I usually bring a book when I visit a doctor or dentist. Furnished with old magazines, dripping children and televisions tuned to medical infomercials, their waiting rooms are temples of tedium. This morning, my 3-year-old had a routine checkup with his pediatrician, and I grabbed Montale in English, a collection of the Italian poet’s work as rendered by various translators. The book, published by Handsel, is edited by Harry Thomas, who provides a useful introduction to the history of Montale translations in English, the first of which came as surprisingly early as 1927. The book reminds me of the equally useful Horace in English, edited by D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes.
I know little Italian, and most of what little I know depends on my fading reserve of Latin cognates. Still, it’s always pleasant to pick through a poem in the original, even if only to catch a muffled echo of its music. Waiting for the nurse to fetch us, I skimmed through the collection and settled on three translations of a single poem Montale included in his 1956 volume La Bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Poems). In his version, Edwin Morgan gives the title as “Brief Testament;” Robert Lowell and Ben Belitt, “Little Testament.”
I liked the poems on first reading for their mingling of the accessible and the hermetic. The title, at least in English, suggests both the scriptural and the legal, and several of the poem’s central images are drawn from the natural world – a snail’s trail, a spider, a storm. It's the end of the poem I find most interesting, and here it is, excerpted from the three versions:
“Hardly a heritage – nor is it a mascot
For standing up to onslaughts from monsoons
On the mere spider’s thread of memory –
But it is only in ashes that a story endures,
Nothing persists except extinguished things.
It was the sign all right: the one whose luck
Is to see it can never miss you again.
Each recognizes his own: the pride
Was not an escape, the humility was not
A meanness, the ghostly flash that was struck
Down there was not the spark of a match on a box.”
“It’s hardly an heirloom or charm
that can tranquilize monsoons
with the transparent spider web of contemplation –
but an autobiography can only survive in ashes,
persistence is extinction.
It is certainly a sign: whoever has seen it,
Will always return to you.
Each knows his own: his pride
Was not an escape, his humility
Was not a meanness, his obscure
Was not the fizzle of a wet match.”
“This thing that I leave is no charm
hung on a cobweb of memory:
but histories end and begin in a cinder
and only extinction is viable.
The sign was a lucky one: whoever has seen it
Cannot fail to retrieve you.
Like calls to like: our pride was no trick
Of escape, nor our meekness
Ignoble, and the tenuous glimmer
That we grated down there was not struck by the stick of a match.”
Read strictly as poems in English, Lowell’s fares the poorest, though I like “the transparent spider web of contemplation” (with its echo of Lowell’s own “Mr. Edwards and the Spider”). I most enjoy Morgan’s version, which dates from 1959 (Lowell’s and Belitt’s are from 1961 and 1962, respectively – obviously an era when the English-speaking world was discovering a great world poet).
In part, this has been a depressing exercise. I sense that something essential in Montale’s original Italian has been lost, never to be adequately understood or enjoyed by me or any other non-Italian speaker. Good translation must rank among the supreme human accomplishments, like chess, Bach and Shakespeare – to be true to the original while honoring one’s own language by writing well.
By the way, in his most recent volume of poetry, Without Title, Geoffrey Hill includes his own bracing translation of “La Bufera,” “The Storm.” He dedicates the book “in omaggio a/Eugenio Montale.”