k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 11, march 2012|
In 1987 I left Australia for the first time. I flew to Rome and travelled by train through northern Italy, northern Spain, France and England following a largely Poundian agenda (Florence, Sienna, Rapallo, Mont Segur, Perigeux, Paris and London). Other than English my only language was rusty high-school French. In Rome I picked up the two-volume Poesia Italiana del Novocento (ed. Sanguinetti, 1971) setting myself the task of learning enough Italian to translate some of these poems (astonished as I was that the anthology, some 800 pages of it, contained not a single woman poet). I had translated from the Latin of Martial before this but had used a crib (the Loeb Classical Library edition) and consulted a Latinist. With this anthology I decided that I would attempt poems I had not seen in translation before, alongside more familiar pieces like those of Quasimodo. Back in Melbourne I went to the Centre for Italian Studies in Carlton and took a few months of beginners’ classes. I started working on some of the poems straight away, going through them word-for-word and then trying to make sense of the results. It seemed easier to work with poems that were vividly descriptive than with some of the more cerebral ones.
In 1990 I published what is possibly my least satisfactory book, Blue Notes. It was a rushed job as the publisher (Picador) wanted to follow up my relatively successful long poem The Ash Range (1987). Blue Notes included several of my Italian pieces but these, like much of the book, had been done in haste–at least they hadn’t been around for long enough for their weaknesses to become apparent. They were selected from a much larger body of translations in progress and I filed the rest away. I didn’t look at them again for twenty years, nor did I attempt any further translations. Then in 2010 I dug out the file and attempted to salvage some of the work therein. I also went back to two of the poems I had published in Blue Notes, Cavacchioli’s “Antiromantic Prelude”’ and Onofri’s “Soil Returned to the Cosmos” and reworked them considerably.
One thing I noticed when I made my first attempts at these works was that I tended to compress them, the longer pieces particularly. The poems of Ardengo Soffici (not included here) were for the most part satisfactorily done but in the process I had lost almost a third of several of them. Some lines and phrases were too obscure or impossible to make work in English. As long as the overall sense of the poem was there I dispensed with these. Martin Johnston, a friend and fluent Greek speaker once noted that the southern European modernists had not been through the stringent parings back that the English high modernists had: there had been no Pound or Eliot to insist on condensation. Instead there was often a sense that if you could say something again and again in different ways then why not do so. These repetitions and embellishments can seem awkward in English so I navigated through them.
What I liked about doing these translations was that sense that there was another intelligence at work, producing a kind of sensibility that wasn’t strictly my own (angels, for example, just don’t occur in my own work). With the Martial poems the poet gave me license to review the works and mores of my contemporaries. The Italian poems worked differently. They represented instead a series of possibilities, of other selves existing in other time-frames. When I reworked these poems I decided not to consult the originals but to make good my earlier attempts. By doing this I would avoid those problems that occur when you are trying to balance your version with the original where the result is often translatorese.
A Fragment (Antonio Porta)
Behind the door nothing, behind the curtain,
Antiromantic Prelude (Enrico Cavacchioli)
The moon lounges on a baroque balcony,
Rivers whimper Arcadian songs
and you, buxom taxi-dancer,
but when a bell is rung at daybreak,
Lament for the South (Salvatore Quasimodo)
The red moon, the wind, the colour
The South is tired of bearing the dead
San Remo, the sea and the poppy fields (Corrado Govoni)
Mad furnaces buried in the grass folds,
Beneath a dream sea, the vast hallucination of fallen stars,
On the green surface, a field of poppies
Ocean and poppy field; mother-of-pearl handle
from Soil returned to the cosmos (Arturo Onofri)
The earth burns quietly
Stamens exhale aromas
Around them an eddy of wings:
The skylight (Dino Campana)
The smoky evening of summer
Duggan, Laurie. Blue Notes. Picador, 1990. Print.
Sanguinetti, Edoardo, ed.Poesia Italiana del Novocento. 1971