Notes on the Translations
Dante Alighieri's Vita nova (ca. 1292–95) is many things, not least of which is a brilliant young poet's own selection from the poetry he had written to date, between ages eighteen and twenty-eight. Everyone knows the story of the Vita nova: of Dante's love for Beatrice, starting in childhood, her death at a young age, and his devotion to her in death eventually leading to her reappearance as Dante's guide to paradise in the Divine Comedy. Less known is the fact that many of the poems in the Vita nova that Dante claims or implies he wrote for Beatrice probably were not written for her, and that the poems alone (there are thirty-one of them total in the libello, or "little book," as Dante calls it) don't tell this story at all: the prose, written years after many of the poems, has this function. The prose creates the illusion of narrative continuity between the poems; it is Dante's way of reconstructing himself and his art in terms of his evolving sense of the limitations of courtly love (the system of ritualized love and art that Dante and his poet-friends inherited from the Provençal poets, the Sicilian poets of the court of Frederick II, and the Tuscan poets before them). Sometime in his twenties, Dante decided to try to write love poetry that was less centered on the self and more aimed at love as such: he intended to elevate courtly love poetry, many of its tropes and its language, into sacred love poetry. Beatrice for Dante was the embodiment of this kind of lovetransparent to the Absolute, inspiring the integration of desire aroused by beauty with the longing of the soul for divine splendor.
Thus, the Vita nova, including the poems, contains a hybrid of language and imagery from the courtly love tradition with language and imagery from Christian theology, scripture, and mystical writings. For example, the first poem of my selection published here opens with a line from the Book of Lamentations 1:12 (this is why it's in italics): O all ye passing by along Love's way. It is quoted verbatimin Dante, of course, it is the Vulgate Latin brought over into Italian; I've used the King James translation of that Bible verseDante adds only "Love's" to the original Bible phrase. This integration of the language and imagery of courtly love with that of sacred love would continue to function in Dante's poetry right through Purgatorio and Paradiso, in which, for example, the archangel Gabriel is described with a term from courtly lovehe is leggiadro, elegant or graceful like a loverand God looks on the human soul the way a lover gazes longingly at the beloved, an effect that Dante achieves by using the verb vagheggiare, to gaze with intense desire. My excerpt from Paradiso XX in this issue of Unsplendid has some of these love-poetry echoes as well.
The three poems in my selection from the Vita nova exhibit the transformation from Dante's earliest work to his so-called praise-poetrythe poems that praise the beloved's virtues apart from any possibility of reciprocity. The first two poems (the one just mentioned and "Barbarous Death, compassion's enemy"), very early works, were written under the strong influence of one of Dante's first poetry mentorslater scorned by DanteGuittone d'Arezzo. The form of these poems itself announces this influence: they are both so-called sonetti rinterzati, in English "double sonnets"; in Italian, they are formed by inserting a seven-syllable line after odd-numbered verses of the quatrains and after even-numbered verses of the tercets. There is only one other double sonnet in Dante's extant work, and all of these have an archaic feel to them, along with the conventional atmosphere of courtly love poetics as filtered through Guittone. Note the phrase "culprit, culpable," in line of "Barbarous Death, compassion's enemy": this is my imitation of the similar effect in Dante's poem ("torto tortoso"), which he took from Guittone. (He'd drop this heavy-handed effectcritics call it bisticcio, or paronomasiain later lyric poetry but recycle it in the Divine Comedy, where he leaves no technique unexploited, in phrases such as "selva selvaggia" [wild woods] at the start of Inferno.) The other poem, "My lady makes all gracious with her gaze" (Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore) is a famous example of Dante's more mature lyrical style, the so-called stil novo (new style)more sonorous, musical, limpid, and elevated than earlier Italian poetry (this style would be a direct source for Petrarch's lyrical technique). In the Italian of this sonnet, there is an elegant consonance between the A and B rhymes of the octave and an assonance between the C and E rhymes in the sestet. It is also noteworthy that this sonnet consciously echoes Dante's friend the brilliant poet Guido Cavalcanti: it repeats in rhyme four words from Cavalcanti's sonnet Chi è questa che vèn, ch'ogn'om la mira (Who is this woman coming along, so that every man gazes at her): mira, sospira, gira, ira (gaze, sigh, turn, anger). The influence of Cavalcanti on Dante was immeasurable—Dante dedicated the Vita nova to him on this accountand this is just one of hundreds of traces of the older poet in the poetry and prose of Dante's early work and right on through the Divine Comedy.
Meter and rhyme are essential to the music, energy, symmetry, and rhetoric of the original poems in the Vita nova, as well as, of course, in Paradiso, so I have employed them, trying also to bring across the plain speaking that is so fundamental to Dante's style. My aim as a translator has been to make poems in English that stay true to what the originals say and to give some sense of what those originals are likewhat the experience of them is like. Some contemporary readers might prefer slant rhyme, and I have no doubt that a pleasing version of Dante's poetry could be put together this way. But I think exact rhyme is truer to the tone and measure of these poems. All of these translations use rhyme schemes (including occasional slant rhymes), and whenever I have found a way to do it (always making every effort to stick close to Dante's meanings), I have followed the rhyme schemes of the originals.
Readers who know previous editions of the Vita nova in English will notice that my spelling of the title departs from previous practice by using the Latin spelling of the modern Italian nuova (new), nova. One reason for using nova in the title instead of nuova is that it is the word Dante himself uses at the start of the book, in the Latin phrase incipit vita nova (the new life [or youth] begins). Dante in his writing used both forms of the word, as was common in his day. As Italian was evolving from medieval Latin, the open variant of o in its development from the Latin short often caused a u sound to occur before it—hence the change of novo to nuovo or, say, that of core (heart) to cuore. In the Divine Comedy, according to the standard text established by Giorgio Petrocchi in the 1960s, Dante uses the Latin form of novo four times more often than nuovo. Printed editions of the Vita nova have overwhelmingly preferred to use nuovo in the title. Several scholars have concluded that the spelling of this word without the diphthong is the way suggested by the oldest manuscripts. In short, since medieval works did not have titles in the modern sense, and since vita nova is a sure phrasing from Dante's own hand, independent of copyists (there is no autograph manuscript of any of Dante's writing); and since the oldest manuscripts use nova in many other, vernacular phrases of the Vita nova after the Latin one at the beginning, I think it makes good sense to use nova in the title. Andrew Frisardi
from La vita nova
- "O, all ye passing by along Love's way"
- "Barbarous death, compassion's enemy"
- "My lady makes all gracious with her gaze"
from La Divina commedia
- Paradiso, from Canto XX
I speak no Italian, certainly no medieval Italian, and my "translation" of Canto II of Dante Alighieri's Paradiso is simply a "version." I sought the original by laying out before me ten different translations and their glosses (Kathryn Lindskoog's Paradise is invaluable for its straightforward exposition and commentary). I hoped to render an accessible, non-slangy English demoticand yet honor if I could, the 14th-century formal sensibility of Danteincluding his terza rima (that's the fun of it), under-girding it with our familiar English iambs.
I took liberties. In Dante's warning to the reader in what Longfellow conveys as
O ye, who in some pretty little boat,
Eager to listen, have been following
Behind my ship, that singing sails along,
Turn back to look again upon your shores...
and Robin Kirkpatrick as
You in that little boat who, listening hard,
have followed from desire to hear me through
behind my bowsprit singing on its way,
now turn, look back and mark your native shores…,
I introduced the silhouette of a still visible city
All you who bob behind in little boats,
your city still a silhouette, eagerly
listening for the one resounding note
my keel makes splitting its salty leagues,
best turn back now….
And a few stanzas later, when Dante's metaphoric arrow is a film-running-backwards-outside-time-and-space sort of thing: "Then maybe in the time an arrow takes/ to hit the target, fly and slip the notch" (Kirkpatrick), I shot his arrow forward. Despite my incursions, I sought always Dante, or my Platonic idea of Dante.
Platonic, indeed. Dante's ever-idealized Beatrice cannot and should not be kissed. Yet, she's not all ether and halo, either. Vaguely known to the worshipful Dante in their co-existent lifetimes (hers much shorter than his), the Paradiso's Beatrice is possessed of an immediate wry charm, especially after Virgil's necessarily dour, terrifying, Marleyish chain dragging. And delightfully, Beatrice, despite being a holy, space-traveling, dead woman, hews to the scientific method, her two exalted feet (when she and Dante aren't planet-hopping) firmly on the ground. In "Canto II" that ground is the moon's surface and much of the canto is Beatrice's explanation about the dark and light surfaces of the moon. "Experiment's the fountain of all science," she declares during her step-by-step, Socratic disquisition on the properties of light, matter, perception, and the God-ordered, God-permeated cosmosthe very themes announced in the opening lines of the Paradiso:
The glory of Him who moves all things
pervades the universe and shines
in one part more and in another less.
