Translating Poetry: Part 1


MasterWord’s Lauren Davis sat down with Dr. Alessandro Carrera to discuss the unique challenges of translating poetry. This is part one of a three-part interview. The original interview has been edited for time.

Dr. Alessandro Carrera: My name is Alessandro Carrera, I am a professor at the University of Houston, I am director of the Italian Studies program, and I am the graduate director of the World Cultures and Literatures program.

Lauren Davis: Which is how I know you, Dr. Carrera, and I wanted to talk to you about translating poetry. When and how did you get started doing that?

AC: I started early. I think I remember the first translation that I did. I think I was in ninth grade, possibly.

From Latin it was one of the early—yes, the first—Virgil. It was Virgil. The first eclogue. The first eclogue that I translated from Latin into Italian—of course, not that my knowledge of Latin was that great. But what I wanted to do was translate Virgil into the hexameter into the classical Italian line, which is the 11-syllable line. You know, it’s roughly the equivalent of the English iambic pentameter. With the difference that the English Iambic pentameter is more similar to Latin pentameter because it has the same structure of accents, while in Italian, you can use pretty much every sequence of accents you want.

So I translated Virgil’s first eclogue in Italian 11-syllable lines. It was just for exercise. My personal exercise. I didn’t show it to anyone. 

LD: Was that an ambitious project for that age? Were you a precocious student?

AC: Maybe it was. I don’t know. But I started writing poetry when I was 8 years old. And translating was a challenge that I’d never done before, so I learned that poem by heart, and it started sounding to me into Italian 11-syllable line. Which of course implies that I had to reduce the complexity of Virgil’s text because the Latin hexameter is longer. And Latin is an extremely compressed language. You can say a lot of things in Latin in a couple of lines, and Italian is not that strict, so I had to sacrifice some of the original to come up with an Italian version that was musical at least, to me.

LD: So how do you decide what elements can be sacrificed and what needs to be preserved?

AC: Ha! Since I was 14 years old, I went by my instinct of course, and didn’t have any training about that. What sounded musical to me in Italian was the reason. So if there was something that did not really flow, in the line, I just cut it out. And I reduced the Latin verse to a melodic line.

 LD: Yeah. I’m not an Italian speaker but musicality definitely seems to be a quality of the language that would be important in poetry. Are there any other generalizations about the language in particular, going to or from Italian that you would make?

AC: The fact is that when you are into a language, because it’s your language, you can roam through it. And you think that pretty much everything can be translated. I mean, that’s not true, but it’s your assumption. You know, that you will—sooner or later, you will be able to find the exact equivalent. About generalization in Italian: for example, in Italian, we have a lot of markers. Like pronouns, endings, so that more or less, you always know from the markers, who is speaking, who is the subject of the preposition. In English you don’t have many markers. And that’s why there are several types of run-on sentences that work perfectly well in Italian, but they cannot be translated literally into English because at the fourth line, you wouldn’t know who was speaking to whom and you wouldn’t know who’s the subject, who’s the object, because of the lack of grammatical markers. And that’s why you have to change the syntax when you translate into English. Or you have to keep in mind that… You can do the opposite when you translate into Italian of course. You can have several sentences in English that in Italian can become one.

LD: Right. So if I were working from German into English, I would think, “How do I preserve the ‘Germanness’ of this poem?” And for me, that’s almost always in the syntax and the grammar. Is that true of Italian?

AC: It’s…yes, it’s the same thing. But, you know, from the conversations that I had years ago when I was in New York—I was in New York seven years—and I worked at NYU but I also worked at the Italian Cultural Institute and I was in charge of organizing all literary events. So I got in touch with a lot of poets and writers from Italy and from the US. And one in particular whose name is Charles Wright. Charles Wright has also been a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry…he’s very well-known. And he translated, or he tried to translate poems from Italian, so he translated—he lived in Italy for a while— he translated poets from the twentieth century and he did not have any problem, but when he tried to translate a poem—I mean poet—of the nineteenth century, Giacomo Leopardi, he gave up. He gave up! But he told me, “It’s not that I gave up because I thought Leopardi is impossible to translate, although it’s very difficult. I didn’t give up because it’s impossible to translate; I gave up because I was not up to the task.” But he told me, “Everything can be translated into English.” So, I think he’s right. I mean, you change a lot, but if you know how to change it, you can preserve a lot of the original meaning. You don’t preserve the music, no. That’s impossible. But you can preserve the meaning, the aura, the atmosphere, a lot of this. Not the syntax. I mean… you can try, but then you will not have any readers.

