Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and an autonomous region of Italy, perhaps best known in a literary sense for being the birthplace and home of Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. But Sardinia was also home to a number of other intellectuals, writers, and artists, including Sebastiano Satta (1867-1914), a journalist and lawyer who is widely considered Sardinia’s greatest poet.
While working as colleagues in the now defunct but still singular international MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong, we visited the island in 2014 as part of a contingent from the university and as guests of Beyond Thirty-Nine, an independent arts and culture platform. Our trip took the form of an immersion in various aspects of Sardinian culture, such as the masked ritualistic dance of the Mamuthones and the canto a tenore or polyphonic singing of pastoral songs. We were also exposed to the work of the island’s great writers and artists, among them Sebastiano Satta.
A committed socialist in the vein of Pablo Neruda, Satta spent his life advocating for the island’s working class, while his poetry (such as Versi Ribelli and Canti Barbaricini) celebrated the island’s terrain, especially the mountainous wilderness of the Barbagia region. We were introduced to Satta’s work with the caveat that his particular music and use of local dialect made translating him very difficult. Taking that as a challenge, we set about trying to render his work in English while retaining some of the lyricism of the original. The following translations were composed in Sardinia and performed at the open air gallery of acclaimed sculptor Pinuccio Sciola.
– James Scudamore and Ravi Shankar
An iconoclastic portrayal of Italian domestic spaces (the kitchen, the body), The Guest (L’ospite) is an examination of the tangled network of family, and especially of the lineage of women that extends from Elisa Biagini’s great-grandmother to herself. It explores the intimate space that belonged to those women, and the ways in which that space made them both slaves and tyrants. The domestic interior and the female body often become one another in these poems in ways that are frightening and illuminating (in the first poem of this excerpt, for instance, skin that used to be butter has now become a paper bag for bread; in the last, dinner plates are white blood cells). In this way these poems exhibit the dangers and powers of the body’s ability to transform and morph into the spaces that it occupies.
One of the primary challenges of translating this startling and intensely physical poetry is how to render the sound and vivid imagery evoked by the Italian verse in English. We read these poems out loud to each other many times, both in Italian and English, as we worked on these translations, in an effort to reproduce that tactile and immediate quality of Biagini’s language in our work. Elisa Biagini is a translator of Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and Lucille Clifton, and their directness of language has definitely influenced her Italian writing; another challenge was to allow those echoes to return in these English translations.
– Sarah Stickney and Diana Thow
Reading Dino Campana’s Orphic Songs for the first time is much like watching a David Lynch film. Thrilling and even a bit disturbing, it is guaranteed haunt you like only the most beautiful of nightmares can. For Campana’s poems function as unexpected and striking visions, loosely wrapped in classical Italian, but ready for modern consumption. Through the humble means of repetition and imagery, they tightly grip the ordinary and concrete, taking the overlooked or willfully ignored and turning it on its side until the sublimity of the grotesque leaks through. These poems are filled with equal parts danger and recklessness, as well as all that is human and bright. Once released from their Italian and slightly rusty cages, they crystallize a nascent urban vivacity which continues to ring through our lives today, connecting with us contemporary readers perhaps even better than when they were originally published. Because, as Campana demonstrates in Oh poem poem poem, even a woman screaming for her little dog can be a stunning instant of clarity.
A troubled and lonely soul who spent his youth in and out of asylums (his own unwell mother reportedly claimed he was the Antichrist) and wandering the cities of Europe on the brink of World War I, Campana infused his works with the electric energy that was pulsating through city streets at that time. The beauty he presents is one that must be snatched from the barbaric, for it is feverish, weak, and on the verge of certain death. And it is this urgency, that of a perceived madman searching for purity, of a soul on fire running for safety amidst the chaos of cruelty, that continues to make his poems unique and captivating to this day.
– Sonya Gray Redi
The following selection of poems comes from Vito Bonito’s most recent collection of poetry, Soffiati via. The title could simply be translated as “Blown away” but it is something more. The title refers to a state of nirvana, an otherworldliness where there is neither suffering nor desire. The poems are short, often sharp, and create a chorus of ethereal voices. They are filled with violence and beauty, and I was drawn to them because of their unique use of the Italian language. At times the syntax is markedly disjointed and childish, yet equally as often the poems use Latin phrases and references to the poetry of Montale and Pascoli, and the films of Herzog and Korine.
