Someone Else’s

Matthew Reynolds

  • Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-50 by Cesare Pavese, translated by Geoffrey Brock
    Carcanet, 370 pp, £14.95, April 2004, ISBN 1 85754 738 1
  • The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems edited by Jamie McKendrick
    Faber, 167 pp, £12.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 571 19700 0

Does an Italian poet need translating even when he writes in English? Two of the poems in Disaffections make you wonder. Pavese addressed them to Constance Dowling, the American actress with whom he was involved in the months before his suicide in 1950, and they now frame the sequence published posthumously as Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (‘Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes’). Adopting Dowling’s language, Pavese expresses his wish and his inability to be at one with her:

ballet of boughs
sprung on the snow,
moaning and glowing
– your little ‘ohs’ –
white-limbed doe,
gracious,
would I could know
yet
the gliding grace
of all your days

These lines are interesting, not as English poetry, but as an instance of Anglo-Italian disharmony. Take the repeated ‘o’ sounds which imply both Dowling’s charm – her little Marilyn Monroe-like exclamations of surprise – and the echo of feeling it now provokes in him, a groaning distress at the end of the affair. In Italian, a language generous with rhyme, this pattern of sound would not seem forced; but in English it feels childishly overdone, doleful in the manner of ‘The More It Snows’ by Winnie the Pooh. The poem has been written in English words, but not wholly in the English language.

Pavese’s knowledge of English showed to better effect when he wrote in Italian. Throughout his career he worked as a translator, notably of Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Dos Passos, Melville and Dickens, and published essays on them and other English and American writers. In the 1930s, this was a conscious contribution to the Anti-Fascist intellectual culture which endured in Turin: as Pavese reminisced after the war, ‘for many, the encounter with Caldwell, Steinbeck, Saroyan and even old Lewis was the first glimpse of liberty, the first hint that world culture didn’t necessarily culminate in the fasci.’ What was most important to his own writing was the concentration on the local, which he found especially in Lewis and Anderson. In his novels, with their vivid evocations of the Piedmontese landscape, and their language that feels grounded without being in dialect, he thought of himself as following the Americans’ example.

There is something of a paradox in having to learn from foreigners how to be properly at home in your own land. But then any conscious vindication of the local involves its own paradox: if you are asserting the value of your roots you must have grown away from them, in your mind at least. They will have become an object of thought and memory; they will have been cultivated by your imagination. The first poem in his first book, Lavorare Stanca (Work’s Tiring, 1936), focuses on someone who has spent twenty years in the South Seas: ‘When you come back, like me, at forty,/it all seems new. These hills will always be waiting.’ The hills are those of the Langhe, a region near Turin where Pavese was born: the poem probes what it might mean for them to seem ‘new’. Are they different? Or unchanged? Is the speaker reawakening an identity or inventing one? The questions recur throughout Pavese’s work, most intensely in his great last novel, La Luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires, 1950), whose central character also returns to the Langhe, this time from the United States.

Pavese wrote his thesis at university on Walt Whitman, and said he ‘admired and feared’ Whitman’s free verse; for the bulk of his own poetry he adopted a tamed analogue of it: long, anapaestic four or five-stress lines, unrhymed. This form risks monotony, especially when (as in Disaffections) it continues over several hundred pages. But the plain impersonality of the rhythm, with its pendulum-like momentum, was central to Pavese’s endeavour. Typically, his poems place one or two working men or women in a scene, which can be rural or urban, and recount their thoughts, movements and conversations. The language is colloquial and bare of metaphor. There is nothing of Whitman’s ‘rhetorical swell’, as Pavese called it; instead, there is a commitment to what he called ‘objectivity’ of presentation.

Here, for instance, a couple of people are having a fag under a streetlamp on an ‘asphalt avenue’ that is ‘open wide to the wind’:

La fiammella si spegne sul volto alla donna
che mi ha chiesto un cerino. Si spegne nel vento
e la donna delusa ne chiede un secondo
che si spegne: la donna ora ride sommessa.

The small flame dies on the face of the woman
who’s asked for a match. It dies in the wind,
and so, disappointed, she asks for another.
It too goes out, and now she laughs softly.

The repeated words (‘si spegne’, ‘la donna’) give the impression of objectivity because they make it seem that there is only one word for each object or action referred to. Every time the flame goes out it just goes out, it doesn’t blow out or fail or get extinguished; and the woman is simply, repeatedly ‘la donna’. Geoffrey Brock’s translations are generally good at bringing the rhythm and narrative impetus of Pavese’s verse into English: you find yourself drawn into his versions, compelled to read them through. But too often, as here, he softens the expressive bluntness of the language. To give up the repetition of ‘la donna’ is to lose the way the woman’s presence imposes itself on the speaker’s awareness, as she changes from being the object of his vision into an object of desire.

