edizioni Rosa & Nero) with a view to once more attempt to revive Sanantonio’s fortunes[2].

The publication of “Champagne per tutti” (…) celebrates the return of Frédéric Dard, Sanantonio under his pen name, the most phenomenal mystery writer of recent years. In a totally invented language – a mixture of Rabelais, Céline and Merlin the cook – which his Italian translator-tutor, Gianni Rizzoni, makes particularly funny thanks to his entertaining glottological research, Sanantonio tells of a Roman adventure of Béru & Co. with a cocktail as improbable as it is irresistible of scientists, light-hearted girls and mafiosi. Just a detail: for the first time the author also addresses his well-known digressions (which are not really in the style of Montaigne or Alain) to a hypothetical female reader. Such is the power of feminism.

By calling him a translator-tutor (i.e. also a guide, protector, support), Barberis finally chose to blow Gianni Rizzoni’s cover, and to reveal to readers of the Corriere della Sera that he in fact is the man behind Sanantonio’s success in Italy; the mediator between the commissioner and his readership, the intermediary without whom Italians likely would have never heard of this French detective, and the man who has invested the most in his adventures over the years. Above all, Rizzoni is cemented as the “father” of Sanantonio’s language in Italian, and the true “memory” of the Italian Sanantonio.

Gianni Rizzoni was a professor of French literature, who had written on Baudelaire, Delacroix, and the Dreyfus Affair. He translated Signé Furax, a trilogy by humourists Pierre Dac and Francis Blanche, and a crime trilogy by master of slang Auguste Le Breton (the author of Riffifi) published with Mondadori, in the Giallo series.[3] For the screen, Rizzoni adapted the Italian version of Bertrand Blier’s Valseuses. His name, however, is not mentioned in any of the first three Sanantonio books published from July to September 1970: La Gioconda in blu (Pass me the Mona Lisa), La quarta zucca è bianca (Don’t eat the instructions) and Sanà fra i duri (Gentlemen!). The translation/adaptation (Traduzione e adapamento dal francese) is credited to Jean Barbet and Giuseppina Pisani Futacchi, a French teacher and a young Italian teacher.

In her 1990 dissertation on “Il caso San-Antonio”, Luciana Cisbani, discovered that when Mondadori bought the rights to publish the San-Antonio series, Alberto Tedeschi, director of the Crime Series submitted them to Gianni Rizzoni, who ended up completely rewriting  them. Rizzoni described this process in an interview with Cisbani :

… they had struggled to translate literally, they had looked for literary solutions for each sentence, but the result was very heavy. (…) So I rewrote the whole translation and anchored the use of certain slang terms. Notably because neither Pisani Futacchi nor Barbet had any idea what Italian slang was, while I had gained some knowledge of terminology in the matter, from my experience as a translator of Auguste Le Breton.

Indeed, having under his belt translations of Rififi sulla Senna (Du rififi à Paname), Il Clan dei siciliani (Le Clan des Siciliens) and Brigata antigang (Brigades anti-gangs), Rizzoni had developed an extensive Italian-French vocabulary based on Le Breton’s slang. The fourth San-Antonio translation published by Mondadori, Siamo logici perdiana (Faut être logique) was entrusted to Bruno Just Lazzari, a “Triestinian ex-cavalry officer” who went on to become the most prolific Italian translator of Sanantonio, with 85 translated novels, as well as 2 comics, over nearly 10 years. Gianni Rizzoni’s name as a translator of Sanantonio appeared for the first time in January 1971, on the seventh translated novel, Il filo per tagliare il burro (The Thread That Cuts the Butter).

Rizzoni recently gave us more details on how the work was divided for subsequent Italian translations.

I must admit that – as the documentation indicates – first as an editorial manager, then as a collection manager, I used a lot the translations of my friend Lazzari, who had an extraordinary gift, that of fluidity. The narration, with him, was flowing freely. But this actually had very little to do – nothing at all – with any “translation strategy”. Let’s just say that I was the expert on French culture; at the same time, I was interested both in French slang (which Lazzari did not know) and in Italian slang. Having already translated the novels of Le Breton, I felt I could create neologisms and bizarre constructions to accommodate San-Antonio’s style: the Italian language of Sanantonio was my own. Bruno would translate the novels at full speed, in just a few days – that was one of the main attributes for which we liked so much working with him – and then I would step into the editing by inserting or emphasizing the Sanantonian language and stylistic features. I’ve always written the blurbs on the back covers in a Sanantonio style.

