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« indietro

A Matter of Emotional Transference

 di Charles Wright

In: Semicerchio LV (02/2016) “30 anni”, pp. 146-149

I first came across Montale’s poetry when I was in the US Army, stationed in Verona. This was 1959-60, and a girl I was seeing at that time told me he was the best poet in Italy, no matter what I had heard about Salvatore Quasimodo, the Nobel Prize winner. She was right, of course. This was also the time I began trying to write my own poems, which were, naturally, much more important than his, so I did little with the information, or his poems, until later.

The first things I tried to translate were the “Mottetti”, from Le occasioni. What appealed to me originally was their brevity. I had the mistaken idea, since I had never translated poetry before, not to mention someone as difficult as Montale, that the shorter the poem, the easier it would be to translate. I have since, as one does, come to know that the exact opposite is true. Also, after I had read the first motet, I became so taken with the last line of it, «E l’inferno θ certo», that I had to try and get that poem into English. And once I had done one, I had to do the others.

I began translating Montale in that way, by doing all twenty of the Motets. It was in Iowa City, Iowa, in a two-year span from 1961-63. I had the gracious help and encouragement of the Italian teacher at the university, Florino Ceretta, who tried to explain many things to me, some of which, hope, he succeeded in getting into my head, and who tried to put me back on the road when I slipped off. I would do the Motets when I wasn’t working on my own poems, or what Iconsidered, at the time, to be my own poems. I was a very raw and unlettered student, so I was learning a great deal each time I finished one of the Motets, if only by osmosis. I was learning how a poem can be put together. At that time, the element I was trying to get over into English was just the Italian itself. I was so unsophisticated then I didn’t know that so much more was - and would be - involved. I was merely trying to translate as faithfully as I could. Not quite word for word transference, but it turned out to be as close to that policy of translation as I would ever come again.

As far as La bufera e altro is concerned, it was his most recent book at the time, it was generally acknoledged to be his best book, and – most importantly for me – it was the book of his I mentioned on my Fulbright Scholarship application that I wanted to study and translate. Thus, when I was awarded the Fulbright grant, I had already, more or less, talked myself into translating it, and also had promised to do so. I had no real way of knowing that such a translation was going to be one of the primary experiences of my artistic life.

I lived in Rome during my first two Fulbright years. I was supposed to live in Milano, as that, of course, was where Montale lived. But I already knew him to be Il Taciturno, and that he didn’t like to talk to strangers – something I understand very well –, and that his English was better than my Italian – how embarrassing –, and so I asked them to let me stay in Rome. It turned out to be the greatest good fortune. During the first of those two years, I attended a special course at the University of Rome for the Fulbright literature students. And this is where the great good fortune comes in. The teacher of that course was Dr. Maria Sampoli, from Florence, and her two specialties were Dante and Montale. When she asked us what we wanted to study that year, I immediately said La bufera e altro and the Inferno. She immediately said «Che buona idea», and we did the first section of La bufera e altro in the fall and the Inferno in the spring. She was the most wonderful teacher, one of only two really fine teachers I have ever had. By the time Christmas came, I had some idea of what I was in for in Montale, thanks to her. But it took me another year-and-a-half to get a draft of the entire book.

I learned from Montale a few unforgettable lessons. How to manage lines. How to move a line, how to move an image from one stage to the next. How to create imaginary bridges between images and stanzas and then to cross them, making them real, image to image, block to block. And compression. Condense, compress. As in most translating, the translator is the one who gets the most out of the translation, no matter how good his translation turns out. The reader of the translation is never going to get what the translator himself got. The reader only sees one side of the mirror. The translator sees both.

As it happened, most of the Motets and La bufera e altro were published long after I had completed them, some 15 years or more, actually, but I never revised the poems after I felt that I had done them (which is to say after I had finished them and then after two Italianists, one Italian and one American, had looked at them: then I did a final version and that’s the way they have stayed). I become a different writer about every 5 years, so I could have kept on changing them in- definitely if I had ever started to do so. I published the Montales virtually identically to the way they had been completed. The reason it took so long to get them published was North American copyright complications with his work in English.

And just what was in Montale’s poetry, beyond craftsmanship, beyond something-to-be-learned- about-writing, that attracted me to his work at a personal and emotional level, and caused me to keep on translating him after twenty or more years? What are those affinities that always link a poet-translator to the poet-translated? Well, there is an emotional transference that I get from reading him that I get from reading no other poet. I believe that he believes what I believe at some basic and critical level. For exemple, even though Ezra Pound was at one time my favourite poet, and I have learned many technical things from him, I don’t believe what he believes. Nor Hart Crane or William Carlos Williams, to name a couple of other influences. The only two poets whom I admire and venerate that I actually think might believe as I believe are Emily Dickinson and Eugenio Montale. I am talking about one’s view of life and one’s view of afterlife. I like to think we touch on a metaphysical level as well as a physical one. There is that certainsympathy, as the American poet-translator, Kenneth Rexroth, said, the «identification or another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance».

I have always thought of La bufera e altro as a religious book, as all great books are, and Montale as a religious poet of a unique sort. What I mean by that is that it seems to me, as I remember it, La bufera e altro throughout admits God as a possibility, though how he is to be taken is unsure. As though there were flashes of lightning in the nothingness that surrounds and penetrates much of his work. Metaphysical overtones of faith seem to settle in on the wind and then to be swept away again. The imagery gives hints of a succession of little apocalypses, a sort of mystic acceptance rather like some of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. In his world of time as the steady destroyer, of existence as entrophy, the steady process of decay, like the darkness, surrounds us from the inside out. Any relief from that, in him, becomes an intercessation, a kind of grace beyond our ability to explain or understand. The mysteries beat just under the surface of everything. He hears that beating, he sees the flashes of light.

