Kendrick Smithyman’s Campana to Montale
On the wet sand appear ideograms
Kendrick Smithyman’s response to gauche translations of Italian poems in a feature issue of Poetry Australia was to produce his own. In view of his scant knowledge of the Italian language, Smithyman sought assistance from the range of translations of Italian modernist poets that the University of Auckland library shelves carried. While Smithyman’s attempts to gain publication of his 211 “versions” as an anthology were unsuccessful, Jack Ross has ventured into the contemporary translation minefield, with an elegant and thought-provoking edition of Smithyman’s Italian project. How to review this bold act? At first I am in the dark. Literally. I am floundering in the lights-out, no-entry level of labiblioteca, with my hand settling upon Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, and Sereni, barely sure of what I have found. All Italian. Not a translation in sight. Should I sit in judgement and rate Smithyman’s versions in terms of profit and shortfall or should I loose my way, without Italian anchor, in Smithyman’s subjective estuaries? I get sidetracked into the jarring or knotty syntax of Montale at his delicious best.
How to review Smithyman’s anthology? Now that I am in the returned light of the library, I have discovered the gauche word, the ham-fisted leap, the miscalculated line break in the range of “translations” to be found on our library shelves. Bearing this blemished if not defective clan in mind, Smithyman’s audacity, and indeed achievement, seems all the more extraordinary.
like hen’s footprints. I look back
Like Ross, I shall take Eugenio Montale as my case in point. I shall return to Montale’s “musical expression,” not the honeyed tone of the lyric but to something harsh and abrupt. This is the poet who avoided embellishment yet who built intricate semantic layers, ghosts of his predecessors (Ovid, Plato, Dante, Petrarch), enigmatic ellipses, downright obscurity, and incandescent rhyme into the poem. The visible object was poetically turned to reveal flashes of psychic reality and of the anxious self. It would, in fact, be an intriguing mission for the bilingual scholar to develop the connections and disconnections between the poetics of Montale and those of Smithyman, both of course shifting and shuffling over a lifetime.
but see no shelters or wildfowl refuge.
Alongside Smithyman’s version of the untitled poem, “ Portami il girasole” (“Bring me the sunflower”), I have lined up the available translations. In Montale’s poem, the concrete detail of the first and third stanzas is undercut by the philosophical intervention of the second. In the array of translations, I immediately spot the seeds of a linguistic, if not a poetic squabble, as each version veers away from the original with miscues and the varying egotistical signatures or intrusions of the second author. George R. Kay has produced translations that successfully transfer the poem’s meaning yet remain less loyal to the notion that a poem operates on levels beyond but entwined with semantics. Joseph Carey, in the role of traditional translator, produces a “translation” that transfers the meaning superbly, pays heed to line breaks, and occasionally strikes a similar metre or line length. Yet, as in most translations, Montale’s aural effects have fled the page. In the light of Smithyman’s project, Jeremy Reed is the most intriguing example, as he too, is a poet who has set out to reproduce “versions” of the original. Inspired by Robert Lowell’s “freedom in handling Imitations and the dynamic lift he gave to the originals,” Reed proposed that for contemporary English readers versions are more valuable than strict translations. Reed aimed “to create the poem in English that Montale might have written in the last decade of the twentieth century.” Smithyman, I read, simply wanted to improve the awkward examples that he encountered in an Australian journal.
A tired or lame duck may have passed.
Here is my verdict: of all the versions/translations of “ portami il girasole,” and even with linguistic transgressions, I am drawn to Smithyman’s. Reed’s noteworthy intentions to animate the elusiveness, the experiential content, and the ambiguous elements of Montale’s poetry in order to lead the reader where he or she has never ventured (dared?) fail abysmally in this example. If, as Ross contends we read and learn more of Smithyman in his Montale versions, we are still offered an utterly beguiling “performance” of Montale. In contrast, Reed swamps us with his late-twentieth-century vocabulary and his foolish omissions to the extent that, as in many contemporary examples, the poems become something quite other. Thus the pleasure to be found in these poems is the pleasure of Reed, not Montale. Nothing wrong with that, and I find his poem beautifully elegant and spare, but in a collection that headlines Montale and his poetics, I am also keen for English readers to have closer access to the original.
Portami il girasole ch’io lo trapianti
Tendono alla chiarità le cose oscure,
Portami tu la pianta che conduce
Bring me the sunflower so I can plant it Bring me the sunflower and I’ll transplant
Obscure things are impelled towards clarity, Things out of darkness incline to the light
Bring me the plant which may lead us Bring me the flower whose one aspiration
Reed’s version, pared back to short lines, with its laid-back rhythm and scattered rhyme, reads well but Montale evaporates as Reed takes over. Where is the anxiety (“ l’ansietà”), the obscure things (“le cose oscure”), the bodies (“ i corpi”), the chances (“le venture”), the craziness (“ impazzito”)? Reed demonstrates that a “version” as opposed to a “translation” gives us licence to plunder the original in the manner of the flaneur or briccoleur and deposit traces of the original in what must be primarily acknowledged as our own creation. Contemporary poets, such as I stretched the point in Cookhouse with my English-to-English versions of Michele Leggott, Anne Kennedy and Susan Howe, take this poetic strategy further than Reed to become a version-in-conversation as opposed to a version-in-translation. Reed makes over Montale to suit himself and his contemporary context while Montale haunts the verse like a watered-down or redundant ghost. Smithyman makes over Montale to some degree, yet I witness allegiance to the source wherein Montale’s haunting presence is imperative.
