Roberta Antognini | 2017 NEH Summer Institute for College and University Faculty: What is Gained in Translation? | Kent State University

1. “Quotation of the day”

The image of the translator as someone “liberating” the text is captivating, how different from the translator as scribe or imitator, in the old dichotomy, literal (word-for-word) versus free (sense-for-sense) translation.

2. Introduction

My presentation puts together in a hopefully meaningful way two different aspects of my involvement in translation by filtering them through the numerous stimulations of the past very intense two weeks.

One aspect is the course on literary translation that I have developed in recent years; the other is my own practice as a literary translator of a collection of poems by Italian poet Amelia Rosselli, one of the few women poets included in the canonizing anthologies of twentieth-century Italian poetry, and one of the most interesting and innovative. It has been only very recently that Rosselli has received the critical attention she deserves. In October 2012 it was finally published the much anticipated annotated scholarly edition of Rosselli’s poetry.

I encountered Amelia Rosselli through Deborah Woodard, a poet and a translator based in Seattle. I teach Italian language and literature at Vassar. A few years ago, realizing that in the foreign literature classroom, translation is inseparable from writing and reading, teaching and learning, I decided to develop a seminar on literary translation from Italian to English, for fourth year students of Italian. Although I have always been fascinated by translation, at the time as a translator I had limited experience —I translated Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Teodolinda Barolini’s book, The Undivine Comedy, into Italian. So it was this course that really whetted my appetite for translation. The first time I offered it was in 2008, and I invited Deborah Woodard for a class presentation on her work on Amelia Rosselli. As Rosselli was both a poet who wrote in three languages —Italian, English and French—and a translator, questions of translation are central to her work. Deborah asked me to collaborate with her in preparing one of Amelia’s collections for publication and I enthusiastically accepted. In the spring, Hospital Series, Amelia’s second book, was published in New York.

3. PowerPoint

Biography. A female intellectual among the male elite, Rosselli was also a journalist, musician, musicologist, and literary translator (she translated Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath). The daughter of Carlo Rosselli, an antifascist Italian philosopher of Jewish descent, she was born in Paris in 1930. In 1937, when Rosselli was only seven years old, her father and her uncle were killed by the fascists. After the Nazis invaded France, her family fled first to London (Rosselli’s mother was English and, like her father, an antifascist activist) and then to the Larchmont, New york, where they lived for six years—a time she recalled with great fondness as among the happiest in her life. At the end of the war, Rosselli relocated to London before moving to Italy for the first time in 1948, initially living in Florence before settling permanently in Rome. In 1996, she took her own life.

The tragedy of her father’s death (and the loss of her mother when Rosselli was only nineteen) is central in her autobiography, defining her and her writings in many different ways: from her trilingual and cosmopolitan upbringing (although she preferred the word “refugee”), to her political engagement—as with many other Italian intellectuals of the postwar years, she was a member of the PCI, the Italian communist Party—and deep social consciousness.

Trilingualism. Even though Rosselli would eventually choose Italian over French and English—in the same way as she would opt for the Italian citizenship inherited from her father—her poetic language is a trilingual hotchpotch, a constant drift from one tongue to the next. She declared in an interview: “Mine is a ‘trilingual language’ with which I had to fight in order to choose the language in which I wanted to write, and the country I wanted to live in, simultaneously.”

Hospital Series is Rosselli’s second book and was published in Milano in 1969. Rosselli wrote much of it in the mid-1960s after being hospitalized for a mental illness she suffered from for most of her life, and whose pain shapes her language and difficult vision. The “series” insinuate her musical training, which also inspires the metric structure of most of the poems.

Metric Spaces. In a remarkable essay “Metric spaces,” Rosselli, whose previous metric was free, fascinated by the regularity of the Italian traditional sonnet, gives shape to a highly innovative metric system, whose ground component is the word, any word—given that any word is a sound and as such they all hold the same value—and where the blockish stanzas suggest the geometric shape of a square.

As tall and wide as a standing man with his arms extended, the geometric shape of the square, in the most ancient writings and in the cave art, implies the idea of a fenced area, a house, a village, a closed space, an enclosure (a stanza). For Hospital Series, Rosselli asked the publisher to use an IBM font, where each letter takes up the same space, as the font most appropriate for reproducing her verses’ cohesiveness. On the cover of that first edition we see a series of squares one inside the other viewed from above as a reversed pyramid.

In sharp contrast with the consistency of the prosody and the graphic disposition is the explosive language of these poems, a furious cacophonic crescendo of semantic and syntactic accumulations where rhythm, intrepid enjambments, grammatical virtuosity, puns, audacious associations, and hammering anaphoric repetitions express the humor of an author who is having fun manipulating the language. However, underneath the blustery flow of words, there is a profound and raw realism that never loses track of the reader who is constantly in play, engaged in an intriguingly combative dialogue between an “I” and a “you”.

Reading Amelia’s poetry requires a strenuous, almost physical, mental effort. Even though I was revising rather than actually translating, the experience has been exhilarating. Almost every word was a challenge. I dug and dug into the source text as profoundly as I could, trying to find out as much as I could in order to convey to Deborah the movement of Amelia’s poetic voice.

4. Comparing translations

Because of time restraints, I chose only one poem and I looked for all the published translations I could find. So far, there are three translated collections in English: War Variations by Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti (2003), Impromptu by Gian Maria Annovi, Diana Thow and Jean-Charles Vegliante (2014), and ours, Hospital Series (2015). In all three cases it’s a collaboration between an academic scholar and a poet and translator (in the case of Impromptu, it’s a trilingual edition, Italian, English and French). Jennifer Scapettone, also a scholar–she teaches at the University of Chicago–published an anthology of Rosselli’s poems in 2012, The Locomotrix. Diana Thow, a PhD student at Berkeley who has published some translations of Rosselli in literary journals, and recently collaborated to the annotated translation of Impromptu. Deborah Woodard and Giuseppe Leporace also published an anthology of Amelia’s poems, The Dragonfly, in 2009.

Of the poem that we are discussing I was able to find four different versions to compare with mine.

View my presentation here.

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