Second Acts: Two Translations of Giovanni Pascoli

January 22, 2021   •   By Lisa Russ Spaar

Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli

Giovanni Pascoli

Last Dream

Giovanni Pascoli

IN FEBRUARY 2020, I departed briefly from my usual Second Acts practice of pairing a recent second book of poems with a second book published a couple of decades ago or longer, and instead paired two recent books of translated poems, with the justification that for any given poem, its translation into another language constitutes a kind of second act. More or less monolingual, I’m grateful for the translators who allow me to read literatures I could not otherwise access. I’m also fascinated by the act of translation itself — its linguistic challenges and possibilities, its seemingly infinite choices. For me, even the act of making poems in English can feel akin to the work of the translator: How do we wrest lived experience into the myriad thickets of language? Into meaning? Into something that reverberates with the echo of its origins, of whatever preceded any attempt at a “worded” iteration? Examining translations, I believe, can foreground some of the processes by which all poems are made.


Earlier in the pandemic, I took up the friendly and pleasurable challenge of reading in tandem two recently published translations of poems by the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912): Last Dream, edited and translated by Geoffrey Brock, and Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, translated by Taije Silverman with Marina Della Putta Johnston. Both books are bilingual editions, with the Italian original and its English translation on facing pages, and both primary translators are themselves fine poets.


I often ask my writing students to write a poem using the same prompt or set of instructions and then enjoy discovering with them the various modes by which they each use, resist, interpret, and manipulate the assignment to make wildly different poems. For the same reason, I enjoy reading anthologies of translations that allow me to see the myriad ways a single poem in another language is translated into English by different writers — books like Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, for instance, or, more recently, Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer’s Into English.


Pascoli was new to me when I began to read these two collections. This is in large part my own failing — I don’t speak Italian and have encountered what modern Italian poets I do know in anthologies. But both Brock and Silverman make clear that, despite his “long shadow” of influence in Italy, Pascoli has remained relatively unavailable in English translation and so unfamiliar even to Anglophone readers with an interest in Italian poetry. “The sharp disparity between his national and international fortunes has been ascribed, as such disparities often are,” writes Brock, “to a vague ‘untranslatability.’” But Brock goes on to speculate that Pascoli’s


international neglect may instead be largely a function of historical fashion: he wasn’t part of any group or movement, and his poetic moment was not a glamorous one, especially in comparison to the radical modernisms, heralded by Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto in 1909, that were remaking the scene just as Pascoli was leaving it. […] I can think of no other Italian poet who has been so unjustly confined to his own borders.


These two books go a long way, each in its own manner, toward remedying this injustice.


Silverman’s book, which contains 68 poems from several different volumes, offers a substantial historical, biographical, and critical introduction, a chronological timeline, extensive endnotes, and a bibliography. This is not to say that the introduction is not personal. Driving Silverman’s desire to translate Pascoli and “to create [from his poems] an independent poem in English, one that presents itself whole and apart from the original,” to make “renderings” rather than strict translations, is what she calls “sensations that overcame me on hearing Pascoli’s poems … what I saw and what I wept for, and, above all, what I delighted in.” The themes of these poems, she writes, are “no less relevant today than they were in 1912: land as a means of identity; the fraught nature of geographical borders; language as an experience of home or estrangement; the lure of nostalgia; and (most especially perhaps) the cost of not being skeptical about that lure.”


By contrast, Brock’s “slim selection” — 25 lyrics from four books, as well as two uncollected poems — is, as he terms it, “personal and no doubt idiosyncratic. It does not offer a representative overview of Pascoli’s work but rather a particular slice of it — a slice I think of as my Pascoli.” While he appreciates the “many Pascolis” evinced throughout the Italian poet’s career — tragic, political/national, pastoral, scholastic — he finds himself drawn most to the tender poems of the pilgrim poet,


whose imagination reaches simultaneously outward, into the natural world around him; backward, into a past where abstract loved ones still abide; and forward, toward his own future death that will, in a way that feels mystical without feeling religious, close the circle with the past.


