Translating Leopardi for contemporary readers
By Tim PARKS
Leopardi was himself a practiced translator and in line with the Zibaldone’s constant attention to language, or rather languages, he includes the word ‘translation’ in his index and lists 27 entries that deal with the subject: one of the first immediately positions translation withi n the force field – one of the book’s dominant themes – that sets a detached, manipulative intellect in conflict with emotion and spontaneity:
“There’s no doubt that what is most beautiful in the arts and in writing comes from nature and not from studying or affectation. But a translator is obliged to use affectation, I mean he has to struggle to express himself in someone else’s style and personality and to repeat what another person said after that person’s fashion and manner. So you can see how unlikely it is that fine literature is going to be well translated, since a good translation would inevitable be made up of properties that jar with each other and seem incompatible and contradictory. Likewise the mind, spirit, and capacities of the translator. This is especially true when one of the main qualities of the original consists in its not being affected, but natural and spontaneous, something the translator of his very nature cannot be.”
Certainly one of the first problems the translator faces in the Zibaldone is that the voice is uninhibited and spontaneous to the point of impatience, piling up clauses one on top of another in Leopardi’s habitual sense of scandal at the distance between reality and received wisdom. Some sentences are monstrously long and bizarrely assembled, shifting from formal rhetorical structures to the most flexible use of apposition, juxtaposition, inference, and implication, the whole being liberally peppered with abbreviations, foreign terms, and etc. It is also an eccentric voice, if only because in the early nineteenth century ‘proper’ Italian was spoken and written by fewer than 5% of Italians, and of course Leopardi’s Italian had been overwhelmingly learned from books, mainly old books, largely foreign books, his range of personal acquaintance, at least in the early and most prolific years of the diary, being drastically limited to his family’s circle of friends in the fairly remote and backward town of Recanati. Most of all, though, this is a voice under strain, working at the limit of the writer’s youthful mental powers as he seeks to turn intuition and reflection into a history of the human psyche, often using his own shorthand terms and constantly latching onto any syntax that comes his way, old or new, to keep the argument moving forward. In general, reading this prose, it is almost impossible, even for the native speaker, let alone the English translator, to separate out what is the standard language of the time, what deliberately archaic, what idiosyncratic, and so on.
In addition to this personal, urgent spoken flavor – something absolutely essential for both our enjoyment and understanding of the author’s ideas – there is nevertheless the fact that the Zibaldone is also a scientific text, an immense work of anthropology, psychology and philosophy, in which accurate and consistent use of terminology is of the essence. Here matters are made more problematic by the fact that over the years Leopardi himself alters the sense he gives to some key words as his understanding of his subject deepens; amor proprio, for example (selflove or self-regard) which at the beginning of the work is more or less synonymous with egoismo (egoism, selfishness, self-centeredness) is gradually but in the end emphatically distinguished from it, self-regard now being seen positively as an essential precondition of any kind of project or enthusiasm, while egoismo becomes the automatic, crass, unthinking and selfish protection of one’s own interests and safety, a quality more associated with fear and retreat than with hope and openness.
Meantime a word like “illusion” which at the beginning of the book might seem to have the meaning that we would normally attribute to it, of something incorrect and ingenuous, a false projection, an error to be put aside as soon as possible, soon takes on its more characteristic ‘Leopardian’ sense of ‘that sort of belief or enthusiasm or hope’ that allows us to act as if life had some meaning and purpose: hence love between man and woman is an ‘illusion’; likewise Christianity, religion, beliefs of all kinds, patriotism, and friendship. In general an illusion, for Leopardi, is something worth cultivating and sustaining, a spring for positive action, even if this means deliberately fooling oneself and being less lucid than one might be. Indeed to understand Leopardi’s use of the word ‘illusion’ and its changing validity in different periods of the human psyche’s development is to understand his sense of the pathos of the modern human condition, on the one hand bent on applying reason to destroy illusion, and on the other in desperate need of some principle to give it a sense of purpose; except that in a meaningless world any such principle could only be, as Leopardi sees it, an ‘illusion’.
Yet if, as translator, one should decide to be guided above all by the criterion of accuracy, by a search for the absolute, academic, scientific equivalent of all the terms used, as if the only thing that mattered were the semantics of the debate, Leopardi himself warns of the dangers.
