An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
(University of Reading)
Essential, I imagine, in a number of ways. If I hadn’t been involved in reading and writing poetry, editing a little magazine (Perfect Bound), and helping organize international festivals in Cambridge, I wouldn’t have found myself reading translations of Italian poetry and attempting to come into contact with their originals at the end of the 1970s.
But while I’m interested in poetry, I’m not especially interested in myself as a poet — so when I’m trying to make translations of others poems my interest in the techniques and significances of poetry are to the fore, but my being a poet is barely in my thoughts at all. I’m trying to discover how somebody else’s poem works by attempting to imitate and perform its structures in a different linguistic medium.
Having spent so much time working on poems of my own will have contributed to that activity of imitation and performance. But for me the two things went along together: because I was interested in poetry I wanted to read as much of it as I could, and that led me to try and translate it for the sake of my knowledge of poetry and its possibilities. That activity, in turn, provided the impetus and growing familiarity that must have helped with whatever felicities of technique and style I have been able to bring to translation.
I only met Sereni twice, when I was in my late twenties, during the last two years of his life. At that point my Italian was practically non-existent, and I relied upon the much greater knowledge of Marcus Perryman — who had moved to Italy as soon as he graduated from Cambridge (where we’d met at a student poetry society). Sereni came over to Verona for an overnight stay in the summer of 1981. The limited, collectors’ edition of Stella variabile had been printed by the Plain Wrapper Press there. Marcus and I made translations of some Ungaretti poems from L’allegria for this firm of fine printers. It was through them that we met.
Sereni was generous with his time, and gracious with us. Our first versions of his poems were, at that point, quite raw and included errors. He understood and appreciated why young people such as us might be driven to write and translate poetry, and he encouraged our efforts — which was an enormous help. He posted me signed copies of Il musicante di Saint-Merry later that summer, and a copy of the trade edition of Stella variabile early in 1982. I was working on translations from it during an Easter holiday in Liguria when the Falklands crisis and war began. Marcus and I visited Sereni at Mondadori in Segrate that Easter. We were introduced to Maurizio Cucchi, who happened to be in the office, and had lunch with Sereni and Marco Forti. Then we sat with him discussing translations for much of the afternoon, when he drove us back into the centre of Milan and saw me off on the train to Turin, Paris, and an England that was at war with Argentina.
I had invited Sereni to the Cambridge Poetry Festival to take place a year hence in April. The last time we consulted him was in January 1983, when I was in Verona to do some more work on translations of his and Franco Fortini’s poems for their planned visit to the festival. Marcus phoned Sereni at home and asked him what he meant by ‘portare attorno il capo bruchiante di dolore’ from ‘Ancora sulla strada di Zenna’. He took the book down from a shelf and had a look at it again, replying that it meant what it said. That was a great help too.
I didn’t start translating Erba’s poetry until almost a decade later, when my Italian was a little better. While waiting for my brain tumour operation, which took place in May 1993, I was making draft translations for an anthology that Michael Schmidt was interested in publishing, but which couldn’t be completed at the time because of my illness, and which then missed its moment. I was attracted to Erba’s poetry (which I’d first encountered because Sereni cites it in ‘L’alibi e il beneficio’) and had done a few of his poems between about 1987 and 1993. I sent a group to the PN Review, and wrote to Erba asking permission to publish them, getting a brief reply of encouragement. But the translations were rejected, and then I was convalescing from my operation.
It was almost a decade later when my wife and I visited the Erbas in Milan through the good offices of Mairi MacInnes and John McCormick (who knew the poet from 1952, at the Saltzburg Summer School, and the 1960s, when he’d taught in the USA). In conversation, the idea of translating his poetry came back to life. By now I was married to Ornella Trevisan from Parma and spending summers with her family there. We would visit Milan whenever we were over from Japan, and they would help with qualms I had about understandings of particular passages, words, phrases, allusions and contexts.