To give readers a taste of the complementary pleasures of reading these two editions of Pascoli, here is the poem that, understandably, begins both books:


Patria


Sogno d’un dì d’estate.


Quanto scampanellare

tremulo di cicale!

Stridule pel filare

moveva il maestrale

le foglie accartocciate.


Scendea tra gli olmi il sole

in fascie polverose:

erano in ciel due sole

nuvole, tenui, róse:

due bianche spennellate


in tutto il ciel turchino.


Siepi di melograno,

fratte di tamerice,

il palpito lontano

d’una trebbïatrice,

l’angelus argentino …


dov’ero? Le campane

mi dissero dov’ero

piangendo, mentre un cane

latrava al forestiero,

che andava a capo chino.


Here is Brock’s translation:


Home


Dream of a summer’s day …


What a jittery trill

of cicadas! Vine leaves

shrivel and shrill

as the mistral moves

through and away.


Dusty ribbons

of sun among the oaks …

     Across the heavens

like white brushstrokes

two faint clouds fray


into the sprawling blue.


A pomegranate hedge,

a tamarisk copse.

A thresher beyond the ridge

that rumbles then stops.

The silvery Angelus, too …


Where am I? The bells

tell me, mournfully,

as a dog howls

at the stranger as he

passes, head bowed, through.


And here is Silverman’s:


Birthplace


Dream of a summer day.


Limitless cicadas

trilled and quivered.

Wind from the north

whipped crumpled leaves

through a line of trees.


Sun fell between elms

in strips of dust:

From the sky, two clouds

hung threadbare:

white brushed


across wide blue air.


Tamarisk shrubs,

pomegranate trees, the far

throb of a threshing machine

and the silvery swell

of the evening call to prayer …


Where was I? The bell

for the prayer said where,

in tears, while a dog

bayed at a stranger

who walked by, head bowed.


Three beautiful poems. Even without a shred of Italian to help me, I can feel in Pascoli’s original the somatic and emotional energy that both of these translators clearly sense and write toward and out of in their translated versions of the poem. In my ignorance, I can’t speak to the torque of word order, tense, nuances of diction, and to any other choices made in regard to those and other matters. I won’t pretend to do so. What I do respond and thrill to is the subtle differences between the Silverman and Brock translations that each tease out depth charges in the original poem.


Silverman’s poem is more reserved, resisting Pascoli’s exclamation point and remaining in the past tense, keeping the ephemeral clouds passive, titling the poem toward “birthplace” instead of the perhaps warmer “home.” But her “throb” and “bay” signal a sense of postlapsarian, modern pain of expulsion, which was clearly in the air at the time this poem was written, and which profoundly resonates today.


Brock’s poem is present tense; its images of flora and fauna have a vibrant immediacy. Clouds fray. Blue sprawls. Leaves shrivel but wind “moves / through and away,” signaling something besides the past, the now. Brock’s “pomegranate hedge” (the plural siepi in the original) seems a shout-out to Pascoli’s predecessor Leopardi’s “L’infinito,” with its famous hedge (siepe), perhaps signaling Pascoli’s birthright to the inheritance of Italian poetry. The choice of present tense in the last stanza especially — “Where am I?” and not “Where was I?” — grounds the 21st-century reader in the world of the poem, so distant yet so instantly recognizable.


If Silverman’s version seems more coolly postmodern yet distanced in time (its past tense, its industrial throbbing machine and baying hound), Brock’s is more timeless yet on-the-spot and familiar. Reading the poems together reminds us that one interpretation does not preclude but rather deepens the other. Rightly existential, alienated speaker meets guardedly hopeful, attentive, inward/outward-looking person. A fruitful pairing that could not be more timely as we attempt to translate and understand one another’s myriad, paradoxical, crucial experiences in an increasingly complicated world.


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Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.