(Hollander & Hollander)
Subsequent centuries would fault Beatrice's science, but the logic within the closed system of the Paradiso and its Ptolemaic 14th-century Italy stays true to itself. And though Dante indulges in his he-who-laughs-last score-settling, his ignorance before and obeisance to Beatrice and to the God she represents, is a touching and humbling conceit when we remember that all the logic, science, and wisdom throughout the Paradiso is, of course, Dante's who, like the God he glorifies, is inseparable from his creation. Steve Kronen
from La Divina commedia
- Paradiso, Canto II
Cecco Angiolieri was a lively, mischievous Medieval Italian poet, as highly able as he was self conscious. He reacted to the narrow ground if exquisite flights of the age's amorous lyrics, especially the ascendant dolce stil nuovo (or "sweet new style") movement associated with Florentine poets such as Dante and Cavalcanti, two of the great names in early Italian literature. Angiolieri is far less known today, although one can usually expect to find him briefly represented in Italian poetry anthologies, usually as the prime representative of the Trecento "comic-realistic" school and the author of that wonderfully hyperbolic, smirking sonnet, "S'i' fosse fuoco" ("If I were fire"…). That poem begins with the burning and drowning of the whole world, and ends with the speaker, also named Cecco, taking lovely ladies for himself and leaving ugly ones for others. As this development suggests, a poem by Angiolieri is often outrageous, and under no circumstances is ever dull.
Angiolieri hailed from Siena, and this fact alone may have made him a fitting, cross-region rival of Dante's. Are any as vain as the Sienese?, Dante asks in Inferno. A later Dante, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was Angiolieri's first translator in English, although his disposition and era led him to render some of the original poems with greater elegance in English, and with some of the outbursts muted or effaced. (Rossetti calls the poet a rogue and scamp.) He based the probable date of Angiolieri's death partially on the fact that he must have still been alive when Dante wrote Inferno, or else Angiolieri would have resided in a prominent place therein. Dante may or may not have had Angiolieri firmly in mind when he comments on Sienese vanity. On the other hand, we know a little about how pretentious the colloquial, parodying poet Angiolieri found his rival writer in Florence. Three other sonnets, the other works by which Angiolieri may still be remembered today, comprise Angiolieri's efforts in a tenzone, or poets' battle, between him and Dante. In one, he asks why Dante writes that Beatrice makes him speechless, but then goes on and on for several lines praising her beauty. That contradiction, with lyric posturing at its heart, gives a good idea of the razzing tenor of Angiolieri's correspondence. Unfortunately, none of Dante's inciting or responding sonnets has survived, although some critics have felt that the careful, highly explanatory, even defensive tones of the Vita Nuova may be due at least in part to Angiolieri's mocking, deflating sonnets.
Among the poems featured here, the one entitled "Three's Company" (the poems' titles are in all cases my modern additions) provides a swift introduction to Angiolieri's persona and the humorously strutting, drunkenly swaggering world of his sonnets. Ladies, drink, and gambling are his things. We might reasonably think of him as the Charles Bukowski of his day, if we could transpose medieval Siena onto late twentieth-century LA. A sonnet such as "Thank You, Wheel of Fortune," gives a glimpse into the small, day-to-day world Angiolieri's poetry inhabits. Here he takes special pleasure in the financial fall and welcomed comeuppance of a prosperous townsman.
As for the subject of women in his verses, often his experiences with love go poorly, hilariously so. His recurring beloved is Becchina, or little Becky, and she seems to be a send-up of the chaste, spiritualized beloved. (Her punning name may even mean to echo ironically Dante's Beatrice.) There is a type behind her character, but it resides much farther back in lyric history, amid the mistresses of Roman elegy, with their fits of violence and infidelities. Becchina also looks slightly forward to Shakespeare's Dark Lady, although Angiolieri is more whimsical than is the troubled self-loather speaking in the last twenty-five or so poems of Shakespeares Sonnets. Although she is not named there, "Her Heart's Not In It" displays the rudeness of Becchina, and here I tried to render her rejection with all of the curtness of a break-up text message. Notice here that Angiolieri appropriates the appeal to pity common to so many love poems of the age, and yet does so in a self-dramatizing, wittily surprising way. And yet sometimes the lover's passionate conviction in certain sonnets can surprise as well, as in "Dear God: No Deal," where the speaker dramatically refuses all of the God-given treasures that would be his if Becchina were taken from him. The sonnet's sestet expresses a touching, protective gentleness toward the beloved, and an earnest wish plainly spoken: "I'd like her to believe me, what I've said."
