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Tag Archives: Giuseppe Ungaretti

The Sunken Keep, A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press

The Sunken Keep,  A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press

On September 1st 1918 William Carlos Williams wrote the Prologue to his Kora in Hell: Improvisations which was later to be published by The Four Seas Company in 1920:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.”

Nearly a century on, David Shields published his ‘Manifesto’, Reality Hunger, in which he expressed interest in collage as “an evolution beyond narrative”. In terms of Art, and this includes poetry:

“Momentum derives not from narrative but from the subtle buildup of thematic resonances”

When Williams wrote his autobiographical account of I Wanted to Write a Poem he gave an account of that earlier time when the First World War was still raging throughout Europe:

“When I was halfway through the Prologue, ‘Prufrock’ appeared. I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning which I did not possess.”

In his introduction to this beautifully produced new volume from Isobar Press the translator, Andrew Fitzsimons, directs us to recognise the connection between what Williams was trying to do in 1918 and what Giuseppe Ungaretti was achieving in the trenches of the Carso plateau in Friuli in 1916:

“…these thirty poems are central to Ungaretti’s revitalizing of Italian poetic language; a renovation of rhythm, syntax, punctuation and diction…comparable also to the work of William Carlos Williams, given the resemblance between how both poets set about reconfiguring the parameters of the poetic line in their respective traditions, as well as their commitment to particulars.”

There is a haunting immediacy to these new versions of Ungaretti’s poems and they look at loss in terms of time passing rather than confining themselves to the nightmare presence of the trench warfare which he volunteered for in 1915 having only moved from Paris to Italy at the outbreak of war. The opening poem stands as a memorial stone dedicated to the friend of his youth, Mohammed Sceab:

“In memory
Mohammed Sceab
of nomad emirs
a suicide
for loss of
a homeland”

The words weep down the page as if engraved upon a tombstone and the fractured narrative of what follows in the second stanza accords with that buildup of thematic resonances:

“A lover of France
who became
but not French
who no longer knew how
to dwell
in the tent of his kin
to listen to the chant
of the Koran
over coffee”

The ‘s’ sound in the seventh line allows an image of dwelling to move almost invisibly between the semi-desert world of the young man’s past to the power of belonging not only to family but also to an existence within his own skin. The short next piece offers a brief account of isolation and limitation:

“Who could not
give voice
to the song
of his own desolation”

And then in a manner that Samuel Beckett would have applauded there is a precision, a placing, which gives visibility to the actuality of the person. It reminds me of Beckett as I think of the respect he held for the clarity of Dante’s Inferno in which the spirits of the dead have only a few lines to give a portrait of themselves before they merge back into the anonymity of eternal damnation.

“I escorted him
with the landlady of the place
where we lodged
in Paris
from 5 Rue des Carmes
a rundown sloping alley”

The term “escorted” brings the world of Dante again to the fore and it is worth just comparing it with two other translations. Kevin Hart’s suggestion is quite literal in terms of the Italian (The Buried Harbour, The Leros Press, 1990):

“With the woman
who owned our hotel
at 5 Rue Carmes
that faded, sloping alley
I went with him”

Patrick Creagh’s version for the Penguin Modern European Poets (1971) becomes more detailed as if spelling things out for the reader:

“I followed his coffin
I and the manageress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
number 5 rue des Carmes
steep decrepit alleyway”

The word used by Fitzsimons, “escorted”, manages to retain a sense of friendship and familiarity as he accompanies the body to the burial ground and the word “lodged” has a temporality to it which emphasises the fragility of a life.

“He rests
in the cemetery at Ivry
a suburb locked
in the day a fair
packs up and leaves

Maybe I alone
still know he

And I will
until my turn
to die”

“Rests”, “locked / forever”, “fair / packs up and leaves”; it has the sound of Thomas Hardy’s verse, ‘Exeunt Omnes’ or ‘During Wind and Rain’.

This is a book to keep close to hand. Not only are the translations very powerful but the drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni have a resonance which complement the poems. Congratulations to Paul Rossiter and Isobar Press!

Ian Brinton, 13th October 2017

Anthony Barnett’s InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

Anthony Barnett’s InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

Allardyce Book ABP

This lecture on translation delivered at Meiji University, Tokyo, in May 2002, has been lightly revised and is prefaced with a new note updating references.

Barnett confronts the slippery world of translation theory by boldly asserting that there is no usable theory of translation other than treating each text to be translated in terms of its own necessary requirements and using your head. He utilises Umberto Eco, whose book Experiences in Translation offers practical and imaginative solutions to various problems, Yves Bonnefoy, who believes that translation is not only possible but also poetry rebegun, and his own experiences. He uses the word uncommon to indicate that a common sense solution to a translation may not be obvious, and that something unusual or uncommon may be seen eventually to be the obvious common sense solution. There is, he argues, a way through to the poetic equivalent in the second language.

The lecture is full of illuminating asides and examples of what he means. Barnett notes that poetry, whilst a special use of language, may not be special in every way by comparison with packaged food labels and product instruction sheets, which come in several languages. He wonders why the translators may opt on the same packet for a less precise equivalent and a potentially hazardous result, and notes the necessity to avoid calamitous results by confidently refusing nonsense.

His first example refuting the impossibility of translation is the Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s two line poem, ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) ‘M’illumino / d’immenso’, literally ‘I am illuminated / with immensity’ and other possible but unpoetic versions. He explains how he found the solution ‘I am blessed with light’ one morning. The line certainly has more poetry than the literal translation and is in harmony with the original.

Amongst further examples, Barnett considers Donald Keene’s problem with translating Midori iro no sutokkingu by Abe Kōbō. When Keene asked the playwright whether the translation should be singular or plural, there being a lack of distinction in the Japanese, he replied that it was his problem. Keene settled for the plural, The Green Stockings. Barnett notes that he failed to utilise the help given by the non-committal reply and could have dispensed with the definite article and the plural to arrive at the more poetic, Green Stocking.

In his consideration of Bashō’s famous frog haiku ‘Furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto’, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa as ‘Breaking the silence / Of an ancient pond / A frog jumped into water / A deep resonance’, he cites the concrete poet and Benedictine priest, dom sylvester houédard’s fortune teller origami construction from 1965 where the reader manipulates the folded paper to reveal ‘frog / pond / plop’. This wonderful solution to the translation moreover also has the mouth and shape of the frog, the hollow and shape of the pond, and splosh of the plop as the fortune teller is manipulated through its various combinations. This translation is a shade more minimal than say Cid Corman’s ‘old pond / frog leaping / splash’.

Barnett also points to the example of exceptional author-translators and cites the practice of Samuel Beckett and Isak Dinesen of re-writing their original work in translation. Sentences are recast and passages removed, and sometimes added.

The lecture is full of practical common sense and comes with an appendix ‘Thinking About Translation’, addressed to a translation symposium in Bremen and a translation of Leopardi’s ‘The Infinite’ poem, with accompanying note, as an insert. The translation ends:

In this immensity my mind goes under:

And my foundering at sea is sweet.


David Caddy 6th July 2014



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