Translating these poems has been an education, a way into a new world. A feature of Bonito’s work I particularly admire is the level of moral distance the poems take from the brutal actions they narrate; the poems are free of judgment. Bonito asks readers to push themselves and their understandings of compassion beyond the sentimentality that’s often mistaken for true emotion.
The poems are voices from truncated childhoods. When I first read the poems, it was unclear to me what continued to pull me in, but in the end I knew it was this shortened yet eternal infancy that can call to each of us. Learning that Giovanni Pascoli is one of Bonito’s main influences led me to read more Pascoli as I translated. I learned that Pascoli wrote about the voice of childhood, and how it remains within each of us, never quite abandoning us, for better or worse. I was reminded of Avital Ronell’s assertion in the chapter from her 2012 book Loser Sons: Politics and Authority entitled “On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood: Lyotard: Kid-Tested”: “Childhood, in any case, will leave us with inhuman surges of deregulation, with a level of fear and distress that can come up at any point in the trajectory of so-called human development.” Bonito gives voice to the pain and disenfranchisement alive within each of us. His poems give us the opportunity to experience the distress and confusion that often characterize childhood.
– Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
Pier Paolo Pasolini, like Pablo Neruda in the generation prior to him and Wanda Coleman in the generation subsequent to him, was not only one of the great civic poets of his epoch, but one of the supreme lyric poets, although lyrical poetry can very well be a civic one and vice versa. Pasolini’s first book of poems was written in Friulian, the dialect native to the region in northeast Italy where his mother grew up in the town of Casarsa. It is from this book that the four Friulian poems translated here are drawn. The book, which appeared in 1942 under the title Poesia a Casarsa, was comprised of 14 poems and self-published by Pasolini. He had chosen Friulian in part as a counter to the authoritarian linguistic policies of the fascist regime. In fact, Pasolini, who had come with his mother and brother to live in Casarsa during the war, had joined a group of young people who had formed an association meant to preserve and defend the dialect. To write in Friulian was thus an overarching politico-cultural affirmation, and all the more because it was not even a second familial language for him but rather a learned language. To write in Friulian was for Pasolini an affirmation of what he saw as the more emphatic authenticities of agrarian-peasant class struggle and existential immanence. Friulian was the language spoken by those whom he “loved in all tenderness and vehemence.” It was thus a self-propelled “regression from one language to another, to one more pure.” As Massimo Cacciari has written in a marvelous essay on Pasolini’s Friulian verse (“Pasolini Provencal?”), if Goethe could speak of “singing a song in an unknown language” then just because “Friulian is not his language” Pasolini is able to find the pure “language of song.” Shortly after the book’s appearance Pasolini received a letter from the well-known literary critic, Gianfranco Contini, telling him that “he liked the book so much he would write a review of it.” The joy Pasolini felt was one he described as an absolute fulfillment such that a poet would never again need more. “I danced along the balustrades of the University of Bologna!” And already in this first book we see in the immediacies and intensities, in the erotics and exultations of his lyricism the shimmering of an ever exhilarating and deeply affectionate intelligence, one that has always been at the center of his verse.
His justly celebrated poem, “The Ashes of Gramsci,” which appeared in 1957 in a book of the same title, made him famous and won him a place among the great poets and civic poets of the twentieth century. But too often this poem becomes the primary focus of commentary and unfortunately leads to neglect of the enchanting and sustained brilliance of other poems in the book, such as the unsurpassable “The Apennines.” But if the long form suited the essayistic and civic side of Pasolini’s poetic project, he still found his way back to that “singing of song” in concentrated and short poems such as this wonderful suite of “nocturnes” which are the Italian poems translated here. Written during the years 1943 to 1949, they first appeared in Pasolini’s 1958 volume of poems L’usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (The Nightingale of the Catholic Church), which collected together the verse from the aforementioned years. The force of intelligence and existential tenderness–the dynamism and vibrato of a mimetic of lyrico-social and lyrico-critical reckoning–ever interlace in this diction so clear, so serene, so joyous, for all its ache and anguish and for all the analytical weight it has taken upon itself. Like the music of Frédéric Chopin and the paintings of Naoko Haruta, Pasolini’s “nocturnes” are the transcription of the absolutely finest points of soul and sentience.
