Canti by Giacomo Leopardi (trans. Jonathan Galassi). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 528 pp., $35.00.
Prompt and penitent retreat has become standard among translators, and Jonathan Galassi, in his new edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is quick to the confessional: “the intense musicality of his poetry cannot be fully brought over.” Readers familiar with what Galassi calls Leopardi’s “maddeningly various, inventive, sinuously decisive poetry” will probably nod at the discreet wisdom of this, for all that it would have struck George Chapman or John Dryden as mystifying.
There are not enough English-language readers familiar with Leopardi, fewer now than ever, and so any new edition of his verse is welcome. Galassi’s new volume is an enhearteningly well-done thing. Its plump dimensions sit well in the hand, its cover has a fittingly classical look, it has the original language on facing pages (de rigeur in shorter translations nowadays), and although Galassi flatly states “this is not a scholarly edition,” he has not skimped on explanatory endnotes—they do a fine job balancing between the needs of the newcomer and the interest of longtime Leopardi fans. The more discerning bookstores will feature this book as a possible holiday present; with any luck, it will create new lifelong fans.
In Italy Leopardi has virtually never lacked them. Calling him the Whitman of his country would be unhelpful, especially since it wouldn’t address the underlying fact that Americans simply care less about their literary heritage than most nations do (who has time for literary heritage, after all, when there’s money to be made?), but we can call him popular without complicating anything. Editions of his work, commentaries, gift volumes, abound—indeed, Leopardi was popular enough to work on such editions of his Opera (though he gently mocked the term) himself, planning multi-volume sets.
He was prolific from an early age. Born in 1798 in Recanati, a small town in the then-Papal State territory of the Marche, he was the eldest son of Count Monaldo Leopardi and Marchesa Adelaide Antici, and although his father was relatively cash-poor (like the father of Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, he owned mostly “books and debts”), there were 16,000 volumes in the family library. After quickly surpassing the village tutors, young Leopardi moved into that splendid library and made a valiant, health-breaking attempt to learn everything from it.
He taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and English. By the time he was 11, he’d translated the Odes of Horace (a bit stiff, but certainly up to snuff for an 11-year-old). He continued to absorb as much as those 16,000 volumes could teach him—legend has it he developed a hunchback, and he complained for the rest of his life about headaches and eye-strain. By 18 he was writing, translating, and publishing at a furious pace, including an ancient Greek forgery that fooled every other classicist in Italy. Literary figures and editors were quick to recognize this meteor appearing in their midst, and his fame spread. He traveled to Florence, Naples, Rome—always short of funds, always deep in some new project, and always hopelessly in love with one unobliging young woman or other. His unrequited love for Fanny Targioni Tazzetri gave rise to his “Aspasia” cycle of poems (XXVI-XXIX), and there were many others, but he was always open to less painful kinds of inspiration as well. Like his beloved Horace, his verses come in every mode and voice—there are pastorals, historical works, polemics, idylls, elegies, translations, adaptations, epistles, satires. As Galassi writes, “It is hard to think of a poet in our tradition with greater riches at his command.”
He died young, age 39, in 1837 at Naples, in mid-stream on many projects. To our good fortune he had produced his masterpiece by then, a collection of incredible variety and range known as Canti, and its renown has been widespread, with dozens of superb editions in both Italian and English. Leopardi has always been as much a playground for annotators as he’s been a challenge for translators, and the great treatments by Vivante, DeRobertis, Bickersteth, and others have each made their contribution. In 1966 Oxford University Press came out with the edition perhaps best-known to English-speaking audiences, a sturdy and delicately poetic version by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs. Matched against these monuments, Galassi’s self-effacement looks all too understandable.
He has chosen the path of restraint, for good or ill. The facing Italian acts almost as warder to his license, and in fact this may be the most faithfully literal of any Leopardi in English. There are times, many times, when this has a refreshingly clarifying effect, stripping the resulting translation of imported artifice and letting much of Leopardi’s limpid beauty peek through, as in the lovely address to the moon in XVI:
Dear moon, underneath whose tranquil light
hares dance in the woods; and in the morning
the hunter curses their confusing,
scrambled tracks, whose many trails
conceal their warrens from him: hail to you
O benevolent queen of nights.
