Translator's Notes: In the Fog
A century ago, in early 1906, the fifty-year-old Giovanni Pascoli succeeded his ailing mentor Giosuè Carducci as Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Bologna, a position so prestigious it might as well have come with a laurel crown. Carducci would receive the Nobel later that year, but his grandiloquent neoclassicism had already given way to his student’s humbler, plainer style; the nineteenth century had given way to the twentieth. Though Pascoli soon lapsed into the role of “national poet,” he had by then produced a major body of innovative work, one that has been read, studied, and passionately debated ever since.
At least in Italy. Despite his stature there, he remains obscure in English. The sharp disparity between his national and international fortunes has been ascribed, as such disparities often are, to “untranslatability”: Cesare Garboli, editor of the exquisite Meridiani edition of Pascoli’s selected work (2002), called him “a profoundly Italian poet [who] isn’t easy to translate”; Montale called him “as untranslatable as Leopardi.” Neither explained what makes him untranslatable. Is he steeped in some strain of Italianicity that, like certain wines, simply doesn’t travel well? The mawkishness of several of his anthology pieces (“La cavalla storna” and “X Agosto” come to mind) may have, at one time, played better in Italy than elsewhere, but his best poems are free of that vice, and their unsettling mysteries can survive translation. Is his poetry untranslatable because its virtues are inextricable from the materiality of its language? Again, no: he does have an exquisite ear, but he’s not some Mallarmé pushing toward pure sound.
Perhaps our neglect of Pascoli stems more from the vicissitudes of literary history than from untranslatability. His poetic moment—the last decade of the Italian nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth—is not a sexy one, nor was he part of a movement with a catchy name. Translators today troll their contemporaries; Dante gets a new suitor every week or two; even lonely Leopardi is now occasionally being courted, chastely. But I suspect most translators of Italian poetry will continue to be drawn to the enormously seductive modernist period, with Pascoli remaining just beyond their gaze. His misfortune, and ours.