I wouldn’t know how to decipher that language
Smithyman’s commitment to the source bears the attributes of a translator even though he negotiated the versions of others as opposed to the original text. Umberto Eco, in his analysis of the art of translation, suggests that faithfulness should be superseded by loyalty, allegiance, and piety. Eco argues that “translation is a form of interpretation” and that the translator sets out “to create the same effect.” Thus, in Eco’s view the translator of poetry ought to attempt to replicate aural and rhythmic effects, line lengths and line breaks along with the semantic layers. Such a procedure depends upon a negotiation of the original that will risk compromise but that will demand levels of satisfaction. For most bilingual poets, Eco’s tetchy demand seems like an impossible task and, in my view, any translation represents a ledger of loss. Thus, we have the current disposition towards versions which, at times, lets us get away with murder.
even if I were Chinese. One gust of wind
I am convinced that Smithyman approaches Montale with the benefit of his own startling syntax. Smithyman’s poetics of privacy, ambiguity, allusion, and the obscure infiltrate his idiosyncratic threads of realism along with an accumulation of concrete detail. At this point, I could also be speaking of Montale; thus, I imagine unarelazione simpatica between one and the other.
will be enough to wipe it out. Not true,
In Smithyman’s shift from Italian to English text, the misinterpretation of the translator may be viewed as the creative choice of the second poet. Yet in the light of Smithyman’s unconscious or conscious allegiance to the original, I can’t help recognising misunderstandings. For example, the pronoun “ tu” (you, singular), at times significant in Montale’s writings as a philosophical alter ego, is hi-jacked to become “us.” Or take Montale’s line, “e vapora la vita quale essenza” that Smithyman rewrites as “where life delivers itself into the finest spirit’ and that I translate as “and life evaporates that essence.” Mistranslations or subjective tangents? Elsewhere, Smithyman embellishes the poem with his personal adornments: an exclamation mark, an extra line, a wordy phrase, or an even richer choice of adjective and transports the reader further afield. Thus Montale’s “ nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino” becomes “in my ground burnt as may be by sea salt.” A literal translation would be “in my earth burnt by sea salt.” Smithyman has added the words “as may be” that we literally don’t need. Moreover, in Smithyman’s versions, Eco would cite, and indeed mourn, the loss of rhyme, line length and metre.5
that Nature is mute. It may talk nonsense haphazardly
Nevertheless, I encounter a range of analogous effects. At times the line length, metre and enjambment coincide in an interplay of subject matter/semantics and technical elements. If we return to Smithyman’s line, “in my ground burnt as may be by sea salt,” we find that his syllabic count upholds Montale’s more closely than my mine. We could also argue that Smithyman’s embellishments may be viewed as a positive feature rather than an egotistical intrusion. Ross echoes this point when, in his assessment of several versions of “Promenade by the Sea” (“ Lungomare”), he claims, “ Smithyman’s is a poem unafraid to depart from the original to give a more vivid sense of this literally electric scene.” In other words, Smithyman’s linguistic departures represent a sequence of poetic returns.
the only hope is that it doesn’t bother
As a bilingual scholar I felt obliged to negotiate, and in fact found great pleasure in the problematic divide, the Great Divide, between the Italian text and the English version. More than reviewing an anthology, I found myself ironically reviewing the very activity that I embark upon this year as the University of Auckland literary fellow. I am translating/versioning Elio Vittorini’s magnificent Conversazione in Siciliain such a way that my text establishes a “conversation” with the original from the distance of a different hemisphere, a different time, and from the point of view of a different gender. Smithyman moves across (trans) the Great Divide from the sides ( lati) of Italian (well, English versions) to the sides of English, inserting his own signature and his personal ornaments, yet somehow his performance is animated by a strong allegiance to the original, not at all pious but certainly loyal. Smithyman’s versions represent a tender conversation with the Italian poems; like the iconic sunflower, Smithyman’s conversation is flawed yet, more significantly, is vital and transporting.
too much about us.
After the Rain
On the wet sand stand. Ducking
1. The subheadings are taken from Smithyman’s version of Montale’s “After the Rain” (“ Dopo pioggia,” 62). Unable to locate the original, I experienced a pendulum effect of anxiety and freedom. I liked the way Smithyman’s version can stand as a playful exploration of mis/translation and decided to interrupt its progression with my own musings.
2. George R Kay, The Penguin Book of Italian Verse; Joseph Carey, Three Modern Italian Poets; Jeremy Reed, The Coastguard’s House; George Kay, Eugenio Montale Poesie/Poems.
3. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003).