Poetry, said Robert Frost, is what is lost in translation. Consider the opposite formulation: poetry is what is produced by translation. While what is lost would be an indefinable essence, related mysteriously to the language that conveys it, what is produced would inhere in the material fact of language on the page—its rhythm, its sonority. No two poems sound exactly alike, but a good translation produces poetry by taking advantage of the tonal and rhetorical opportunities afforded by the language at hand.
In English, those opportunities are of course different than they are in German, French or Italian.
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Until the last of these lines from “The Tower,” W.B. Yeats restricts himself mostly to little words derived from German (“dead,” “rise,” “dream”). Then a different language explodes from his mouth: “Translunar Paradise.” To speak these words derived from Latin in this sonic context is to feel the eruption of the spiritual realm that Yeats is talking about, especially since the two Latinate words fill out the iambic trimeter line (“Translunar Paradise”) as elegantly as the monosyllables (“That, being dead, we rise”).
Any language has different registers of diction, high and low, but speakers of English come by those registers in a particular way, one that reflects the entire history of the language. Originally, English descended from German, but after the year 1066, when the Normans invaded England, a new vocabulary derived from French (a romance language descending from Latin) began to migrate into English. Even today, we raise “pigs” (from German, via Old English) but eat “pork” (from Latin, via French), because the English language contains both Germanic and Latinate words for the same thing. We similarly inhabit a “body” but bury a “corpse.” We say “over the moon” or “translunar.” We say “the canal is big,” rather than “the canal is grand.” The Grand Canal in Venice looks pretty grand, but to a speaker of Italian, another romance language, it’s really just big (grande), the same way that your hat might be “too big” (troppo grande). To a speaker of English, a hat that was “too grand” would be a different problem. Latinate words that are completely ordinary in French or Italian can sound weirdly sophisticated in English, as lawyers and literary critics know well.
How does an English-language poem harness these choices between different levels of diction, between words derived from different languages? In the passage I quoted from “The Tower,” Yeats is careful to avoid any egregiously Latinate vocabulary until the end, but most poems in English take advantage of the fact that, speaking English, it’s almost impossible not to speak both German and Latin at once. For instance, when Shakespeare’s Macbeth says that his bloody hand will “the multitudinous seas incarnadine,” he wedges the Germanic “seas” between the Latinate “multitudinous” and “incarnadine.” William Blake speaks similarly of the “invisible worm,” Tennyson of “immemorial elms.” Notoriously, T.S. Eliot incorporated quotations from foreign languages into his poems, but in The Waste Land, when he jumps from German words (“das Meer”) to words borrowed from the French (“famous clairvoyante”), he is exaggerating what English-language poems do inevitably all the time. Shakespeare’s sentence “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” mixes German (“let,” “true,” “minds”) and Latin (“marriage,” “admit,” “impediments”) intricately. Readers of English are so used to hearing this mixture that it sounds to us like the very essence of poetry—the poetry of our poetry.
The task of translating The Waste Land is vexed, given its reliance on foreign words and phrases, but really the task of translating any English poem is no less vexed. How should one translate Shakespeare’s sentence into French or Italian, languages in which the words are derived more exclusively from Latin? How should one translate the Latinate words of Dante or Baudelaire into English? Should one stick to the Latinate words that the English language has absorbed, or should one do what English-language poems do, juxtaposing words descending from different languages? Should we all be gaping reverently at the “Big Canal”? These are venerable questions, but to think of poetry as what is produced by translation allows us to exist in the questions, rather than imagining that the dilemma might be solved. The poetry of any poem is the words themselves, the little black marks on the page.
* * *
Geoffrey Brock, editor of the elegantly conceived FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, begins his “Note on Translation” by turning against Frost’s formulation of poetry as what is lost in translation. “The translator’s task,” says Brock, is “not to prevent that loss but to create an entirely new body of sounds.” Translators of poetry “must also be poets,” he emphasizes, and translations worth reading cannot be other than “real poems in English.” This is a demanding set of criteria, and Brock echoes the generous language of the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott (who coined the phrase “good enough mother”) when he says that translators must be “good enough” poets. If one turns to the final pages of this bilingual anthology, one finds not a list of capsule biographies of the poets translated (that comes earlier) but a list of capsule biographies of the translators, and the list includes a good number of better-than-good-enough American poets: Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, Charles Wright, Rosanna Warren, Susan Stewart. The list of translators from the other side of the ocean is equally distinguished: Samuel Beckett, Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Donald Davie, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon. The result, especially for a reader with little or no Italian, is a collection of poems written by some of the finest recent poets of the English language.