They were extremely supportive, and it was through them that the contact with Princeton University Press arose. So they were very helpful and friendly, looking over the final typescript of the poems and responding to queries right up to the proof stage. The book came out looking handsomely, I felt, and then it was awarded the John Florio Prize — so, all in all, a happy collaboration leading to a satisfying publication.
Deep knowledge of an author’s entire oeuvre is rather a bottomless concept, though I wouldn’t want to suggest that superficial knowledge is a substitute for anything. In practice, I’m not sure the question represents what happens, or what happens for me at least. After all, translating a poet might be the only way for a non-native speaker even to approach deep knowledge.
Such a translator will always be at a facilitating disadvantage from not sharing a cultural background with the writer being translated. Most usually, the first translations will be trial efforts to see if working on this particular poet feels congenial, if the results are satisfying, if, on closer acquaintance, this is an oeuvre I would want to spend time with and on. So, again, the two things develop together through growing acquaintance and familiarity. What’s more, knowing an author’s entire oeuvre is by no means enough. You have to be able to understand, as best you can, its context within the literature of another culture.
So it’s also to Vittorio Sereni and his writings that I owe the urge to people his immediate surroundings with other poets — whether they be Gozzano, about whom he wrote his thesis before the war, or Pozzi who he wrote an elegy for, or Saba, Ungaretti and Montale to whom he was indebted, or his friend from Parma, Bertolucci, or Fortini, with whom he had such a challenging relationship, or younger poets such as Erba, Giudici, Raboni, and Cucchi, whom he published at Mondadori. I finally read Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano because Sereni cites it in ‘Pantomima terrestre’. And I’ve come to know and appreciate the poetry of René Char largely through, and thanks to, Sereni’s translations of the poet from the Isle de Sorge.
Then there are the classics — Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Leopardi, Pascoli — with whom I’ve become more acquainted thanks to the impulse of wanting to understand his works. As I say, in poetic and cultural understanding, deep knowledge is a bottomless concept.
Both of these activities have in common the employment of a critical sense that reveals something to be not working properly in either kind of text, and one of my habitual methods for detecting such failures is the pressure gauge of rhythm. It’s faulty rhythm that tells me something has to be adjusted, and yet rhythm is indistinguishable from the words that embody it, so worrying about the rhythm means returning to the language of the poem and wondering if adjustments to the wording will improve the rhythm, and, because this is what rhythm is, to improve the sound sense of the work as a whole.
My intuition is that I do this equally with poems and translations. The question is then if there are equivalent constraints when I engage with what to do about a particular problem in a work that needs addressing. It might be thought that in a translation obligations to the meaning of the original is what makes the difference, and that is true — though there are similar cases in revising the minutiae of my own poems when a local detail doesn’t work but the surrounding context, whether notionally in or beyond the text, manifests itself as a force of circumstance which I must respond to and respect.
In both cases then, though not for quite the same reasons, the revising poet-translator is in a complex of straits and constraints, and the quality of the artistry may well rest in the resources he or she can bring to bear on that tight corner.
Well, in a sense, nothing has changed. I’m still trying to read poems in Italian (along with two or three other languages) and noticing, now and then, that translated lines in English are making themselves heard in my mind as I read. From the sense that a translation is presenting itself, as it were, I have to make time to sit down with the poem and attempt some drafts. In this, it is not unlike writing a poem of my own, except that the initial inspiration has come from reading. Yet there are poems of my own that start as I’m reading too — the difference being in what relation the prompting English phrases have to the words being read.
But what may have changed could be the degree to which I have needed to collaborate, and the sense of possibilities in place when nevertheless attempting to make an accurate translation. I’m very much a mother tongue poet, never a natural or good linguist, though I’ve worked hard to push against that limitation. Most of my earlier translating was done with collaborators — acknowledged whenever possible. For many years the most sustained of these collaborations was with Marcus Perryman, and there is a good deal of collaborative work with him that remains unpublished, such as The Dogs of Sinai by Franco Fortini, a large selection of his poetry, as well as things not included in our Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni. I also translated some poems of Amelia Rosselli’s with Emmanuela Tandello back in the 1980s.