The characters in Pavese’s city poems are rootless, isolated in their bodies, jobs and bedsits. The poems show them attempting to breach or blur these boundaries: getting into conversation with someone assumes a strange importance, as does going out for a stroll or having a fag-break; sex is viewed with adolescent feverishness. But at times the desire to make contact, to belong, is imagined with impressive clarity:

Era giunto a Torino
un inverno, tra lampi di fabbriche e scorie di fumo;
e sapeva cos’era lavoro. Accettava il lavoro
come un duro destino dell’uomo. Ma tutti gli uomini
lo accettassero e al mondo ci fosse giustizia.
Ma si fece i compagni. Soffriva le lunghe parole
e dovette ascoltarne, aspettando la fine.
Se li fece i compagni.

He arrived in Turin
in winter, in the glare of factories, the filth of smoke.
And he discovered what work was. He accepted work
as the hard destiny of man – but only if all men
accepted it would there be justice in the world.
But he made comrades. He put up with endless talk
and had to listen, patiently, for it to end –
if he could just make comrades of them.

This translation by Duncan Bush is from The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems. The first couple of lines set the scene in a distanced, rather offhand way. But then (and this is what is striking) the language stops feeling like a description of the man’s struggle and starts to seem a party to it. The words with which he asserts himself (‘but only if . . . if he could just’) push against the words that are imposed on him and keep him in his place (‘work/as the hard destiny of man’), and the poem seems both to give him a voice and to objectify him, to shut him up in the box of its form. With their rejection of mediating elegance, the lines are like a piece of Arte Povera.

In the enlarged second edition of Lavorare Stanca (1943), Pavese, who worried that ‘story-poems’ of this kind were too impersonal, too much like mere reportage, turned to ‘story-images’, poems intended to trace metaphorical connections between his characters and their surroundings so as to form an imaginative unity. He was allowing himself to be a bit more like Whitman. In the later poems of Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi, a book beloved of Italian adolescents, such analogies are facile and have an edge of contempt: ‘You are light and morning . . . your laugh and your step/like trembling waters . . . your tender body/a lump of soil in the sun.’ But the earlier writing gives a more convincing picture of the desire to merge with the earth. An ex-convict returns to what was once his home landscape:

L’odore inaudito di terra
gli par sorto del suo stesso corpo, e ricordi remoti
– lui conosce la terra – costringerlo al suolo

The astonishing smell of the earth
(this man knows the earth) seems to rise up from his body,
and he’s bound by old memories to that ground

As Brock’s translation partly succeeds in conveying, continuities of sound (‘odore . . . sorto . . . corpo . . . ricordo’, ‘suo . . . suolo’) blur the identities of the words just as the character’s identity is blurred, so that smell, body, memory and ground indeed seem one. This is the opposite of the separating, objectifying verbal repetition in the city poems: it looks like authentic belonging. But then you remember that the character, as often in Pavese, has just returned from elsewhere; and he is due to leave in the morning. The choral harmonies of memory that seem to bind him to the land are really the sound of his displacement. If he had not been away he would not hear them.

One of Jamie McKendrick’s aims in editing The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry was, he says, to show how his chosen poems ‘argue with or make reference to other poems or poets’; and the sensible selection from Pavese does give a rough sense of where and how much he belongs. He is occasionally reminiscent of d’Annunzio and at times anticipates Pasolini; he contrasts with Montale and Ungaretti. But we cannot hear these quarrels and conversations very clearly because the poems are not dated and are grouped by author rather than in chronological order. Years of birth and death are given for each poet, but they are little help: a poem by Sandro Penna (1906-77) translated by Blake Robinson on page 66 seems close to some lines by Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970) translated by Marcus Perryman and Peter Robinson on page 38: but is there really an echo? If so, which way does it run? And is it in the originals or only in the translations? The Italian is not given so we cannot tell. The only gesture towards anchoring the poems in Italy is that each poet’s place of birth is given after his name. But this isn’t much help either: how many of us could point to S. Stefano Belbo on a map?

