Montale, and unexpectedly James Joyce

When one is what a friend of mine calls a wordsmith, one begins to question interpretations of a word, whether one’s own or that of others. I don’t consider myself an author, and have never written a novel, but having grown up in one, or even two, languages, and having lived most of my adult life in another, I somehow naturally found myself involved in translation. Most of the thousands of pages I have translated in my lifetime have been more factual or technical, although any translation also means learning to employ one’s imagination.  Many were guidebooks, although there are a few I particularly like to be associated with. There is the book on the history of cigars in Tuscany, Una Passione in Fumo, for which I happily found just the right title, A Burning Passion, or the one on the Baroque churches in Piedmont. The author became a new friend as he explained some of his terminology and even took me and my family around to see some of his beloved churches with their unbelievable variety of plans. Who would have thought that unghia, or nail, also meant the triangular section of a vault. And that forno, generally oven, might mean an apse, explaining the Italian description of a church as having three “forni”.

I was also asked to translate articles and catalogs and even blurbs for various products. Occasionally, the author might even say my translation was better than his original. At times of course, I wished I could do some of them all over.

When words are the tools one works with, it is tempting to see what other people have done. I admire the master translators like William Weaver, who worked both with Umberto Eco and with Calvino, no end and know I could never do what they have done.  Still when I encounter something I particularly like and feel the translator is off the mark, I have to see what I can come up with.

Poetry is always a challenge with so many aspects to be taken into consideration, one of which is sound. Take this example from several years ago when I was leafing through a book with translations and the originals in various languages on facing pages. One poem in English caught my attention for its alliteration when I read it out loud and I shook my head in dismay at the Italian “equivalent”. Let’s see what I can do, I told myself.

Wind whines and whines the shingle,

the crazy pierstakes groan;

a senile sea numbers each single

slimesilvered stone.

Piange il vento e piangono le ghiaie,

malfermi i pali della gettata gemono:

un senile mare numera ogni singola

pietra imbellettata di argento.

The translation into Italian has lost that wonderful alliteration, the sound.

Searching the internet brought me no name for the translator, generally a poet in their own right. Saying imbelletata di argento, with its idea of having put on silver makeup, just doesn’t put across the idea of silvered slime. 

And just what was meant by crazy pierstakes? Crazed, unstable?

I’m not a poet, but wanted to see if I couldn’t come up with something I felt was closer to the original.

Guaisce il vento, guaisce il greto,

gemono i pioli sparsi là sul molo

Un mare demente tocca uno per volta

ogni viscido sasso sbavato d’argento.

And then I looked to see who the author of the original was. James Joyce! I would never have tried had I been aware. It was the first stanza of On the Beach at Fontana, 1914.

This led to doing more research, and there are of course untold numbers of sites on Joyce. It turns out that Joyce himself did a translation, or a version, of the poem in Italian, which is seen as a fairly literal translation of the English version. Analyses of all kinds abound but I will simply stick to the simplest, revealing some of the pitfalls and complications inherent in translation. I do not feel up to getting into aspects such as word order, enjambment, etc. and comparisons of what various translators did.

At this point knowing who the poet was, meant I could try and see what he had in mind. I am told that Joyce often set out to write lyrics that could be sung.  His first collection was even called Chamber Music and in one edition it is this aspect that is stressed where the poems are defined above all as musical, with imagery that appeals chiefly to the ear. And is this not the case with the poem just cited and where the translation found has lost that music?  

So now thinking that perhaps this was also meant to be sung, I change a word or two, which undoubtedly reflects my concept more than Joyce’s:

Si lagna il vento, si lagna il greto,

(seems to me lagnarsi is more musical than guaire and I prefer repeating the l sound rather than the g)

si lamentono i pioli malfermo là sul molo


si lamentono i pioli scricchiolanti sul molo

or maybe:

scricchiolano i pioli malfermi là sul molo

Then I decide that:

si lamentono i pioli malfermi là sul molo

does perhaps come closest. So, in the end we have, in my modest version:

Si lagna il vento, si lagna il greto,

si lamentono i pioli malfermo là sul molo

Un mare demente tocca uno per volta

ogni viscido sasso sbavato d’argento.

and I think perhaps this is even better.