The final sonnet here, "Death, Thou Shalt Probably Die," presents one other important narrative element repeatedly treated in Angiolieri's more than one hundred sonnets—his vexed relationship with his father. The family dysfunction, between Angiolieri's speaker and his mother and father both, is a striking feature in this sonnet collection. Often this speaker laments his insolvency and threadbare existence, and curses his father for his lack of regard and denial of his own wealth to his son. This leads, in a more comic register, to poems such as this one, where Death is addressed, and warned that going after such an unfortunately stout older man as Angiolieri's father will lead only to the death of Death.
Fortunately, if however modestly, the presence of a few of Angiolieri's poems here in this special issue of Unsplendid mark the holding off temporarily of Oblivion's seizing of Angiolieri from literary history. There are few personalities in the history of poetry as fresh, colorful, and over the top as Angiolieri. He himself may have often been broke and in debt, but his sonnets even to this day will heartily repay any reader who makes the slightest investment of interest, or who can put up as collateral an openness of mind to the many things poetry in the lyric mode can do. Brett Foster
Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938) was one of the most gifted and influential writers of modern Italy, yet his political infamy often obscures his literary legacy. His best and most important work of verse is almost certainly Alcione (Halcyon, 1903), in which "The Shepherds" appears. He also wrote an influential trilogy of novels. But after World War I he reinvented himself as a war hero: in 1919, he mustered a private army, seized a disputed city then called Fiume, which he felt belonged to Italy, and ruled it as self-proclaimed "Duce" for several months. Mussolini learned many of his dirty tricks from D'Annunzio, feared his enormous popularity, and later gave him a state funeral.
I have a hard time warming to most of D'Annunzio's verse, but "The Shepherds," a lovely evocation of a pastoral journey from the mountains to the sea, is an exception; it's among my favorite poems of this period. One thing I love about it is the unusual rhyme scheme. Often it isn't crucial to preserve a poem's exact rhyme scheme, but in this case I found the pattern, which is modified in elegant, structurally satisfying ways at both the beginning and the end, so intriguing that I felt obliged to recreate it. Geoffrey Brock
Gabriele Frasca might be described as an "experimental formalist," if both those words weren't so inadequate. His four books of poetry, the titles of which form a minimalist quatrain, are Rame (1984), Lime (1995), Rive (2001), and Prime (2007). He has also published two books of short stories, several collections of essays, and, most recently, a novel. His translations include a novel by Philip K. Dick and several volumes by Samuel Beckett. He teaches comparative literature at the University of Salerno.
The title of this poem is a phrase from Purgatorio—it refers to the slothful and their failure in life to row briskly enough toward the good. But even readers who don't recognize the source will guess from its antique air that it's a quotation. I wanted a version of the phrase in English that sounded similarly old, which ruled out most contemporary translations, and was as easy to Google, which ruled out any translation of my own. And so I settled on Longfellow's version, which fits the bill as perfectly as I could have hoped. As for the poem itself, I felt obliged to echo Frasca's sly meter and his even slyer rhymes (chiudila/nudi, quante/grande, vennero/trattenne, etc.)which, like the poem's metaphysical argument, manage to sound both ancient and modern at once. Geoffrey Brock
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), Italy's foremost 19th-century poet and thinker, has had a curious afterlife in English. Italo Calvino once lamented that, "outside of Italy, Leopardi simply doesn't exist." Leopardi's literary activity is seemingly infinite in Italian, ranging from erudite philological work (by eleven he was reading Homer in the Greek and translating Horace, fluent in several languages) to his vast notebooks comprised of impressions, aphorisms, literary criticism, and philosophical reflections, (the Zibaldone), from political and social commentary to satirical and fantastic prose (the well-nigh unclassifiable Operette morali) to his complex poetic oeuvre. Yet despite continued interest in Leopardi and several translations (at least, of his poetry), his standing in world literature has never come remotely close to his towering stature in Italy. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the very range of his work I've alluded to above. Our view of him is, unfortunately yet inevitably, quite limited. We consider Leopardi more or less a Romantic, whereas he would have been reluctant to characterize himself as such, preferring the ancients to the moderns. Like Vico, he believed that the source of imagination lay in a prelapsarian state of innocence, yet this initially more romantic view developed into a sense of nature as a "brute force" absolutely indifferent to the sufferings of man.