No doubt financial constraints were the main cause of this information blackout, but it may also have seemed excusable because of our uncertainty about what sort of thing a translation of a poem is: how much, and what, we need to know in order to make sense of it. Translation necessarily cuts poems loose from their origins: it carries them not only into a different language but usually to a different country and a different time. A good translation (the argument might go) is one that can make sense and offer pleasure when read in this contextual limbo.

The translations here maintain connections of varying strengths with Italy and Italian, and it is a shame that McKendrick gives us so little help in tracing them. Some are like Pavese’s poems to Constance Dowling: still Italian in movement and sensibility even though now written in English words. Others, like McKendrick’s own poised version of a poem by Sandro Penna, have been thoroughly resettled in English:

I have come down from the burning hill
to stand by the station’s fresh urinal.
The dust and sweat that coat my skin
intoxicate me. In my eyes the sun
still sings. Body and soul I now abandon
to the lucid whiteness of the porcelain.

This is beautifully at home: the half rhymes are well judged and the echo of ‘skin’ in ‘sings’ is delightfully apt, for it makes the second word sound; ‘coat’ also is touched into life by its proximity to ‘sweat’. The translation has been landscaped into English literary traditions: in the distance behind the opening we can glimpse ‘The boy stood on the burning deck.’ It rather helps, as you read your way into the poem, that the original is not printed in parallel text: flicking back and forth to the Italian would distract your eye from the poem’s connections, both internal and to other English verse.

The weather is still Italian, however, as is the landscape, as is the position of the railway station at the foot of a hill (which probably has a town wearily high up at the top of it), as is the calm of the loos in those overly spacious Fascist station buildings. It will not do to reimagine the scene as the Lake District during a heatwave. But where does Italy stop and the Italian language begin? If I write ‘burning’ and mean not the gentle simmer that passes for burning over here but real Italian heat, is the word still wholly, unmisgivingly English? And so I find myself wanting to go to the original and get out my dictionary, the more so because the translation has a peculiar intimacy with Christianity which may or may not be present in the Italian: Moses came down from a burning hill, and the ritual involving ‘body and soul’ that follows seems a little bit like an upside-down communion.

McKendrick has made it hard for us to track him to his source, since he gives no Italian titles or first lines: you have to search through Penna’s complete poems. But it is worth it. The nudge towards Moses is there, though perhaps not quite so strongly; but what is missing are McKendrick’s prickly half-rhyme couplets:

Nel fresco orinatoio alla stazione
sono disceso dalla collina ardente.
Sulla mia pelle polvere e sudore
m’inebbriano. Negli occhi ancora canta
il sole. Anima e corpo ora abbandono
fra la lucida bianca porcellana.

The Italian has a delightfully appropriate fluidity, ‘anima’ into ‘abbandono’ into ‘bianca’ into ‘porcellana’. But in translation – I now see – the poem has acquired a feeling of embarrassment. ‘Abandon’ in half-rhyme with ‘porcelain’ does not abandon itself: it edgily compares. We could call this a sign of Englishness, but I think it has to do with the way translation repeats words first written by someone else. Penna is singing his own pleasure in a piss; McKendrick can’t forget that he is describing someone else’s.

This version is a triumph of one aspect of the translator’s art. It is alive as English, but remains alert to its task of representing an Italian poem in a foreign tongue. Several of McKendrick’s selections do a similar thing similarly well: Umberto Saba translated by Derek Mahon, Ungaretti by Patrick Creagh, Maria Luisa Spaziani by Beverly Allen. But many others are more limited. In Biographia Literaria Coleridge illustrates the workings of metaphor with some made-up lines which do not pretend to be poetry but nonetheless go through poetical motions: they are ‘an illustration’ but not ‘an instance’ of what he means. Translations often stand in rather the same subordinate relation to poetry: Gesualdo Manzella-Frontini’s oddly energetic description of cadavers in an anatomy room; Rossana Ombres’s peculiar fable of a demon hidden between sandal and toe; Amelia Rosselli’s tumbling first-person rendition of a death – none of these is made to spark as English but it is possible to see that they would work as poetry in the Italian. Others again – such as Montale translated by Robert Lowell – achieve their vigour by departing from the source: the danger of these looser versions is that the original will seem scanted or imposed on, a stooge.

