Translating Poetry: Part 2


Lauren Davis: Well what about you, what’s the toughest thing you’ve ever attempted?

Dr. Alessandro Carrera: Well, prose. More than poetry. I’ve translated a lot of poetry, but prose has been more difficult.

LD: Interesting.

AC: Because, after all, you know, I had a self-training in poetry, no one taught me, but I started writing poetry when I was eight years old, I told you, and I could think in 11-syllable lines. I could speak in 11-syllable lines if I wanted. I mean, there are people in Italy who can do that. All the farmers in the Tuscany countryside, they used to have poetry contests-improvised poetry contests, there’s still…somebody’s still capable of doing that. So they would throw lines at each other, and they had to answer in rhyme, and with the right metric.

LD: Wow. I’d like to see that!

AC: Ah, yes. That was quite something. Of course, they rely on formulas. There are certain topics that you choose, and certain topoi, certain rhetorical figures that you use. Just like jazz improvisation. So you know where to go, you know the chords. So if you know the chords, you can do pretty much anything.

Well, I do not claim that I can do anything like that. But… I never tried. I would be afraid to try. But I think I have an ear for poetry. So if I decide to translate a poem, I start thinking about it, thinking about the kind of rhythm it can have in Italian, and sooner or later I can come up with something that I think is an equivalent. Prose is different animal, because prose must be…it’s not poetry. It’s not formalized; it’s everyday speech. So you have to follow the canons of everyday speech.

It was not a problem when I translated…I translated three novels of Graham Greene. That was not a major problem because Greene writes in a very simple, comprehensible, beautiful English. So it was no major issue, translating those.

But, when I translated Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles Volume 1–which is not really an autobiography… It’s a series of personal autobiographical essays. And Dylan is very peculiar prose. It’s poetic prose, it’s irregular, and it looks like he has learned English the night before. Really!

I also translated his songs, but the prose was more difficult than the songs. Because the songs need to have a structure. There are stanzas, there’s a metric, there’s rhyme, or…maybe irregular metric but that doesn’t matter. And I did not translate the songs in rhythmic translation. I did not do metric and rhyme translation because that would have been too much, too much time and also Dylan is quite complex. He uses a lot of puns, a lot of idiomatic expressions… Rhythmic translation, you need to cut that away because you cannot really translate those. So I was sacrificing too much if I had to translate Dylan in rhythmic translation. So I decided to adopt a more blank verse translation with some occasional rhymes here and there, to preserve the sound.

But with his prose, his prose is much more irregular than his lyrics. And sometimes it was really hard. It was really hard not for what he says, but because every sentence was a surprise. He constantly shifted from one level to another, from everyday speech to strange words or common words but used in a strange way, so one sentence starts in one stylistic level, ends in a different stylistic level, and that was hard. That was quite hard.

LD: You have to be inside his head, I guess.

AC: Yeah. But one place that you don’t want to be in is Bob Dylan’s head, because you would get lost. I studied Dylan for years to translate his songs and I also wrote a book on Dylan. He’s an educated person. I think he’s read a lot. But he’s a magpie. He doesn’t read to learn, he reads to steal. Just like Brecht. Brecht was the same thing. So you have to be alert to everything that he has taken from whatever sources were available to him, so you need to say ok, this is a quote from the bible, this comes from Hemingway, this comes from whatever, Rimbaud or there’s a reference maybe to Yeats, or a reference to blues, to folk songs. Basically everything he says is a quote.

LD: So you’re kind of playing “Cultural Detective”—

AC: Mmm-hmm, absolutely.

LD: As you piece this apart.

AC: And talking about untranslateability, yes—there is something that I’ve found absolutely impossible to translate into Italian—blues songs. Because they are so coded, you know, the language is a code. And it looks like they are talking about trivial things, but everything is in code. So every image of a car is actually an image of a woman. It’s sex, basically, everywhere, you know. So everything you read is a metaphor—90% of the time is a metaphor for sex. And that gets lost in translation. I mean, the blues is as coded as medieval poetry. Medieval poetry before Dante, you know, the Provençal poets. They wrote in a way that was only understandable to each other. And blues music is the same thing, because it was written for a small community that could understand the references. But if you did not belong to the community, you were cut off. And they did not want you to understand. It was sort of a secret code.

LD: So your songbook would need a lot of footnotes.

Of course.

LD: And that kind of takes away…

AC: You know I tried once to translate a couple of songs of Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is the myth of the blues singers and he has written, I mean, we know only 40 songs by him… maybe even less. And I can understand why he is considered the greatest blues poet, because he is extremely concise and to the point, but you know that kind of conciseness can, I mean if you translate it into Italian… OK, that’s all that there is?

Listen to Part One

Listen to Part Three

Leave a Reply