Reading in Translation
Alexandros (video clip, August 1, 2023)
Reading in Translation (February 27, 2023)
A foundational figure in the history of modern Italian poetry, Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912) is known for his unsettling modern mythography that stages the frictions between the classical tradition and the modern world. Translations of his verses into English have increased in number in the last decade and a half, in part after Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney paid homage to the Italian poet who always defied straightforward classifications. After Heaney translated some of Pascoli’s poems in 2009 (some issued posthumously in 2013), several new translations were published in a relatively short succession. In 2010, Richard Jackson, Deborah Brown, and Susan Thomas published Last Voyage: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli; in 2017, Alessandro Baruffi published The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli; in 2019 Taije Silverman and Marina della Putta Johnston brought out Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli; and in the same year, Geoffrey Brock translated Last Dream. Joining this group of Pascoli’s translators, Elena Borelli and James Ackhurst render into English the author’s 1904 collection Convivial Poems, in an elegant dual-language edition out from Italica Press in 2022.
Like their predecessors, Borelli and Ackhurst are faced with the daunting assignment of translating Pascoli’s somewhat paradoxical modernist classicism, written in a literary language that is both simple and sophisticated, archaicizing, and yet fresh and innovative. They succeed admirably in their task, adopting a thoughtful translation strategy that successfully delivers Pascoli’s poetic idiom in all its musical crispness and evocative force. The translation is the result of a well-matched duo: Ackhurst is a poet and translator, while Borelli is a scholar of modern and contemporary Italian literature, in particular of Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio, authors associated with the fin de siècle movement of Decadentism. Borelli explains in her insightful introduction — part translator’s note, part scholarly assessment — how the translators in reality opted to implement a variety of strategies. Pascoli flaunts his deep and extensive knowledge of classical literature, whose genres, styles, and meters he reproduces with erudite gusto.
The collection of poems therefore presents the translators with the great rhythmical variety of different meters found in ancient Greek poetry; a heterogeneous style that imitates alternatively Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho; the insistently paratactic syntax of ancient epic poems; the semantic and onomatopoetic richness of Pascoli’s verses; and the etymological puns, archaic spellings, and the highly specialized jargon and technical terminology of his lexicon. Borelli and Ackhurst’s translation carefully avoids those semantic and syntactical peculiarities that could impede a smooth reading experience for a modern audience but without sacrificing the collection’s clearly recognizable classical genealogy. Homeric epithets, quotes, and formulaic expressions are preserved within metric contexts that remain highly readable. Meter is adapted to specific circumstances. The translators sometimes decide to render Pascoli’s verses with a rhyme scheme, sometimes with a prose-like flow, and occasionally preserve the original’s metric structure of hendecasyllables.
The overall result of the translators’ considerate choices and attention to detail is an extremely enjoyable rendering of Pascoli’s verse, an elegantly sophisticated and balanced translation that is philologically sensible and yet attentive to the needs of contemporary Anglophone readers, a translation that renders justice to one of the most exciting works of modern Italian poetry. In addition, readers are guided with a welcome apparatus of support. Borelli and Ackhurst provide a glossary of terms that readers will undoubtedly find useful. Particularly felicitous is the addition of footnotes, always appropriately measured and never intrusive, wherever an explanatory annotation of the text is required.
For all its homage to classical antiquity, Pascoli’s collection reads like an extraordinarily innovative text. Far from presenting a stale imitation of ancient lore, the Convivial Poems engage with tradition to represent a modern sense of tragedy, attempting to offer a secular palliative to the profound social and cultural transformations of modernity and the ravaging rise of industrial capitalism. Pascoli’s ancient heroes are often enigmatic figures dwelling on the threshold of two worlds, always caught in some sort of mysterious metamorphosis that propels them into an unknown future. Their inner turmoil and intimate aspirations, described by Borelli’s previous scholarship in the context of an ethics of desire, reflect and refract the social anxieties of Pascoli’s own time. One suspects that precisely the historical significance of Pascoli’s modern mythography is what encouraged Borelli and Ackhurst to embark upon their translation odyssey in the first place. With almost radiophonic precision, they capture and amplify Pascoli’s voice, a voice that still speaks to readers who ponder our own current paradigm shifts.
Pascoli’s engagement with the Greek classics is a spirited dialogue in which different approaches are discernible. His poems either explore less famous or peripheral episodes from mythological lore, integrate well-known tales with his own story, or introduce alternative endings to familiar myths. In “The Blind Man of Chios,” a bard resembling Homer reveals to a maiden, reminiscent of Nausicaa, the story of how he acquired both his poetic prowess and his blindness when he unknowingly challenged a goddess. Divine gift and curse are accepted with great modesty as he offers to sing, not with the voice of divine inspiration, but simply with the best of his human abilities. Similarly, in “The Lyre of Achilles,” the Homeric hero spends the final night before his death playing the instrument, the last distraction before accepting his fate. Another Trojan hero is Anticlos, a warrior briefly mentioned in The Odyssey, hiding in the wooden horse with the other Greek soldiers. Helen, suspecting foul play, calls out their names, imitating the voices of the enemies’ wives. No one falls for the trick, except Anticlos, who succumbs to his yearning for home and his wife.