The most rewarding translations in the anthology stretch English towards Italian while not stiffening it into translationese. They read like translations – and are the better for it. Peter Robinson has written poems which explore dissonances and misunderstandings by focusing on Italian spoken as a foreign language. The versions of Vittorio Sereni that he has done with Marcus Perryman likewise use translation as a means for gauging dislocation and measuring loss. Take the following lines from ‘Algerian Diary’, dated ‘New Year’s Day 1944’ and set in the North African POW camp where Sereni was imprisoned:

Over there where from tower
to tower agreement
leaps in vain now and is thrown back,
the who-goes-there of the hour,
– just as down here from turret to turret
from the heights of the compound
Moroccan guards call to each other –

The hurling of the syntax across line-ends is not unusual in English poetry (there is a similar effect in Sereni’s Italian), but ‘is thrown back’ feels a touch foreign, as does ‘of the hour’, as does the delayed ‘just as’ – all of them stick close to the wording of the source. Sereni’s imagining of vain response takes on extra point in the translation because translation is itself a kind of agreement that is thrown back. Sereni’s poem is written in a solid, melodious Italian at odds with the situation of the speaker. But Perryman and Robinson’s version shares the speaker’s predicament; it too feels caught between languages, aware of the possibility of misunderstanding.

Contrast Charles Tomlinson’s versions of Attilio Bertolucci, written in an English that has become distant and rather grand:

It is like a wolf, the wind
That descends from the hills onto the plain,
In the fields it lays flat the grain,
Wherever it goes leaving dismay behind.

Tomlinson’s diction does not cling to the Italian like Perryman and Robinson’s: Bertolucci’s idiom at this point is a notch plainer. But the feel of ancientness and formality (‘descends’, ‘lays flat’, ‘dismay’) is underwritten by the otherness of the foreign language. It gives the impression that the words, like the wind, have come from far away and are indifferent to the details of locality.

Excellent translations such as these ones by Tomlinson, McKendrick and Perryman and Robinson are rare enough to make one loath to quibble at the absences from the book (no Scotellaro? No Porta?). When a bit of Italian grit has not met its English oyster there is nothing to be done (save commission or DIY: a fair number of the versions appear to have been written specially for this volume). But is there anything that determines whether a poem will provoke a good translation? The taste of good translators has most to do with it, and already existing pathways between the languages may have an influence too (both Sereni and Bertolucci translated from English). But it also seems to help if the source poem is already displaced by being in some way about or engaged in translation, dwelling among echoes like the lines from Sereni, or being vigorously figurative, like the Bertolucci: once the wind has been translated by simile into a wolf only a nudge is needed to propel it into yet another word in another language.

Perhaps the most translated of 20th-century Italian poems is Montale’s ‘L’anguilla’. It asks to be translated not only because its subject, the eel, slithers from sea to sea and land to land but because it begins with the rewording of metaphor (‘L’anguilla, la sirena’, ‘The eel, the siren’) and ends with another translatorly leap, twinning the eel with the gleam in somebody’s eye. Of the many English versions (Robert Lowell, Jeremy Reed, Jonathan Galassi, Tom Paulin and so on), McKendrick rightly chooses Paul Muldoon’s. Inseparably inventive and close, his ‘Eel’ is like its namesake: it departs from its origin only as a way of returning to it. At one point, Muldoon sends the eel ‘to some green and pleasant spawning ground’, where Montale has only ‘paradisi di fecondazione’. This is a well-directed innovation because the lines of Blake to which Muldoon alludes imagine England as a paradise. When we return, alerted, to the original we discover that there is an allusion in the Italian too: ‘Paradiso’, like ‘Jerusalem’, is a poem as well as a possibility.

But should we really think of the Italian words as being the ‘original’? In a lecture last year, Muldoon suggested that we should take both a version and its source as being translations from a lost original. As a theory, this sounds rather mystical, but ‘The Eel’ puts it very precisely into practice:

che risale in profondo, sotto la piena avversa,
di ramo in ramo e poi
di capello in capello, assottigliati,
sempre più addentro, sempre più nel cuore
del macigno, filtrando
tra gorielli di melma

who keeps going against
the flow, from branch to branch, then
from capillary to snagged capillary,
further and further in, deeper and deeper into the heart
of the rock, straining
through mud-runnels

‘Capillary’ for capello (‘hair’) is a gift any translator would accept, especially in the vicinity of cuore, ‘heart’. But the word that most makes Montale look like a co-translator, rather than a self-sufficient original, is filtrando (‘filtering’), rendered as ‘straining’. For a moment, the English has an intensity which the Italian lacks: the eel strains in two senses, and it is hard to feel that if a word with the same ambiguity had been available in Italian Montale would not have used it. Muldoon has gone past the Italian here to what Montale must have been trying to get at, and taken his impetus from there. These lines may have been first written in Italian, but they have made English their home.