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The Trinidadian Calypso as Oral Heritage: Linguistic and Cultural Issues in the Italian Translation of V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street

Le calypso de Trinidad comme héritage oral : difficultés linguistiques et culturelles posées par la traduction italienne du roman “Miguel Street” de V. S. Naipaul
Mariacristina Petillo
p. 205-215


Le but de cette étude est d’analyser le rôle joué par le calypso dans Miguel Street (1959) - troisième roman de V. S. Naipaul, écrivain anglo-indien né dans les Caraïbes - où le calypso apparaît comme un genre musical capable d’exprimer et de remodeler la complexe identité socioculturelle des Indo-Caribéens de Port of Spain. Cette contribution s’intéresse à certains problèmes linguistiques qui dérivent de la traduction du calypso dans une autre langue. La traduction italienne du roman pose en particulier une double difficulté au traducteur. Tout d’abord, le traducteur doit choisir comment reproduire la vivacité de la langue créole dans laquelle le calypso est écrit (et chanté) et, d’autre part, comment traduire en italien les données culturelles dont le calypso est si riche, si l’on convient que « le calypso est une forme strictement locale [...]. Le pur calypso, le meilleur calypso, est incompréhensible aux étrangers » (V.S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage).

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Calypsoes as epitome of african orality in the Caribbean

1Due to complex and often traumatic historical processes, the Caribbean region has been shaped as a space of hybridity and creolization, cross-cultural encounter and interracial coexistence. The Caribbean is a highly syncretic place, where the heterogeneous and scattered genesis of its population has brought together people of different descent: native Caribs and Amerindians, Africans and Indians, European, Chinese, and other Middle-Eastern minorities. Nevertheless, in spite of this ethnic and cultural plurality, the African presence informs the core of the region and gives shape to its innermost identity.

2Since the majority of Caribbean people have an African ancestry, the survivals of West African linguistic, cultural, artistic and religious elements are still evident across the Caribbean. As the key feature of most African societies was a ”traditionally limited use of literacy“ (Warner-Lewis, 2004: 117), it is not surprising that ”these verbal traditions were among the few but highly significant possessions brought to the Americas by the enslaved survivors of transatlantic crossings“ (Warner-Lewis, 2004: 117). Today, the weight of this African legacy in the West Indies emerges more substantially in some forms of Creole-based orature, including both poetry and music, which are deeply influenced by the African oral tradition. This is, for example, the singular artistic experience of the Barbadian oral poet Bruce St. John (1923-1995), who wrote and performed his poetry in the so-called Bajan speech, a Creole resulting from the fusion of Standard English and other West African languages. More interestingly, he used a call-and-response structure inherited from African song and this antiphonal technique drew his poems closer to a ”performative oral mode“ (Savory, 2004: 728); the oral nature of his poetry is even more emphasized on the printed page, with the words arranged in two columns, in order to visually display the vocal interweaving of different speakers.

3In the musical field too, the calypso represents a significant aspect of this cultural continuum between Africa and the New World, because the origins of this peculiar musical genre are in the early oral forms of expression introduced in the plantation fields by the enslaved Africans: songs, folktales, religious chants, ritual practices. Undoubtedly, calypsoes belong to the many-faceted field of Caribbean orature, where the influences of the African diaspora have been more enduring. Thus, calypsoes can be considered as an African-derived form of folklore, which expresses a distinctive African sensibility in the mingling of music, dance and orality.

  • 1 For more information see Crowley, May 1959: 57-66.
  • 2 For further information on the “calypso war” and “picong”, see Warner, 1982, Chapter One: 11-15.

4Although it is not so easy to reconstruct the exact history of the term itself and of the genre as a whole1, calypso seems to be the synthesis of different cultural echoes, among which the African contribution is the most strongly recognizable and incisive. Similarly to other forms of African expression, calypsoes have an extempore nature and are based on musical and textual improvisation, although nowadays calypso competitions are less spontaneous events than they were in the past, to such an extent that true extempore performances are really rare today2. In addition to these improvisational features, Crowley argues that calypsoes descended from the African tradition of satiric songs; moreover, even after formal emancipation from slavery, this musical genre continued to be perceived as a means of artistic resistance to exploitation and oppression. Consequently, its texts are so satirical and wittily allusive in content, so conversational and informal in tone, so ready in recording the historical and political changes which constitute calypsonians’ raw material, always eager to express a bitter criticism of society and to be actively engaged in the complex process of moulding a Caribbean national identity.