Brock does everything he can to force his readers to hear the translations he’s assembled as English-language poems. He includes the poet Saturno Montanari, who is virtually unknown in Italy, because Pound translated his few poems, elevating him (as Brock puts it) “from oblivion to obscurity.” And with a few exceptions, like Montanari, Italian poets are represented here by more than one translator. Even individual poems are represented by multiple translators: the discrete sections of Eugenio Montale’s great sequence Mottetti are translated by William Arrowsmith, Jonathan Galassi, J.D. McClatchy and Brock himself. Brock wants our English ears to be attuned at all moments not only to a new but to a constantly shifting body of sounds.
English sounds different from Italian because it descended from different origins in different ways. While English became a more fundamentally mongrel language over time, its Germanic base enduring a whole-scale collision with French, modern Italian descended from the dialect spoken in Tuscany, the language deployed so influentially by Dante in the Divine Comedy. Renaissance humanists worked to establish this Italian as the standard language of the Italian peninsula, and later, the early nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi made lists of foreign or improper words that had infiltrated it. But this version of Italian remained primarily a literary language; when the peninsula was finally unified as the nation we call Italy in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the population spoke the language we call Italian. Numerous dialects are still spoken today.
Many fine poets wrote (and continue to write) in dialect, but the most famous wrote in Italian, and by the end of the nineteenth century Italian poets were mired in what Brock calls “the eloquence problem”: “Italian eloquence was seen as virtually synonymous with Italian literature. Yet many felt the paths up the Parnassian slopes had been worn into ruts, or that eloquence was fundamentally ill-suited to the harsh mechanical realities of the new millennium.” The most prominent Italian poet of the early twentieth century, Gabriel D’Annunzio, seemed unmoved by this problem, but a wide variety of other poets wanted to roughen up the literary language they’d inherited. The Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti wrote in one of his manifestoes that “we’ll have no more verbal symphonies with harmonious modulations and soothing rhythms,” and while his loud-mouthed poems embodied this injunction aggressively, so did the intimately (often shockingly) plain-spoken poems of Umberto Saba, even though Saba was constitutionally incapable of rousing any audience to join him. Montale spoke for many poets of the century when he said that he wanted to “wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.”
Native speakers of Italian hear in Montale a “nervous, astringent music,” not “orotund mellifluousness” but “harshness and abruptness,” says Jonathan Galassi, Montale’s most capacious translator. Montale himself admired just these qualities in the poems of T.S. Eliot, whom he praised for moving “to a high tone from the lowest, most conversational tone possible,” for wedging “prosaic language…side by side with the aulic.” But what Montale was hearing in Eliot’s poems is, as I’ve suggested, what the English language simply does, because in English one inevitably hears our more colloquial Germanic words rubbing against our more aulic Latinate words. This sonic tension is as central to the sentence I’ve just written (“inevitably hears”) as it is to poems by Blake (“invisible worm”) or Tennyson (“immemorial elms”).
Consider what happens, consequently, when the opening lines of Montale’s manifesto-like poem “The Lemons” are translated into English, in this case by Galassi, who is himself a fine poet, and also the president of the publishing house whose acronym is front-loaded in the title of the anthology at hand:
Listen to me, the poets laureate
walk only among plants
with rare names: boxwood, privet, an
ditches where boys
scoop up a few starved
eels out of half-dry puddles:
paths that run along the banks,
come down among the tufted canes,
and end in orchards, among the lemon trees.
Montale describes here his relationship to the eloquence problem. He wants a new language, a rougher language, one that he associates with the earth. While the “poets laureate” (i poeti laureati) speak the language of “boxwood, privet, and acanthus” (bossi ligustri o acanti), he wants to speak the language of “ditches,” “eels,” “paths,” “puddles,” and “banks.” Galassi’s English embodies this desire in a particular way, for while the old poets are named by Latinate words (“laureate”) and use Latinate words (“acanthus”), the poet speaking the poem in translation uses colloquial Germanic words like “paths” and “eels.” Montale’s paths more literally “descend” among the canes (discendono), but Galassi translates this verb not into Latinate English (“descend”) but into Germanic English (“come down”), embodying Montale’s point about poetic diction in the particular manner that English affords him. The language itself comes down, and poetry is produced in the process.
* * *
With few exceptions, the poems gathered in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry are similarly adept performances in the English language. Given the distinguished poets who have provided the translations, this strength might seem inevitable; but not every English-language poet featured here is famous, and only a good-enough poet—a poet capable of hearing English poetry as well or better than he hears Italian, a poet willing to privilege the power of English over the need to cover the syllabus of Italian poetry—would himself possess the skills required to assemble such an anthology.
