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Giovanni Raboni – Voices

Raboni cover

Book Review. Giovanni Raboni, Every Third Thought: Selected poems 1950-2004, trans. Michael Palma (New York: Chelsea Editions, 2014)

by Maria Belova (University of Warwick)

With this new bilingual edition, the rich body of poetry by Giovanni Raboni is finally accessible to the Anglophone community almost in its entirety. Some of Raboni’s poems have been translated into English, notably in The Coldest Year of Grace (1985) and Selected poems (2001).[1] Each of these books, however, include a limited range. While Michael Palma entitled his work Selected Poems, this is both overly modest and slightly misleading. The book includes verses from the entire period of Raboni’s poetic production between 1950 and 2004, from poems from his first collection Gesta Romanorum to his last poems of his posthumously published collection Ultimi versi, as well as uncollected and unpublished verses. Therefore, while the word ‘Selected’ in the title of the book means that there are a limited number of poems not included in the volume, this primarily represents exclusion of variants of the same poem.[2] In the acknowledgements, Michael Palma explains the rationale for the choice of the poems, preferring the last versions overseen by Raboni that represent ‘his final choices and judgments’ (p. 490). In total there are more than 170 translated poems arranged chronologically, which allows one to appreciate the richness and diversity of Raboni’s poetry. This gives the reader the opportunity to trace the evolution of his lyric, from free verse to more traditional poetic forms, particularly the sonnet.

One of Raboni’s late collections, Ogni terzo pensiero (1993),[3] which is in fact a volume of sonnets, shares its title with the new book Every Third Thought. The title of the book is a reference to the Tempest, as well as the epigraph: ‘And thence retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave’. The new book of English translations gives back the English context to the quote once borrowed from Shakespeare, emphasising Raboni’s links with English culture and his own decision to use this reference.

The book also includes a rich vein of additional information. After the Preface by Palma, there is an introduction by Patrizia Valduga (a fellow poet and partner of Giovanni Raboni), where she dispels myths about Raboni and discusses why he resisted efforts by critics to label his works in different phases. After poems in Italian and in English, Palma includes an example of Raboni’s own analysis of one of his poems, based on a transcript of his talk at the La Sapienza University of Rome in 1982. Apart from the ‘Notes to the Poems’ and the ‘Acknowledgments’, Each Third Thought also includes one of the last major interviews with Giovanni Raboni (‘To Live at Least at Fifty Percent’), conducted by Daniele Piccini in January 2003 for the magazine Poesia. In it, Raboni reconstructed the story of his life step by step, from his childhood to his earliest cultural development, up to the emotional and intellectual events of his mature years. This ‘biographical and cultural reconstruction’ leads to a better ‘understanding of that extremely rich and varied body of poetry that the author has entrusted to our comprehension’ (p. 456). The cover photo of the book is taken from Raboni’s archive, which represents his desk, his glasses and the second edition of his translation of Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire.[4]

Raboni was a very famous translator himself. He translated mostly from French, but also from English. He approved Michael Palma as a translator for Every Third Thought, which demonstrates Raboni’s appreciation for Palma’s prior work and trust in his ability. Like Raboni, Michael Palma is also both a translator and a poet. Palma previously translated other modern and contemporary Italian poets: among others, Guido Gozzano, Diego Valeri and Maurizio Cucchi.

Raboni felt that translation of poetry is an impossible task, although it is worthwhile attempting.[5] While speaking about the bilingual editions, Raboni observed that both texts –  the original and the translation – benefit each other as they are two realities which look into each other and need each other (‘due realtà che si affacciano l’una sull’altra e che hanno bisogno l’una dell’altra’).[6] In keeping with this philosophy, Every Third Thought ensures that that the reader can see both the Italian original poem and its English translation.

Looking closely at the translations it emerges that Palma succeeds very well in reflecting the metrics and rhymes of the Italian verse. For example, in the sonnet Ospite, io, loro, o loro miei (I, their guest, or they mine in the enchanted) Palma’s translation conserves the rhyme scheme and the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet. However, it was not always possible to achieve the desired rhyme scheme, as, for example, in the sonnet Mi sono distratto – oh, per poco, appena:

Mi sono distratto – oh, per poco, appena

quaranta, cinquanta’anni – e mi ritrovo

di colpo, gli occhi abbarbagliati, in piena

vecchiaia, mia e del mondo. Niente è nuovo […]

I was distracted – a short while, it must be

only forty, fifty years – and, with my two

eyes bedazzled, I find myself suddenly

in old age, mine and the world’s. Nothing is new […]

Even if ‘must be’ and ‘suddenly’ do not form a perfect rhyme, the example above illustrates how precisely Palma caught the emotion of the source text, reflecting also the syntax and Raboni’s tendency to use prosaic constructions in poetry. For Raboni the translation itself was always more important than the theory of translation (‘mi considero un traduttore, non un traduttologo’).[7] He wrote that the task of the translator is to recreate the relationship between the poet and the reader in the other cultural context and in the other language,[8] which is the basis for Raboni’s view that exact poetic translation is not possible. Sometimes it is evident that there are ‘infedeltà programmate’ as Raboni calls them, infidelities which the translator cannot avoid.[9] It often happens with the sound in the poem, the musicality of the verse when recited. For example, the first verse of Raboni’s poem: ‘Come cieco, con ansia, contro’ loses its alliteration of ‘co’ in the translation ‘Like a blind man, anxiously, against’. But on the other hand, Palma plays with the sound ‘l’ and ‘a’ and recreates the intonation of the obstacle in pronunciation, as in the original, making the English translation also difficult to pronounce. Fortunately, it is possible to demonstrate this live listening to Raboni reading his own verses on his official website (

Every Third Thought: Selected poems 1950-2004 is a significant contribution to broadening the cultural perspective for the non-Italian speaker. Raboni, often referred to as the last of Italian classics, deserves to be read outside Italy. The varied rich body of the poems and precious additional information evoke a very distinctive image of Giovanni Raboni both as a poet and as a man.

