First Translation

Must have been 1956 or 1957. I was working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and since I had spent a year in Italy it was somehow taken for granted that I was proficient in Italian. When a request came for someone to translate the Italian entries for the International Literary Braille Competition, it was turned over to me. I don’t remember if I was also asked to do the German entries. Would I have attempted something like this now? Perhaps, but now I have years and years of experience whereas then translating anything aside from say, a road sign, was rather reckless. So there I was with what I might now consider one of my first translations.  Around a year later, in 1958, a slender pamphlet, the report of the International Literary Braille Competition, was forwarded to me in Italy where I was then living, and my translation had won the First Grand Prize for Poetry!  I felt honored since Pearl Buck, whose The Good Earth I had devoured as a teen-ager, was the chairman of the Judge’s committee. I must have been about ten when I saw the movie with Paul Muni and the scene I never forgot was when just a few tea leaves were added to the water to give it a semblance of tea. Pearl Buck’s words of encouragement to the blind were particularly relevant. “If I have anything to say to blind writers, it is not advice so much as it is a wish, a hope, that they will make use of their own gifts, that they will not imitate those who see with the physical eye, but will cultivate their special vision, and through their own experience of life, from their own viewpoint, open to the rest of the world, to the seeing who are often the unseeing, the true meaning of what lies within the mind and the spirit of human beings.”

I still have that report, although the Italian original is not included.  There was also a photograph of the poet, a handsome man, with his Doberman, and since he lived in Florence I decided to write, hoping to meet him. My letter was refused and returned to sender since the stamp had fallen off and the recipient, of course, had no idea who I was. Aldemaro Nannei. The only person with that name I could track down now in 2022 was listed as an artist and musician and therefore not my Aldemaro Nannei. But there was also a book, titled Litanie del Silenzio, published in 1954, which sounds as if it might have been written by the author of my verse. I wish I had the Italian original, for there were certainly mistakes due to my imperfect Italian. The last lines were something like: la Chiesa buia con il Venerdi Santo  dell’Anima. Which probably didn’t mean anything to me at the time, and which I had translated as holy Sabbath of the soul but, which might better have been Good Friday. So whether my translation caught the feeling of the original I will never know.

I LISTEN TO BITTER SONS

I have sown with tares my span of summer

and I listen to the borning of bitter sons.

I am late.  I have consumed the garment.

I barely distinguish the taste with my fingers

of this thin likeness which is left me

on the barrier of walls

between two brackets of lost roses.

Knot by knot the words pull tighter

and with my face in my hands all around falls the silence.

Through the shell of the shutters there filter

the long itinerant voices of a wailing chant

from some imagined Orient.

Perhaps in the glass there is the hint of thirst,

the agony of a fly on a zero, and the heart,

the heart writing a letter to no one.

I no longer know where the Gospel has gone to sing,

or how awareness first thrills

in the child whose breasts bud forth, the plums of its branch.

If I cross the room with my frozen steps

I walk on my face, the Church dark

with its holy Sabbath of the soul.

4 thoughts on “First Translation

  1. Erika Another fantastic post I love the poem and the story with it – as always amazing. Love James

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. HI Erika—that translation from long ago is quite something. I have no idea if it is true to the original poem, but it reads well, not like a translation at all. This entry is another of your good stories from years past—you have had a fascinating life. We are doing well, settling in. Diane received some pictures of our property from the caretaker, Ilda, and it looks like Spring has sprung there. Diane delighted in seeing it and felt a bit sad not to be there. Here the winter lingers, though tomorrow the temperature are supposed to rise, hovering around 60 F—-which sure sounds something like Spring to me. On the other hand, it snowed on Sunday, so the weather gods are not yet sure what season to give us. We are driving to Massachusetts early tomorrow to see my sister and her girls (and their kids—each twin has a boy and a girl. We will stay 2 days. The oldest boy, Theo, was born on the exact same day as our Eleonora, who will be 9 years old April 4. And the grand-daughter of my cousin Debby in London, was also born on that day—though 10 years earlier. Go figure! Diane’s talk at the senior center went very well. She was quite anxious about it, because it was on Zoom and she had never given a talk that way before. But technology did not let us down (for once) and things went smoothly. The audience seemed very engaged and asked good questions. It’s on YouTube—I assume she sent you the link. I think you would enjoy it. Noah is doing an interesting, new project. A 3-part BBC Radio 4 program on art theft from China and the attempts to return the stolen art to China. It’s quite a story. It will be in 3 episodes, one per week, starting yesterday. All the episodes will be available as podcasts after the day of broadcast—as a podcast you can listen to them any time you want. The first one yesterday was really interesting. Noah wrote the narration and was the presenter, and he got a lot of help from his producer who has years of experience. There are nicely integrated interviews with experts in history and art, even sound effects to pump up the story. It’s very well done. My book is finally moving forward again. They are doing copy editing now, and I am doing some tweaking—they are estimating it may be some 500 pages long (I had thought it closer to 350) so they want me to eliminate a few of the photo stills. I am okay doing that—I greatly exceeded what was originally planned (they agreed to 144 photos, I have 195….ouch!). I think they will be content with my removing 15 or so. I’m hoping this will not be too painful—each photo is tied to the text in some way, so I don’t think there is a lot of fat here, but trimming it down may improve it. We will see. How was the Aquapendente restaurant? We are still planning on returning the last week in May, but we don’t have a set date yet. We will certainly let you know. Abbracci James

    Noah’s BBC Radio 4 program, first episode: (this is radio, no video picture, just talking)

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00159z4

    And Diane’s talk on YouTube. If you watch it, skip the first 9 minutes or so—people chatting before the actual talk begins….

    Sent from my iPad

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  3. I had never heard this story before—yet another surprise of many. Your gift for translation revealed itself right from the get-go.

    How unfair that your letter never reached the other poet in this joining of talents! I’m thinking that he would have been grateful to see what you made of his words. But now, at least we get to share in this story. Grazie.

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