On Friday afternoon in the courtyard of the Casa delle Letterature, in Rome’s historic center, an audience sat under the orange trees listening to poetry being read aloud in Italian and in English. A fountain contributed its own quiet music, as falling water caused the maidenhair fern to tremble; from time to time, gulls from the nearby Tiber laughed overhead; and church bells loudly called people to evening prayer. But for those who were listening, nothing really broke the spell of a beautiful May afternoon, and of poetry itself.
A double coincidence gave rise to the American Academy’s literature “pillar” event this year, the subject of which was “Translating Poetry.” Distinguished American poet Robert Hass is William B. Hart Poet-in-Residence at the AAR for the month of May; he is also the major American translator of the work of Polish Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). In addition, Farrar Straus Giroux in New York has just published The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, a comprehensive facing-page anthology of work by 73 Italian poets as rendered by 147 translators, edited by poet and translator Geoffrey Brock, who in fact worked on the anthology while he was a Visiting Artist at the AAR. In the event, the AAR was able to gather no less than twelve poets and ten translators for these events. A line from a poem by Italian poet Giovanni Giudici, “C’è più onore in tradire che in essere fedeli a metà” (“There is more honor in betrayal than in being half faithful”) provided a motto for this celebration of the difficult art of translating poetry.
The AAR’s “Translating Poetry” events began on Friday evening, May 4 at the Villa Aurelia with a reading by Mr. Hass, joined by Polish poets Julia Hartwig and Adam Zagajewski and American translator Clare Cavanagh, of work by poets including Hartwig, Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, and Zagajewski. Poland’s tragic twentieth-century history under Nazism and Communism was brilliantly and humanely articulated, in these readings, and indeed the conversation that followed, between poets and translators, explored not only the difficulty of moving between Polish and English, but the unique balance achieved, by postwar Polish poets, between autobiography and an engagement with myth and history.
Following a break for dinner with the AAR community, five contemporary Italian poets were joined by their English and American translators for a first reading of Italian poetry in translation. Edoardo Albinati, appearing with poet-translators Susan Stewart and Geoffrey Brock, read from his own work and from that of Giovanni Pascoli, Eugenio Montale, and Nelo Risi (Mr. Risi, a senior Italian poet who lives in Rome, was invited to participate in the program but had to decline for reasons of poor health). Antonella Anedda read from her own work and from that of Franco Fortini with her translators Sarah Arvio and Jamie McKendrick, including one poem of her own offered in translations by both translators and a poem written by Anedda in the Sard dialect. Patrizia Cavalli gave beautifully-enunciated readings of her own poems and of work by Umberto Saba, with Brock and Stewart assisting with the English translations. Accompanied by translators Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan, former AAR Italian Affiliated Fellow Massimo Gezzi read from work by Bartolo Cattafi and Eugenio Montale as well as a poem by Andrea Zanzotto, “La perfezione della neve” (“The Perfection of the Snow”) that, in its complex auditory effects and wordplay, made clear the huge challenges of translation. A highlight of the evening was a reading by Librex Montale Prize-winning Milanese dialect poet Franco Loi (b. 1930) from his own poems and from work by Cesare Pavese and Clemente Rèbora. Returning Rome Prize Fellow Jennifer Scappettone, whose translation Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli has just received the prestigious Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Award, closed the evening with a reading of poems by Amelia Rosselli, including an extraordinary sound file of Rosselli reading, or rather singing and intoning, her own work.
“Translating Poetry” continued on the afternoon of Friday, May 4 at the Casa delle Letterature with a reading of English and American poems and their translations into Italian that exploited the fact that many of the poets translated in the series of events were also translators, and many of the translators also poets. Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan offered their translations of work including iconic poems by John Ashbery and Mark Strand; Antonella Anedda presented her translations of poems by her own translators Sarah Arvio and Jamie McKendrick. Heiskell Arts Director Karl Kirchwey joined forces with Italian poet Franco Buffoni to read work by Keats (“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”), Byron, Seamus Heaney, and a young Scots poet named Kate Clanchy. Mr. Kirchwey, joined by Sarah Arvio, also assisted Patrizia Cavalli in presenting selections from her definitive translations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello. Robert Hass was able to read the original of his own poem “Forty Something” and poems by Louise Glűck and W.S. Merwin, with Massimo Gezzi reading Italian translations, and also read his well-known poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” before Guido Mazzoni read an Italian translation of the same poem completed for the occasion. Mr. Abeni then moderated a spirited conversation in Italian between Anedda, Buffoni, Cavalli, Egan, and Mazzoni about the challenges of translating from English into Italian.
By now the cool Roman dusk had fallen (one poet put on gloves), and poets, translators and audience members adjourned briefly for a reception in the courtyard of the Casa delle Letterature. They shortly reconvened under lights for a second reading by contemporary Italian poets from their own work. This had in fact begun even before the break, with Franco Buffoni’s moving recital from memory of Giovanni Pascoli’s childhood reminiscence “L’aquilone” (“The Kite”) with Geoffrey Brock reading Seamus Heaney’s graceful translation of the poem’s terza rima stanzas. Leading contemporary Italian poet Valerio Magrelli read from the work of Carlo Betocchi and from his own work, including a poem, “L’imballatore” (“The Mover”), in a translation by Anthony Molino, that describes the process of translation itself. Mr. Molino also appeared with Lucio Mariani in a reading of Mariani’s work and a poem by Bartolo Cattafi. Former Italian Affiliated Fellow Guido Mazzoni read from his own work and then presented poems by Eugenio Montale (“Piccolo testamento”/ “Little Testament”) and Franco Fortini (“Sonetto dei sette cinesi”/ “Sonnet of the Seven Chinese”) that he suggested were bookends, offering contrasting views of the relation between self and world and the role of art. The final reading closed with a special appearance by senior Italian poet Maria Luisa Spaziani (b. 1924), who read her gorgeously-textured and enigmatic poems in a husky voice that seemed to rise out of the darkness.
The evening’s final event was a discussion about translating from Italian into English moderated by Geoffrey Brock and including Arvio, McKendrick, Molino, Scappettone, and Stewart. Mr. Brock’s opening question concerned metaphors for translation, etymologically a carrying-across, but in other poems heard over the two days compared to moving men or to playing the piano. Like a saprophyte, said McKendrick; like stealing, said Molino; like paint-by-numbers, said Arvio; like a network or web, said Scappettone. One member of the audience likened translation to restoring a building. All present left this conversation, and indeed the two days’ sharing of poetry and ideas, exhilarated by both the impossibility of translation, and by its rich rewards.
Video Highlights from the event can be viewed below:
Modern and Contemporary Polish Poetry in English Translation
Modern and Contemporary Italian Poetry in English Translation
English and American Poetry in Italian Translation