Carmine Giordano reviews Canzoni del Venerdi Sera, the Italian translation of the acclaimed poetry collection Friday Night Songs by John Eliot.
In the dedication and preface to his poetry collection, Canzoni del Venerdi Sera, a translation into Italian of forty-seven of his poems, poet John Eliot states that his translators are themselves also authors, and that in the process of translating his work they have become part not only of the poetry, but also of him.
To claim that his translators are also authors of the collection has great truth to it. As Eliot goes on to state, translating a work from one language to another is not merely the search for terms in a dictionary but also an understanding of what comprises the poetry, and in effect, rendering a recreation of it.
Poet and critic John Ciardi once wrote famously that since there is no way to transliterate word for exact word the original text with all its inherent depth, muscularity, locked-in history, and connotation, “what a translator tries for is the best possible failure.”
In his brilliant analysis of poetry, Why Poetry, American poet, Matthew Zapruder states that a poet’s choice of words has to do with “the resonance of all the meanings the word has cumulated over thousands of years,” and that the poet’s ear is not merely attuned to sonic music, but also “to the music of ideas in words, the latent resonances, the ones always waiting in etymology, the pasts of words, our individual pasts, and our collective memory.”
Eliot has entrusted the translation of his poetry to graduates of the University of Salnero: Alessia Calabrese, Sara Pallante, Alessandro Pinto and Mariagrazia Poppiti who previously translated some of his poems for the Festival de Salerno Letteratura in 2019. The four students have brought the collective warmth and passion of their entire lives in southern Italy and the sonorous vowels and multi-syllabic gender-specific constructions and historical and personal resonances of their language to interpret and recreate the poetic recollections and sensibilities of an Englishman from Leicester expressed in the clipped sounds, monosyllabic and noninflected words and historical and personal resonances of his language ancestors, the Germanic bog people, the marauding Vikings and their Norman invaders.
As coined by TS Eliot, his famous namesake, John Eliot characteristically employs the objective correlative in his poems — sentences, phrases and word fragments which present a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which collectively work to convey or effect particular emotions. In this collection, the field of emotions comprises the nostalgia of adolescent love, adjustments to the limitations of aging, the regrets of unfulfilled relationships, nostalgic recollections of yester-moments with parents and relatives, empathic imaginings of English monarchs at their imprisonments or executions, aesthetic elations.
Any reader of this volume will realize how attuned these translators are to the nuances of the poet’s sensibility and how superbly they have captured the import of his poems. Their own studies of literature and the English language have well qualified them for this writing adventure. But one has also to consider their own unique life experiences and sensibilities and the differences inherent in the two languages to appreciate how, as Eliot proclaims, they are indeed authors in their own right of this collection.
Translators essentially become authors from the fact that they are using one language, their own, to represent a work written in another. They confirm their authorship further by frequently substituting for unfamiliar words, creating new metrical patterns, changing syntax, and even changing the sense of some lines. These dynamics occur frequently in the Canzoni.
In reading the translations one is continually mindful of the author’s seminal East Midland experiences with their weather extremes and ground frosts and those of the young men and women of the Campania with the sunny slopes of the Amalfi Coast. One might contrast pork pies, jacket potatoes, rabbit stews with lemons, olive oils, eggplant, chestnuts and mozzarellas. The author’s experiential memory references necessarily suggest quite different ones to the translator.
The differences show up humorously when Eliot’s celebrates his mother’s birthday with the tri-syllabic phrase “fizzy crisps” which show up for Alessandro Pinto as the septisyllabic “croccanti patatine” as surely how his own mother must have made them. The broad Latinate back vowels of the “patatine” even suggesting a more savoury experience than the clipped front vowel of the “crisps.”
In another poem, while the poet recalls a sensual memory on a French beach with the anaemic phrase, “ the tan of your legs,” the words of his translator surely convey the tone and heat better with his steamy “le tue gambe abbronzate.”
Transforming the line “wings/skirting hedgerows, searching for warmth” into “ali/ che lambiscono siepi in cerca di calore” the translator creates a new metrical pattern replete with alliteration and assonance not found in the original. At another place, the sense of a line is changed when the original plea to some saints to hear the suppliant “as God would,” is changed more powerfully to a direct divine supplication, “Ascoltami…oh Dio.”
Lightning described with the adjectival “yellow forked” by the author is changed in another line to the more startlingly action visual “fulmini si biforcano gialli,” “lighting forks into yellows.”
Contrary to Ciardi’s assessment, this translation is hardly “a best possible failure.”
The previous intimate involvement with the author’s work during their past workshop with him, the strenuous labour of understanding and supplying matching language to actualize the communication of the original text, and the use of original syntax, metrics and vocabulary to bring his work to Italian readers, allow them to claim this work to be their own as well as his.
As Eliot acknowledges, this collection is indeed a marvellously creative co authored collaboration of poems filtering some common emotions and sensibilities through the nuances and resonances of differing cultures, attesting to the simultaneous similarities and differences of the human experience.
Carmine Giordano has a Master’s Degree in English Literature from New York University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Award for Study in Italy. He is a retired teacher and assistant principal from the New York City Board of Education and New York City Technical College. He is also a nationally certified psychoanalyst and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP). He is an assistant editor of the online poetry magazine Abalone Moon and the author of five poetry collections, the most recent being Collected Poems 2020 which is available here.