Geoffrey Brock has translated a number of books from the Italian, most prominently the poems of Cesare Pavese, and he is the author of a collection of formally dexterous poems called Weighing Light (2005). In his introduction to The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry he compares Italian to Anglo-American literary Modernism, quoting Pound’s retrospective remark that “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” and commenting that the “Modernist revolution” was for Italian poets “more tonal and rhetorical than formal.” This comparison is muddy because the revolution—if that’s what it was—was also finally more tonal and rhetorical than formal for English-language poets. Pound’s remark about the pentameter is meant to reflect back on Swinburne and Yeats, poets who in the late nineteenth century explored a wide variety of prosodies precisely in order to expand their tonal ranges beyond what was available to them via the pentameter; Pound, who continued to write metrical poems and translations until his death, thought of free verse as one more possibility among many. The poems of Brock’s Weighing Light imply otherwise, because a whiff of polemic accompanies their dexterity; the book is a winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, sponsored by the magazine that championed the so-called New Formalism back in the twentieth century.
But to turn to Brock’s gorgeous translations of poets as different from one another as Giovanni Pascoli (late nineteenth-century miniaturist), Ardengo Soffici (early twentieth-century Futurist) and Cesare Pavese (mid-century realist) is to feel that the presence or absence of meter and rhyme in poetry is as consequential as the presence or absence of perspective in painting. It makes a difference, but what one is listening for in any particular case is tone, the combined effect of diction, rhythm, syntax and sonic echo.
Here is Brock’s Pavese:
I’m alive and at daybreak I’ve startled the stars.
My companion continues to sleep unaware.
All companions are sleeping.
And his Soffici:
Oh to swim like a love-struck fish drinking emeralds
Through this net of fragrances and Bengal lights!
And his Pascoli:
Out of a motionless infernal
shudder and clang of steel on steel
as wagons moved toward the eternal,
a sudden silence: I was healed.
In the original Italian of this first stanza of Pascoli’s “Last Dream,” the metallic noises are described as acuti and selvaggi (“sharp” and “savage”); the word infernali does not appear. Adding the English version of this highly charged Latinate word to the poem (“infernal”), Brock rhymes it with another Latinate word (“eternal”), playing this multisyllabic rhyming against the blunter rhyming of two Germanic monosyllables (“steel”/”healed”). As a result, the stanza’s terse final sentence (“I was healed”) leaps abruptly from the long sweep of elaborate diction and syntax preceding it.
The same kind of music-making takes place when a poem is rendered into free verse, rather than metrical verse. The Italian word for tugboat is the multisyllabic rimorchiatore, but in his translation of Montale’s “Delta,” Samuel Beckett takes strategic advantage of the powerfully monosyllabic Germanic word “tug”: he places this word at the end of the poem’s penultimate line, encouraging us to hear its vowel echoed in the last word of the final line (“gulf”), and he prepares us for the amplitude of these final two lines by placing the word “only” on a line by itself, creating a pause in the syntax that punctuation alone would not allow us to hear:
Of thee nothing in the grey hours and the hours
torn by a flame of sulphur,
the whistle of the tug
whose prow has ridden forth into the bright gulf.
Not only the diction but the lineation deployed by Beckett in this translation has no precedent in Montale’s original: once again, poetry has been produced by the act of translation.
The historian Ninetta Jucker once quipped that the Italian language “can hardly refrain from adding an -ism to every concept,” and one can easily hear why. Berlusconi? Berlusconismo. The map of twentieth-century Italian poetry is marked by many schools (Crepuscularism, Futurism, Hermeticism, Neorealism, Neoavant-gardism), and Brock’s introduction to the anthology describes the complicated, often overlapping contours of this map deftly. More fascinating, however, is the way the poems collected here embody this constantly shifting intersection of various linguistic and political energies—and not simply because all the great Italian moderns are represented, along with a variety of lesser-known but equally fascinating poets, some of whom write in dialect, some of whom have only recently entered middle age.
To read through the anthology, poet by poet, is to be struck immediately by the fact that over the last hundred years Italian poetry has not developed so much by successive generations (sons and, increasingly, daughters turning against their parents) as within generations: everything seems to be happening at once, and one’s awareness of the various -isms falls away as the distinctive language of one poet is juxtaposed with another, their conversation determined by chronology rather than ideology. How thrilling it is to discover in this context the tender, ribald poems of Raffaello Baldini, who wrote in his native Romagnolo dialect, far more percussive even than Montale’s Italian, and is beautifully translated into rough-and-ready English by the novelist Adria Bernardi:
I understand, sure, hygiene, these days, if you’re not paying attention,
with all these sicknesses, you think I’m not aware?
I’m not saying not to bathe, are you crazy?
you don’t want to wash? I’m just saying to not go overboard.
I’ve never much enjoyed reading anthologies; they rarely seem to contain what I’m looking for, and when they do, they rarely contain enough. But a few anthologies, like the two-volume Library of America anthology of nineteenth-century American poetry, edited by John Hollander, are so thoughtfully conceived that the experience of reading them feels like the experience of reading an intricate novel; you don’t want to skip anything, even if you know it well, because the pleasure lies in the buried narrative created by the anthologist’s choices. The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry is such an anthology. Dip into it, if you like; look for a particular poet, listen for a particular translator. But for the most rewarding experience, read the whole book slowly, page by page.