Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Accidental Death of an Anarchist Challenges of Translation

Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been performed in over 40 countries, yet translating and adapting the play has posed many challenges. First of all, it has been difficult to find a fixed text to translate. The play was rewritten many times during rehearsals, and Fo sometimes altered the script during performances based on the public's reaction or in response to current events. He tended to lose interest once the performance run was complete, leaving the task of presenting the script to a publisher to his wife, Franca Rame. Each of the three main published editions of the play include substantial changes, with further changes made for a version published in Fo's Complete Works

There are considerable linguistic challenges as well. It can be difficult to translate words that may be either scientific or colloquial in Italian; thus, for instance, the term manicomio has been translated in different versions as nuthouse, loony bin, or lunatic asylum. There is a rhythm to some of the original language that cannot be captured in English; thus, the poetic sound of "a me piace guidicare condannare reprimere perseguitare!" loses its feel in the English: "I like judging, sentencing, going after people" (8). Sometimes Fo uses the structure of the language for a joke; for instance, he ends a sentence with one word (la scarpa, the shoe) and begins a new sentence with the same word, thus turning the tragedy of the event into a farce by paying irreverent attention to the shoe. While one can translate the literal meaning of the words, it is difficult to capture the comic undertones communicated by the original linguistic structure. Sometimes, too, translators miss the point in changing a grammatical structure. A close translation of the Maniac's statement about the anarchist's shoe would be, "And do you know what I say? I say that what the officer was left holding wasn't a shoe at all, it was a galosh," putting the emphasis on the speaker ("Do you know what say? say..."). The current translation loses some of this nuance: "So I put it to you that the constable had in his hands not a shoe, but a galosh" (53). 

Another challenge is in maintaining the political focus of the play. In his run of performances, Fo would begin by talking about contemporary events, leading into a discussion of the origins and central lines of the play. He was also able to take for granted that his audience would have common background knowledge about the case and surrounding events in Italian political history. In an attempt to make the play as culturally relevant as possible, he encouraged translators to adapt references to events, change the setting, etc.; so, for instance, a British edition from 1980 refers to General Pinochet's 1973 coup in Chile, while Australian performances refer to Aboriginal deaths in police custody and attempts to blame left-wing groups for a 1978 bombing at the Sydney Hilton. However, translators occasionally went too far. For example, in the first production in Britain, adaptors Gillian Hanna and Gavin Richards took great liberties to modify the script as they saw fit. Richards cut out the Maniac's bishop disguise because he didn't understand Fo's rationale, and he even had the police admit to having pushed the anarchist out the window. Since it is unusual in British theater to have one dominant character do most of the talking, Richards modified the dialogue to reassign many of the Maniac's interruptions to other characters. Fo was unhappy with Richards' adaptation, believing it neglected the tragedy and politics of the original. American versions have often had the same problems in translation.

Later British translations have been more faithful in spirit to the original. Simon Nye's translation used for this study guide preserves Fo's original political intent and desire for relevance to a contemporary audience by setting the play in Britain and choosing references familiar to a British audience. As such, a modern audience can experience both the humor and the political vigor of the original, despite missing the linguistic nuances that are necessarily lost in translation.