Poetry News

On the Impossibility of Translating Giacomo Leopardi

By Harriet Staff

Alan Williamson at The Los Angeles Review of Books claims that Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi "is so notoriously difficult to translate that, as Italo Calvino once complained, 'beyond the borders of Italy, Leopardi simply doesn’t exist.'" However, Williamson is happy to point out a recent translation by Jonathan Galassi that will suffice for those of us who can't read Italiano.

Leopardi was extremely self-conscious about poetic technique. The manuscripts of some of his early poems have marginal notes citing comparable effects in Virgil and Dante. He was an innovator in Italian verse forms, blending the Dantean hendecasyllabic (the Italian equivalent of our iambic pentameter) with a seven-syllable line in long, irregularly rhymed strophes. His music, as previously mentioned, is one of the hardest elements to get across in translation. The first line of the “Night Song,”

Che fai tu, luna, in ciel? dimmi, che fai,

despite its prosaic literal meaning (“What are you doing, moon, up in the sky”), has a power, in its paired long vowels, whose closest equivalent in English would be Sir Philip Sidney’s comparably monosyllabic “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climbst the skies.”

Galassi generally — and quite sensibly — doesn’t try to reproduce such effects. But he has a remarkable ear for the dignified pacing of the original, so that I think anyone with even a little knowledge of Italian pronunciation could look over to the left-hand side of the page and catch something of Leopardi’s stately severity. I tend to agree with W. S. Merwin’s opinion that Galassi’s will be the “standard version for the language of our time.” As in his Montale translations, Galassi has a knack for finding the least deviation from the literal meaning that will please an Anglophone ear. Consider the following passage, from “Broom”:

Often I sit at night on these deserted
slopes which the hardened flood
clothes in a black that seems to undulate,
and over the sad plain
I see the stars
burning up above in purest blue

It’s instructive, here, to compare Galassi’s chief competitor, Eamon Grennan:

Often I sit out at night
On these forlorn slopes
Which the undulant rough crust of lava
Turns dark brown, and I see
In the clear blue evening the stars
Blazing down on the melancholy scene

The differences are slight. But where Greennan condenses the description to create a resonant line (“Which the undulant rough crust of lava”), Galassi follows Leopardi’s way of adding on phrases and clauses as he thinks things through. “[P]urest blue” is exactly what Leopardi says; he leaves “evening” to be inferred, not stated. “Forlorn” and “melancholy” are too Victorian, to an English ear; and “scene” is a mistake, since landa does refer to a “plain,” or at least “barren land” or a “moor.”

Read more about Leopardi's poetry in translation here.

Originally Published: October 5th, 2012
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