It is this "cosmic pessimism" that dominates in views of Leopardi abroad, where he is cast as a precursor to nihilism and existentialism. In his epic Clarel, Melville called him a skeptic "stoned by Grief," a "St. Stephen of the Doubt"; Matthew Arnold admired him but balked at his gloom; Schopenhauer praised him for his unparalleled treatment of human despair. More recently, Adam Kirsch, in his New Yorker review of Jonathan Galassi's new translation of the Canti, calls Leopardi "the supreme poet of passive, helpless suffering."
This, too, defines Samuel Beckett's engagement with Leopardi. For Beckett, Leopardi is the poet of "the ablation of desire" (Proust). As such, he, and especially the poem "A se stesso," is a constant presence in Beckett's work. In Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Belacqua lists the "beads of his spleen," murmuring lines from Leopardi's poem. Molloy, too, takes up the line "non che la speme, il desiderio," but there in reference to his useless testicles—the loss of sexual desire, if not of hope. In a letter to Maurice Nadeau, dated October 19, 1954, Beckett writes: "I feel I am further than ever from being able to write. Non che la speme il desiderio è morto. Or almost." Leopardi resonates throughout Beckett's work, even where not cited explicitly. The late text How It Is (1964), a three-part novel in the form of monologue spoken by an unnamed narrator as he trudges through a murky purgatory, can be considered a meditation and exposition of the poem's line "e fango è il mondo" (and the world is mud). Several lines in the novel comment on the poem's larger concerns: "part one before Pim the golden age the good moments the losses of the species" evokes Leopardi's elegiac classicism; the narrator is faced with the "obligation" of "pursuing without hope"; he remarks "that for the likes of us and no matter how we are recounted there is more nourishment in a cry nay a sigh." "Quaqua," "the voice of us all," accompanies the narrator along his journey, and might be read as the insistent, ever-present murmur of Leopardi himself.
This extended intertextuality provided the occasion for my translation, "Saying to Himself," which constitutes a kind of response-translation or meta-translation of "A se stesso" in Beckettian language, almost as if Beckett himself had written the poem. While this reading is consonant with the dominant view of Leopardi as a radical pessimist, it also develops a mode of translation that explicitly foregrounds intertextuality as a guiding principle. The form of the Italian poem is striking. In alternating hendecasyllable and seven-syllable lines, the enjambments are startling, often falling at an unexpected point in a phrase and could be best described as unnatural—the very lines meeting nature's monotonous indifference with resistance. Despite a syntactical flexibility especially unique to Leopardi, the sentences are brief, and have a certain prosaic quality. The language is stark, favoring the noun and verb over the adjective.
This is a style consonant with Beckett's, and especially the language of How It Is, though it abandons punctuation and is narrated in short sentence- or paragraph-length blocks. My translation undoubtedly makes radical changes, not least of which include: modifying the title, introducing Beckettian repetitions, emphasizing the self, removing the heart as the addressee, lifting phrases and key words from How It Is; thus Leopardi's "A se stesso," referring to the speaker (to himself), becomes Beckett's refrain "saying to myself," for example:
or no worse saying to myself no worse you're no worse
And the title could also connote the heart (to itself), which is addressed in the poem, thus where Leopardi's speaker tells his heart it has beat enough ("assai palpitasti"), I pick up the recurring, violent "thump" in How It Is:
I then nothing about me my life what life never anything hardly ever he nothing either unless driven never on his own but once launched not without pleasure the impression or illusion no stopping him thump thump all his fat-headed meatus in the shit no holding him thump thump
While "Saying to Myself" remains fairly close to the Leopardi in lexical termsit is recognizably a translationthere is no denying the vast difference between his 19th-century poem and my 21st-century version: Leopardi's weary resignation, rendered in classical metrical forms becomes a desperate, breathless rant, one that registers not only the conceptual affinity between two writers but the horrors of history that divide them. In doing so, perhaps contra Leopardi, I have rendered his latent modernity manifest. Jamie Richards
Saying to Myself
Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) survived a famously tragic childhood, including his father's unsolved murder, to become arguably the best Italian poet writing at the dawn of the twentieth century. While certainly not a Modernist, his almost imagistic focus on "piccole cose" (small things) and his scaling back of the era's often grandiose rhetoric contributed to the modernization of Italian poetry. His major collections, which he revised and expanded in the years following their first publication, are Myricae (1891-1903), in which "Allora!" ("Back Then!") appears; Poemetti (Longer Poems, 1897-1904), later renamed Primi poemetti; and Canti di Castelvecchio (Songs of Castelvecchio, 1903-1906), in which "Gelsomino notturno" ("Night-Blooming Jasmine") appears.