This echoes his 1989 interview with Luciana Cisbani :

with one or two exceptions, I have always revised all of Sanantonio’s Italian translations. (…) When the translator translated in another way a typical Bérurier sentence or one of the many bird names of Pinaud, I tried to standardise the term or the sentence with reference to the more traditional form in use. This, chiefly because the logic of these kinds of repetitive novels is to always provide the reader with new elements while maintaining a series of recurring gags and terms, which create an atmosphere of familiarity.

Rizzoni’s concern for continuity in the language used is one that guided his translation of Sanantonio. While San-Antonio in French rarely revisited the “neologisms” he created, the Italian translation was able to build a basic vocabulary that spanned the entire series that was identifiable to its readership, thus creating over time the idiosyncratic Italian language of Sanantonio.

Despite all this, it is quite clear from 1978 that Sanantonio’s popularity in Italy was in decline. The falling numbers of original translations offers an indication.

  • 1978: 7 original translations, including 1 “Hors Série” (Le vacanze di Berù / The holidays of Bérurier)
  • 1979: 7 original translations, including 2 “Hors Série” (Berù I ° il leone d´Africa + Sessualità / Béru-Béru + Sexuality)
  • 1980: 2 original translations, including 1 “Hors-Série” (Il galateo secondo Berù / The standing according to Bérurier)
  • 1981: 4 original translations, including 1 “Hors-Série” (La saga dei Cojon / Les Con)
  • 1982: 1 original translation
  • 1986: 3 original translations
  • 2001 – 2004: 6 original translations in 4 years

From 2000 to 2004, the publishers Casa Editrice Le Lettere published 6 original translations (by the couple Domitilla Marchi and Enzo Fileno Carabba) and a reprint of a translation by Lazzari and Rizzoni. Between 2013 and 2015, Edizioni E / O published 17 reprints of translations by Bruno Just Lazzari (assisted by Gianni Rizzoni), bringing the total number of Sanantonio releases in Italy to 190 (120 original editions, 68 reprints and 2 comics, published by Mondadori in 1973 (Olé! Sanantonio) and 1974 (Sanantonio in Scozia), respectively, both translated by Bruno Just Lazzari).

1980, the year after Mondadori decided to give up the series, marked the turning point for Sanantonio: a single novel in the series came out, in May, Bagni & Massacri, in addition to one novel outside the series, Il galateo secondo Berù. Around that time, a survey was conducted to celebrate the first 10 years of publication of San-Antonio in Italy (1970-1980). Apparently only 98 readers responded, and keeping this low response in mind, here are a few statistics which can be extrapolated from their responses.

A majority of respondents (88%) were either teenagers or under 40 years old; 72% were men; most were living in northern Italy (65%); 3% lived abroad: the Italian Sanantonio was also distributed in Switzerland, Germany, Australia and Canada, and in Arab countries (where volumes were often seized because of the “obscene nature of the covers”), Latin America, Belgium and the United States.

Predictably for such a cohort, readers rated their loyalty to San-Antonio’s adventures at 95%. Readers main motivations for reading San-Antonio were first the humorous content (84%), then the language (80%), and lastly because of the Giallo (crime) content (43%)…

Despite the support of a commercially robust publishing house and an outstanding team of translators, San-Antonio collapsed in Italy after 10 years. What explanations can we find and what lessons can we learn from them?

First of all, San-Antonio was possibly victim of a kind of bottleneck effect. By publishing practically one book per month for several years against three or four books per year for the French San-Antonio, soon the French production could not keep up the pace with Italian translations’ rhythm, resulting in an “exhaustion” of new material to translate.

The Italian reprints of the first volumes translated were a solution to keep pace with monthly publications as much as possible. At first it worked, but then reprint sales started to decline, dropping from monthly print runs of around 30,000 copies at the peak of the series, to 8 or 10,000 (still not a bad figure, although not enough). At that time, the main problem for Editoriale ERRE was inventory management of around 150,000 volumes (since the sale of novels in newsstands required a large inventory), in other words, significant management of costs.

Faced with declining sales, the collection’s accounts began to fall into the red. Any publishing house must pass on a share of overhead costs on each product but, above all, it cannot afford to waste its time and resources on a product that is difficult to relaunch, except by investing heavily in promotion (i.e. a cost recovery estimated at around 3-400 million lire for the time, more or less 150-210,000 euros of today). The only alternative would have been for all remaining prints to be remaindered. To spare San-Antonio this indignity, Gianni Rizzoni decided to throw everything he had in the fight.