“… exactness [in translation] does not necessarily mean faithfulness, etc. and another language loses its character and dies in yours, if yours, in receiving it, loses its character, something that can happen even if none of your language’s grammatical rules have been broken.”
Hence style and voice, and likewise the play between individual voice and common language are both crucial to Leopardi.
“Perfect translation consists in this, that the translated author does not seem, for example, Greek in Italian or French in German, but the same in Italian or German as he is in Greek or French. This is what’s difficult and not possible in all languages … In German it’s easy to translate in such a way that an author is Greek, Latin, Italian or French in German, but not so that he is the same in German as he was in his language. He can never be that in the language of translation, if he stays Greek, French, etc. In which case the translation, however accurate, is not a translation, because the author is not like that, I mean doesn’t sound for example to the Germans the way he does to the Greeks or French, and doesn’t produce in German readers more or less the same effect he produces in the French readers.”
So, the translator approaching the Zibaldone finds himself obliged to be semantically precise, otherwise the subtlety of the debate Leopardi is engaged in will be lost, but attentive too to the shifting meaning of the terms as the diary progresses; at the same time he is encouraged to reproduce, mimic, or ‘affect’ (to use Leopardi’s word), the vitality and excitement of the text, which is itself an enactment of the tension between intellect and emotion, a tension that forms such a large part of the book’s subject matter, and finally he must try to do all this in such a way that Leopardi’s voice has the same sound to an English ear as it does to an Italian.
This last injunction simply cannot be respected. Leopardi’s idiosyncratic use of language will always have a very special flavor to Italians, coming as it does just before the country’s unification and the systematic linguistic standardization that was gradually imposed in the second half of the 19th century. All Italian schoolchildren study a little Leopardi and for all of them that voice is absolutely individual and memorable, in part for the particular way it orders the words in the sentence and then again for its creation of a curiously intimate atmosphere of archaism, something achieved, curiously enough, without actually referring back, whether lexically or syntactically, to any previous use of the Italian language that ever was. A translator can hint at these idiosyncrasies and curiosities, but he or she simply cannot reproduce the full effect of this highly individual author on his fellow native speakers.
At the practical level, paragraph by paragraph one is looking at questions like, Do I keep the page-long sentences as they are, or do I break them up? Do I make the book more immediately comprehensible for English readers than it is for present-day Italians (for whom footnotes giving a modern Italian paraphrase are sometimes necessary) ideally aligning the reading experience with that of the original text’s contemporary readers (though actually there were no contemporary readers since the Zibaldone was not published until long after Leopardi’s death)? Above all, do I allow all the writer’s Latinisms – most but not all entirely standard in Italian – to come through in the English, using words of Latin origin, something that would inevitably give the prose a more formal, austere feel, or do I go for Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and phrasal verbs to get across the work’s curiously excited intimacy?
All of these questions relating to approach and style, many of them typical of any translation project, but some of them absolutely specific to Leopardi and the Zibaldone, were, in the case of this particular translation, unexpectedly complicated by the fact that just as I got down to work a team of seven translators and two specialist editors based in Birmingham, England, published the first unabridged and fully annotated English edition of the Zibaldone, a simply enormous task. So now there was the further question of whether I should look at their version before starting mine, after finishing, or not at all.
Well, it only makes sense after finishing a difficult translation to check another version of the same text if there is one; there is no point in publishing something with straightforward semantic errors if these can be avoided by looking at someone else’s efforts. On the other hand there would equally be no point in my producing a translation that was merely an echo of theirs.
In the event I decided to look at the Translator’s Note in the new edition and a few parts of the translation that did not correspond to the extracts I was translating, just to get a sense of how they had dealt with the various issues of style. Immediately I realized that these translators had faced a greater dilemma than I did. Seven translators and two editors would all have heard Leopardi’s voice and responded to his singular project, his particular brand of despair, in their own ways; but one can’t publish a text with seven (or nine) different voices. Strategies must have been agreed and a single editor must ultimately have gone through all 2,000-plus pages to even things out. This no doubt meant establishing a standard voice that all the translators could write towards and making certain decisions across the board, particularly with respect to key words, the overall register, lexical fields, and so on. In any event, after reading a few random paragraphs of the translation itself I felt reassured that my work would not merely be a duplication of theirs, if only because I heard the text quite differently than they did.
