Translating Poetry: Part 3


[About losing the conciseness of Blues when translating into Italian]

Dr. Alessandro Carrera: But let me tell you, the same thing can happen from Italian into English. Precisely with Giacomo Leopardi. Leopardi is in Italy considered the greatest literary poet after Dante, and Petrarch. And maybe even more than Petrarch. But he never had the same recognition abroad, for several reasons. But one of the reasons is that in the nineteenth century, he wrote in a very high style Italian—he could write in simple Italian if he wanted—but he moves from extremely high style, neoclassic language to more romantic language. So in a way it’s like a move from Alexander Pope to Wordsworth, to give you an example. But when he comes to write poems in plain speech, they preserve all the depth and complexity of the high style. The point is that when you translate Leopardi’s plain speech into another language, that kind of depth gets lost. Because in Italian, you say, “Ok, he’s writing in plain speech but I can hear the echoes of 800 years of poetry behind him.” But when you translate those poems into English you say, “Is that all there is?”

Let me give you an example.

This poem, “To Himself.”

If  you read it in English—this is a good translation. This is Jonathan Galassi’s translation, it’s become the canonical translation now, recent but…

So you read:

“Now you rest forever,
worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion
that I thought was eternal died. It died.
I see not just the hope
but the desire for loved illusions
is done for us…”

Ok, you know…

But in Italian, it’s almost the same. It’s almost the same, but there’s something more that goes back 800 years, you know?

“Or poserai per sempre,
Stanco mio cor…” –

Yes, the meaning is exactly “now you will rest forever worn out heart”, but there is something more that cannot be translated.

“Perì l’ignanno estremo,
Ch’eterno io mi credei.”

OK, yes, “the ultimate illusion that I thought was eternal died.”

But if you say “the ultimate illusion that I thought was eternal died,” you are sending a text message to someone. If you say “Perì l’ignanno estremo, Ch’eterno io mi credei,” it has a different resonance. It’s not just the music. It’s not just the music, it’s that you understand that this kind of plain language is the result of great work that it is. To get rid of the neoclassical reference and high style but preserving the high style. It’s still high style, although it’s very plain. You know, this clash, stylistical clash, it’s almost impossible to be rendered in another language.


Lauren Davis: And my last—my silly question at the end—some little Italian word or phrase to which there’s no English equivalent? Something that you wish we had in English?

AC: Well there are some words, some expressions that I think are difficult, I mean I never really found a satisfying way to render them. Let me give you a very simple example. First would be a word like fantasia because it cannot really—it’s “imagination” in English, it’s not fantasy, it’s not fancy. But if you translate fantasia with “imagination,” you leave out the semantic connotations of fantasy and fancy, which ARE in the Italian word. Fantasia is also daydreaming. Fantasia is many other things. So it’s one of those words, and there are some words like that in Italian.

Like saudadi in Portuguese. Yes, it’s sadness, it’s blues. But everyone in Portugal and Brazil would say that saudadi cannot really be translated. So fantasia is one of those words.

Virtù, virtue, is another one. Because yes, you can translate virtù with “virtue”, but virtù comes from virtus in Latin and virtus is in Latin what makes a man a man. So there’s a vast area of semantic connotation that is not really, does not belong to the ethical meaning of virtue. For example, Machiavelli uses the word virtù in 25 different meanings. You know, virtù is everything to him: it’s prowess, it’s courage, it’s nobility, it’s also shrewdness, it’s… in a way, it’s also, how can you say… when someone is really… you can be brash. And that’s virtù as well. So that cannot be conveyed when you translate with “virtue.” In fact, some of Machiavelli’s translators do not translate virtù. They leave it in Italian.

Another example closer to us: a word like periferia. Ok, you can think that it’s the equivalent of English “periphery.” But it’s not. Because periferia in Italian is the outskirts of town, where you usually find the housing projects. So it’s not suburb. Because suburb in America is middle class. And in Italy, the middle class or the upper middle class lives downtown, so the suburbs are actually the housing projects. And the periferia has a specific meaning or an aura of meaning that implies working class, but not the same kind of negative connotation that you have in English when you say housing projects, because now when you say housing projects you think of gangs and drugs, or whatever. When you say periferia, that is not what comes to your mind. So it can be from gentle to harsh at the same time. But it’s anything that happens outside downtown. And since I grew up in the periferia of Milan, I think I know what I’m talking about. 6:58 In fact I used that word in an introduction to a philosophical book that I have written. It has nothing to do with being on the outskirts of town, but I said that this book does not aim at the center of philosophy, it aims at the periphery. And because I grew up in a periphery and I think I know hopefully that you know, what the periphery of thought is, instead of its center. And with the assumption that with possibly in the future, there won’t be a thought of downtown. Every thought will be peripheral in one way or another.

LD: Thank you!

AC: You’re welcome.

Listen to Part One

Listen to Part Two

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