When Mondadori’s senior management decided to stop the publication, Rizzoni managed, albeit with difficulty, to convince the company and its director, Leonardo Mondadori, to allow him to create the publishing house Editorial ERRE, whose sole purpose was to ensure the survival of Sanantonio, where he was director of collections.

While responsibilities for the printing of volumes, warehousing and distribution remained with Mondadori (which could thus better control the flow and still derive some profit from it), Rizzoni assumed all of the entrepreneurial risk.

Rizzoni then left Mondadori to move to Fabbri, while being authorized to retain his editorial autonomy and being responsible for managing the translation rights contracts (mainly entrusted to Lazzari), proofreading, printing, as well as storage, distribution, promotion, etc. At this point, Rizzoni had become the one-man band on whom Sanantonio’s survival depended.

Faced with the ever-pressing issue of unwanted stocks, Rizzoni came up with the idea of ​​combining the unsold items with the summer promotions of Rizzoli magazines, in particular “L’Europeo” and “Playboy“.

But in the end, none of this was enough and Rizzoni’s impressive personal commitment became increasingly impossible to justify and in 1983 he too decided to throw the towel.

Il Mondo, in its September 5, 1983 edition published an article titled “Sanantonio è KO”. It alludes to another development which could have prolonged the life of Sanantonio after all: over its last few months, the series had been kept on a drip in the hope that RAI (the Italian public radio-television) would broadcast a radio-play based on Sanantonio (for which contracts had apparently already been signed), as part of an international production. This venture, which had the possibility of allowing the series to survive, ultimately fell through.

But Gianni Rizzoni still held the translation rights. He decided in 1985 to try once more, with yet another publishing house (Edizioni Rosa & Nero) and a new formula: neater, large format books, printed on better paper. The Sanantonio books were no longer to be distributed in newsstands but in bookstores, with photographic clichés on the cover. This was all accompanied by large-scale advertising campaigns in the main newspapers of the time.

This new venture found support with some journalists, such as Alfredo Barberis, who wrote:

Dard-Sanantonio is far from being as “naive” as he wants us to believe: he is a cultivated writer, who has his roots in the learned tradition of the buffoons of French and European literature.

And again, Gianni Rizzoni did not shy away from the venture, getting directly involved not only in terms of editorial, intellectual, translation work, but also financially, investing a lot of his personal resources and time in the publishing of the novels of Sanantonio. It cost more than it earned, leading Gianni Rizzoni to conclude:

I ended up completely losing interest in Sanantonio…. A kind of exhaustion after so much effort and fatigue …

This disinterest and fatigue, coupled also with his other editorial responsibilities (editorial director at Fabbri, managing director of Sole 24 Ore editions, editorial director at Giorgio Mondadori) resulted in Gianni Rizzoni never really claiming paternity for his invention of the Italian language of Sanantonio. But even if San-Antonio is hardly read today in Italy, it would be interesting to rediscover and study this language. And beyond it, to reflect on the invention of a popular transalpine language for the communication between French and Italian cultural industries in the second half of the twentieth century, and thus on an original contribution to an imagined European Community.

To discover more about the Italian Sanantonio, see http://www.commissariosanantonio.it/

San-Antonio in Russia : http://san-a.ru

For a selection of translated works see :http://francois.kersulec.free.fr/

For a timeline of San-Antonio translations worldwide see : https://ahssqub.padlet.org/djeannerod/arahc6wt83z6gvhc

See also: San-Antonio International – Circulation et imaginaire d’une série policière française, by Loïc Artiaga, Dominique Jeannerod (dir.), PULIM, 2020: http://www.pulim.unilim.fr/index.php/notre-catalogue/fiche-detaillee?task=view&id=958


[1] The other six translators were Jean Barbet, Giuseppina Pisani Futacchi, Ersilia Borri, Guy Kaufmann, Gigi Rosa and Salvatore Di Rosa

[2] Corriere della Sera, Wednesday, May 28, 1986. Alfredo Barberis has conducted interviews with Pier Paolo Pasolini for the daily Il Giorno and with Primo Levi for Il Corriere della sera, and directed several newspapers, as well as the literary magazine Millelibri published by Giorgio Mondadori, until 1993. He is also a crime fiction specialist.