As I had expected, the Birmingham translation, if I can call it that, proved immensely useful to me, at the checking stage, after I had completed a first draft of my own version, in that it did indeed save me making a number of mistakes. In this respect I had a considerable advantage over them since vice versa a consideration of my translation would have saved them some mistakes. A translation of this kind is immensely complex and no one is so accurate and perfect that he cannot gain from comparing notes with another person who has covered the territory. I am immensely grateful to have had the chance to see their work. My version is definitely the better for it.
However, what most struck me when finally I read the corresponding passages of the Birmingham translation – produced as I said by seven different translators – was the absolute uniqueness of each reading response, which is the inevitable result, I suppose, of the individual background each of us brings to a book, all the reading and writing and listening and talking we’ve done in the past, our particular interests, beliefs and obsessions. I hear Leopardi in an English that has a completely different tone and feel to the one my colleagues have collectively aimed at. I just hear a different man speaking to me—a different voice, in particular a voice that looks forward in its tone and insistence and sheer, raw energy to such writers as Gadda, Beckett, Bernhard, and Cioran, men who very largely shared Leopardi’s lively, corrosive pessimism and profound sense of irony.
What is at stake of course is readability, and although one would never want to sacrifice subtlety of thought for ease of reading, it is also true that if a long text seems stylistically clumsy and incompetent, it begins to lose authority and credibility. Italians will always read Leopardi, however arduous, because he is a mainstay of their culture, a figure whose influence on the writers and poets of the twentieth century was simply enormous. English speakers will read him if he seems worth reading, and not otherwise.
In any event, the more I worked over this translation, which turned out to be by far the most challenging I have ever tackled, the more I came to the conclusion that, beyond the duty of semantic accuracy (which always remains), all I had to do (all!) was to sit down, for a few hundred hours, and perform this Leopardi— in the way that seemed most right, most authentically close to the tone and the feel of it at the moment of my translating (since every translation would be somewhat different if we had done it a month before, or a month later, or even an hour); just to hear the text and experience it absolutely as intensely as I could, allowing myself, which fortunately was not difficult, to fall into Leopardi’s caustic way of thinking about things, then to express this in English, perform it in English, my English, not an affected, pastiched 19th century English, as he performed it, sitting at his desk, writing in Italian, his very peculiar and special Italian. The falseness of affectation, I decided, which Leopardi felt was inevitable in any translation, could at least to some extent be overcome by a more than willing affinity, an even perverse identification, with his project, my passion for his pessimistic Passions. In this regard it’s worth noting that I undertook this translation – a rare privilege – not, as alas so often in the past, because I needed or even wanted the work, quite the contrary, I did not want the work, I already had far too much work, but out of a lasting admiration, sympathy, attraction, call it what you will, to Leopardi. I was glad, on signing the contract, to think that I would be sitting beside Leopardi for a few months. And I firmly believe that this state of affairs changes the way we work. Leopardi himself, in a period of depression wrote that “only poets inspire in me a burning desire to translate and take hold of what I read”. The Zibaldone is not poetry, but Leopardi is certainly a writer who rouses that excitement in me to take hold of the text and put it before the reader with the intensity I feel when reading it.
Towards the end of this selection, Leopardi writes:
“It’s sad indeed when a man reaches the moment when he feels he can no longer inspire anyone else. Man’s great desire, the great drive behind his actions, words, looks and bearing right up to old age is his desire to inspire, to communicate something to his spectators and audience.”
It’s seems clear that he felt he was arriving at that point. But his very ability to express the idea proved him wrong. The translator’s task throughout this work is to go on proving him wrong, to go on showing that Leopardi’s thought is still a source of inspiration and excitement.
From “Translator’s Note”, Giacomo Leopardi, Passions, translated by Tim Parks, Yale University Press, 320 pages, $26.99, Publication Date: September 30th, 2014
About the Author
Born in 1954, Tim Parks grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard before moving to Italy in 1981. He is author of fifteen novels, including Europa short-listed for the Booker Prize, as well as four memoirs covering aspects of life in contemporary Italy: Italian Neighbours, An Italian Education, A Season with Verona and Italian Ways. His many translations from the Italian include works by Moravia, Tabucchi, Calvino, Calasso, Machiavelli and Leopardi, while his book Translating Style fuses literary criticism with translation analysis. He runs a post-graduate degree in translation at IULM University, Milan, and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.