"Back Then!" is a rare example of a funny Pascoli poem; indeed he seems almost to be mocking his own weakness for bleakness. The original lines are all novenari, nine-syllable lines, which often map fairly well to tetrameter in English. Here I wound up rendering the first three lines of each stanza in tetrameter then pinching the last line into trimeter; this seemed to have a felicitous effect while allowing me to avoid the fatal infelicity of padding. And it's the sort of thing Pascoli—a restless and inventive prosodist—might well have done. In "Night-Blooming Jasmine," for example, the original lines are all also novenari, but the first pair of lines in each stanza are accented on the second, fifth, and eighth syllables, giving them a rising, amphibrachic swing, while the second pair of lines are accented on the first, third, fifth, and eighth syllables, giving them a falling, primarily trochaic rhythm. Rather than attempt anything so baroque, I made the first pair tetrameter and the second pair trimeter—it just seemed to work best that way. Geoffrey Brock
Fabio Pusterla was born in Mendrisio (Ticino, Switzerland) in 1957 and lives in Lugano, where he teaches at the Liceo Cantonale. A prolific essayist, translator, and poet, he was one of the founding editors of the literary magazine Idra. Among his poetry collections are Concessione all'inverno [A Concession to Winter] (Casagrande, 1985), winner of the Premio Montale and Premio Schiller, Le cose senza storia [Things Without History] (Marcos y Marcos, 1994), Danza Macabra [Danse Macabre] (Lietocollelibri, 1995), Pietra sangue [Stone Blood] (Marcos y Marcos, 1999), which won the Premio Schiller 2000, and Folla sommersa [Sunken Crowd] (Marcos y Marcos, 2004), Movimenti sull'acqua [Movements on the Water] (LietoColle Libri, 2004), Storie dell'armadillo [Armadillo Stories] (Quaderni di Orfeo, 2006), Le terre emerse. Poesie scelte 1985-2008 [The Surfaced Lands: Selected Poems 1985-2008] (Einaudi, 2009), which won the poetry section of the Premio Giuseppe Dessì, and Corpo stellare [Stellar Body] (Marcos y Marcos, 2010). In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Swiss literary prize, Prix Gottfried Keller.
Pusterla is considered one of the major representatives of contemporary Swiss poetry written in Italian. His early production was strongly influenced by Expressionism, however toned down by more subtle echoes of the renowned Swiss poet Giorgio Orelli (1921- ), and by the Italian Vittorio Sereni (1913-1983). It has been noted that Pusterla's early poetry follows the aesthetics of the so-called Lombard Line, theorized in 1952 by the critic and philosopher Luciano Anceschi. According to Anceschi, a common trait of Lombard Line poets (to include Sereni, Orelli, Luciano Erba, Nelo Risi, and others) is a "Nordic" post-hermeticism characterized by lacustral scenery and a desperate, elegiac tone. We find some traces of it in "Death of the Wild Boar," even though what we are left with at the end of the poem is not so much the grotesque spectacle of the boar's carcass, but the animal's "rush and grunt," its hunger for life, rather than its death. And a serene acceptance of fate pervades the Van Gogh-inspired landscape of "Before the Crows."
The poet's quest to understand the coexistence of beauty and horror, and his faith in the witnessing role of poetry are echoed in the words of Maria Corti chosen by Pusterla as one of the epigraphs to the collection, Folla sommersa: "After all, this is the obscure will of every poem: to wander through the universe of mankind and find in it, somehow mysteriously, its own meaning." In "Canzonetta on the Expanding Universe," this wish to escape and wander through the universe in search for "some form of happiness" is shared by all creatures, "cloud of dust or galaxy."
A few words on this project and, more broadly, on translation: the opportunity to discuss the experience of translating is not one to pass by lightly. Too often the translator's voice is overlooked or ignored when it seeks to illustrate the journey of a text from one language to another rather than maintain an illusion of transparent immobility. Such illusion denies all movement and transformation: the ideal translation remains one that sounds as if it had originally been written in the target language. While the attempt to dispute this position has yielded a number of quite refreshing studies (Lawrence Venuti's being some of the most influential), the very choice, on the part of a journal, to reserve a space for a "translation statement" is in itself a recognition that giving visibility to the process does not spoil the product, but rather, enriches it.
