The Translator as Geologist: W.S. Di Piero's "Quest for Recognitions"
By John Rodden
W.S. Di Piero is not only an accomplished poet and critic, but also a translator of distinction.Di Piero began translating Italian prose and poetry during his 2½ years in Italy in the early 1970s. His translation of Giacomo Leopardi's Pensieri (1981) was nominated for the 1982 American Book Award, whereupon Di Piero turned to poetry and rendered This Strange Joy: Selected Poems of Sandro Penna (1982). The American Academy of Poets recently honored the latter collection with the Raiziss/de Palchi Award, a newly instituted prize that will be given every two years to a translation of modern Italian poetry into English. Di Piero's third translation, The Ellipse: Selected Poems of Leonardo Sinisgalli (1983), received not only respectful notice from fellow critics but also earned him the Poggioli Award for Translation from the P.E.N. American Center.
Since the mid-1980s, Di Piero has translated less frequently. Still, he has remained keenly interested in translation as a literary and linguistic activity during the last decade; in his prose collection Memory and Enthusiasm (1989) and elsewhere, he has written essays and reviews on the art and politics of translation.
Both Di Piero's translations and his critical writings about translation exemplify a striking combination of bookishness and passion: the Pensieri of Leopardi, a man of great erudition and deep feeling, were a fit starting point for his career as writer and translator. Possessed of an Arnoldian mind ondoyant et divers, Di Piero maintains a delicate balance between the creative and critical faculties, even as his work has evolved in recent years to exhibit a fervor--or as he puts it, a heightened "intensity" or "extremity"--quite uncharacteristic of an Arnoldian temper. Nonetheless, the urge toward balance remains, as revealed in Di Piero's re-explorations, through both his creative and his translation work, of the connections between his childhood American experience and the European cultural heritage. 1
Di Piero considers himself a poet first and foremost.But most poets of the past "tried their hand at translation," he says. And so he resolved in the early 1970s to do the same--and with outstanding results. He is that valuable and all-too-rare species in contemporary American letters: the poet-intellectual-translator. And the need for that awkward hyphenated phrase suggests that such a creature is, unfortunately, a mutant oddity in American literary life.
Viewing his translator's task as partly an Arnoldian responsibility to preserve the best in the cultural tradition, Di Piero has not only translated the Italian Romantic poets, but also written essays and reviews on them, especially Leopardi, 19th-century Italy's greatest lyric voice, and on such modern voices as Eugenio Montale, the 1975 Nobel Prize winner.Indeed these writers are among Di Piero's chief "enthusiasms," and his admiration for them has sometimes extended even to writing poems that are versions or imitations of theirs (e.g., Di Piero's poem "Windy Hill" in his new collection Shadows Burning , which is a derivation from Leopardi's "La Ginestra"). His most recent work of translation--a departure from his Italian translations--is of Euripides' Ion, which was published in May 1996 by Oxford University Press.
JR: You first travelled to Italy on a Fulbright fellowship in 1972. Was it at that time that you began the translations of Leopardi?
DP: Yes. I translated his prose [Pensieri] in Italy. That's one reason I wanted to master Italian: I really wanted to be able to read his poems in Italian. I already knew some of his prose--but only in translation.
One day, I visited this schoolmaster when I saw my family in Abruzzo, and he gave me a copy of Pensieri as a gift. I found it so compelling that I decided to translate it. It took me a long time, because I was still learning the language and learning how to translate. I didn't have any training, I was just winging it.
JR: And you did it without any expression of interest from a publisher.
DP: Of course--but everything I've written has been without the interest of a publisher.
JR: You're doing much less translating nowadays than you did in the 1970s and '80s. Why?
DP: I got tired of dealing with difficult people. A writer always has to deal with difficult people, but the translator encounters the worst ones. Unless you're a William Weaver or a Richard Howard or a Gregory Rabassa--good, quick, and with a reputation--you get badly treated. I got tired of doing translations on spec. I tried to get small advances, but I could hardly ever persuade anybody to commission me as a translator. Editors showed some interest, but each time the answer was ultimately negative.
So I got fed up. I was trying to earn my living as a writer and translator. But the editors thought they were more important than the translator himself--who is actually doing the work of transmission and the ambassadorial work. I had publishers who told me, "I'd love to publish it if you'll subsidize it." I got tired of that kind of treatment.
JR: And all this happened despite the critical esteem for your Leopardi translation.
DP: Yes. But critical success isn't enough. The translation appeared in 1981, but I just got my first royalty check this year--for a nice, juicy $12!--because the book has only recently paid off its production costs.When it was brought out in hard cover, the book sold about 1,000 copies--very respectable. Oxford later brought it out in paperback, but then let it run out of stock. So it's unavailable today.