I used to resent your lovely light
in populated places,
when I could be seen by other men,
and I could see them, too.
Now I’ll always praise it, when I watch you
sail among the clouds, or you look down,
serene mistress of the heavenly plains,
on this miserable human home.
Often you’ll see me silent and alone
wandering in the woods, on the green banks,
or sitting on the grass, content enough
that I have heart and breath to heave a sigh.
It’s unavoidable, however, that such an approach will also do harm. Many of the translations here read like student trots-—stripped of artifice, yes, but also stripped of art. Readers coming to Leopardi for the first time via Galassi will likely wonder what all the fuss was about, which is hardly the reaction Galassi was trying to elicit. If the goal here was to give some version of Leopardi to a larger audience, it’s been wonderfully attempted—but at what cost? Galassi’s translator-apologies cover the whole itinerary of his duties, but is defeat really so foregone a conclusion? Take the lovely little idyll Il Passero Solitario, the Solitary Thrush (XI). Leopardi’s Italian is exquisitely controlled:
D’in su la vetta della torre antica,
Passero solitario, alla campagna
Cantando vai finche non more il giorno;
Ed erra l’armonia per questa valle.
Brilla nell’aria, e per li campi esulta,
Si ch’a mirarla intenerisce il core.
Odi greggi belar, muggire armenti;
Gli altri augelli contenti, a gara insieme
Per lo libero ciel fan mille giri,
Pur festeggiando il lor tempo migliore:
Tu pensoso in disparte il tutto miri;
Non compagni, non voli,
Non ti cal d’allegria, schivi gli spassi;
Canti, e cosi trapassi
Dell’anno e di tua vita il piu bel fiore.
The methodical but irregular rhyme-scheme so perfectly mimics the call of a songbird that it’s virtually impossible to say the poem in Italian without humming it. We’re told English is a poorer language for this sort of thing than Italian. The phrase “vowell-poor” is often used, as though there were a Trade Bank or a Stock Exchange for poetry (needless to say, nobody ever used such an absurd term to Shakespeare, or Keats, or Yeats), and perhaps this concession informs Galassi’s translation:
High on the rooftop of the ancient tower,
solitary thrush, you keep on singing
to the countryside till the day dies,
and your music wanders in the valley.
Around you, springtime glistens in the air
and glories in the fields,
till the heart turns tender at the sight.
You can hear flocks bleating and herds lowing;
the other birds compete in happiness,
taking a thousand turns in the wide sky,
exulting in their best of times.
Pensive and apart, you watch it all.
No comrades and no flights,
no joy for you. You shun their play;
you sing, and so you spend
the high time of the year and of your life.
But the question can be fairly asked: what of Leopardi actually survives such scruples? Might not the resulting English version of Il Passero Solitario be called not just literal but leaden? Might it not be called flat? Might it not be pronounced dead? “Let the translation committee form and reform,” Galassi writes, “trying ‘in vain’”—one of Leopardi’s favorite phrases—”to catch his inimitable sound. However we fail, we are the better for it.” These are brave words in their way, but are we bettered by failures that result from the translator making no effort at all? Look again at Galassi’s version of that lilting, trilling original; aren’t you tempted, untitled wretch that you are, to, well, have a go at it? Impossible to believe a reader of Galassi’s breadth and enthusiasm wasn’t likewise tempted, yet at most places in his Canti discretion has won out over valor. This restraint was born out of love for his subject and a desire to do Leopardi no harm. That love—so evident on every page of this edition—is the greatest recommendation of Galassi’s work here.
But readers are nonetheless urged to learn Italian.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His writing has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Lifted Brow. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Steve Donoghue
Read more articles about books from Farras, Straus and Giroux