European studies blog

22 January 2021

Antonio Gramsci: translator, storyteller and educator

Between 1926 and 1937 Antonio Gramsci was rotting away in Italian prisons, having been sentenced to 20 years by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, in spite of his parliamentary immunity. Mussolini had got rid of the most revolutionary and influential opponent to Fascism in Italy and, in so doing, hoped to silence the rest of his opposition. Despite his precarious state of health, Gramsci would never ask for pardon and realised that he was condemned to a lengthy period of isolation.

Photograph of Antonio Gramsci in 1915

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) in 1915. Source: Wikipedia Commons 

How to survive annihilation and despair in prison? He turned to his singular willpower and fortitude, as he was used to doing since childhood, and plunged himself into an extensive programme of studies and critical writing. His antidote to death is collected in two major works entitled Lettere dal carcere (Letters from prison), and Quaderni del carcere (Prison notebooks).

The 33 notebooks (four of them dedicated to translations) are a compilation of all the intellectual activities undertaken by the prisoner Gramsci in order to keep his cool. Between 1929 and 1931, Gramsci perfected his knowledge of European languages through translating, starting with German and Russian, and continuing with French and English. Notebooks XV and XIX contain his exercises from the German, namely 24 fables translated from the classic Brothers Grimm collection. In 1932, thinking of a gift for his favourite sister’s young children (whom he would never meet), the author had the idea of copying his translations and posting them to his sister, Teresa Paulesu, as “my contribution to developing the little ones’ imagination” (from a letter dated 18 January 1932 [my translation]). A sketchbook, Album disegno, catalogued as notebook D (XXXI), remains as evidence of Gramsci’s intention.

Covers of Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks

Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks (1929-1935). Source: Wikipedia Commons

Unfortunately, the sketchbook never reached the children, due to the prison rules that prevented prisoners from sending anything outside. That is why the Album contains only the first half of fable number one, Rapunzel, in Gramsci’s final handwritten draft.

First page of the Album disegno from Favole di libertà

First page of the Album disegno from Favole di libertà (Florence, 1980) YL.1988.a.772

Gramsci’s translations, as well as his children’s stories, were neglected until 1980, when, finally, they were published for the first time in Favole di libertà. A second and more complete collection entitled Fiabe appeared in 2010, including letters to his two young sons, Delio and Giuliano.

Cover of Favole di liberta

Cover of Fiabe

Covers of Favole di libertà and Fiabe (Florence, 2010) YF.2011.a.21857

What these translations and the children’s stories show is Gramsci’s natural vocation as an educator. Whilst in prison, he never lost his ability to listen, to empathise and to be sensitive to the needs of his family, just as the intellectual had put his prodigious mind at the service of the ‘subaltern classes’ when he was a free man. Prison writings often reveal the man behind the author. Gramsci’s Fiabe reveals how he lived according to his theories and teachings, and what ‘organic intellectual’ meant in reality.

On the one hand, the philosopher deeply believed in the educational role of folklore, popular literature, and popular arts in the building of a national popular culture for the progressive society he dreamt of. Gramsci’s stress on literature and critical theory in the Prison notebooks is not accidental at all. On the contrary, his classic concepts and definitions in politics and philosophy originate from his approach and methodology as a historical linguist. He was fully aware of how language and literature are pivotal in shaping societies. As a result, his ‘pedagogy of praxis’ is a proactive call for the working class to be the protagonist of its own education and to produce its own culture. No wonder several Italian authors and educators in the 1950s-1960s followed in Gramsci’s footsteps, and one in particular, Gianni Rodari, established modern Italian children’s literature.

On the other hand, writing, translating and storytelling enabled Gramsci to shape a new relationship with his loved ones. The kindness and support that emerge from his letters and comic short stories to children and relatives testify to how much he was willing to be part of the life and education of his family beyond the bars. Writing and study became, at the same time, a way of caring for others and a way of human and intellectual resistance for the prisoner, a lifeline that lasted eleven years.

To be continued.

Ramona Ciucani, West European Languages Cataloguing team

References / Further reading:

Antonio Gramsci, Lettere dal carcere (last Italian version Palermo, 1996) YA.1998.a.1937. English translation by Raymond Rosenthal, Letters from prison (New York, 2011) 3v., YC.2012.a.2007 and YC.2012.a.1189

Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere (Turin, 1975) X.978/118. English translation by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari. Prison notebooks (New York, 2011) 2 v., YC.2011.a.8399-8401.

Ferial Ghazoul, “La prospettiva gramsciana sulla lingua e la letteratura” in Studi gramsciani nel mondo arabo: Gramsci nel mondo arabo, a cura di Patrizia Manduchi, Alessandra Marchi e Giuseppe Vacca (Bologna, 2017, pp. 157-84). YF.2018.a.9753

Chronology of Gramsci’s life and work 

Derek Boothman, Traducibilità e processi traduttivi: un caso: A. Gramsci linguista (Perugia, 2004). YF.2005.a.5162

Alessandro Carlucci, Gramsci and languages: unification, diversity, hegemony (Leiden, 2013). YD.2013.a.3106

Antonio Gramsci: a pedagogy to change the world, Nicola Pizzolato and John D. Holst (editors) (Cham, Switzerland, 2017) ELD.DS.331125

Antonio Gramsci, Arte e folklore, a cura di Giuseppe Prestipino (Rome, 1976). X:972/303

Gramsci and educational thought, edited by Peter Mayo (Chichester, 2010). YC.2013.a.13402 and m10/.17512

Gramsci, language, and translation, edited by Peter Ives and Rocco Lacorte (Lanham, 2010). m10/.20216

Gramsci y la educación: pedagogía de la praxis y políticas culturales en América Latina, Flora Hillert ... [et al.] (Buenos Aires, 2011). YF.2013.a.18303

Deb J. Hill, Hegemony and education: Gramsci, post-Marxism, and radical democracy revisited (Lanham, 2007). m07/.35617

Peter Ives, Language and hegemony in Gramsci (London, 2004). ELD.DS.66257

Riccardo Pagano, Il pensiero pedagogico di Antonio Gramsci (Milan, 2013). YF.2013.a.21073