Of course, poetry is the most tricky, open to interpretations. I suppose that is why poems by Dante or the Greek classics have been retranslated by every generation. Aside from rhythm, meter, alliteration, rhyming just what did those words mean when they were originally written and how can we interpret them now? Longfellow’s choice of vocabulary for instance is light years away from, say, a twenty-first century translator.

However, since I have time on my hands, I decide to see what I can do with a short poem by Eugenio Montale. My English poet had asked if I were acquainted with this Italian poet, and I was. So I thought I might look up translations to share, and in reading a short two-stanza poem from Ossi di seppia, something bothered me. The first line of the first stanza was “Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato”, translated as “I have seen life’s evil”. But that’s not it at all, I say to myself. True, male often does mean evil. But male di vivere – I think of mal di mare, seasick, and alternatives such as malaise. One comment for the phrase says their Italian teacher simply used the French, mal de vivre. So, I start hunting around and find world-weariness, pain of living, having lost the taste for life.  There are a number of other words or concepts that have one feeling “sick”, or not up to par – seasick, lovesick, homesick. In a sense having resigned oneself.

In Italian the poem reads:

Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato:

era il rivo strozzato che gorgoglia,

era l’incartocciarsi della foglia

riarsa, era il cavallo stramazzato.

I eventually come up with “world-weary:”

“Often life appears world-weary:

the strangled brook, still gurgling,

the curling of the shriveled leaf,

the horse fallen to the ground.”

But as I continue to play around with the words, I realize that it is not life that appears world-weary. So I try:

Often face to face I’ve come

with an indifference to life

But then this is too long. So I continue looking for the right phrase.

Perhaps  Often I’ve seen signs of abnegation, . . .No, that doesn’t work either. And in the end I settle for:

Often, I’ve encountered life, world-weary,

the strangled brook, still gurgling,

the curling of the shriveled leaf,

the horse crashing to the ground.

Setting off world-weary by commas, means it could apply to what comes before and what comes after. I have also changed the “fallen” horse to “crashing to the ground” which is really more the equivalent of the Italian stramazzato.

I cannot help wondering of course if that was what Montale had meant. I may change it later, but for now I rather think it was. I will let my new poet friend, who started me on this most recent Montale adventure, judge.

So now let me take a stab at the second stanza:

Bene non seppi, fuori del prodigio

che schiude la divina Indifferenza:

era la statua nella sonnolenza

del meriggio, e la nuvola, e il falco alto levato.

One translation has it:

I have known no good except the miracle
that reveals the divine Indifference:
it was the statue in the drowsy trance
of noon, the cloud, the cruising falcon.

I do want to make a few minor changes. But that is what translating poetry is about. Or translating, in general. As Umberto Eco says, translation is “saying almost the same thing,” interpretation.

When Montale says he has known no good, the words he uses in his rather pessimistic approach (but that of course seems to be Montale) are rather literary so I opt for:

No good knew I, aside from the miracle

that reveals divine Indifference;

(And here too I’m not sure whether it should not be “aside from the miracle that lays bare divine Indifference”):

No good knew I, except the miracle

that lays bare divine Indifference;

it was the statue in the drowsy trance

of noon, the cloud, the falcon soaring high.

The never-ending dilemmas of translation. Decisions must be made, but who knows if they are the right ones. I’m sure that those of you who read what I have written here, will have their own ideas as to what might be the most appropriate, and I can only ask you not to judge me too harshly. I’ve had a great time trying to maneuver my way through the labyrinth of translation and as usual when I have set the word FINAL on a post, I am already trying to figure out what to write about next.

3 thoughts on “Montale, and unexpectedly James Joyce

  1. We have a shared experience as translators, and I also share your dilemma in choosing just the right words, especially difficult (if not impossible) in rhyming poetry! One of the most bizarre examples of a poetic-sounding, widely-accepted translation is the title Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu). Temps perdu sounds like the Italian tempo perso, which can also mean wasted time. What did Proust mean?? Lost in translation indeed! Thank you for this!
    James II

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Listening to the translator in your mind thinking aloud is fascinating Erika. I an full of admiration. I couldn’t do it myself, although I have a plodding understanding of French. However, your cunning commas seem to me to achieve what you were looking for in the first stanza. That aside, it’s very nice for me to be able to enjoy this poem by Montale.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: