Translating Leopardi?

by Nicolas J. Perella
Translating Leopardi?
Nicolas J. Perella
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Trnnslating Leopardi ?

E chiaro nella valle ilfiurne appare

-"La quiete dopo la tempesta"

iacomo Leopardi is a great name in Italy among philosophers and poets, but is quite unknown in this country." So wrote Octavius Brook Frothingham in 1887 at the outset of his prefatory remarks to the first English translation of a truly representative number of the Canti, done by Frederick Townsend.] Surely, the statement would have to be qualified today, more than one hundred years later. Or would it? Actually, it continues to be a complaint registered over and over by Leopardi's admirers, Italian and non-Italians alike, frustrated that beyond Italy's confines the name of so great a poet and thinker does not often appear save in the most generic way.

Among the reasons adduced for the absence of a fuller appreciation of Leopardi in the English-speaking world, there is one suggested by Ot- tavio Di Fidio that strikes me as worth pondering. It is not so much that Leopardi has not found an adequate translator into English as it is a fact that there has not been a great history of modem Italian literature writ- ten in English that could arouse a more vital interest in our poet by see- ing him in a broad cultural context. Nor has there been a critic of emi- nence in English who has made the case for hs greatness.2

But was not Leopardi greatly praised already in the nineteenth cen- tury by the likes of Matthew Amold and the French critic Sainte-Beuve? Keeping to English and our own times, we may note that Leopardi shows up in Harold Bloom's widely disseminated book The Western Canon. In giving the reasons for hs selection of the authors he deals with in some depth, Bloom writes, in the "Preface and Prelude," that they were chosen "for both their sublimity and their representative nature," and that a book about twenty-six writers is possible, but not a book about four-h~ndred.~

Hence, Leopardi figures among the distinguished-enough group of four hundred that includes, among others, Petrarch, Ariosto, Spenser, Rousseau, Balzac, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Yeats, et al. Thus we need not take Bloom's lists amiss. But though Leopardi has not been slighted, hs admirers might well regret what must seem a missed opportunity to broadcast to a wide English-speaking audience the virtues of Italy's greatest modem poet.

Italy's most exemplary writer of the second half of the twentieth cen- tury, Italo Calvino, was among the many to lament Leopardi's ill fortune

~TALICAVolume 77 Number 3 (2000)

abroad, never so tellingly as at a 1979 convention whose theme was the cultural image of Italy as it is perceived abroad:

Per noi Leopardi e una presenza che diventa sempre piu grandee sempre piu vicina; da tempo ogni generazione letteraria italiana si costruisce il suo Leopardi, diverso da quello delle generazioni precedenti, e si definisce attraverso la sua definizione di Leopardi; e Leopardi regge a tutte queste esperienze. Ebbene, fuor dei confini dellfItalia Leopardi semplicemente non esiste. Non c'e mod0 di far capire chi e; non c'e mod0 di definirlo in rapport0 ad altri personaggi, di far capire perch6 per noi e cosi importante ed e importante in tanti modi diversi e tutti veri. . . . La trasmissione del con- testo culturale italiano nel suo complesso deve fare i conti con zone d'om- bra di cui quella di Leopardi e la piu impressionante e macros~o~ica.~

The tone of Calvino's words almost sounds defeatist; and though I rebel at the thought, the words themselves seem to suggest, in a broad sense, that perhaps Leopardi is after all an exclusively Italian national treasure, with minimum resonance elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the critical literature on Leopardi has, in the last forty years, been massive, perhaps exceeding even what has been writ- ten on Dante. But even in the English-speaking world, particularly in Great Britain and the United States, the amount of critical literature has been nothing short of astonishing; and English translations of one sort or another are churned out at a surprising pace. Yet for all that, the interest has been mostly restricted to scholarly or academic circles. It is as though we need only change Frothngham's "quite unknown" to "relatively unknown" to bring his observation (1887) up to date.

Nonetheless, I shall be referring to a number of translations of recent vintage, each of whch contains a selection, from ten to about half of the Canfipoems generally thought of as the more lyrical of Leopardi's poet- ic gems.5

Is it then a matter of poor translations? Reviewing the translations of two of the editions listed in note 5 (those of Grennan and Lawton), Paolo Possiedi approves of the poems selected by the respective translators as being appropriate for an introduction to "un poeta ancora poco cono- sciuto," but he is less charitable in his judgement of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the translations: "Ma son meglio di niente," he writes, an expression that lies somewhere between resignation and disconsolation.6 This begrudgng approval of the translations is on a par with what G. Singh affirms in an essay on Leopardi and hs English translators: "Infatti le migliori traduzioni inglesi di Leopardi sembrano piuttosto delle parafrasi in prosa che aspirano ad essere p~esia."~

We can only wince in recalling that Leopardi spoke harshly of paraphrases. Definitely not of a paraphrastic character are the translations by the Anglo-Irish poet Patrick Creagh, of the ten canzoni Leopardi published

first in 1824. Indeed, a curious feature of the recent spate of translations of Leopardi's poems is the lively participation of the Irish. In addition to Creagh and other Irish translators who over the years have done English versions of one or more of the Canti's lyrics, there are the previously mentioned two anthologies of poems done by the Irish poet-translators: Eamon Grennan and Paul Lawton.

Interestingly enough, a tlurd anthology -A Scottish Quair -is a trib- ute to our poet done by several Scot poets and scholars who have fash- ioned hs trilingual version (English, Scots, and Gaelic) of eleven poems from the Canti plus the "Coro dei morti" that introduces the "Dialogo di Frederico Ruysch e delle sue mummie" of the Operette morali. But it is the Irish who, in terms of poetry and translation, may have outdone all oth- ers in paying homage to Italy's sovereign lyric poet. Taking its title from a phrase in one of Leopardi's most intimate poems, "Alla luna," the vol- ume Or volge l'anno /At the Year's Turning is a commemorative endeavor spearheaded by a young Italian scholar residing in Ireland, who elicited "responses" to Leopardi's poetry from more than 100 Irish poets. Tlus resulted in a thick-enough volume that offers us, first, ten of Leopardi's poems in a bilingual dress, the translations being those included by Earnon Grennan in lus slim volume published by Princeton University Press. There follows an introductory word to the Irish poet-playwright John M. Synge's unfinished translation of A Silvia and a printing of the text. The bulk of the volume is given over to the "responses," a hundred or more poems (one poem per respondent) directly (but sometimes quite indirectly) inspired by or otherwise connected with Leopardi's poetry and vision of life. Broadly speaking, many of them can be called "Imita- tions," some of which are indeed like paraphrases of one or another of Leopardi's poems; some of them, less concerned with a literal rendering of a particular poem, express a sympathetic allegance to the "spirit" of the great poet, while still other "responses" take a combative stance against it. Finally, a few respondents go so far afield as to make Robert Lowell's well-known and much maligned "Imitations" seem the very model of strict adherence to Leopardi's texts. The poetic responses are made in one of three languages: English, colloquial Hibemo-English, or Gaelic, and it all makes for interesting reading.

In the vein of poetic responses vis-a-vis Leopardi's poetry and his vision of Me, I would call attention to three non-Irish instances in which the com- mon denominator is "Canto nottumo d'un pastore errante dell'Asia."

The great modem Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa dedicated a poem to his Italian predecessor. Dated July 21,1934, "Canto a Leopardi" pays homage to Leopardi in its very title (one thinks especially of "Canto nottumo") and in its content, which is given in the context of a dialogue with the poet's heart, bringng to mind "A se stesso." Presented as an anxious metaphysical questioning, the Canto ends on a quasi-nihilistic note: "E n5o hB paz nem conclus50; Tudo 6 como se fora inexistente."8

The second instance is the poetic encounter between Leopardi and the contemporary American poet and translator Charles Wright. Wright has been a successful translator of Italian poetic texts, including Mon- tale's difficult Mottetti and k bufera. After many years of trying and fail- ing to translate Leopardi's poems to his own satisfaction, he salvaged fragments of his efforts and worked them into a poem of his own called "Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky." As with the title of Pessoa's "Canto a Leo- pardi," the title of Wright's poem puts us in the questioning mode of the shepherd of "Canto nottumo di un pastore errante dellfAsia." The poem itself, however, beps by echoing "Alla sua donna": "If you [Leopardi] are become an eternal idea"; it then goes on as a paean/meditation inter- spersed with Leopardian echoes bespeaking the almost obsessive and sometimes ambiguous (positive/negative) presence of Leopardi in Wright's own intellectual and poetic life. Half-way into the poem occur these lines in which Leopardi's "face" is metamorphosed into the moon, or vice versa:

You doom us who see your face.

You force on us your sorrow:

So frail and vile throughout,

as ours is,

It assails the ear like paradise.9

There is assonance and near-rhyme between fiil and assails, words that undoubtedly echofrale and assale of "Canto nottumo"; and there is consonance between those words and vile. I shall return later to these features of Leopardi's marvelous song of existential anguish. Ln the mean- time I note that it is ths same poem that figures centrally in Donald Davie's poem "Pastor errante," which, even more directly than the poems by Pessoa and Wright, takes its title from Leopardi's questioning nomadic shepherd. Addressing a fellow poet (Robert Pinsky) Davie questions the utterances of Leopardi's shepherd. In so doing, he intersperses in his address large sections of the "Canto nottumo" in verses (unrhymed) that lie somewhere between a free translation and an "imitation." The sev- enth and eighth stanzas of the address introduce the first stanza of Leo- pardi's poem in Davie's version:

I do not expect an answer. The lord Hermes,
Tutelary deity
Of shepherds, no doubt patronizes also
Hermetic poetry, ours:
Wherein we ask unanswerable questions
To what man's profit?

Errant though why not America? although Asia
Is what Leopardi

Too plangently imagined, that much nearer
The god's faint trace. And

He starts out, bald as that, "what are you doing
There in the sky? Unspeaking moon,
What are you about? You come
Up in the evening, and you go
Looking at deserts; then you stop, stand still.
What is this all about? Are you
Pleased to be pacing these eternal alleys?
Don't you get bored? Or is it
Still to your liking, looking down on these
Glens of ours? Ah well, your life is
Much like a shepherd's. Up he gets before
Dawn, and moves out
His sheep to pasture, sees to
Folds, to water, fodder; then,
Tired out, snores through the evening:
Hopes for no more, ever. Tell
Me, you moon: what is it worth to
The shepherd, this life of his,
And what to you, your life? Tell me
The ends they move to: his brief, vagrant life
And yours, unending."10

One need only recall the Italian of the "Canto notturnon's first stan- za to realize that Davie was almost exclusively interested in Leopardi's "thought" and not in the Song. Nonetheless, even without rhyme his jazzed-up version has its own music or rhythm and is rather catching. Much (but by no means all) of the music in Leopardi's text is in its echoing rhymes.

I should not pass up the chance, in this context, to call attention to Thomas Hardy's wonderful poem "To the Moon." Though separated by half a century, Hardy and Leopardi were true soul-brothers. Hardy's poem is a brilliant amalgam of two veins of the Leopardian spirit: the lyrical plangency of the "Canto nottumo" and the satiric wit of the Operette morali, in particular the lighter humor of "I1 Copemico" in which Copemicus is given orders by the Sun. In Hardy's poem the moon does not remain silent.]]

Absorbing and richly mformative, if idiosyncratic, is the volume Canti by Giacomo Leopardi, edited by G. Singh. All native English-speaking admirers of Leopardi are indebted to Professor Singh who for decades has championed the cause of our poet, both in studies of Leopardi's writings and, of more immediate interest to us here, in his inquiries into their impact on Anglo-American culture. He would have every right to be cha- grined by the frequently expressed complaint that Leopardi is unjustly neglected or simply unknown outside of Italy, for he has repeatedly, as in the volume just referred to, adduced an impressive amount of evidence to show that Leopardi has in fact been a sigruhcant presence in the thought of AngleAmerican writers and thlnkers of both the nineteenth and twen- tieth centuries. Some names: William Ewart Gladstone, Matthew Amold,

G. H. Lewes, James Thomson "B. V.," John Addington Syrnonds, Margaret Oliphant, A. C. Swinbume, Arthur Syrnons, Michael Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, Richard Gamett, Herman Melville, Ezra Pound, Sir Maurice Bowra, Bertrand Russell, Cyril Connolly, and others, among whom I would add the name of Samuel Beckett.12

Thus Singh could bep hs bibliographic essay, "Leopardi in the English-Speaking World," with the pronouncement that: "Few Italian poets -with the exception of Dante -have had such a rich and exten- sive fortune in the English-speaking world as Leopardi" (39). And yet, there remains a nagging suspicion (and, in my own case, a conviction) that Leopardi's presence in the AngleAmerican world is not commensurate with hs greatness.

The main part of Singh's volume is given to the Cnnti, both in the original Italian and in English translations done by various hands. It dif- fers from other bilingual anthologes of the Cnnti involving multiple translators by virtue of its near completeness. As he himself says, his choice of translations "is necessarily a personal one." Receptive to trans- lations of all periods, he has selected what he takes to be the most satis- fying English version of each poem; and there is no point in quarreling with his choices. He has, however, divided Leopardi's poems into two broad categories; "the more intensely lyrical poems" for which he pre- ferred translators who were themselves primarily poets with "creative" and "inventive" resources; and "the longer and more discursive poems" for which he preferred scholarly-minded translators apt to gve "a faith- ful and lucid rendering of Leopardi's thought and intelligence . . .without being too literal or too prosaic." So be it. Such a dichotomy undoubt- edly has its dangers, but I think that most of us, despite misgivings, are apt to have some such division in the back of our mind when reading the Cnnti. What we are likely to wonder about most here is the presence of so many translators, for the most obvious (and most important) thing that is bound to be sacrificed or lost in a translation by committee or team of a died work of art -and the Canti are just that -is the work's homogeneity in the sense of its singular voice, its unique tone, whether the mode be lyrical or discursive. It was Paul Celan, I believe, who said that "poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language," which saying brings to mind Robert Frost's rather more caustic remark that "poetry is what gets lost in the translation." Perhaps both remarks are meant to suggest the futility or betrayal inherent in the act of translating poetry. I need not translate the well-worn Italian adage: tradurre = tradire (or) traduttore = traditore.13

Interestingly enough, the first nearly complete translation of the Canti was done by an American, Frederick Townsend. It appeared in 1887, and was soon followed by the nearly complete translations of Francis Henry Cliffe (1893) and J. M. Morrison (1900). But the greatest impact of Leopardi's poems was not to be made in English until the ambitious ver- sion of the whole appeared in 1923, in a bilingual edition by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth. In speaking of aiming for accuracy of translation Bickersteth meant "faithfulness not only to the content but also to the form (metre, cadence, rhyme, sound, accent, rhythm, tone, style, etc.) of the original" (vii-viii). There is much to admire in Bickersteth's noble effort, and I do not mean to be facetious in saying that the only way to remain faithful in such absolute terms would be to have Leopardi himself dictate his poems to us. Bickersteth's words are a short way of declaring that trans- lation at its best (as Bickersteth's often is) can never be more than a "cor- rispondenza imperfetta."14 For my part, I find Bickersteth's translation -in terza rima -of The Divine Comedy more satisfying than his version of the Canti. But it will surprise nobody if I say that lyric poetry, espe- cially of an intimate kind, is in general more vulnerable to distortion in translation than are other poetic genres. The evocative power of words/sounds is then usually, but by no means always, much more crit- ical. Moreover, each generation of readers and critics will have its own translation(s) of great works. The original text alone remains, whde trans- lations of it come and go. As splendid as Vincenzo Monti's Italian ver- sion of the Iliad is, it is read today only by scholars and critics. In part, Bickersteth's translation of the Canti suffers today because of a language and style that were once characteristic of an earlier era.

The next complete English translation of the Canti was published in 1962. Its author, J. H. Whitfield, like Bickersteth a scholar/critic of the Italian poet, translated the poems in verse, but was not wed to Leo- pardi's rhyme-schemes and musico-magic rhythms. Whitfield's version is supple enough, but it has little of Leopardi's tone.15

Leopardi's translators inevitably speak of the dual and apparently antithetical if not antagonistic co-presence of feeling and thought, of lyri- cism and rhetorical eloquence as the characteristic that makes translation of his poetry so difficult and problematic. More specifically, I think, the difficulty lies in the alternation between a lyricism that tends toward a simplicity of expression even as it avails itself of a quasi-archaic elitist vocabulary, and a classicizing, at times convoluting syntax; at the best moments, there is a magical blend of these apparently discrete elements. Every would-be translator (but even the common reader) of Leopardi's poetry would do well to read Francesco Flora's characterization of Leopardi's poetic language, of the poet's assimilation of a vocabulary and a syntax that, belongng to a long tradition of Italian poetry, become an integral part of his essential and natural expression found in all of his poetry: "La presenza del linguaggio poetic0 tradizionale si avverte non soltanto nel Leopardi piu togato delle Canzoni, ma anche in quello piu dimesso dei Canti piu puri. . . ." Even so, Flora himself distinguishes between a more solemn, formally classicizing manner and a simpler, more "accessible" one. I6

Here I must confess to being puzzled by G. Singh's characterization of Leopardi's poetic language, made in lus "Introductory Note" to his anthology of translations of the Canti poems: "In spite of the apparent simplicity and lucidity of diction in Leopardi and the conspicuous absence of any verbal complexity or interpretative difficulty, his poetry presents cer- tain pitfalls to an English translator" (71; my emphases). There may well be other pitfalls, but surely the most obvious ones involve precisely ver- bal complexity and interpretative difficulties, and, I may add, a "decep- tive simplicity" (in the more intimate or "purer" lyrics) that Singh him- self refers to elsewhere.I7 In a round-table discussion on translating the Canti, Patrick Creagh, referred to earlier as the translator of the ten Canzoni Leopardi published in 1824, speaks despairingly of the problem of translating Leopardi's archaisms and "contortions":

If you translate "L'infinito" into archaic English, you're certainly render- ing a great disservice because it's a poem intensely fresh in the original, whereas in [Le Canzonz] he uses archaic language; and his contortions . . . what do you do with his contortions? Well they have to stay contorted, you can't iron it all out or you haven't translated the same point.18

The scores of annotated Italian editions of Canti are filled with attempts at resolving interpretative difficulties and "ironing out" Leo- pardi's convoluted (classicizing, if one prefers) syntax, especially, but by no means exclusively, as it is found in the early Canzoni. In great part this means resorting to paraphrases, and not just in scholastic editions. It is in connection with one such recent edition of the Canzoni that para- phrastic rendition has been raised to the "dignity" of a facing-page, run- ning translation in Italian alongside Leopardi's Italian text, an event that has raised the ire of Italy's scandalized academes.19 Here, from that edi- tion, is the first stanza of the poem "Alla primavera," followed by Santa- gata's prose paraphrase:

Perche i celesti danni
Ristori il sole, e perche l'aure inferme
Zefiro avvivi, onde fugata e sparta
Delle nubi la grave ombra s'avvalla;
Credano il petto inerme 5

Gli augelli a1 vento, e la diuma luce
Novo d'amor desio, nova speranza
Ne' penetrati boschi e fra le sciolte
Pruine induca alle cornrnosse belve;
Forse alle stanche e nel dolor sepolte 10
Umane menti riede
La bella eta, cui la sciagura e l'atra
Face del ver consunse
Imanzi tempo? Ottenebrati e spenti
Di Febo i raggi a1 misero non sono 15
In sempitemo? ed anco,
Primavera odorata, inspiri e tenti
Questo gelido cor, questo ch'amara
Nel fior degli anni suoi vecchiezza impara?

Per il fatto che il sole venga a riparare
i dami provocati dal tempo invemale e Zefiro
rianimi l'aria malsana, cosicche la coltre
nebbiosa, scacciata e dispersa dal cielo,
s'abbassa sul fondo delle valli; o perche gli
uccelli di nuovo affidino a1 vento il lor0
gracile corpo e la luce del giorno, penetrando
nei boschi e sciogliendo le nevi, infonda negli
animali risvegliati rinnovata fiducia nella vita
e rinnovato desiderio d'amore, forse agli uomini
stanchi e infelici ritorna la bella giovinezza,
che le sventure e la funesta luce della
conoscenza hamo consumato ancor prima che fosse
giunta a1 termine? Per gli uomini afflitti i
raggi del sole non sono oscurati e spenti per
sempre? E ancora una volta, primavera odorosa,
ecciti e seduci questo cuore ghiacciato, che nel
fiore degli anni sperimenta un'amara vecchiaia? (1-19)

The paraphrase has the unintended virtue of putting into relief the symphony of Leopardi's stanza that, though limited to four rhymes (or eight rhymed lines) in 19 lines, is cohesively interlaced throughout by assonance, and is rhythmically propelled by its intricate Latinizing syn- tax, so that a tension is created between a forward motion and a retard- ing factor: fifteen enjambments and (only three of whch are end punc- tuated), in addition to the nineteen metric end-line pauses, nine punctuated internal pauses. To this add the use of archaic and/or Latinizing words. Indeed, what is a translator to do? In a review of two successful English translations of Leopardi's prose compositions Operette morali that appeared in 1986, D. C. Carne-Ross remarked that the lines of the first stanza of Alla primavera are "almost as hard to construe

as one of the knottier odes of Horace."20 Nonetheless Joseph Tusiani and Patrick Creagh, whose respective translations of the poem first appeared in 1987 and 1982, offer us English versions worthy of notice:

or Concerning the Antique Fables (1822)

Even if the sun redresses
The ravages of heaven, and freshet airs
Rinse the sick atmosphere, and heavy, hanging
Clouds are harried and scattered down the valleys,
And if small birds confide
Defenseless breasts to the wind, and the light of day
Induces hope and new intent for love
In feeling creatures, in the sun-filtering woodlands
And among the loosened snows,
Do wearied human hearts, interred in grief,
Perhaps regain
The lovely time of life that tragedy
And the murderous glare of truth, all too soon
Consumed away? And are the sun's rays
Not overcast, snuffed out in the suffering spirit
For ever and for ever? Is it possible
Sweet-scenting Spring, that you revive and try
This gelid heart, that in its tenderest years
Already studies the acids of old age? (Creagh)

or of ancient fables

Although once more the sun
Restores the harms of heaven, and the breeze
Revives the sickly air, so that, outcast
And shattered, the black shadow of the clouds
Heavily downward bends;
Although once more the birds
Entrust their breasts unarmed upon the wind,
And the diurnal ray
Spurs the excited animals within
The deep of forests and the loosened frost
With a new hope and new desire for love;
Does to man's weary, anguish-sunken mind
The lovely season once again return,
Which evil fortune and truth's horrid torch
Has prematurely burned?

Are not Apollo's rays
Darkened forever and forever spent
To miserable man?
Do you still, 0fragrant Spring, inspire
And tease this gelid heart,
This heart that in the bloom
Of years already learns old age's doom? (Tusiani)

Creagh's translation (despite his misgivings on the matter) irons out more of the original's "contortions" than does Tusiani's version, and it reads somewhat like a smoothly turned English version without smack- ing of paraphrasis. Yet Tusiani, it seems to me, is better at keeping enough of the original's tone, verbal texture, and rhythm so as to evoke the impression of a life force -and the poet's heart -struggling to extricate itself from a frozen world, outer and inner.

Resorting to paraphrastic solutions or to starkly literal renderings is no guarantee of accuracy even when wishing only to convey the poet's "thought." The most notoriously misconstrued passage from the Canti occurs in Leopardi's best-known and most frequently translated poem, "L'inhnito." At the midway point of a revery (and of the poem) that has led him into a vastness of preternatural silence, the poet is on the verge of being gripped by a sudden fright -or is he?

Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati

Spazi di 121 da quella [the limiting hedge] e sovrumani

Silenzi, e profondissima quiete

10 nel pensier mi fingo; oue per poco

11 COY non si spaum. (4-8; my emphases)

There is today almost universal agreement among Italian critics and professional Italianists of all linguistic stripes on the matter of "ove per poco / I1 cor non si spaura." But it was not always so, and even today the phrase remains a pitfall for translators who, if without a keen knowledge of Italian, are likely to miss the pleonastic character of the negative, non, in the expression per POCO .. .non, whch "simply" means almost (all but, near- ly, etc.). It is not surprising, then, that many English translations of the poem fall into a countersense when, instead of a fear that "almost" grips the young poet's heart, they speak of his heart being "calm for a whle." This, of course, is to miss the point on whch the poem turns and to under- cut the element of surprise, the happy irony as it were, of its ending.

It is a pity that this uncertainty should be so clearly exemplified by the English poet John Heath-Stubbs who, among all translators of Leo- pardi, can still be accounted one of the most elegant. When first pub- lished in 1946, his rendering of the poem's pivotal phrase was good enough: "until almost / My heart becomes afraid." But in reprinting his translatibn in 1966 he changed the wording into the misguided "then for a while /The heart is not afraid." I suspect that he was led astray by an annotated Italian edition of the Canti.Z1 Whatever the cause, his transla- tion errs no less seriously in yet another way. Leopardi's careful (and astonishing) use of the demonstrative adjectives (and pronouns) qtlesto and quello to indicate space and distance and an internalized world and an externalized world (with the ultimate triumph of the poet's inner world over the external world) is jumbled up in the second half of the poem, with the disastrous result that Leopardi's

.....Cosi tra questn
Immensita s'annega il pensier mio:
E il naufragar m'e dolce in questo mare. (13-15)

becomes an incomprehensible

......And thus it is
In that immensity my thought is drowned:
And sweet to me the foundering in that sea.

Several other translators show a similar lack of understanding of the importance of the demonstratives in this remarkable poem. Robert Low- ell's idiosyncratic "Imitation" of the poem starts recklessly by giving us that hill and the hedges instead of this hill and this hedge; it then goes on to its blissful countersense: "Here for a little while my heart is quiet inside me."22

Morrison is perhaps the earliest (1900) translator to gve us a gratuitous substitution of that for this in the poem's first two lines. And though he understands the meaning of "ove per poco / I1 cor non si spaura" ("whereat the breast / In awe doth well-nigh sink"), hisversion of the oripal's fifteen unrhymed hendecasyllables is prettified into four rhyrmng quatrains! Predating Morrison's translation, Townsend (1887) is the first (among nearly complete translations of the Canti) to misconstrue the poem's pivotal phrase so as to gve us "and for a moment I am calm."

I find it interesting that most English translations reverse the order of the comparative terms stated in the Italian text. Where Leopardi has

......E come il vento
Odo stormir tra queste piante, lo quello
Infinito silenzio a questa voce
Vo comparando. ...(8-11)

Grennan, for example, has

......And hearing the wind
Rush rustling through these bushes,
I pit its speech against infinite silence

Besides the curious idea of "pitting" speech against infinite silence, there are too many things wrong with these few lines. In the ill-fated attempt at onomatopoeia ("Rush rustling through these bushes"), Rush rustling is either a contradiction in terms or an annoying redundancy, and the translator's bushes have usurped the poet's trees (piante). The original's three demonstratives are reduced to one. The all-important qzrello of "quello / lnfilzito silenzio" is nonchalantly dropped so that we are faced with an abstract infinite silence in place of the personalized infinite silence "feigned" by the poet's imagination. As to the reversal of the order of the comparison's terms, Grennan is far from alone in not recog- nizing the teleologcal nature of Leopardi's comparison. That infinite silence is mentioned first because it is the end toward which, and into which the wind's voice and the passing of the seasons (i.e., ages) pro- ceed. The infinite silence is swallowing or engulfing the wind that, like a river on its way to the sea, is a metaphor for time. The teleological char- acter of the image/comparison becomes clearer in the light of the order of the succeeding components that come to the poet's mind; the end comes first -eternity -followed by past ages and the present.

There has been much uncertainty about just what kind of sound is intended by the verb stormire in the context of "L'infinito": ". . . E come il vento / Odo stormir tra queste piante." Translators have heard it as a sigh, a whisper, a murmur, a rustle, a bluster, a stirring, etc. More and more, however, English versions have been opting for rustle, although, not unlike stormire, this leaves the question open. Gradations of volume are implied. But one does well to remember that the sound (i.e., voice) of the wind rustling amid the leaves [of the trees] in "L'infinito" is not so bois- terous or "stormy" as to disorient the poet or to take him completely out of his revery. Its function is to lead the poet into a meditation on the pass- ing of time measured out in terms of seasons (i.e., ages past and present). Thus rzrstle will do nicely; but so too would whisper, hiss, and a few other such terms.

A word about translations of the marvelous last line of "L'infinito": "E il naufragar m'e dolce in questo mare." As becomes the poem, this much translator-tormented line has, in the Italian, sounds that evoke an oceanic expansiveness. (In this it may be equaled, if not surpassed, by the verse serving as an epigraph to ths article.) English is undoubtedly at a disadvantage in trying to render it. In place of the openness of the Italian sounds, an English version is apt to be dominated by ee sounds, as in John Heath-Stubbs's version quoted above. At its worst it will gve us "And it's easeftll to be wrecked in seas like these" (Grennan), a proces- sion of sibilants and ee's that compresses the original's amplitude into a tight squeeze. Alas, such lines as this and "Rush rustling through the bushes" are but extreme examples of what seems to me one of the main defects of most English translations of Leopardi's poetry: the failure, for the most part, to notice, much less convey, the aura of unstrained digni- ty that the great poet's verses breathe.23

Nothg in the Canti is so starkly straightfonvard and desolate as the epitaphc "A se stesso," in whch Leopardi, announcing the death of hope and desire, commands his heart to stop beating. Nonetheless, the brief poem's ending has proved a stumbhg block to more than one translator:


l'ultima volta. A1 gener nostro il fato

non don6 che il morire. Onzar dlsprezza

te, la nuturn, 11 brutto

poter che, RSCOSO, a cornrnurz datzno Impera,

e i'lnfi,zzta z>aizztiz del tzitto. (11-16; my emphasis)

If ever there was a poem that demands of a translator the strictest adherence to its every word and its rhythm, it is th one. Whatever one may think of Arturo Vivante's as-literal-as-possible translations of a num- ber of Leopardi's poems, his rendering of "A se stesso" is, to my ears, sat- isfymg. Or so it would be, save for what I take to be a serious flaw:

for the last time. Fate to our kind
gave only dying as a gift.

NOZUscorn natzire, the ugly

power wh~ch, hidden, rules for the comtnorl ezd,

and the zizfiizlte uaiz~t~y

of lt all. (my emphasis)

I leave aside the insertion of a pleonastic it in the last line, though I feel that it undercuts the poem's linguistic essentiality (or conciseness) and demeans its noble tone. More to my point is the fact that Vivante's literal version surprisingly omits (or misreads) the te placed so conspicuously at the beginrung of the hrd from the last line of the poem. And it makes all the difference! "Ormai disprezza /te .. ." It seems that Vivante has taken the te (a disjunctive pronoun) as an emphatic form for the nominative ttl: (disprezza tu or tu disprezza ...)whereas Leopardi's text is surely meant to say: disprezza te stesso, etc., with reference to the addressee of the phrase and of the poem -the poet's heart. First in order of the things com- manded to be despised is the poet's heart ("stanco mio cor"), the side of the poet prone to desire and hope, the side that even in the face of grim reality and truth is forever sliding back into a life of feeling and beauti- h11 illusions. The dejected and embittered poet, after having invited his heart to rest forever, to despair no more, must yet (in the summing-up of the last sentence) order it, tragcally or sardonically, to self-destruct.

The misconstruction of Leopardi's phrase, though not as widespread as the misinterpretation of "L'infinitoU's pivotal phrase, "ove per poco /il cor ?zon si spaura," is not uncommon. And one of the most embarrassing cases is that of a paraphrase/translation in Italian prepared by a culti- vated Italian for non-Italian students learning the language in Italy. It occurs in a slim volume containing eleven of Leopardi's presumably more accessible lyrics accompanied by facing-page paraphrases, where the last sentence of "A se stesso" is rendered as follows:

......... Ormai ti disprezza
la natura, quel potere brutto e nascosto
che opera a danno di tutti, [e ti disprezza]
I'infinita inutilita di t~tto.~~

That is: "Nature, that ugly and hdden power that works for the common ill, despises you, [and you are despised by] the infinite uselessness of all."

The end result of ths unfortunate rendering is that the bitterly vehe- ment yet dignified Brutus-like denouncer of the gods and Fate (and Nature), instead of steadfastly commanding his heart to despise and silence itself, is reduced to a whimpering complainer.

But one of the earliest translators of the Canti had subjected Leopardi's verses to perhaps an even greater distortion:

Still, Nature, art thou doomed to fall
The victim scorned of that blind, brutal power
That rules and ruins all. (Townsend, 1887)

In place of the poet's heart, Nature has become addressee and victim, etc. The oripal's powerful last line, with its Biblical echo, is wholly aban- doned, but the translator has managed to come up with a rhyme Vall/all) where Leopardi has brutto/tutto.

The following examples are representative of the many attempts at translating the poem's ending:

......Now scorn thyself, scorn Nature,
Scorn the brute Power whose reign
We know but by our woes, which are its pastime;
Scorn all that is, for all is vain, vain, vain. (Bickersteth)

......henceforth despise
Thyself, Nature, the ugly power
Which, hidden, governs for the hurt of all,
And the infinite vanity of all that is. (Whitfield)

........Cast a cold eye now

On yourself, on nature, on that hideous hidden

Force that drives all things to their

Destruction, and the infinite
All is vnnity of it all. (Grennan)

Scorn yourself, Nature, and the ugliness
Of the mysterious night
That for the common fall,
Concealed, outspreads its reign.
And the unbounded vanity of it all. (Tusiani)

. . .. . . . Hencefonvard you can scorn
yourself and nature, brutal
and hidden force that rules our common doom
and the vast ~ianity of everything. (Lawton)

. . . . . . NOW, vanquish in your disdain
Nature and the ugly force
That furtively shapes human ill, and the whole
Infinite futility of the universe. (Morgan)

. . . . . . Henceforth hold in contempt
Not yourself only, but Nature, the arrogant
Power that consigns us in secret to n~in,
And the everlasting emptiness of All. (Cascoyne)

Bickersteth's repetition of the word "scorn" serves to indicate that the poet's heart ("thyself"), Nature, and the brute Pozi?er are three separate ele- ments. Some readers consider (unwisely I think) il brutto lpoter . . . impern to be in apposition to Natura. Repeated for a fourth time, "scorn" intro- duces the last of the tlungs to be rejected. The poem's final rhyme in the original -brutto . . . ttrtto -is matched by Bickersteth's use of reign . . . vain; but "vain, vain, vain" is overly emphahc, whereas the emphatic rep- etition of "scorn" dilutes the original's lapidary effect. The phrase "which are its pastime" is an interpolation having no counterpart in the Italian text. Whitfield, like Leopardi and most translators, makes do with one use of the word "despise" to denounce all four entities. His version has the merit of being relatively spare, although the last four words include a redundancy -"of all that is" -that, besides lowering the tone, seems to result from a need to make the rhyme alllall less conspicuous.

Grennan's "Cast a cold eye now" is flaccid compared to Leopardi's forceful "disprezza," and in similar fashion the last line ("And the infinite all is vanity of it all"), intending perhaps to emphasize the concept of infinite vanity, has the opposite effect, here too with a banalizing red~~ndancy.

Tusiani's replacement of Leopardi's "brutto poter" with the "mysteri- ous night" that "outspreads its reign" brings us again, as in Bickersteth's version, to the question of how free we are willing to allow a translation to be. The image of a "mysterious night" or some similar phrase in con- nection with an evil force can be found elsewhere in Leopardi's writings, but it is not in "A se stesso." (Cf. "arcana malvagitli" in "Ad Arimana," from the Argomenti e abbozzi di poesie; and in "Le ricordanze": "I'acerbo, indegno / Mistero delle cose. ")

Lawton's use of the indicative, "you can scorn . . .," detracts from the peremptory force of Leopardi's imperative (disprezza), and the absence of the definite article before "brutal . . ." along with the omission of com- mas in the last two lines leads one to construe everythng from "brutal" to the end of the poem as being in apposition to "nature." The "vast van- ity" of the last line is equivocal at best; vast is a word that belongs to Leopardi's vocabulary of words that are deemed poetical because they evoke an aura of the indefinite and the sublime, but it pales next to the text's infinita, the most highly charged word/idea/sentiment in Leopardi's writings.

E. Morgan's version apparently falls to see that the poet's heart is itself among the things (indeed, the first) it is ordered to scorn, or, as he so strangely has it, to "vanquish." The word "whole" before "Inhte" is de- cidedly de trop.

Gascoyne's "hold in contempt" intellectualizes the forthright disdain of disprezza; similarly "arrogant" dilutes the intensity of brutto. The "ever- lasting emptiness" may be semantically correct, but it lacks the particular Leopardian and Biblical echoes of "mfirute vanity."

The preceding versions of a mere few lines from the Canti, and the "faults" one may find with them, are not meant to denigrate the efforts of the respective translators, but rather to highlight some of the difficul- ties inherent in rendering Leopardi into English. There are other diffi- culties, too.

Besides the "contortions" (particularly of the early canzoni) and the unique interweaving of archaic (and quasi-archaic) words into a more common lexicon, there are Leopardi's inimitable music and sound pat- terns. The Canti are notorious for being recalcitrant to translation. But what is it that we expect or hope for from a translator of Leopardi into English? Broachng the subject most recently, Alessandro Carrera, in a vein much like Bickersteth's 1923 "Preface," yearns for a "traduzione ideale" that would capture all Leopardian nuances "sia dal punto di vista semantic0 che da quello fonetico." This, he adds, "e un compito quasi impossibile," where quasi perhaps betrays some wishful thinking. Carrera rightly notes that above all what is lacking in English is

un lavoro complessivo intrapreso da un grande poeta o da un grande traduttore autoctono, che sia in grado di dare un tono unitarzo alla progressione dei Canti. E finche quell'interlocutore non sara trovato, Leopardi non avra il suo posto in nessuna Norton ~ntholo~~.~~

(my emphasis)

As for the kind of Englishpoet/translator Carrera despairingly evokes, the poet Stephen Spender had a wistful and tantalizing suggestion of his own that is at once a shattering judgment on the history of English ver- sions of Leopardi's best known lyric and, implicitly, the Canti in general: "The ideal translator of Leopardi would have been, I ttunk, Shelley. . . ." One imagnes that a version by Shelley of L'infinito would have been in the English an "irreplaceable ma~terpiece."~6

Indeed, as Carrera's parentheti- cal remark ("perche a volte proprio non si pub") reminds us, some poets are simply not translatable, an opinion expressed also by D. S. Came-Ross who, while regstering the old complaint: "Except at home Leopardi is not fully on the literary map," went on to forewarn would-be translators that "only one English poet could have translated the best of Leopardi's poems: the Milton of our lost paradise, of Lycidas and parts of Samson Ag~nistes."~~

Milton and Shelley, and one thinks of their supreme eleges, respec- tively Lycidas and Adonais: fit company for Italy's supreme elegist, the poet of "A Silvia" and "Le ricordanze," of "Alla primavera" and "Alla sua donna," of the heroically elegac close of "Amore e Morte" (vv. 96124). The first 29 lines of "A Silvia" merit a closer look:

Silvia, rimembri ancora

quel tempo della tua vita mortale,

quando belta splendea

negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitvi;

e tu, lieta e pemosa, il limitare

di gioventh salivi?

Sonavan le quiete
stanze, e le vie dintorno,
a1 tuo perpetuo canto,
allor che all'opre femminili intenta
sedevi, assai contenta
di quel vago avvenir che in mente avevi
Era il maggio odoroso: e tu solevi
cosi menare il giorno

Io gli studi leggiadri
talor lasciando e le sudate carte,
ove il tempo mio primo
e di me si spendea la miglior parte,
d'in su i veroni del paterno ostello
porgea gli orecchi a1 suon della tua voce,
ed alla man veloce
che percorrea la faticosa tela.
Mirava il ciel sereno,
le vie dorate e gli orti,

e quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi il monte.
Lingua mortal non dice
quel ch'io sentiva in seno.

Che pensieri soavi,
che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia! (1-29)

Among translators who have used rhyme in seeking to match Leo- pardi's "free" rhymes in "A Silvia," Bickersteth, Townsend, and Tusiani are among the most effective. Bickersteth, not content merely to retain Leopardi's rhyme schemes, felt the need, "where [h]

ear demanded it," to introduce extra rhymes. His incidental remark is revealing: "I do not tlunk my ear would have so demanded if the English tongue were by nature as musical as the Italian." Tusiani, too, makes frequent and usually good use of rhyme, but without always trying to follow Leopardi's place- ments; and like Bickersteth he sometimes introduces more rhymes than the Italian texts have.

In a poet like Leopardi, and perhaps in most if not all lyrical poets, rhyme is a way of accentuating certain words for their concepts and evocative value. But there is more to be said of the sound patterns in "A Silvia." The first stanza begins with the name Silvia and ends with the verb saliui, nothing less than an anagram that echoes obliquely Silvia's name.28 The echo is subtly muted in terms of resonance by its distance from the name. (Silvia saliui would, of course, be intolerable.) Yet saliui, with its phonosymbolic value caps the introductory first stanza in the ascendant. Echoes of Silvia's name continue throughout the poem by way of an extraordinary insistence on the s and u sounds, and, to a less- er degree, the liquid I, in various combinations or singly. In the first 29 lines alone we hear: Siluia, vita, figgitiui, gioventic, saliui, sonauan, vie, ueloce, sedeui, uago, auvenir, che avevi, solevi, sentivi, ostello, ueroni, miraua, splendea, and again, now capping the wistfully rhapsodic first half of the poem, Silvia's name: "Che pensieri soavi, / Che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!" This clustering of the sounds connected with Silvia's name (line 20 includes the phrase "a1 suon de la tua uoce") and the alliterative pattern of echoing them and vowel similarities pervasively but wisely, can hard- ly be fortuitous. Rather, taken with the poem's rhythmical melody and flow and pauses, they create a subtle allusive echoing of sense and musi- cal magic that we perhaps at first perceive only ~ublirninally.~9

Aside from the impossibility of carrying over into English such sound patterns, A Silvia has other difficulties of a more specifically lexical nature. Lines 4-5 seem simple enough: "Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggtivi / E tu, lieta e pensosa . . ." and for the most part, if we leave aside Morrison's overwrought "When in thy bright eyes shone / Soft beauty's witching, laughmg, wayward glance / And thou hadst just begun so coyly gay . . .," translators have respected the wistful sobriety of the two antithetical pairings: In Bickersteth's "eyes with laughter lit and shyly glancing / And thou, serrne and pensive . . .," serene for lirta perhaps takes us just a bit more than is desirable in the direction of sedateness and would have been better used for nssai contenta in line 11. Kittel seems just right in con- cision and tone: "your laughing, elusive eyes, / And gaily, thoughtful- ly." Vivante has a perceptive "fleeting" for firggitivi. John Heath-Stubbs perhaps gves up something in precision for a nicely suggestive "elusive laughter of your eyes," and his choice of "wonder" (for pensosn) in the second binomial -"And full of joy and wonder" -is, I think, as insightful as it is lovely, for indeed there can be a touch of sometlng half-tremulous in a young girl's wonder. Grennan's reduction of each of the antithetical couplings to an adjective plus noun misses the sponta- neous quality of Leopardi's Silvia, and "pensive joy" seems more suited to a Manzonian context and heroine. Whitfield has hit upon a daring but not ineffectual rendering in the first of the two couplings: "Your laugh- ing, glancing eyes."

Concerning the lines I have been discussing, it is the most recent English translation of "A Silvia" (done by Tom Parks and Jonathan Galassi) that takes us furthest from Silvia's occhi fi~ggitiui.~~

The term stnrtlrd, said of Silvia's eyes, gives us a sudden but frozen stare rather than the shy and quick averting of the eyes suggested byfi~ggitivi.Rather than sift through various translations for problematical renderings, I will refer to this latest translation for a few more hazardous spots that can cause a translator to stumble. The trickiest of these, a conundrum in fact, is the word vngo as it appears in line 12, where Silvia is pictured sitting at her woman's work, and thinking of her future as a young woman: "Sedevi, assai contenta / Di quel vago avvenir che in mente avevi." Park and Galassi give us "hazy" for uago: "Happy enough with the hazy / Futurr in your head." Vagois a key word (and concept) in Leopardi's lex- icon and in his theory of poetry where, in the sense of vague, or indis- tinct, indefinite, it is considered an essential quality of poeticalness. But the word has three possible meanings: beautiful, vague (unclear, whence "hazy"), and avid or desirous [of]." Leopardi's poetry makes use of the word in all three senses at one time or another. In the context of the serenely rapturous first half of "A Silvia," where the girl is evoked as joy- ful and hopeful of a "wonderful" future, uago clearly has a positive con- notation, however undelineated the hope may be. At the same time, I would not discount the hint of uncertainty or trepidation that hovers over Silvia's vago avvmir; its presence however, seems to have at best a secondary role, perhaps as an ironic anticipation of the death, before realization, of the hopes of both Silvia and the poet. How then is one to translate here what is both beautiful and vague? For Leopardi the words form an inseparable binomial. Not so in English. Assuming that transla- tors are aware of the pluralistic meaning of uago, those who have opted for the sense of sometlng unknown have used such words as vague,

blurred, or hazy. Those accentuating the positive have used words such as beautifirl, fair, bright, pleasant,ftrture bliss.

Other terms misconstrued by Park and Galassi (who, however, are not alone) are: periui, which is not, in this case, "you were dying"; Italian (especially literary Italian) sometimes uses the imperfect tense where the past absolute would be expected. What is referred to is a specific event in the past: "You [Silvia] died"; gli sguardi innamorati, translated as "your lovestruck, guarded glance," is not correct here, where Leopardi uses innamorati in an active sense; it is not Silvia who is lovestruck, but the young men (or late-adolescent boys) who, had Silvia lived, would have been "lovestruck," that is, captivated by her "endearing," "enchanting," or "love-inspiring" glances; ragionare (to reason, to use one's reason) is commonly used in Italian in the sense of "to discuss" or simply "to talk." Park and Galassi go astray in using "to brood" ("And on Sundays you and your friends / Didn't brood about love"). Why have Silvia and her girlfriends brood over love when they more likely would have only been chattering, or whispering, or even giggling while talking about love half-tremulously if one likes, but not broodingly; "Tu, misera, cadesti": addressed by the poet to his lost hope (personified here), these words are seriously wrenched from their sense in order to come up with "You fell away in misery." In Leopardi's text misera is an adjectival noun and would properly be rendered by something like "You, poor (or piteous) creature, fell" (i.e., "died"). The term bespeaks the poet's compassion for his dead hope, which he considers and caresses as though it were a crea- ture. By this point, Silvia dead and the poet's dead hope have merged.

Except in the atypical lilting and sing-song Metastasian-like meter of "I1 risorgimento," Leopardi's rhymes for the most part are syntactically contextualized in a rhythm that renders them relatively inconspicuous and unemphasized, balanced between calling attention to a particular thought or sentiment and allowing meaning and feeling to flow across them. But in the case of "Canto nottumo di un pastore errante dellfAsia" (the very title is an example of euphony), a poem rich in rhyme, Leopardi stresses to great effect one rhyme in particular, making of it a phonosymbolic refrain. Indeed, what is a translator to do with the echo- ing of -hie, sounding as an existential wail and as a submerged metaphor evoking wings as a desire to escape from the human predicament. In the nomadic shepherd's complaint this sound binds the poem's six stanzas together. The end words in which the sound/image recurs are the fol- lowing: vale, immortale, tale, mortale, cale, frale, male, animale, assale, ale, quale, natale.

As though to convey the growing anxiety of the shepherd, the intensi- ty of the refrain is expressed by its repetition in the last two lines (131-32) of the penultimate stanza and in the first line of the last stanza, where the phonosymbolic refrain acquires its explicit semantic denotation, lile [izli] = wings, yet still sounding in its dual significance of wail and wings:

0greggia mia, ne di cio sol mi lagno.
Se tu parlar sapessi, io chiederei:
Dimmi: perche giacendo
A bell'agio, ozioso,
S'appaga ogni anirnale;
Me, s'io giaccio in riposo, il tedio assale?

Forse s'avess'io ['ale
Da volar su le nubi,
E noverar le stelle ad una ad una,
0come il tuono errar di giogo in giogo,
Piu felice sarei, dolce mia greggia,
Piu felice sarei, candida luna.
0forse erra dal vero,
Mirando all'altrui sorte, il mio pensiero:
Forse in qua1 forma, in quale
Stato che sia, dentro covile o cuna,
E' funesto a chi nasce il di natale. (12943; my emphases)

It is a rare translator who can find an effective English equivalent for the refrain's sound and keep it throughout the poem wherever it occurs in the original. One who does is Bickersteth with the sound A as in day, but the inversion he resorts to in the last line of his translation makes for an awkward close:

Tell me why animals,

Lying outstretched at ease,

Repose without dismay,

While I find nothing please, rest as I may?

Chance had I wings, away
Above the clouds to soar,
And count how many stars thro' heaven are strewn,
Or like the thunder roam from range to range,
I should be happier, sweet flock of mzne,
I should be happier, white-beaming Moon.
Or errs, perchance, my thought
From truth to aim thus at another's lot?
Perchance in any way,
To beast or man, in den or cradle, soon
Deadly to all things born proves their brrthday. (my emphases)

Tusiani, without trying to keep the refrain wherever it occurs in the original, but realizing its importance, ends each of the poem's six stan- zas with the sound ire: thoroughfare, share, care, despair, care, anywhere. His translation of the poem's ending follows:

......Tell me: why
Is every animal
Happy to lie in easy idleness,
And why, if I lie down, am I alone
Assailed by still new boredom and new care?

Maybe if I had wings
To fly above the clouds,
And count the stars in heaven one by one,
Or like the thunder roam from hill to hill,
Happier I would be, 0 my sweet flock,
I would be happier, my candid moon.
Or maybe, watching other creature's fate,
My thoughts now stray from truth:
Maybe in whatsoever form or state,
In cradle or in den,
The day of birth is fatal anywhere.

Alone and one byone, of course, rhyme for the eye, not for the ear. The refrain/sound of carelanywhere is echoed by the assonants of the rhyming pair fitelstite and a number of supporting assonants: assiiled, striy, criidle, diy, fdal. Except for the one rhyme, moon/soon (and strezun)in Bickersteth's version, neither translator seeks to match the oripal's hauntingly beauti- ful rhyme of una da una/luna/cuna. The plaintive u sound occurs also in nubi, altrui, andfilnesto, which words chime with one another even as they are in assonance with una, luna, and cuna. These features, along with the rhyrmng -2le words (animale, assale, ale, quale, natale), the pervasive (but not invasive) alliteration, assonance and consonance, and the rhythm (with its flow and pauses) combine to make lines 12943 of the "Canto nottumo" one of the great moments of Leopardi's lyricism.

Bickersteth and Tusiani are accomplished poets and craftsmen in their own right, and they are, each in ~LSown manner, among the best transla- tors of pre-twentieth-century Italian poetry. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that even they at times show signs of straining for rhyme and of "wrest- ing words from their true calling," as Ben Jonson centuries ago said in con- nection with the then relatively new use of rhyme among English poets. And as with rhyme, so too with syntactical inversions, whch, like rhyme, come not so readily or "naturally" in English as in Italian, notwithstand- ing stylistic conventions permitting their use. Bickersteth's self-conscious- ness on the matter of rhyme as expressed in the Preface to his translation of the Canti is quite understandable.

In many ways Tusiani's translation of the Canti, the first truly com- plete American edition, is admirable, and I wish to conclude my excur- sus by pointing to two passages that show him at his best.

The canzone "Amore e Morte" is among the poems of the Cnnti in which copious rhyme is employed, appearing here in free play in alter- nating lines of septenaries and hendecasyllables. Lines 45-87 of Leo- pardi's poem describes the propulsive drive of Eros towards Death. The rhymes are almost all line-ending:

Then, when its boundless might
Breaks and enwraps all things,
And the unvanquished care like lightning strikes
Deep in their hearts, 0Death,
How many times, with what immense desire,
Are you implored and called
By lovers out of breath!
How many times at night,
How many times, relinquishing at dawn
His weary limbs, the one in love has deemed
Himself a blessed man
If he should never rise,
And if his bitter light
Should nevermore appear before his eyes!
And often at the sound of somber bells
And at the dirge that led
To their eternal nothingness the dead,
With far more ardent sighs
From his profoundest heart he envied him
Who at that moment went
To dwell among the spent,
Even the humble throng,
Even the peasant wholly unaware
Of every valor that from knowledge springs;
Even the modest, timid, tender maiden
Who at the name of death
Soon felt her hair on end
Dares halt her glance, irrevocably bold,
On her own tomb, her own funereal veil,
And therefore warmly brood
On poison and on steel
NOW that her simple mind has understood
The gentleness of Death.
So much indeed does love's new discipline
Bend us toward death! And oftentimes to such
Despair our horrid inner anguish comes -
When mortal strength can beat it nevermore -
That either a weak frame
Yields to its wrecking might, and in this way,

By her own brother's wishes, Death prevails;

Or so does Love still prick the heart profound

That, by themselves, at once,

The little peasant wholly unaware,

And the sweet damsel fair,

With violent hand can lay upon the ground

Their youthful limbs. The world

Laughs at their story, and may heaven grant

To those who laugh contentment and old age.

Finally, here is Tusiani's rendering of the first stanza (lines 1-27) of "Le ricordanze, Remembrances" in Tusiani's Englislung of Leopardi's unrhymed hendecasyllables:

0Bear's so graceful stars, I did not think
I would once more return to see you shine
Above the garden of my father's home,
And to address you from the window-sills
Of this my place where as a child I dwelt
And saw my every pleasure quickly end.
What dear imaginings and what sweet dreams
Your sight, and that of your escorting lights,
Would rouse within my mind! It was the time
When, sitting silent on a verdant clod,
I used to spend long hours of each new eve
Watching the sky and listening to the song
Of a deep-hidden frog far in the field,
And near the thickets, over flower-beds,
A firefly wandered while the fragrant lanes
And, there, the cypresses within the woods
Murmured upon the wind; alternate words
Re-echoed down our palace with the sound
Of servants' easeful chores. What boundless thoughts,
What fondling dreams were mine, as I could view,
So far away, the sea, and those blue hills
I still can glimpse from here, and which I thought
I was one day to cross, thus feigning worlds
Unknown and unknown bliss for my new days!
Still unaware of fate, how many times
This life of mine, so sorrowful and stark,
Would I have willingly exchanged with death.

These hes capture as no other of the many versions I have read, all the pathos and, with different words -English words -the magic of Leopardi's music and mood. Tlunk, for example, of the remarkable weaving

of the alliterating zu and hzu throughout the stanza: would, once, window, where, dwelt, saw, quickly, What, what, sweet, Would, within, was, when, nezu, Watching, zuandued, zuhile, zuithin, zuoods, wind, words, down, with, What, were., view, away, zuhich, was, one, worlds, unknown, new, unaware, how, sor- rozufill, Wozfld, zuillingly, zuzth. And accompanying such sounds are the allit- erating fricatives f and v: gracefill, above, of,fatherls,from, of, event, of, z~erdant, eve, of,frog,far, field, over, jower, firrf2y,fragrant, of, servants, easefi~l,fondling, view,far,from,feigning,for,fate,

life, of, sorrowfill, have. Assonance and con- sonance also share m creating the "dotto concento" of Tusiani's lines.

It would be askmg too much to expect a translator to sustain through- out hs translation of the Canti such excellence as we are treated to in these last two excerpts. But the excellence is not limited to these. The reader of Tusiani's translation will meet again and again with passages that make reading it a rewarding esthetic experience.

Is it merely better than nothing? Better, but better by far, and we are lucky to have it.

NICOLAS J. PERELLA University of Cnlifornin/Berkelry


lThe Poems 01Giacomo Leopardi, translated by Frederick Townsend (New York:

Putnam's Sons. 1887) V11. 2'~

La fortuna di Leopardi in area anglosassone," Testo 29-30 (1995): 122.

3~aroldBloom, The Westeni Canon (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 2, 548.

4"L'immagine culturale dell'Italia all'estero." Atti della conferenza pronlossa dal Co- mitato Italiano dell'UhlESCO, 22 febbraio 1979, a cura di A. Bartoli, I/ Veltro (1980): 72-73.

51) Giacomo Leopardi. Ten Odes (the ten canzoni Leopardi published in 1824 and subsequently included in the Cariti),translated by Patrick Creagh. PN Review 9.3 (1982): 11-21 (English version only). 2) Giacomo Leopardi, Poenls, edited by .4ngel Flores (Bloomington: Indiana UP. 1966). Reprinted in 1987. Bilingual edition of twenty-four poems from the Cariti, plus the "Chorus of the Dead" from the Operette n~orali. Several translators. among whom Muriel lttell and Edwin Morgan stand out. 3) L~opardi: A Scottish Qlrair (Edinburgh: Italian Institute. 1987). Translations of eleven poems from the Canti, plus the "Chorus of the Dead," done by several hands into English, Scots. and Gaelic. 4) Giacomo Leopardi, Poen~s,translated by Arturo Vivante (Wellfleet, MA: Delphinium, 1988). Bilingual edition of sixteen poems from the Canti. 5) Carzti by Giaconto Ixopardi: Bibliographic Essay and Anthology of the Trailslations in the Anglo- Saxon World, edited by G. Singh, preface by Mario Luzi, foreword by Franco Foschi (Recanati: Centro Nazionale di Stud1 Leopardiani, 1990). Bilingual edition of thirty-four poems from the Canti, plus the "Chorus of the Dead" with various translators. 6) Giacomo Leopardi, Canti, selected and introduced by Franco Fortini and translated by Paul

Lawton (Dublin: UCD Foundation for Italian Studies, 1996). Bilingual edition of twen- ty-four poems from the Canti. 7) Giacomo Leopardi, Selected Poems, translated by Eamon Greman (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997). Bilingual edition of fifteen poems from the Canti plus the "Chorus of the Dead." 8) Leopardi's Canti, translated into English verse by Joseph Tusiani, introduction and notes by Pietro Magno, preface by Franco Foschi (Fasano: Schena, 1998). English version only of all (41) the poems of the Canti. 9) Or volge I'anno /At the Year's 7ur1ting: An Anthology of Irish Poets Responding to Leopardi, edted, introduced and annotated by Marco Sonzogni (Dublin: Dedalus, 1998). The volume includes ten poems from the Canti, translated by Earnon Grennan. 10) La corrispondenza irnperfetta: Leopardi tradotro e traduttore, a cura di Ama Dolfi e Adnana Mitescu (Rome: Bulzoni, 1990), twenty-three articles by as many contributors. 11) La traduzione poerica rzel segno di Giacomo Leopardi, a cura di Rosario Portale, Atti del primo Simposio Intemazionale, Macerata, 29-30 novembre 1988, Universita degli Studi di Macerata (Pisa: Giardini, 1992).

6~ossiedi's review appeared in Forurn Iralicunt 32.1 (1988): 279-82.


Singh, "Leopardi e i suoi traduttori inglesi," La traduzione poetica nel segno di Giacomo Leopardi, Atti del primo Simposio Intemazionale 58. Singh refers specifically to a "mancanza di buone traduzioni [dei Canti]in inglese" (59).

Elisabeth Ravoux-Rallo, "Pessoa chante Leopardi," La Spleen du pogte: autour de Fernando Pessoa (Paris: 1997) 31-39. 9~harles Wright, "To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky," Giacorno Leopardi, poeta e j?losofo. Atti del Convegno dell'Istituto Italiano di Cultura, New York. 31 marzo-1 aprile

1998, a cura di Alessandro Carrera (Fiesole: Cadmo. 1999) 18.

1°~onald Davie, C:ollected Poems 1970-1 983 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1983) 154.


Singh, who has written so well on the Leopardi-Hardy kinship, quotes Hardy's "To the Moon" and makes the following comments: "Let us quote Hardy's poem 'To the Moon' (1917) in whch, through a closely woven net of Leopardian echoes, reminis- cences and &nities, both verbal and conceptual, he deals with the theme of Leopardi's celebrated poem 'Canto nottumo' in his own way and in his own accents" ("I Canti di Giacomo Leopardi nelle traduzioni inglesi" 62).

12~orBeckett under the influence of Leopardi (especially of the poem "A se stesso"), see my "Leopardi and the Primacy of Desire," in Giacomo Leopardi. Proceedings of the Congress held at UCLA, November 10-11, 1988, edited by Giovanni Cecchetti, Forum Italicurn 9 (1990): Leopardi Supplement 84-85.


a counter to this skepticism vis-a-vis translation, we may ponder Joseph Brodsky's intriguing remark that "poetry, in essence, is itself a certain other language -or a transla- tion from such" ("Footnote to a Poem," Less than One: Selected Essays [London: Vilung, 19871 234).

14~mongthe things Bickersteth hoped to accomplish in the "Preface" was to "show conclusive reasons for treating the Canti as one coherent work of art expressive of a mind fundamentally at one with itself, rather than as a series of independent poems full of inconsistencies and contradictions, which has been the usual way of regarding them hith- erto" (viii).

15Leopardi's Canti, translated into English verse, with parallel text and an introduc-

tion (Naples: G. Scalabrini Editore, 1962).

16~iacomoLeopardi, Canri, a cura di Francesco Flora (Milan: Edizioni Scolastiche Mondadori. 1963) 6-9.

l7,.~eopardie i suoi traduttori inglesi" 47.

18~ntraduzione poetica nel segno di Giacorno Leopardi, a cura di Rosario Portale.

Atti del primo Simposio Intemazionale. Macerata, 29-30 novembre 1988 (Pisa: Giardini, 1992) 175. 191 refer to Giacomo Leopardi. Canzoni, versione in prosa, note, e postfazione di

Marco Santagata (Milan: Mondadori, 1998).

20"~he Strange Case of Leopardi," New York Review of Books 29 Jan. 1987: 424.

21~orrado Zacchetti, in hs commentary, writes: "Ove per poco il cor non si spaura":

Credo sia da intendersi: io in quegli spazi interrninati, in quei sovrumani silenzi, in quel- la profondissima quiete (tutto cib 6 da: ove),che mi fingo (mi creo) nel pensiero, perpoco tempo, ossia nel breve tempo che dura la mia interiore contemplazione, non mi sento impaurito dalla brutta realti della vita. della dolorosa realta: il mio cuore dimentica per un momento -per poco -che: 'Amaro e noia la vita, altro mai nulla: e fango 6 il mon- do,"' Canti di Giacorno kopardi, scelti e commentati da Corrado Zacchetti (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1927) 68-69. The same interpretation is given by Renzo Frattarolo who writes of the phrase in question: "intendi nel breve tempo che dura lamia contemplazione non mi sento impaurito dalla dolorosa realta," Giacomo Leopardi, Canti, a cura di R. Frattarolo (Rome: Ausoni, 1957) 114. As can be seen by the last part of Zacchetti's state- ment and by Frattarolo's reference to a "dolorosa realti'' both critics were interpreting "L'infinito" in the light of the much later (by 16 years) and much different poem, "A se stesso." There is no "dolorosarealth" in "L'infinito," unless it be in the ubi sunt motif that follows; but it is not this that provokes the momentary fear that grips the poet's heart, a sensation sparked by the poet's own malung, i.e., the "~nterminati spazi . . . e sovrumani silenzi, e profondissima quiete" that he "feigns" withn his mind. In the construction "per poco . . . non," perpoco has no temporal significance. Heath-Stubbs's translation with the correct rendering of the per poco . . . non passage was printed in Poems from Ginconlo LPopardi, translated and introduced by John Heath-Stubbs (London: Shenval, 1946) 17. The incorrect version appeared in Giacomo Leopardi, Selected Prose and Poetn; edited, translated. and introduced by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs (London: Oxford UP. 1966) 213.

22~utLowell's "Imitation" is in fact a personal poetic exercise. Thus he even casts it in long and short verses of varying syllabic length: and he uses rhyme! We are well beyond "creative translation" here. On the other hand, it is exasperating to find an Italian paraphraser of "L'infinito" separating the poet from hs dear hill by tampering with the poet's demonstrative adjective: "Ho sempre amato quella collina solitaria / e questa siepe. . . ." For the offender see note 22.

23~.Whitfield. who generally translates Leopardi with a sobriety that comes close to dignity, is one of the few translators who keep the poet's comparative terms intact: "I then compare 1That infinite silence to this voice"; but the poem's last line fares almost as poor- ly as in Grennan's translation: "And shipwreck sweet for rne withn ths sea." Here the sounds of English are at a disadvantage if one wishes to translate word for word dolce sweet, nl'+-me, mclrc -sea.

24~.Leopardi, Poesie, a cura di E. Balbolu (Rome: Bonacci, 1994). Eleven poems from the Canti, original texts with facing page paraphrases in Italian prose.


Camera, "Per Leopardi in America" Giaconlo Leopardipoeta ejlosofo XII-XIII.

266'~ranslatingLeopardi and Holderlin," La traduzionepoetica nel segno di Giaconlo Leopardi 129. Continuing with Spender's cogent thought: "Lacking a Shelley, Leopardi remains a poet who, for English poets, represents a kind of perfection -our idea of poet- ry purely poetic both in language and in mood. Perhaps, though, Leopardi belongs too much to the Nineteenth Century for modem English poets, drawn as they are to him close, indeed, as they feel to him -to be able to translate." Thls seems to say, I thnk, that Leopardi is a poet's poet, and this may be so not only for English poets.

27i'The Strange Case of Leopardi," The New York Review of Books 29 Jan. 1987: 44.

28~eeGiorgio Orelli's meticulous and absorbing article, "Connessioni leopardiane," Strumenti critici NS 2.1 (1987): 73-96.

290n the matter of the labiodental (fricatives) sounds (v andB that were so dear to Leopardi and that figure (along with the liquid 1) so essentially in "A Silvia," we may note that he favored them more than once in creating passages of a particularly high musical quality. It may be that the letter sound v is bound to have a prominent role in Italian. One thinks of the imperfect tense (the tense of memory and duration in the past) and espe- cially of the verbs avere and vedere. But whether the concentration of v sounds in Leopardi's verses (especially in "A Silvia" and "Canto nottumo d'un pastore errante del- 1'Asia") be deliberate or not, it appears with high frequency and is a marked component of his musical pallette. I have noted elsewhere its striking presence in an erotic vein in Giuseppe Ungaretti's poem "L'isola." See my Midday in Italian Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979) 236.

30The translation, by Tim Parks and Jonathan Galassi, is appended to Park's "In Love with Leopardi," New York Review of Books 23 Mar. 2000: 38-41; it is an insightful and subtle review article inspired by the recent new editions of Iris Origo's Leopardi: A Study in Solitude and Images and Shadows: Part of a Life. Origo's sensitive and finely written biography of Leopardi includes quotations from the pet's work, given in Italian and in her English versions.

31i'~azy"for vago was first used by the Irish dramatist John Synge in hs unfinished translation of "To Sylvia." It is also Eamon Grennan's choice in his translation of Leo- pardi's poem. In Petrarch's poetry vago has mostly the meaning of "wandering." Com- pare vagare, which means to wander, as in Foscolo's sonnet "Forse perch6 della fatal quie- te," often given the title "La sera."

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