Professor of Italian to translate 500-year-old literary novel into English

Susan Burlingame
February 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Professor of Italian Sherry Roush has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to support work related to translating “Peregrino,” a 500-year-old literary work by Jacopo Caviceo, from Italian into English.

Published in 1508, “Peregrino” is considered a proto-novel with a "Romeo and Juliet"-style story. The book was a European bestseller in its day, and while there are 21 Italian editions, as well as nine in French and three in Spanish, the story has never been translated into English.

Sherry Roush Dec 2019

Professor of Italian Sherry Roush has received NEH and NEA grants to translate a 500-year-old literary work from Italian into English.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Sherry Roush

“’Peregrino’ is the story of star-crossed lovers who endure several tribulations before finally marrying,” said Roush. “The novel has a twist, however, which the reader soon discovers. The title character is actually dead, and his ghost has been telling the story all along.”

Roush said she was attracted to this particular novel in part because some of her other work has been related to ghost stories, including her latest book, “Speaking Spirits: Ventriloquizing the Dead in Renaissance Italy” (University of Toronto Press, 2015).

“The moment I knew I had to translate ‘Peregrino’ was when I read one sentence from Margaret Sayers Peden’s enchanting English rendition of Fernando de Rojas’s ‘Celestina,'” said Roush. “In it, an old woman appraises a young man with the unfiltered quip: ‘He’s a fuzzy-cheeked little cock-a-doodle-doo.’ Laughing through tears, I recalled similar phrasing in the ‘Peregrino’s’ Italian, and I realized that it, too, had the potential to celebrate the semantic density and enormous expressive range of the English language. I am eager to showcase the ‘Peregrino’s’ metaliterary wicked wit in 21st-century English.”

Roush joined the Penn State faculty in 1999, just after earning her doctorate in Italian language and literature at Yale University. She specializes in Medieval and Renaissance literature but said her road to choosing the field was circuitous.

“I was born and raised in the Mojave Desert — a California girl with no Italian heritage, no Italian background at all,” she said, adding that she was a journalist in high school as well as a professional violinist. “I had a lot of different interests. I loved books, and I loved to read, so I ended up in literature.”

Initially drawn to Russian literature and planning to study abroad in Russia while an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Roush said timing difficulties derailed her trip to Russia. “I ended up studying in Bologna. I sort of fell into Italian, which I now know was a happy occurrence.”

Upon receiving word that she had received grants from both the NEH and NEA, Roush said she was extremely excited.

“Just less than 10% of applicants receive grants like these,” she said. “I’ve been in the 90% many times in the past.”

"Sherry's research articulates completely with our department's goal of carrying out research that is characterized by interdisciplinarity, translational approaches, and significant humanistic contributions," said Giuli Dussias, head of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. "Her book and articles are a tour-de-force in scholarship and in translation. I am not surprised at all that both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts saw fit to honor her work in this way.”

“Undertaking this kind of project is downright quixotic, especially from within the American Academy today,” said Roush, who hopes to one day share the translated story with her students. “Receiving these grants encourages me to consider uncovering other brilliant Italian proto-novels from among the many that remain entirely unknown to English readers today.”

Last Updated February 12, 2020