How, then, do translators furnish and populate this space they have been granted? The possibilities are countless and almost intimidating, to the point that we are often tempted to reduce the range of options to two basic floor plans: 1) a confession booth; 2) a bunker. The former collects all admissions of guilt and inadequacy with respect to an unmatchable original text. Although sometimes these confessions of supposed wrongdoing give off a suspicion of false modesty or of moral obligation, the result is the same: they depict translation as an ultimate failure, or as the lesser of two evilsthe greater one, of course, would be not translating at all. The latter is hardly more appealing, as it implies that an invitation for a translator to speak is equivalent to a need to defend one's choices, and therefore, a need to turn an otherwise attractive setting into a shelter against possible attacks.
Our desire to move away from these threadbare uses of such a precious space has led us to reflect on the act of translation itself as spacea space for collaboration, negotiation and, ultimately, celebration of the intrinsic translatability of any text. Granted, at times this translatability makes demands that we are neither prepared nor willing to meet, especially if we feel they violate some vital qualities of the source text or of the target language. Still, Fabio Pusterlahimself a translatorreminds us that "cosmic repulsion is not a bad thing" and that everything in the universe yearns "to escape, to depart." It is only natural, then, for any text to resist the gravity of its own language and surrender itself to translation.
This surrender has nothing to do with battle. Too much imagery associated to translation draws from warlike metaphors. The surrender we are referring to encourages us to embrace transformation, rather than succumb to it. Hence, nouns may turn into verbsfuga, partenza, escape, departor stretch to accommodate uncommon pluralsleggerezze, lightnesses. Instead of clinging to their position, words graciously offer their seatMa ho accettato, lo sai, But you know I acceptedor part with their emphasis to allow other words to stand outforse appunto attirato dalle dolci castagne, perhaps attracted by those very sweet chestnuts, all the while knowing that no transformation is ever final. There is always space for more negotiation. As we read this translation, we sense its restlessness to leave again. And isn't this a reason to rejoice? Chad Davidson and Marella Feltrin-Morris
Amelia Rosselli: (1930-1996) is one of the most distinctive voices of the Italian 20th century. Born in Paris, she lived in England and the United States before settling in Rome in 1950. First trained as a composer and organist, she turned to writing in her early twenties, producing the dynamic "Primi Scritti," in a collage of French, Italian and English. Her books include Variazioni Belliche (1964), Serie Ospedaliera (1969), Documento (1976), and Impromptu (1981). A selection of her English poetry, translated into Italian by the poet Antonio Porta, is collected in Sleep-Sonno (1989).
In the first three poems of this selection from Hospital Series, Rosselli directly signals her engagement with the musical series as an organizing principal with an epigraph from Francois Couperin's collection of harpsichord music, Ordre 14ème de clavecin: "Le rossignol-en-amour." When composing her first book, Rosselli said she would shift from typewriter to keyboard and back again. This process is also evoked here; the epigraph suggests a performative reading, that the poem itself is to be played slowly and tenderly. The traditional lyric song of Couperin's nightingale thus provides a framework for Rosselli's poetic project. Couperin's music is known for its shifts between clarity and, in the form of variation, embellishment and ornament. Here Rosselli brings Couperin's project to the poetic page, embellishing the traditional lyric love poem with associative variation. But the richness of embellishment also paradoxically suggests restraint, as she writes, in the final poem of this trio: "I wanted to try fullness and from it I got a tight fit." To signal this musical impulse in my translation I have honored cognates, assonances, and musical affinities wherever possible to signal the musical form gestured to in the original. Rosselli poses a great many challenges for a translator, and these poems in particular are associatively vivid and alive with linguistic possibilities and interpretations.
The final poem of the four, taken from another section of the book, returns to a common site in Hospital Series, that of the interior space of illness and creation. Throughout the book, the state of being unwell constitutes both constraint and release, and here the vision of the garden affords the speaker a lyric space of renewal and innovation.