The psychological complexity of these fictional characters is embodied by Pascoli’s Odysseus who declares to his comrades, “Compagni, come il nostro mare io sono, / ch’è bianco all’orlo, ma cilestro in fondo,” beautifully rendered “Friends, you see, I am like our sea / white on the edge, but blue deep down” (108–109). In terms of style, these two verses are a good example of the translators’ dexterity: the inserted direct address “you see” illustrates how Borelli and Ackhurst draw out from the original verse a modulation in linguistic register that is clearly present but implicit in Pascoli’s phrasing and syntax. The final double alliteration of the two occlusives suggests the bubbling of rough sea waters, compensating here for Pascoli’s interspersed onomatopoeia in the original.
Pascoli’s Odysseus is certainly worth following in his final and mostly inward voyage. The author imagines the Homeric hero grown dissatisfied with his sedentary life in Ithaca in “The Last Journey,” a longer poem contained in Convivial Poems. Odysseus leaves hearth and home, in the hope to relive his youthful adventures, only to be disappointed by what he discovers. The Sirens remain silent, Circe is absent, and Polyphemus never existed. Was Odysseus’ adventurous voyage the product of a fanciful imagination, the result of vacuous braggadocio, or a tale of crafty inventions? The text makes a nod to a long tradition of retellings, sequels to the Trojan war hero’s checkered homecoming. But differently from Dante’s ambivalent moralizing of Ulysses’ folle volo or Lord Alfred Tennyson’s more autobiographical wanderlust, Pascoli’s unorthodox version of the Homeric figure is characterized by a persistent melancholy and a profound identity crisis. Odysseus asks the mute Sirens, to whom he supposedly returns, “Solo mi resta un attimo. Vi prego! Ditemi almeno chi sono io! Chi ero!” / “I have but one instant! I beg you! Tell me at least who I am, who I was!” (144–145). Pascoli endows Odysseus with a disconcerting longing, a nostalgia without nóstos, a search for meaning, knowledge, and identity that ends with Odysseus’ death on the shores of the island of spurned Calypso the concealer, who now withholds secrets forever.
Borelli and Ackhurst’s translation restores the knotty and convulsive energy that animates Pascoli’s figures, less epic heroes and more fragile human beings, who stare into the abyss of modern life with bubbling restlessness, existential angst, and occasionally serene resignation. Their effective rendition, a delight of interpretive acumen and stylistic grace, delivers into English an essential literary work that will appeal to anyone interested in Pascoli, Italian literature, and modern poetry.
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London Grip (2023)
‘Where is the present of a language? How could we give expression to thought, especially meaningful thought, for even one generation, if we did not turn back while moving forward? Ancient literature!…What literature is not ancient, if what we call new continues to stir up ancient life.’ “A Poet of Dead Language” – 1898 commemorative speech of Giovanni Pascoli.
In Pascoli’s Convivial Poems we find a searching exploration of the ancient past and the present. The book’s back cover states that like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, Convivial Poems revisits the classical world to draw new symbols for the modern condition. This is a large claim and I unequivocally agree. Pascoli was not only a poet but a renowned teacher of the classics. The collection is a history of antiquity that includes the ancient Greek poets (Sappho and Homer) then continues towards Alexander the Great, the Roman empire and the birth of Christ: with major players like Ulysees mingling with lesser known characters.
Pascoli has the ability to make the ancient world live intensely in the modern with a profundity only matched, though very differently, by the great Alexandrian poet C.P.Cafavy. Convivial Poems is probably Pascoli’s greatest achievement and possesses a wonderful narrative drive. They are seventeen long poems containing many characters but principally poets, beggars and old rejuvenated adventurers where poetry is viewed as a blessing and a curse.
Amongst my favourite poems of the group are: “The Sleep of Odysseus” (Odysseus falls asleep on his boat as he leaves his homeland that appears to fade as in a dream); “The Poet of the Helotes” (Hesiod is rebuked by an old slave –‘Then you are a wandering poet, and you turn falsehood into truth, but you can’t sing the truth’); “The Last Journey” (Odysseus is now a bored old man living in Ithaca. He sets sail again, with his aged crew, to undertake the journey of his youth and replay his adventures yet it’s not the same as ‘old age is a calmer sea’); and “The Good Tidings” (The end of paganism and the beginnings of Christianity viewed with ironic uncertainty). And yet all seventeen are wonderful achievements that have been magnificently translated by Elena Borelli and James Ackhurst.
If I have one specially favourite poem then it is probably “The Last Journey” and though it’s impossible, to extract lines from such integral journey poetry like this, I’ve chosen twenty seven lines of Pascoli from the section entitled “The Truth,”
The old man saw the Sirens
open up their heavy eyelids
and stare at the new sun
or at him on his black ship.
And on the deadly calm of the sea,
he raised his voice, loud and steady:
“I’m the one who returns to know!
I have seen much, as you see me now.
But everything I looked on in the world
looked back and asked: “Who am I?”
That secret force, silent and gentle,
pushed the ship on, ever forward.
the old man saw a great pile of human
bones and wrinkled skins wrapped about
near the two Sirens, their motionless bodies
standing out on the shore like rocks in the sea.
“I see that these old bones of mine
will increase that heap. Yet speak to me, Sirens!
Tell me one truth, only one truth
before I die, so that I can say I’ve lived.”
But the secret force was inexorably
pushing the ship forward, faster and faster.
Already the high brows of the Sirens
rose over the ship, their gaze fixed.
“I have but one instant! I beg you!
Tell me at least who I am, who I was!”
But the ship broke against the rocks in the sea.
Pascoli is a complex yet very approachable poet. You could first try Seamus Heaney’s translation of “The Kite”, one of Pascoli’s most famous and loved poems;… throw yourself into the haunting imagery of Convivial Poems.
— Alan Price
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