An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
When I first came to teach in the UK, I realised how little Leopardi was known in the Anglophone world. Even colleagues who specialised in French, German, or British Romanticism had very often not heard the name of Leopardi. ‘Leopardi, who?’ had become an intolerable refrain to me. I had spent years enjoying the company of such a great mind. At the time (1995), I was about to publish his autobiographical writings, an astonishing series of fragments that show how much and how deeply Leopardi is in tune with the great Romantic writers (in particular, I think, Coleridge and Stendhal). Those fragments were not available in translation. Nor were any of his other texts, except the Canti and the Operette morali. Let’s be frank: these two works, splendid as they are, hardly give an idea of who Leopardi is. Writers often speak to us in a powerful way when they are less guarded, when they are not consciously constructing a ‘work’, when, for example, they accumulate materials, or whisper to themselves, so to speak, in a ‘naked’ language, ideas and images that were suppressed or altered in the works meant for publication. The understanding of their published works is then enormously enhanced when we know their private or unpublished writings. What would be our knowledge and appreciation of Coleridge without his Notebooks? Of Novalis’s poetry without his Allgemeine Brouillon? Of Stendhal’s novels without his Journal intime and the unfinished Vie de Henri Brulard? This has always been the charm and the power of private letters, although some writers (including Leopardi) are conscious that their letters will be published some day. The Zibaldone is an even more intimate text, which Leopardi would never show to anybody, and was therefore deemed to destruction and oblivion: it really is a unique opportunity to penetrate into the secret mechanisms of a genius’s mind. I think that there is no equivalent of this calibre in all literatures. This is why the Zibaldone had to be ‘discovered’ by the Anglophone world: it was the only way to make of Leopardi one of the first-rank figures of modern Western literature, a unique opportunity to ‘readjust’ the canon, if you like. The literary history of Romanticism is simply not complete if it does not include Leopardi. In UK there are already signs of this readjustment: the next Oxford Companion to European Romanticism, edited by Paul Hamilton, will devote, for the first time, two chapters to Leopardi. This means that he is finally out there in the world, where he belongs, among the greatest European writers, and is no longer segregated in an insignificant Italian province. This will certainly modify the panorama of nineteenth century literature.
Let’s be clear: no one can ever claim to have ‘translated’ the Zibaldone. It’s virtually a never-ending enterprise. It’s such a huge and difficult text. All the specialists in Leopardi share a discouraging experience: we have all read and re-read the Zibaldone many times, but focussing on one passage or another, we often feel that we are reading or understanding it for the first time. The Zibaldone, like nature for Heraclitus, likes to hide, and unveils itself slowly: certainly not once and for all. It is the embodiment of a living thought, and comes to life in a new way each time that it is ‘performed’. We can perhaps say, to use a Leopardian metaphor, that it breathes, and it is impossible to catch it, or fix it forever. We have started, others will go on. As happens with sacred texts, each translator or commentator brings a new brick to the building. How many people did it take to make this first step? Many. To start with, seven translators, coordinated by two editors. It is important to distinguish the ‘translation’ from the ‘edition’. They are two different, although interconnected, kinds of work. The translation could have been virtually completed by one person, but we chose to go for a different solution. First of all, it would have been very difficult, even impossible, to find a professional translator who would devote himself or herself to such an enterprise in a reasonable time span (ten, twelve years)? There is another reason, however, that convinced us to work with a team, although we were conscious that the translators necessarily have different voices: the advantages of a collaborative work. We organized two meetings and discussed syntactic and semantic problems and strategies with them; each one brought his own experience to the project. In time, they read and commented on the work of their colleagues, shared their doubts and adopted solutions found by others. One of the translators, for example, Ann Goldstein (who is directing another team for the complete retranslation of Primo Levi’s work), read, copyedited, and commented on a big portion of the whole text. All this work was of course coordinated by the two editors, who, constantly going through the whole text and keeping a record of crucial concepts and possible solutions, corrected, modified, or rewrote thousands of passages. So if it is definitely true that Leopardi’s text is performed by many voices, it is also true that these voices haven’t performed as soloists, but as members of a choir. As far as the edition is concerned, a one-man show is unconceivable. More than eighty collaborators were involved, at various levels, in the project.
