By Emma Clarke and Araks-Naomi Zainali
Did you know that some of the greatest love stories have their roots in different countries? Literary translation lies behind their success. This Valentine’s Day we take a look at three tragic narratives which have achieved wide-spread readership and all carry the same thread, proving that the language of love is universal…
The story of Romeo and Juliet has been injected with new life countless times – in West Side Story, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production starring Leonardo Di Caprio and High School Musical, to list a few modern revivals. But the tragic narrative of young love thwarted by feuding families and culminating in death stretches back into antiquity. The Bard’s masterpiece may never have been assimilated into Western culture if it weren’t for Arthur Brooke’s 1562 translation of Pierre Boaistuau, and Shakespeare also borrowed heavily from Marotto and Gianozza (1476) by Masuccio Salernitano. So Romeo and Juliet, set in Verona, is truly continental.
Over in the East, Layla and Majnun are the equivalents of Shakespeare’s tragic pair. In the torrid Arabian landscape, the animosity between their tribes keeps them forever apart, with Majnun eventually slipping into madness. The story originated in classic Arabic literature before being translated and popularized by the poet Nizami Ganjavi in C12th Persia. From there it traveled across the Islamic world, reaching as far as Mughal India where, as Indian legend has it, Layla and Majnun fled to Rajasthan before their untimely death.
I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) is an Italian tale of two star-crossed lovers, Renzo and Lucia, who wish to get married. One man stands in their way, Don Rodrigo. Why does he forbid the marriage? Well… because he can! Don Rodrigo is a pompous bully who, historically speaking, is a thinly veiled representation of how Austria treated Italy in the 19th Century. The Betrothed has been translated into many European languages and appears on every European must-read list – except for Britain and America it seems. Apparently, Anglo-domination doesn’t just apply to music and television.
What are your favourite love stories? Were they originally written in your native tongue?
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