DUKE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES
“Everything in Trieste is double and triple, beginning with its flora and ending with its ethnicity,” proclaimed the Triestine writer Scipio Slataper in an essay from 1911 on “Irredentismo,” the desire of the inhabitants of Trieste and other hinterlands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to be united with the Italian mainland, and hence “redeemed.” Tucked below the barren limestone promontory called the Carso by Italians, the Karst by Austrians and the Krš by Slovenians, and pummeled by the local northeast wind, the bora, Trieste has become most renowned since the early twentieth century for its shape-shifting pseudonymous writers: the poet/memoirist Slataper, killed at 27 fighting for the Italian cause in World War I, who wrote as Pennadoro, an Italian translation of his Slavic surname; the novelist Ettore Schmitz, friend and student of James Joyce, who set out with the pen name E. Samigli before christening himself Italo Svevo; and one of the most important poets of Italian Modernism, Umberto Poli, who used the signatures Umberto Chopin Poli, Umberto da Montereale and Umberto Lopi before settling in his late twenties on Umberto Saba, the name we know him by today.
The author of more than fifteen individual books of poetry and a thousand pages of prose, Saba is best known for his Il Canzoniere (The Songbook), a continually revised and augmented collection in poems of his life’s work. Like Ezra Pound, another Modernist who liked to travel forward while facing backward, Saba chose this simple title to claim his place in the long line of great Mediterranean poets who had used it for their collections, including Guido Cavalcanti, Francesco Petrarca and Giacomo Leopardi. This new volume of selections from Saba’s Songbook, edited and translated by George Hochfield and the late Leonard Nathan, has been handsomely produced by Yale University Press; not among the least of its attractions is how well it fits in the hand. The edition includes, among other work, a generous number of Saba’s earliest poems; all fifteen sonnets of his important Autobiografia (1924); several of his experimental works of 1928-29, titled Preludes and Fugues; and a sampling of his late-life poems, including his beautiful sequence Uccelli (Birds) from 1948. Hochfield and Nathan also provide a translation of Saba’s early essay, published posthumously, “What Remains for Poets to Do”–an ars poetica clarifying his search for a poetry of sincerity and a rejection of rhetoric.
Clearly a labor of love, these collaborative versions, presented with the Italian on facing pages, occupied Hochfield and Nathan for more than a decade. Inevitably they will be compared favorably to Stephen Sartarelli’s translations from the Canzoniere, which were published in 1998 by Sheep Meadow Press alongside Sartarelli’s version of Saba’s massive prose account of his poems, Storia e cronistoria del canzoniere (History and Chronicle of the Songbook). Sartarelli’s pioneering efforts remain admirable, and it is certainly not the case, as the book jacket of the Hochfield and Nathan edition touts, that “until now…English-language readers have had access to only a few examples of this poet’s work.” The two Sartarelli volumes total nearly 500 pages of translations and in fact are listed in Hochfield and Nathan’s bibliography, although Vincent Moleta’s expansive 2004 Australian translation of Saba’s prose and poetry goes unmentioned. Even so, Saba’s final edition of Il Canzoniere alone runs to more than 600 pages, with another 330 pages of Canzoniere apocrifo; each of these translations, therefore, must be presented as “selected poems,” and our understanding of Saba, despite his fame, remains at an early phase.