[1] Giovanni Raboni, The Coldest Year of Grace. Selected Poems of Giovanni Raboni, trans. Stuart Friebert and Vinio Rossi (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1985); G. Raboni, Selected Poems, ed. Tina Chiappetta (New York, Stony Brook: Gradiva Publications, 2001).

[2] Raboni tended to revise his works throughout time, and therefore different versions of them were often published. For example, in 1985 he published A tanto caro sangue (With Such Dear Blood), which included revised poems from his previous collections alongside with new poems.

[3] G. Raboni, Ogni terzo pensiero (Milan: Mondadori, 1993).

[4] Raboni worked tirelessly on Les Fleurs du Mal, the translation of which he started at the end of the 1960s and continued throughout his life. There are five distinctive editions of I fiori del male. On the photo there are Raboni’s notes in pencil, which would later lead to the third edition.

[5] ‘Tradurre un testo letterario è una cosa concettualmente del tutto impossibile che tuttavia, a volte, si può fare e che è comunque necessario fare’ (G. Raboni, ‘Ovvero tradurre per amore’, in Traduzione e poesia nell’Europa del Novecento, ed. Anna Dolfi (Rome: Bulzoni, 2004), p. 628).

[6] ‘Scrivere, tradurre. Un dialogo fra Giovanni Raboni e Jean-Charles Vegliante’, in Jean-Charles Vegliante, Nel lutto della luce. Poesie 1982-1997, trans. G. Raboni (Turin: Einaudi, 2004), pp. 167-79.

[7] G. Raboni, ‘Ovvero tradurre per amore’, p. 625.

[8] ‘Il vero oggetto di una traduzione non è il testo originale, ma il nostro rapporto con esso, voglio dire il rapporto che si instaura fra tutto ciò che agisce dentro e attraverso la nostra persona e tutto ciò che ha agito dentro e attraverso la persona dell’autore’ (G. Raboni, ‘Nota del traduttore’ in Molière, La scuola delle mogli (Milano: Compagnia del Teatro Calcano, 2003)).

[9] G. Raboni, ‘Ovvero tradurre per amore’, p. 627.

[11] G. Raboni, L’opera poetica, p. 997. Listen to Raboni himself reading this poem at

Maria Belova has studied Italian Philology at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. At the moment she is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Warwick under the supervision of Professor Ann Caesar. The provisional title of her project is ‘Giovanni Raboni and the City: Tableaux Milanese’. Her research interests include comparative literature, twentieth-century Italian poetry, translation studies, and teaching Italian as a foreign language.

Appendix: preview of two translated poems

Come cieco, con ansia …

Come cieco, con ansia, contro

il temporale e la grandine, una

dopo l’altra chiudevo

sette finestre.

Importava che non sapessi quali.

Solo all’alba, tremando,

con l’orrenda minuzia di chi si sveglia o muore,

capisco che ho strisciato

dentro il solito buio,

via san Gregorio primo piano.

Al di qua dei miei figli,

di poter dare o prendere parola.

(from Cadenza d’inganno, 1972. In G. Raboni, L’opera poetica, ed. Rodolfo Zucco (Milan: Mondadori, 2006), p. 92)


Like a Blind Man, Anxiously …

Like a blind man, anxiously, against

the hailstones and the thunderstorm, I closed

seven windows one

after another.

It mattered that I didn’t know which ones.

Only at daybreak, shivering,

with the dreadful meticulousness of somebody waking or dying,

do I see that I was creeping

inside the usual darkness,

Via san Gregorio, first floor.

On this side of my children,

of being able to yield the floor or take it.

(p. 135)

Dopo la vita cosa? Ma altra vita,

Dopo la vita cosa? Ma altra vita,

si capisce, insperata, fioca, uguale,

tremito che non s’arresta, ferita

che non si chiude eppure non fa male

– non più, non tanto. Lentamente come

risucchiati all’indietro da un’immensa

moviola ogni cosa riavrà il suo nome,

ogni cibo apparirà sulla mensa

dov’era, sbiadito, senza profumo…

Bella scoperta. È un pezzo che la mente

sa che dove c’è arrosto non c’è fumo

e viceversa, che fra tutto e niente

c’è un pietoso armistizio. Solo il cuore

resiste, s’ostina, povero untore.

(from Quare tristis, 1998. In G. Raboni, L’opera poetica, p. 997. Listen to Raboni himself reading this poem at

After this life? another one, so we

After this life? another one, so we

understand, unhoped for, faint, unvarying;

unending tremor, a wound eternally

open (and yet we never feel a thing)

– no more, and not so much. As though they’d been

sucked slowly backward by a huge moviola

every thing will possess its name again

and on the table, faded, with no aroma,

every meal will reappear… What a surprise.

For a long time the mind has been aware

that where there’s smoke there isn’t fire and vice

versa, and that all and nothing share

a pitiful armistice. Only the stubborn heart,

the poor plague-spreader, resists and stands apart.

(p. 361)


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This entry was posted on December 9, 2014 by in Voices.
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