In Pirandello’s 1917 short story, “Donna Mimma,” a Sicilian woman who has worked as a village midwife for thirty-five years suddenly finds herself being replaced by a young, newly-accredited upstart from the northern region of Piedmont. Forced to go to school in Palermo to earn an official diploma in order to compete with this interloper, Donna Mimma returns to the village two years later having acquired scientific terminology and more cosmopolitan manners only to find that, in the meantime, the young midwife has gone the opposite route and embraced some of the local customs, earning even more respect from the villagers.
Initially portrayed almost like a figurine from a Christmas village, Donna Mimma soon reveals her cracks and frailties, as her quaint, old-fashioned ways are threatened by the no-nonsense attitude of her Piedmontese competitor. In contrast to the bustling city of Palermo and even more so to the mysterious, threatening continent from which the old midwife’s nemesis hails, the tiny Sicilian town where Donna Mimma has long been working her magic is itself the stuff of fairytales, of old toy boxes discovered in some musty cellars. Its houses, churches, streets, trees are tiny pieces of the mosaic carefully arranged by Donna Mimma, prodigious deliverer of life and of sweet illusions to mask the bitterness of existence.
Doing justice to Donna Mimma and to her story presented unique translation challenges. When English speakers become acquainted with the Italian language, they are simultaneously amused and exasperated by the proliferation of suffixes that can make virtually anything—say, un libro, a book—smaller (librino, libretto), smaller and cuter (libriccino), bigger (librone), and even mediocre or ugly (libraccio). If Italian suffixes ever needed a representative, Pirandello could easily be one: his stories teem with suffixes, which regularly throw the translator into a state of consternation, but “Donna Mimma” takes suffixes to a whole new level: for the description of the village alone, Pirandello uses at least ten, but as the number quickly reaches fifty within the first few pages, the translator starts getting dizzy and wonders how many times “little” can be used to convey all the diminutive parts of the little village (paesello): its little churches (chiesine), little bell towers (campaniletti), little streets (viuzze), little trees (alberetti), etc. And what to do with all the repeated words (si cammina e cammina, tanti tanti, zitti zitti, piccolo piccolo) that Italian uses to give a singsong, fairytale-like quality to children’s stories? When does fidelity turns into obsession? In the end, the “less is more” rule prevails, and while some of the diminutives and repetitions in Pirandello’s text are necessarily lost, the sense of wonder that animates Donna Mimma’s world in the first part of the story hopefully lingers on.
Another interesting dilemma: Italian exclamations carry quite a bit of oomph—no need to cite ABBA’s “Mamma mia!” to prove it—and Donna Mimma is quite generous, if not too imaginative, with her own exclamations. Her signature remark, at least until she returns from Palermo with a degree in hand and her gentle quirkiness turned grotesque, is Gesù! To Italian ears, however, that Gesù! echoes with a variety of emotions, from mock outrage at a child’s impertinent question about her hands, to dismay at her first encounter with the dazzling lights and deafening noises of the city, to naïve disbelief upon learning the barely-pronounceable, scientific names for the phenomena related to childbirth, phenomena she thought she knew so well she didn’t even need names for them. Those emotions, however, would not come across effectively through a consistent, literal translation. If anything, Jesus! calls to mind a sudden fright, or worse, vexed frustration, and would thus be a discordant hue in Donna Mimma’s initial portrayal. Therefore, if Jesus! works well to express her getting repeatedly startled at the intermittent jolts of the train ride to Palermo, elsewhere that Gesù becomes, in turn, a tickled “My, oh my!”, an intimidated “Oh my God!”, and a demure “Gosh.”
But what happens to Donna Mimma by the end of the story is that the bygone appeal of her language crumbles along with the magic allure of her persona. Hurt and resentful of what she perceives as a usurpation on the part of her Piedmontese rival and as a betrayal on the part of the village women and their offspring, who were easily won over by the Piedmontese’s youthful charm, the old midwife reveals her ugly side, and filth starts rolling off her tongue. The diminutives that had contributed to the enchanted feel of the initial description of the village now reappear, this time loaded with spiteful sarcasm. The children become, in her words, Musi di cane! Cazzarellini! Ah, figli di... (“Dirty mugs! Little shits! Sons of...”), and the Piedmontese a sgualdrinella (“little whore”). Did the fairy suddenly turn into a witch? No, Pirandello’s view of humanity is filled with unfathomable bitterness, but it is never devoid of compassion. Donna Mimma was never a fairy in the first place, nor was the Piedmontese a witch. Forever separated by a generational, geographical and cultural gap—it’s quite indicative that in the course of the story they never meet in person—the two women leave the reader with the “certain perplexity between weeping and laughing” that characterizes Pirandello’s humor and the desperate solitude of his universe.