5Other scholars claim that calypso is an interesting example of a crossover form, whose origins are deeply rooted in the West African musical tradition of the praise and blame song, based on a counterpoint between individual and community, as in all forms of ”total expression“ (Brathwaite, 1984: 18) where the oral tradition ”demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him“ (Brathwaite, 1984: 18-19). More specifically, Gordon Rohlehr traces the source of the political Trinidadian calypso in this kind of antiphonal African songs, which often exercised a function of social control: it is now fully acknowledged that criticism of political leaders or complaints about other reasons of unrest, turbulence and instability were only possible within the restricted area of orature, through oral songs and stories. Rohlehr states that ”African music often served the purpose of social control, and the roots of the political calypso in Trinidad probably lie in the African custom of permitting criticism of one’s leaders at specific times, in particular contexts, and through the media of song and story. The leaders of society recognized the value of such satirical songs in which the ordinary person was given the privilege of unburdening his mind while the impact of his protest was neutralized by the controlled context in which criticism was possible’’ (Rohlehr, 1990: 2).

6Similarly to its ancient ancestor, Trinidadian calypso inherited this privileged position too and successfully acted as a “barometer of social consciousness, an expression of collective identity, and a vehicle for anti-establishment critique” (Rahim, Fall 2005). Thus, calypsonians are allowed to display a boastful alternative to the hegemonic set of current values, protected as they are by the safe boundaries of the performance space during the “calypso season” once a year or by the fictitious constraints in a narrative framework, as happens in V.S. Naipaul’s third novel, Miguel Street (1959), where a remarkably high number of quotations from real calypsoes resounds throughout the pages, focusing especially on such issues as gender, wife beating, ethnicity and politics.

7In Miguel Street calypso emerges as a prevailing stylistic feature of the narration, conveying and constantly reshaping the social, cultural and sexual identity of Indo-Caribbean people in Port of Spain. Naipaul’s aim is to provide a philosophical framework to the seventeen chapters of his work, thus offering a sort of unifying ironic counterpoint to a novel which is more similar, perhaps, to a collection of short stories, all sharing the same characters and the same nameless boy narrator. Moreover, Naipaul depicts how calypsoes reflected and contributed to redefine the Trinidadian society during the Second World War and in the post-war period, when unexpected changes deeply affected the lower strata of Port of Spain population, especially an increased migration of Indians from rural places to towns, the process of acculturation for younger generations, the American military occupation which induced Indian women to offer sex as an easy commodity in exchange for the Yankee dollar. Ultimately, calypsoes prove useful to humorously show and mercilessly amplify the domestic dramas of everyday life in the degraded suburbs of Port of Spain, where people vainly strive for a heroic stature they are unable to attain; instead, they are doomed to failure and frustration, misfortune and vulnerability, disillusionment and alienation.

8Since calypsoes are the most authentic expression of West Indian popular culture, “born of the folk and intrinsically tied to the folk” (Warner, 2004: 151), and since they really have “the power to convey the Trinidadian ’spirit’ and worldview in the way that few other cultural practices can” (Morgan, Fall 2005), it is no wonder that they are created, sung and performed in what Edward Kamau Brathwaite labels as nation language, which is “the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers, the servants who were brought in by the conquistadors” (Brathwaite, 1984: 5-6). Very interestingly, the scholar stresses the need to investigate language structures through music. Thus nation language, whose best feature is its orality, is also characterized by a deep connection between “native musical structures and the native language. That music is, in fact, the surest threshold to the language which comes out of it” (Brathwaite, 1984: 16).

Translating calypsoes into italian: an overview

  • 3 Naipaul’s novel was translated into Italian by the experienced translator Marcella Dallatorre in 19 (...)

9Due to their linguistic and geographical specificity, calypsoes symbolize a perfect example of cultural specificity and rootedness which may cause some serious difficulties during the translation process. In other words, calypsoes are a culture-bound artistic form of expression and as such they are almost on the verge of untranslatability. On this point, Naipaul himself claims in The Middle Passage that “calypso is a purely local form. No song composed outside Trinidad is a calypso. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider” (Naipaul, 2001: 66). Therefore, any translator must be keenly aware of the linguistic problems that he/she may have to face when transposing calypsoes into another language. More particularly, the Italian translation of Miguel Street shows that a twofold difficulty arises: firstly, the translator needs to decide how to reproduce the colloquial liveliness of the Creole language used for calypsoes and, secondly, how to translate into Italian the manifold cultural data that all those popular ditties convey3.

10One of the most interesting features of Naipaul’s novel is the striking contrast between the faultless standard English spoken by the boy narrator and the Creole language always used by the residents of the street of the same title. As in all popular cultures, those people heavily rely on orality as the most direct instrument of daily communication, hence the importance of long dialogues and the obsessive quotations from calypsoes. In this oral context, the continuous singing of calypsoes also means the desire to turn the petty events of their miserable lives into representative experiences, “proverbial expression of private situations” (Hendry and Watson, 2001: 196) which acquire a sort of universal and anecdotal value. In Miguel Street, calypsoes epitomize both the importance of orality in the spreading of social and cultural shared values and a functional fusion among words, music and orality.