The problem here is the immense erudition of Leopardi, who mastered six or seven languages and was comfortable in an incredible range of disciplines. In order to understand what he is saying, one should have an encyclopaedic knowledge. Many concepts are rooted in a cultural tradition that implies a specific vocabulary. Again, also at this level, the translators shared with us their competences in various fields. Martin Thom is a historian, Gerard Slowey an expert in the history of art and Renaissance literature, David Gibbons, a translator of Cattaneo, has great experience with early nineteenth century Italian texts, Pamela Williams is a renowned Leopardi scholar. This wasn’t enough, of course. We had to create a network of specialists (most of them colleagues and friends) who helped us interpret, contextualize, nuance the text, in order to find the right solution. The linguistic notes were of course a major problem. We spent a lot of time on them, with the invaluable help of excellent collaborators, supervised by specialists of the calibre of, for example, Giulio Lepschy (linguistics) and Roberto Nicolai (Greek). We checked all the passages in Greek against the original, in order to understand if a ‘mistake’ was due to Leopardi’s transcription or to an old usage in the editions that he had used. Here are a couple of more specific examples regarding other disciplines. How to translate ‘tuono’ in Leopardi’s thoughts on music? This simple word was the object of a careful study by Antonio Rostagno, a colleague from La Sapienza, who commented on all the relevant passages and decided, in each case, which was the right translation. His knowledge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century musical theories furthermore allowed us to identify for the first time new sources, quoted in some innovative explanatory notes. In this, as in many other cases, the English edition is clearer than the Italian one, where the reader does not understand exactly what ‘tuono’ means. A second example is a quotation from an article in French on Mongolian language. This very short passage took some full days of work, condensed in an explanatory note written with the help of two scholars who were introduced to me by my friend and colleague Raffaele Torella, our consultant specialist for Sanskrit. In this case the ‘translation’ entailed a great deal of scholarly work, also because the Mongolian names were misspelled by the French reviewer and had to be ‘translated’ (that is, identified). Many scholars from all over the world have come to know Leopardi thanks to my pestering emails, and have started to appreciate and love him. On the whole, the last 500 pages, full of quotations in Latin, Greek, and French from journals and books, needed more ‘editorial’ work than all the rest, but I think that it was worth it. I am happy to say that we have identified, checked and clarified hundreds of passages, which we are now able to trace back to the sources. This would have not been possible without free access to the family Library (kindly allowed by Countess Anna Leopardi) and without the powerful resources of the Internet. How to establish editorial criteria appropriate to this ‘private chaos’ (‘caos privato’ is one of the definitions given to the word ‘Zibaldone’) is another matter. The long and detailed ‘Note to the text’ gives an idea of the difficulty of the task.
The Zibaldone is a world of its own: the great challenge was to achieve a certain degree of consistency inside this world. It goes without saying that we found good solutions here and there, in translations of works by Leopardi as well as in eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers and translators.
One of the problems of the Zibaldone is that, since it was written in Italian, Italian readers take it for granted, and pass over ambiguities, contradictions, awkward sentences and expressions, unclear passages. Normally Leopardi’s prose is limpid, but sometimes it is not, and in these cases, often the most interesting ones, an Italian reader can easily miss the crux; a translator cannot. Moreover, if one reads Leopardi in English, everything looks different. One gets rid of the usual associations attached to the text, and is perhaps freer to take a new, more original critical route. It is as though you suddenly see somebody you know well appear in an unusual outfit. Our perceptions change. In this sense, the title we gave to the first section of the Introduction, ‘A manuscript found in a bottle’, does not apply only to English-speaking readers. Apart from that, we have made substantial contributions to Leopardi scholarship. The first is a new configuration of Leopardi’s text, which in our edition, I believe, has become clearer and more understandable. I am speaking, in particular, of the work done on quotations, interpolations, abbreviations, and so on. The ‘Note to the text’ is the core of the edition, and a good starting point for theoretical discussions on ‘private’ texts not meant for publication. Also very innovative, I think, is the massive commentary appended to the text, tailored to suit a wide audience, not necessarily just Italians or Italianists. Many passages, names, problems have been identified, highlighted, and clarified in territories completely neglected so far—for example, history, theology, the natural sciences. All the sources have been checked against the original, and in the new, accurate ‘List of the sources’, which follows the editorial notes, libraries, times, and places are given for each of Leopardi’s readings. The index has been entirely redesigned on the basis of the translation, and includes new entries and subentries. Another contribution is the Introduction, which, taking into account the best of recent research, puts Leopardi in dialogue with a wide cultural context, stretching from antiquity to the twentieth century. This is the first time, for example, that particular emphasis is put, in a general Introduction to the Zibaldone, on the relationship between Leopardi and Nietzsche. And the reader meets the names of Baudelaire, Freud, Adams, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Bloch, Foucault, Derrida. Leopardi loses the dubious charm of an ever-complaining pessimist and acquires the status of father of modern thought.
I hope so, because this has been our main objective. It does not suffice to say that Leopardi’s ideas are of great interest for scholars in anthropology, psychology, sociology, politics, natural sciences, and so on. This is naturally true, but there is something more about him. The Zibaldone is not an Encyclopédie of the nineteenth century. What captures us is the way in which Leopardi’s mind connects various areas of human experience. His thinking really goes beyond disciplines, his modern and fluid encyclopedism speaks to our time. He knows that at a deep level everything is interconnected with everything else. This is why we decided to translate it in its entirety.
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, ed. Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; London: Penguin Books, 2013)
Franco D’Intino is the editor (with Michael Caesar) of the recently released first English translation of Leopardi’s Zibaldone. He is Professor of Modern Italian Literature at ‘La Sapienza’, University of Rome. His main areas of research are the autobiographical genre, the European culture between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, and especially Giacomo Leopardi. He has edited many Leopardian works (Scritti e frammenti autobiografici, Rome: Salerno editrice, 1995; Poeti greci e latini, Rome: Salerno editrice, 1999; Volgarizzamenti in prosa 1822-1827, Venice: Marsilio, 2012) and published widely on his thought (the most recent volume is L’immagine della voce. Leopardi, Platone e il libro morale, Venice: Marsilio, 2009). He is Director of the ‘Leopardi Centre’ (based in the Italian Department at the University of Birmingham), member of the Scientific Committee of the ‘Centro Nazionale di Studi Leopardiani’, co-director of the series ‘Testi e studi leopardiani’ of Marsilio Editori and member of the Scientific Committee of the journal ‘Rivista internazionale di studi leopardiani’.