The translator is often asked if he feels there is a discourse or dialogue between him and the poet being translated when he is working. Well, I think it’s probably a good thing if you can flow into another person’s thinking and juices, as it were. It’s probably the optimum thing. I find it personally very difficult. If you can do it at certain key points or in certain key grooves, maybe. Then the poem will start to click together, like little Lego pieces. I, myself, find it hard to completely become... Well, I don’t want to become Rilke, for instance, even to translate his poems. I don’t want to be anyone else. I would like to get a feeling and a sense of as I say, but I don’t want to become.

So, I don’t feel there is a discourse going on between me and Montale. But there are differences of approach in my three periods of translation from his stuff, and in those approaches to the original. I tried to render the Motets, as I’ve said before, faithfully. In La bufera e altro I seem to be trying to enclose within the frame of an English poem Montale’s richness of language, sound patterns and concepts, as well as his technical virtuosity; there’s a sort of confrontation between translator and translated, as I try to put a bit more of myself into the work, breaking his lines at times, or stressing certain expressions. In Dora Markus, a single poem I translated some years after I did La bufera e altro, I guess there is a touch of my own manner, style and vocabulary; hard, direct statements, perhaps at the expense of the Italian text.

The three different ways I went about the three translations are almost a mirror of John Dryden’s famous three ways of translation metaphrase, or word- for-word in the Motets (though not maniacally so); paraphrase, or translation with latitude, where the sense is more strictly followed than the words; and a kind of imitation, where the translator takes more liberties than are generally assumed to be allowable in a translation. I tried my hand at all three. I like the second method best. But as far as a discourse or dialogue between me and the maestro, I only listen, as I say. I never speak back to my betters. It was most fun doing Dora Markus, however, for whatever that’s worth.

As we all know, Dora Markus is a poem about fate and the human condition, fate that determines one’s life story. It is also a poem about memory, memory’s tricks on reality and the transfiguration of reality into legend. All of these aspects struck me while translating the poem, but those of memory and transfiguration are what interested me most, as they are the two things that interest me most in my own poems. This is part of the emotional transference I get from Montale that I mentioned before. On looking back on my working copy of Dora Markus, however, I am struck by what seems to me to be really minor variations and additions. I thought they had been – and I wanted them to be – more extensive: I mean, sideburns and the transference of point of view here and there aren’t really major alterations. It is certainly more of an imitation that La bufera or the Motets, but it doesn’t quite fit Dryden’s definition either. Mostly it’s a matter of changes in construction, or interpretation of visual constructions that are extended or modified. Actually, I’m struck by how close I stayed when I set out originally to do it closer to my own style than his. I’m sure this says something about both of us.

I was asked once about experimentation in my work and Montale’s, and if there was any connection. In that each of Montale’s poems is experimental in its own way, and since I seem to keep going back to a certain kind of center and expanding out from that, did these two ways of seeing have anything to do with my reading of his work. Well, I don’t really think so, unless it’s an unconscious replication of that transference I spoke of earlier. I do feel that without the center there is no edge. And since the edge is where one tries to work, or what one tries to push back, one has to keep returning to the center to see just where the edge is. It’s a formal question, really, as all questions in poetry devolve into formal consideration, I think. Montale is a very formally oriented poet. All good experimenters are. There is no experimentation in chaos. If, as Keats has it, Melancholy has her shrine in the Temple of Delight, then Experimentation has its center in the Temple of Form.

The main problem I had with translating Montale wasn’t, of course, Montale. The main problem was English, or my inexact and uncertain command of it. I couldn’t telescope it enough to get as much into the compressed image as he was able to in Italian. It always seemed a more rigid, less elastic language than Italian. That, of course, is Montale’s genius (as it was Dante’s), because in actuality English can do all these things, and much more. But not with Montale’s poetry. And, as the old saying goes – and it is especially true here – poetry is what gets lost in translation.

A lot of American poets have translated Montale since the end of World War II, some twenty or so, and one really isn’t sure why. He is difficult, allusive, illusive and almost impossible to translate properly. But he is also challenging and a great poet. Most of his translators have been to Italy, and it always seems a good thing to translate the best poet of a country you like and feel affinity with. Also, he is famous, and he is aknowledged to be great, so everyone wants to try his hand at it. And anything you love, you want to tell others about. It’s hard to keep quiet when you love something.

A little ignorance is a good thing, I have found, in translating. If one knew the impossibilities before beginning, I doubt anything would ever get translated. I certainly would not attempt translating Montale now, knowing the difficulties. At the time, I did not know how much of the Dantescan tradition was involved. I didn’t know anything about that tradition. I still don’t know that much about it now. But I see other people who know a lot about Italian tradition and the Italian language and I read their translations and I don’t like them any better than I do mine. Less, actually. It’s funny, translators are inordinately proud of their translations, even if they are not so proud about their own poems. In a translation, you figure you’ve got the answer. And when someone else says, Oh no, it should be this way, you take great umbrage. How can it possibly be that? I’ve figured it out and it’s just the way I have it. And you never think that about your own poems, thinking, well, maybe I don’t quite have it right yet, or, well, this guy is really stupid.

Translation is the blood of literature, and we translators are its vampires. We do it to learn, to keep alive, to keep active, to grow, to know ourselves, to learn our craft and to learn our hearts and the hearts of others, to try and imagine what it might be like to have been Li Po, Rimbaud, Rilke, Dante and on and on. Translation teaches us the very essence of poetry and why it tries to get written. If you are lucky, as I was, you start out with a great poet. You drink deeply. Your fangs grow longer and needier. Your life is changed forever.

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