– Steve Light
Carlo Carabba’s poetry embodies two of the more exemplary qualities we find in Italian poetry: a clear and serene diction coupled with a philosophical train of mind and experience at once imbued in and yet derived from the durations and trajectories of everyday life in all its various and variegated immediacies. An especially pleasing verve animates a verse that sparkles with all the vivacities of lyrical and poetic discovery. A philosophical poet? In Anglo-Saxon countries this kind of characterization can produce certain refractory responses. But it is because the term, the category, this manner of poetic being are invariably misunderstood. After all, poetry is always reflection, and the more admirable, the more consequential poetries are those whose gifts to us are not limited solely to the realms of affectivity, but to the realm of lived and ideational effectivities as well.
– Steve Light
Gabriele Tinti is a writer fascinated by boxing. His micro-essays and dramatic reenactments probe our frayed tolerance for the cruelty of the sport in the modern era. With great compassion, Tinti sketches recent bouts and the stories of boxers that are at risk of perdition. Many of these boxers were badly used; their blood-sport struggle became passing entertainment. Tinti’s stories of heroic and often tragic perseverance push us to contemplate social issues that engulf us well beyond the ring. This selection is taken from Tinti’s All Over, published in 2013 by Mimesis Edizioni.
– Nicholas Benson
Devi Priya’s writing recuperates the India of the past, and issues a challenge to the India of the present. Her essay on the Mandala discusses an often faddish or academic subject without conceding to either camp. The author has had an eventful life, and alongside the argument introduced in the essay’s opening–setting the record straight about the origins and significance of the Mandala–one finds a profound record of the India of another time, before partition. Her memoir, entitled More than one life (Più di una vita), from which the excerpt here is taken, is a lyrical recounting of the shared past of the author and her country. As Devi writes:
Just as the cane thrown by the beautiful young country girl from Rajputana mortally wounds an enormous wild boar fleeing the royal hunt, and in the same moment pierces the prince’s heart, so one is captivated by the memory of a time that is this story’s source and inspiration.
The story is not always linear: as it moves through the childhood, adolescence, and youth of the author, it follows the historical period of the ’30s up to India’s declaration of independence, and beyond. Through an ancient, intimate, and familiar world the reader is shown those ideals, social and cultural, that were transformed into the Beauty celebrated by the mystical poets, and the carefully selective memory of an India that for centuries was adept in preserving the useful and the positive.
In the story, nature, landscapes, aromas, and animals are all living presences, inseparable from the happiest years, rich with knowledge, at school and university, with dear friends and in the good company of many others, at joyful festivals, in the India of the Ganges and the Himalayas. And then among those who practice ancient creative arts, in contact with the local, rural people, discovering their own distant origins.
Memories interweave with the present as in a dance, guiding our protagonist to reveal, according to the rhythm of her intuition, the progressive realization of her “identity.”
Riding along in life’s carriage, the present appears before one’s eyes for a blurred instant, while the past takes on the limpid serenity of a field of flowering mustard, flowers of a shade of yellow called…”basantì,” stretching all the way to the horizon, harbingers of spring… The impression remained in my mind like spring personified. “Basant” is spring, “basantì” the soft yellow of the shoot: its color. Like all things, it comes and goes and returns. You await the point of its return in the cycle…
– Nicholas Benson
The Crime of a Soldier outlines the complicated relationship between a war criminal and his daughter. He is a man who feels perpetually hounded, followed and spied on. He believes that he is innocent, that he was just obeying orders, and that his only crime is to be a defeated soldier. His daughter disagrees–her father’s guilt has been established, without appeal. Theirs is a thwarted bond, which seems to take a turn when the father discovers the Cabala, where letters may also stand for numbers and hint at the future. De Luca depicts his characters with a sustained intensity. In this captivating plot, the rhythm of the narration acutely reflects the daughter’s inner disquiet.
Miransù is the name of a place and Monica Sarsini’s family home outside Florence, in the Valdarno. The book is in two voices, Monica Sarsini’s and her grandmother’s; the voices alternate. Each voice follows different memories about the place and relations with generations of family. Stylistically, the voices differ as well: Sarsini’s is intensely physical, though reflective; her grandmother’s more direct, like speech.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).