Jonson’s “Italian riddle”: Epicene and the Translation of Aretino’s Female Speech
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Jonson’s “Italian riddle”:
Epicene and the Translation of Aretino’s Female Speech

Tradurre … to bring, to turne, to conuert,to conuay from one place to another, tobring ouer. Also to translate out of onetongue into another.

—John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes (1598)1

The final act of ben jonson’s comedy Epicene, or The Silent Woman begins with an act of translation. After watching Sir Dauphine Eugenie humiliate both Sir John Daw and Sir Amorous La Foole with a series of blows and witty remarks, Mavis is the first among the independent and intellectually-inclined Collegiate ladies to express her desire for him. Addressing Daw, La Foole, and Clerimont, she asks subtly, “Gentlemen, have any of you a pen and ink? I would fain write out a riddle in Italian for Sir Dauphine to translate.”2 Daw responds that he can supply the materials and accompanies Mavis offstage, where she composes her “Italian riddle” (5.2.34). When the Collegiate returns, she hides the paper from the prying eyes of the other women (“You shall not see it, i’faith, Centaur”), and presents it to Dauphine: “Good Sir Dauphine, solve it for me. I’ll call for it anon” (ll. 34–36). As she exits, Clerimont snatches the paper from Dauphine (“A riddle? Pray le’ me see’t” [l. 46]) and decodes the message for what it truly is: a secret invitation to sex. Set apart in italic type in Jonson’s 1616 Folio, it reads in English:

Sir Dauphine,

I chose this way of intimation for privacy. The ladies here, I know, have both hope and purpose to make a collegiate and servant of you. If I [End Page 120] might be so honoured as to appear at any end of so noble a work, I would enter into a fame of taking physic tomorrow and continue it four or five days or longer, for your visitation.

Mavis (ll. 47–53)3

Clerimont, whose very name evokes a desire for clarity, is amazed by the forwardness of this erotic proposal: “Call you this a riddle? What’s their plain dealing, trow?” (ll. 54–55). Dauphine replies that “we lack Truewit to tell us that” (l. 56), alluding to an earlier exchange that established riddles as appropriate tokens of courtship (4.1.86–88). Although the Folio’s marginal note “He reades the paper” (sig. Ddd1r) might indicate that Mavis had composed her letter in English, this act of reading suggests that Clerimont is “Englishing”—that is, translating—the “Italian” letter’s message in the moment onstage.

Indeed, Clerimont’s attempt to “clearly” decipher Mavis’s message gestures to the early modern period’s capacious sense of the word “translation.” In an unusually long entry in his Italian-English dictionary, Jonson’s “worthy Freind” John Florio defines tradurre first according to its physical connotations of change and movement (“to bring, to turne, to conuert, to conuay from one place to another”) and second, almost as an afterthought, in the sense most familiar today (“Also to translate out of one tongue into another).4 Deeply related to the notion of the vernacular, the word “translate” appears alongside “to publish, to explaine” in Florio’s definition of “Suolgarizzare.”5 In addition to his lexicography, Florio actively participated in the culture of literary translation, and in his 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essais he famously commented that “all translations are reputed femalls, delivered at second hand.”6 According to Patricia [End Page 121] Parker, the deployment of such gendered and reproductive language exemplifies the common paradox in which “women, excluded from the study of rhetoric, figure curiously and prominently in Renaissance English discussions of rhetoric, and particularly in relation to questions of decorum and control.”7 Although Jonathan Goldberg questions critical tendencies to take the translator’s remark at face value, Florio’s participation in this gendered trope clearly attests that acts of translation may involve a complex and dynamic gendered relationship between a male translator, the original texts he strives “to bring, to turne, to conuert,” and the resulting “femall” text.8 At stake, as Parker recognizes, are social hierarchy and proper order...