К. Уилмер. Рецензия на перевод стихов Унгаретти
The great Italian modernist Giuseppe Ungaretti is ill-served by a patchy translation, says Clive Wilmer
• Clive Wilmer
• The Guardian, Saturday 31 May 2003
by Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated and introduced by Andrew Frisardi
287pp, Carcanet, ;14.95
To Italians, it's perhaps the most famous poem of modern times: a tiny piece just seven syllables long, four shorter than a single line of Dante. The title is "Mattino" (Morning), and you don't need to know Italian to catch the beauty of its sound:
A rough translation would be "I flood myself with the light of the immense", though the vagueness of that is alien to the poem's terse musicality. The open vowels and the repeated ms and ns create a mood of wonder, evoking the light of a new day starting to flood the sky. The two lines capture something deep in consciousness that responds to this great but commonplace event out there in the external world.
Like some of the modernists in English, the author of this poem, Giuseppe Ungaretti, recognised that poetry is often most expressive when least voluble. Something is left to the reader. What is otherwise inexpressible is thereby communicated.
But the most surprising thing about "Mattino" is the circumstance of its writing. Like most of Ungaretti's first collection, it was written in the trenches during the first world war. In its extreme brevity and its depth of affirmation, it epitomises all his war poetry. It is no accident, and it is not merely ironical, that the book is called L'Allegria (Joy). In another famous poem, "Vigil", Ungaretti calls to mind "An entire night / thrown down / beside a / butchered / companion" and concludes: "I have never held / so hard / to life."
Andrew Frisardi, the translator of this new edition of Ungaretti's Selected Poems in parallel text, has been wise enough not to attempt "Mattino", though he equally wisely quotes it in his introduction. For the poem, however typical, is untranslatable - and in some ways it hardly needs translating. He does translate the more straightforward "Vigil" but, as my quotations perhaps suggest, the tense beauty of the Italian comes out in his English as chopped-up prose.
Not all of Ungaretti is untranslatable, but the sparseness of his early and best-known poems makes for difficulty. The translator needs some slack to play around with and Ungaretti offers none. The poems from L'Allegria are sudden intuitions, rapidly but exactly verbalised flashes of insight, energised by the sheer struggle to stay alive. There are comparable English-speaking poets: William Carlos Williams comes to mind for his condensation and use of the short line, though he has little of Ungaretti's urgency. Like Williams, Ungaretti was clearing out the clutter of decoration and dead rhetoric that had stifled the later products of romanticism. They were ditching the stuffed upholstery, preferring the elegance of the kitchen chairs.
There is a difference, though, between a Windsor chair and any knocked-together bunch of sticks. I'm not sure that Frisardi understands this. Take the opening of "Vanity", a poem about the aftermath of battle:
above the rubble
Forget the lineation. This is prose, and dull prose at that, especially in allowing itself as dead a word as "awesome". Ungaretti's lines are often two or three syllables long. But they are lines. They have discrete rhythmic identities within the larger rhythm of the sentence. For dramatic impact, moreover, the sentence has a shape and development. The vocabulary is charged with history and (in the poet's own words) "infused with moral content". And though the young Ungaretti rarely rhymes in the ordinary way, his lines are full of echoes and half-rhymes that structure the poems musically.
So far I have been talking only of the early work and there can be no doubt that it is that which really seizes us by the vitals. But he cannot be said to have gone off in middle age. It is that, as he develops, he allows more of the Italian tradition to enter his poetry: the classic 11-syllable line becomes something like a norm, and one hears echoes of the Italian masters, of Petrarch, Leopardi and Michelangelo. Like the modernists in our own language, he was not attacking the past but attempting to rediscover it.
Here Ungaretti's biography is relevant. Though his parents were Tuscan peasants, he was born in Alexandria. The large Italian community there tended to be bilingual in French. When the 24-year-old poet came to Europe in 1912, he went first to Paris, the birthplace of modernism, and steeped his mind in the symbolist poets and their heirs. He had hardly lived in Italy at all when he was called up to fight on the front line. This might have provoked resentment but, in Ungaretti's case, it seems to have done the opposite and engendered an almost mystical identification with his rural Italian roots.
One might compare him with TS Eliot. Ungaretti was deracinated but in quest of continuities, alert to modernity yet unhappy with its impoverishment, spiritual, cultural and emotional. As a result, he was more than willing to obey the "call to order" that for many modernists followed the Great War. He became attached to nation, church and literary tradition. But two great tragedies - the death of his nine-year-old son during a period in Brazil, and the fate of Italy in the second world war - preserved him from the establishmentarian tone that mars some of the later Eliot. His fourth book, Il Dolore (Affliction, or perhaps Sorrow), published in 1947, reflects these reversals, its title the opposite of L'Allegria. The poems on his son's death, particularly "You were Broken", are much fuller than the war poems but are marked by the same depth of moral courage. The alien landscape of South America brings a new dimension to Ungaretti's basically Middle Eastern sense of nature. What for the young man was primarily the desert is now abundant, full of mysterious growth, but it is still inhuman and empty. The boy is evoked through poignant images called up to fill this void: images of continuity derived from Christianity and humanism, that call on faith against the obvious evidence.
The problems of translating the later poetry are the opposite of those with L'Allegria. The translator has some verbal surplus to play with and a line that resembles the English pentameter, but now Ungaretti's language is less vehement and immediate. Frisardi, alas, is no more at home with orthodox prosody than he is with free verse, and the result is laboured and lacks clarity. It is hard for any translator to emulate such complex musicality: one poem, for example, begins with the image of a skylark's wavering flight: "Come allodolo ondosa". Once again, you don't have to be Italian to hear the exquisite beauty, but Frisardi's solution - "Like a skylark on its airy way" - hardly seems worth the bother.
This is the second time Carcanet has bought the work of a major Italian modernist from the distinguished US publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The first was Jonathan Galassi's superb edition of Eugenio Montale. Like the Montale, this book is generously produced with copious and useful notes, including a good deal of commentary from the poet himself. Frisardi's introduction is not without value, and one can only welcome the inclusion of the Italian text. But the book reflects a lack of publishing judgment. It might have been possible to attach the Italian to Patrick Creagh's Penguin edition of 1971. This superb translation came close to performing the impossible. Frisardi is not in the same league.
• Clive Wilmer's most recent book is Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Selected Poems and Translations (Routledge)
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