  • 4 It is not our intention to criticize Dallatorre’s translation; instead, the paper’s goal is to high (...)

11Consequently, an “ideal” translation should be able to reproduce the double linguistic channel of the novel - that is the code-switching between Standard English and Trinidadian Creole - in order to fully respect Naipaul’s artistic intentions and to lay emphasis on the popular culture his characters are imbued with. A special attention should also be addressed to the translation of the calypsonians’ textual quotations, whose presence is extremely telling of the oral nature of the characters’ culture. Thus, since calypsoes represent the highest achievement of West Indian orality, they could be properly translated into Italian by resorting to the rich linguistic resources of a spoken register in the target language4.

12A close examination of the calypso fragments translated into Italian shows that an almost unavoidable loss affects the rhyme pattern because all the rhymed couplets in the source text have no corresponding rhyme in the target language. For example, in the calypso sung by Lord Caresser the two lines “Is love, love, love, alone / That cause King Edward to leave the throne” are translated as “L’amore, l’amore, solo l’amore / Ha fatto perdere il trono a re Edoardo” (Naipaul, 1991: 126). Apart from the rhymed couplet “alone / throne” which is not replaced by any similar effect in the Italian version, the remarkable musicality of Lord Caresser’s lines with the repeated alliteration of the liquid sound “1” cannot be reproduced in the target text. Also in Lord Invader’s calypso, the intensely musical and rhythmic lines “I was living with my decent and contented wife / Until the soldiers came and broke up my life” are deeply modified in their rhyme and verse structure because the two source lines are graphically arranged in three lines in the translation, with no rhyme possibility: “Avevo una moglie brava e soddisfatta / Poi vennero i militari / A rovinarmi la vita” (Naipaul, 1991: 168).

13Another interesting example is The Mighty Sparrow’s calypso blatantly claiming the necessity for men to beat their wives in order to be loved eternally. The first two lines quoted in Miguel Street are made up by monosyllabic words that sound extremely musical in the English version: “Every now and them just knock them down / Every now and them just throw them down.” Obviously, it is impossible to reproduce the prosodie structure of the source text in a language which privileges the polysyllabic constructions instead. Therefore, the Italian translation chooses to preserve the semantic aspects of the original text, rather than trying to imitate its poetic features: “Ogni tanto suonagliele / Ogni tanto dalle una bella battuta” (Naipaul, 1991: 104) What strikes most is the loss of a symmetrical repetition in the translated version, whereas in the original calypso there is a perfect parallelism between the two lines, which differ only in the verbs “knock / throw.” The other stylistic difference consists in the contrast between a chiefly monosyllabic source language versus a high number of trisyllabic words (such as “battuta,” “livido,” “ginocchio”) and a line ending with a word stressed on the fourth-last syllable (“suonagliele”). However, although the Italian translation is far from the fluent rhythm of the English text, there is a lexical gain which allows the retrieval of at least the oral and informal tone of the original calypso. This result is made possible through the use of the verb “suonarle,” which is a familiar and colloquial expression for the act of beating someone, instead of the more formal “percuotere,” “picchiare,” “colpire.”

14Some other examples of a similar strategy refer to the calypsoes “All day and all night Miss Mary Ann” by The Roaring Lion and “Matilda” by King Radio, where a subtle shift of linguistic register partly compensates for the loss of the Creole-language liveliness. In the first calypso, the line “Down by the river-side she taking man” has been translated as “Se la spassa col suo uomo dalle parti del fiume” (Naipaul, 1991: 152); in the second example, the lines “Matilda, you thief my money / And gone Venezuela” has become “Ti sei arraffata i miei soldi / E sei andata in Venezuela” (Naipaul, 1991: 191). In this context, both “spassarsela” and “arraffare” can be perceived by Italian readers as an apt choice because these verbs are mainly used in an informal register and seem to vividly embody Trinidadian people’s attitude to life.

  • 5 Such forms and expressions survive in folk tales, proverbs, sayings and calypsoes of course. Their (...)

15But in other calypso quotations, the Italian translator was not able to reproduce the colloquial tone of some Creole expressions and simply omitted them. This is what happens in the calypso about Popo, whose first line “A certain carpenter feller went to Arima” has been translated as “Un certo falegname ando ad Arima” (Naipaul, 1991: 29). The target text is a literal translation into a perfect standard Italian, with no dialectal or oral inflections, whereas the source text is characterized by the anti-formal jocular word “feller”. Linguistically speaking, “feller” is an example of eye-dialect, that is the use of an incorrect spelling to convey the effect of a dialectal or uneducated speaker5. Thus, its omission in the Italian version is not a painless loss, since the non-standard spelling of the word in the calypso is a linguistic marker that highlights the importance of orality for Miguel Street inhabitants.