Marrying Ornella Trevisan has meant that I have also collaborated with her, and she looks over any translations from Italian (and other languages) that I might send to publishers or magazines. Yet in the course of all this work and life my Italian has improved, I like to think, and I’m usually able now to make a fairly safe draft of a poem alone with dictionaries — though asking a native speaker is a happy resource I have at home. Reading many translations of the same poem, thinking about and discussing what it means to translate a poem as a poem in the receiver language, plus a greater flexibility and experience of poetry writing itself, has probably led to a firmer feeling for what might be possible or acceptable, at least to me.
Yet the issue remains how a translation of a poem can be faithful to its original — the point I’ve reached being that, as in a marriage, fidelity requires and facilitates calibrated and delicately monitored degrees of difference. Reading testo a fronte editions can be, then, like inviting a couple to dinner and experiencing their relationship by seeing how each contributes to your various questions and responses. You can learn a lot about many things from that.
READING AT BASLE
to Giorgio Orelli
The day before, street violinists: a success. So
what was the problem? Go in,
get up on your feet and read poems, bringing
the art among people. To people eating. Just great.
Kein Problem, oder? A bit like
those old organ-grinders
or strolling accordion players,
dear to the poets of a century back.
A hyena, gnawing at its chicken bone,
sights us askance, gets the bill, taking flight
down Binningerstrasse that leads to the zoo where the leopards
fix lost eyes on Tibetan goats, and the wild ass
hurls its long complaint at passing trains.
But right to the last, us, we’ll make our faulty cry
and many will listen, resting their knives, enchanted.
We’ll be clapped and paid, dear Giorgio. Then later,
us too, we’ll have a bite to eat,
from Folla sommersa (2004) in Le terre emerse: poesie scelte 1985-2008 (Turin, Einaudi: 2009), p. 160.
from SWEET FAIRYTALE
They told me it was vertigo …
on the balcony, as on the ocean wave … yes, I had shiny
buckles, we were going about without a sound
through the city underpasses and the tricks
marionettes played, right now,
they no longer torment us … a slice, too,
of Delizia cake, garlic mushrooms … look,
a birthday party … pity though …
pity … off he goes, look at him, the cat;
he’s got a fine hat, a red carriage to convey him
lightly; his enemy will disappear to nothing … but try
to help me … try to help me … she smiles,
the granny wolf between the sheet-folds and I,
frantic game, draw out
the cards from my pack, but see,
see … one after another irremediably the same …
all … a journey, a walk: fantastic countries
no longer exist … I was returning,
there wasn’t a thing good to eat at home,
the loquats tasted of nothing … like so,
this letter of love …
‘Dolce Fiaba’ part 6, Le meraviglie dell’acqua (Milan, Mondadori: 1980), p. 23.
Peter Robinson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading. He has published extensively on poetry, his books including Poetry, Poets, Readers: Making Things Happen (Oxford University Press, 2002), Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations (Oxford University Press, 2005), and The Sound Sense of Poetry (forthcoming). He is also the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (2013). He has translated into English the works of many twentieth-century Italian poets, including Giuseppe Ungaretti, Antonia Pozzi (Poems by Antonia Pozzi, OneWorld Classics, 2011), Vittorio Sereni (The Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni, University of Chicago Press, 2006 and 2013), Luciano Erba (The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems of Luciano Erba, Princeton University Press, 2007), winner of the John Florio Prize, and has published on the theory of translation (Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (Liverpool University Press, 2010). Peter Robinson is also an acclaimed poet: his most recent collections of poems are Like the Living End (The Worple Press, 2013) and The Returning Sky (Shearsman Books, 2012), which was recommended by the Poetry Book Society. See more on http://www.peterrobinsonpoet.co.uk.