The gorgeous first edition of Serie Ospedaliera, published by Mondadori, was the only edition published during Rosselli's lifetime in which she was able to realize her graphic vision for the page. The edition is printed in a serif font to reproduce the visual effect of a typewritten page, wherein each letter occupies an equal space and carries an equal visual "weight." As part of her poetic manifesto "Spazi Metrici" Rosselli states that the compositional foundation of her writing is the single syllable or word, in its musical sonority and its associative power. While composing Hospital Series she was also reading the American poet Charles Olson, who emphasizes the importance of the typewriter on the breath and representation of the poem on the page in his influential essay "Projective Verse," in which he writes that, thanks to mechanical spacing of the typewriter: "for the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had." The project thus aligns her with a whole generation of American poets influenced by Olson, and specifically through a vision of musical notation and experimentation on the page. Diana Thow
For the American reader who comes fresh to Edoardo Sanguineti (1930-2010), a poet who at first encounter can seem quite strange, it may be helpful to recall poets whose esthetics and methods are comparable to his. The New York School poets and the Language poets, for example, constructed the kind of self-sufficient verbal artifices we find in Sanguineti (the satire of Kenneth Koch, in particular, is close kin to Sanguineti's irreverence). The floating pronominal strategies of John Ashbery, his interchangeable I, You, We, They, and One, can be related to the diffuse "I" in Sanguineti, standing for both the poet who goes to the drug store, gets on planes, writes letters to his wife, and so on, and a de-personalized entity permeable with the consciousness of anyone and everyone. Readers of John Berryman may think of The Dream Songs, whose main character was both Berryman and Someone Else. Sanguineti's seemingly improvised poems may remind readers of the adding-machine tapes of A. R. Ammons; others may suggest the on-the-road notations of Allen Ginsberg or the walking-around communiques of Frank O'Hara. Paul Muldoon provides a recent example of a poet comparable to Sanguineti in his lexical energy, irrepressible word play, and tonal shifts from high to low and back again.
But while such comparisons may help locate Sanguineti's practice, his voice is unique in Italian poetry. Our aim in these translations is to reproduce Sanguineti's voice in English and to generate new poems that have the pulse and esprit of their originals. We try to embody the contradictions of Sanguineti, respecting the technical and lexical strategies that make his poems radical language structures, while echoing their music and rhythm, releasing their verbal effervescence—and retaining the immediacy, humanity, and good-humor that endeared him to Italian readers during his lifetime. Our philosophy is to avoid the extremes of literalism and paraphrase, since neither solution can capture Sanguineti's verbal pyrotechnics.
Believing that where the original is venturesome the translator can also be an adventurer, we have allowed ourselves a measure of creative freedom. However, because our renderings adhere scrupulously to Sanguineti's text—usually on a line by line, phrase by phrase basis, typically mirroring all of the author's idiosyncrasies of punctuation, sentence structure, lineation, and enjambment—we do not consider our method to be a form "imitation" but rather, an example of translation as a strenuous, continuous, never completed search for dynamic equivalents.
Rosanna Warren writes that the medium of the literary writer, and therefore of the literary translator, has never been "meaning per se but has always been the linguistic conditions of meaning: tension, risk, suspicion, the perilous dance of formal language with and away from meaning." We have tried to choreograph the dance of Sanguineti's poetry. In doing so, we hope we have demonstrated why the time has come for American readers to be introduced to this important and remarkable Italian poet. Robert Hahn and Michela Martini
Patrizia Valduga (b. 1953) spent three years in medical school in Padua before transferring to the University of Venice to study literature. A profoundly physical metaphysical poet, she writes about sex, love, God, and pain in strictly rhymed and metered verse. She debuted with Medicamenta (1982); more recent collections include Cento quartine (One Hundred Quatrains, 1997) and Lezioni d'amore (Love Lessons, 2004). The poem here is taken from her 2002 collection, Requiem, an extended elegy for her father. Her many translations include works by Shakespeare, Donne, Molière, and Mallarmé. The widow of the poet Giovanni Raboni, she lives in Milan.
Valduga is often extremely difficult to translate; not only is she a strict formalist, but the strictness of her forms seems essential to the effect and even the sense of her poems. Failure to be faithful to that strictness would seem to me as much an infidelity as changing a word's meaning. But for some reason, partly because of its rich rhyme and other repetitions, this heartrending poem (once I decided to render its hendecasyllables in tetrameter) gave itself fairly readily to translation. If anything the danger here was gilding the lily; for example, in place of "dying out" I originally had "withering," but Valduga suggested, quite rightly, that "withering" was too fancy a word for this poem, which keeps insisting, almost painfully, on the starkest terms for life and death. Geoffrey Brock