Now, I know that recently there has been a movement toward more literal translation. Because recently, people have argued that if you translate too much, that is, if you really change the order and the syntax to adapt foreign text to English or whatever, you lose what is most important, that is, the cultural difference. It’s probably true, but then again, when I read a translation, a literal translation from Italian into English, to me, and I’m not a native speaker, it seems unreadable.

I think, “This is not English. This is Italian, plastered onto English.” And I don’t like it. So it’s not that I want to cancel cultural difference, but there’s one thing that is called the beauty of the language. And the beauty of English language—English is a beautiful language—you don’t have to stretch it to make it look like Italian or German or any other language. You must be up to the challenge, basically!

LD: So as long as you’re up to the challenge, untranslatability is not an issue?

AC: Well, no…Untranslatability is an issue. It is really an issue.


AC: Because every language has its own vortexes, so to speak. Then there are levels of untranslatability I think in every language. Let’s start with Italian for example. And let’s start with musicality. Dante. Cutting to the chase, that is: the linguistic quality of the text, Dante is very visual. Dante creates images constantly. So even if you lose the music of Dante, but you preserve the image and the theoretical content, you have done a good job. Now, let’s go to Petrarch.  And Petrarch was, for many, many centuries, much more influential than Dante, everywhere in Europe. And, I mean, everywhere. Yes. But in Italian, not in translation. He was influential in Italian. He was influential at the time when cultured men and women all over Europe were supposed to have at least a reading knowledge of Italian. Because Petrarch in translation does not work. And it does not work because Petrarch is mostly about music. Yes, there are images, but that’s not the point. And even the theoretical content in Petrarch is very much hidden under the musicality, you know, on the surface. And that’s the important thing. That’s the important thing in Petrarch.

So if you miss that, you don’t get much from translation of Petrarch into English. I’m not saying it’s impossible, absolutely not. But it’s not the same as Dante, and in fact, the reception of the two poets has been so different. It is so different now because if you really want to understand Petrarch, you need to have a knowledge of Italian. If you want to understand Dante, yes, you should need Italian, but there are very, very good translations. And I’ve never found a good translation of Petrarch that was… I mean, good enough for me. There are not many, in fact.

And then there are other levels of untranslatability, for example there are some poets in Italy that are considered some of the best poets of Italian literature that have no translation into English. One is Giovanni Pascoli. Now, Pascoli is very peculiar because he lived at the end of the nineteenth-century and it’s comparable to the French Decadent poets. Very different, very different personality but in a way it’s the same time, the same age, so in a way could be the Paul Verlaine or …. Just to give you an example. He’s a very decadent poet in his own ways, but he’s also very classical. Because he had a classical education, and so there are two elements in his poetry. You know, the classical education is in his incredible sense for metric and structure, and at the same time the decadent sensibility. That is impossible to translate.

I mean, impossible until you find someone who really did it. I thought translating Pascoli was impossible, because I read some attempts at translating Pascoli and they were really not good. And then I stumbled upon a translation of one of his poems called ‘Italy’, because it’s a poem about Italian immigration in the United States, the first poem written about that subject. Now, that poem is extremely sentimental, because Pascoli was very sentimental. And Pascoli is the Puccini of poetry, you know. It makes you cry. When you read Pascoli in Italian you are supposed to cry. Well, I cried read the English translation.

LD: Wow. So that’s a success.

AC: No, that’s incredible. That’s really incredible. When I read it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. That this is Pascoli in English! I did not think it was possible.

But Pascoli was really something. So you see, something is untranslatable until you find the right translator.

LD: Sure.

AC: But I really don’t want to know how much time he spent on that translation. Because it was really a masterpiece.

LD: Some things, it’s better to not know how they were made, maybe… (laughs)

Listen to Part Two

Listen to Part Three

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