[3] Auguste Le Breton, Brigata Anti-Gang, Giallo Mondadori, n. 1085, 16 novembre 1969, 250 Lire


Hell’s Gate, a review

A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast

hell's gate

Laurent Gaudé – Hell’s Gate (Translated by Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce), Gallic Books, 04/05/2017. Original title La porte des enfers, 2008.

“Bring Pippo back to me, or, if you can’t, at least bring me the head of the man who killed him” (p. 118)

Taxi driver Matteo De Nittis and his wife Giuliana live an ordinary life in the city of Naples until their 8-year-old son is caught in the crossfire during the feuding of local mobsters. Confronted with the death of their child, the life they once shared is shattered. Giuliana is consumed by the deep anger of a mother who has lost her child and demands that he be returned to her by God, a miracle, or her husband. Matteo meanwhile is traumatised by the death he witnessed and drives aimlessly through the Neapolitan night, riven by grief and sorrow and drifting more and more into a state of mind that is closer to death than life.

Matteo encounters creatures of the night, those who live their lives on the streets of Naples at the edge of society who are “nothing but shadows” in the world of the living. And once he is introduced to a half-mad professor who tells him that this world and the world of the dead are not as far apart from each other as you would assume, Matteo does not hesitate. If there is to be any chance of bringing his son back from the dead, he will take it. He would step through the gates of hell… Twenty years later a man called Fillipo De Nittis is gathering his courage to confront the man who killed him.

If you were to mix Dante, Kafka and Hitchcock and add a bad LSD-trip you would probably get Gaudé’s Hell’s Gate or at least something equally disturbing. Hell’s Gate is a novel about life, death and what is in between, but it is first and foremost a story about loss, grief, and yes, suffering. Gaudé sends his characters through literal hell throughout their mad scramble to remain sane, and the reader has the masochistic pleasure of following their emotional spiral of loss and misery through the pages. The characters are brilliantly written, and it is hard to imagine a more peculiar cast for a story about loss: “He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café.”

Hell’s Gate shines in its deep understanding of tragedy and the sense of loss and the human desire for salvation. Gaudé effortlessly combines genre elements of crime fiction, magical realism, and fantasy together in an uncanny and thought-provoking pit of a book, that, even though only about 200 pages, is packed with philosophical implications impinging upon the human condition, society and death itself. The language must be praised for its dramatic and vivid imagery as well as a certain stoicism that still manages to convey a sense of compassion. Boyce and Aitkin have outdone themselves in their translation and, thanks to them, Hell’s Gate reads as if it were not a translation at all.

One strong point of the novel is the characters and their journey through pain and misery. In this Gaudé is unrelenting and towards the end of the novel in particular one wishes for even the barest of happy endings, just to relieve the characters of even a fraction of their pain. This is, of course, not forthcoming. Although a glimmer of hope remains at the end of the story, Hell’s Gate is an unremittingly bleak tale and is not for the weak of heart. But if you can endure the pain, then Hell’s Gate will make for an intense and surreal read that seamlessly weaves the reality of human tragedy with the fantastic that will mesmerize.

Piero Chiara in English

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara (2015: Pushkin Vertigo), cover design by Jamie Keenan.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara (2015: Pushkin Vertigo), cover design by Jamie Keenan.

The first and to date only novel by Italian author Piero Chiara’s (1913 – 1986)  to be translated into English The Disappearance of Signora Giulia (Italian: I giovedì della signora Giulia), tells the story of the investigation into the disappearance of a country lawyer’s wife. While suspects seem easy to come by in this short novel, solutions are another matter entirely. This procedural was initially serialised in a Swiss newspaper in 1962 and is set in the dramatic milieu of the northern Italian lakes, where Chiara spent his childhood. The life of the author himself is no less interesting than the events of his novels. Working during WWII as a court employee, he was arrested by the Fascist Italian government in 1944 after he was rumoured to have placed a bust of Mussolini in the dock. He fled to Switzerland where he was interned in a camp for Italian refugees. After the war he taught history in a Swiss high school. His first writings – a collection of poetry, Incantavi (1945) were published there.  Returning to Italy, he became a post-war literary star, winning over a dozen Italian literary prizes. After his death, The Premio Chiara award was established in 1989 as an annual prize for short story writers.

The novel was published in English for the first time last year by  Pushkin Vertigo.  A new crime imprint of Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo offer a number of foreign crime novels from Asia and Europe, from the 1920s to the 1970s. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is the third book in this promising collection. Click here for more.