16Translating calypsoes into another language is not an easy task, since both linguistic and cultural difficulties can intervene to frustrate the translator’s efforts. This assumption is well demonstrated by the Italian rendering of the Duke of Iron’s calypso “Man centipede bad. / Woman centipede more than bad”, literally translated as “L’uomo centipede è un male. / La donna centipede è peggio” (Naipaul, 1991: 118). The awkward result reveals that the translator must have ignored the metaphorical usage of the word “centipede” in the Trinidadian context where, by extension, a centipede is a «woman given to brawling and fighting; a foul-mouthed prostitute [...] perhaps by reference to the vicious sting of the original crawling myriapod» (Allsopp, 2003). The word “centipede” is a culture-specific term which has a double meaning in the Caribbean region. Unfortunately, the Italian translation grasps only the denotative meaning, but misses the metaphorical one which is essential for a true comprehension of the calypso quotation. Instead of portraying the image of a contemptible and rowdy woman, “centipede” is unnaturally translated as “centipede”, which seems to be a sort of caique of the original, probably relying on its auditory resemblance to the word commonly used by Italian people to describe a centipede, “centopiedi”. Obviously enough, the Italian reader has been deprived not only of a smooth and aesthetically pleasing translation, but also of the derogatory force of this culture-bound expression, with all the chain of connotations it arises.

17Ultimately, the analysis of Naipaul’s early novel translated into Italian reveals that the two linguistic levels of the source text - that is the continual shifting from standard English to Creole language - are not so well differentiated; instead, the target text is characterized by a consistent levelling-down of the linguistic markers expressing orality to such an extent that there is little difference between the narrator’s formal language and the characters’ more colloquial speech. For example, the calypso quotations taken into account show that all the interjections have been constantly omitted in the target text; as a result, the Italian translation sounds somewhat detached from the frankness and informality of the original texts. This is what happens in The Mighty Terror’s calypso “Chinese children call me Daddy”, where the line “Oh God, somebody putting milk in my coffee” has become “Qualcuno deve avermi messo del latte nel caffè!” (Naipaul, 1991: 119), with the total loss of the original emphasis. Also in Lord Invader’s calypso “I living with my Yankee soldier”, the exclamation “The Yankee dollar, oh!” has been turned into a verb phrase “Arrivano i dollari yankee!” (Naipaul, 1991: 168), with no interjection in the target text.

18Although the directness and expressive immediacy of the Creole language are almost untranslatable in any other language, the oral and popular culture it conveys should have been more highlighted in the Italian version. Similarly, the translation of calypsoes could have better underlined the linguistic and cultural spontaneity of the Trinidadian world, if it is true that the “calypso medium and message certainly acts as a fragment of national culture on many Caribbean islands, turning calypsonians into culture brokers who use their expressive and evocative performance tools to leave behind an oral heritage” (Hendry and Watson, 2001: 196-197).

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1 For more information see Crowley, May 1959: 57-66.

2 For further information on the “calypso war” and “picong”, see Warner, 1982, Chapter One: 11-15.

3 Naipaul’s novel was translated into Italian by the experienced translator Marcella Dallatorre in 1991, under the imprint of Mondadori Editore. Since then, no other attempt has been made to provide a second translation, hence Dallatorre’s version is the only translation of Miguel Street still circulating in Italy. Therefore, all Italian references in the paper are from V.S. Naipaul, 1991, Miguel Street, Milano, A. Mondadori.

4 It is not our intention to criticize Dallatorre’s translation; instead, the paper’s goal is to highlight all those linguistic and cultural features which offer resistance to the translation process, in order to point out how translating Caribbean forms of orature inevitably implies a considerable amount of semantic and stylistic loss in any target language.

5 Such forms and expressions survive in folk tales, proverbs, sayings and calypsoes of course. Their deliberate misspelling is an attempt to represent in a realistic way the folk speech and pronunciation of West Indians people.

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Mariacristina Petillo, « The Trinidadian Calypso as Oral Heritage: Linguistic and Cultural Issues in the Italian Translation of V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 205-215.

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Mariacristina Petillo, « The Trinidadian Calypso as Oral Heritage: Linguistic and Cultural Issues in the Italian Translation of V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 80-1/2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 19 janvier 2017. URL :

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Mariacristina Petillo

Professeur associé (Research fellow), Université degli Studi di Bari, Italia (

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