JR: So your point is that, even if a translation is formally recognized as one of distinction and wins a nomination for the American Book Award, even if it gains the translator an honor such as an American Book Award nomination, the fate of your Pensieri translation may befall it.
DP: Yes. A translation needs a cultural entourage, so that it looks important to the world when it makes its entrance. It also needs the esteem of other writers. That's important too, and it has been important to me.But beyond a certain point, it's not enough. The only way a translation can be truly successful is if it receives strong promotional backing from the publishing world and the literary community.
JR: Let me just pursue some issues of translation here: the relation between your translations and the critical positions on translation that you've developed in essays such as "On Translation: A Reply to Hans Magnus Enzensberger" [in Memory and Enthusiasm].You believe that Enzensberger's advocacy of an "international style" in translation is misconceived because a homogenous "world style" bleaches the poet of his cultural particularity. Could you elaborate on your position--and especially on how it is reflected in your own translations?
DP: If the poet is worth translating, it's because there's an idiosyncratic character to his or her language--not necessarily extreme, like [Gerard Manley] Hopkins or [Emily] Dickinson--but a place from which it comes:a local character, a sense of place or a region out of which the poetry issues. The feeling-tone of all that needs to be translated. And what bothers me about the positions of Enzensberger, and the position that Charles Simic and Mark Strand took in their introduction to an anthology of translation, is that they don't take sufficiently into account those feeling tones. That's my quarrel. They drain the poetry of those feeling-tones; they pay insufficient respect to the local culture and ideolect of the poem.
As far as my own translations are concerned, let me take Sinisgalli as an example. He writes in a relatively plain style, but there are surrealist tics in it, especially in the poems in which he deals with his childhood village in the south [in Lucania].When he writes about that place, there is a richer, quirkier texture of sound and feeling.And that requires a more inventive, expansive response from a translator. To get those same feelings of affection, celebration, and mourning into appropriate English is quite a task.And if you miss that by settling for a plainness of statement, you're losing so much. You may come up with something à la lettre, which may mirror the original, but it doesn't really work.
JR: It must have been difficult to "hear" all that when you were still learning the language during your years in Italy.
DP: Yes. A friend influenced my early thinking on all this--he's Brazilian.His name is Enylton de sa Rego, and he teaches, in fact, here at UT-Austin. He used to read poems aloud to me by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade--in English and Portuguese, even though I didn't understand Portuguese! I remember his impatience with the translations that certain American poets had made. He told me that the one quality any Brazilian reader would recognize is that Drummond's poetry is very "mineral."It's dry and flaky and possessed of all the qualities associated with its location of origin: namely, mining country. And he complained that the translators weren't answering to that knowledge.
JR: Yes, you write in the reply to Enzensberger that Carlos Drummmond de Andrade is "just one more foreign poet who is in danger of becoming a North American citizen, one who writes a poetry virtually indistinguishable from that dehydrated, homeless international mode practiced by some of our own poets." The result is that poets become "influenced by a translation product " and that "a rootless, denatured style comes to be accepted as the American style." And you urge that translation be "aimed at redeeming and conserving as best as possible what is most provincial, idiomatic, and eccentric in foreign poetries," that translators conserve the "individualizing nuances of thought and feeling which make good poetry in a sense unworldly and noninternational."
DP: Yes.Very good translators--such as [Robert] Fitzgerald and William Arrowsmith--know all this about the "mineralized," local, rooted quality of poetry. Arrowsmith's translations of Montale are the best that we have; nobody else even comes close. Arrowsmith's view was that the translator shouldn't just respond to the language, but rather to the whole culture that is enfolded and kneaded into the poetry. That means that it's insufficient to have superior language skills. You need to breathe the culture--and that requirement would tend to preclude the international style.
JR: Did Arrowsmith influence your translations?
DP: Arrowsmith was a friend of mine.He read the Leopardi translation when it was really rough." This is good, this isn't good, this isn't idiomatic"; those are the sorts of comments that he'd make.
JR: How has translation as a literary activity--and, more specifically, the process of translating poetry and aphorisms--informed your own activity as a poet?
DP: Translation assists you in arriving at recognitions. As a translator, you feel your way through to some of the same recognitions that the poet originally had and that shaped the poem. For me, this sense of pursuing recognitions--of waiting for recognitions to arrive--is what poetry and translation are about.
So the process of translation has helped me immensely in that way: not as a question of language, but rather as a quest for recognitions.
JR: Do you regard your Italian heritage as of great value to you as a translator? You speak of "breathing the culture."In the case of your translations and critical essays on translation, does such a conception have much to do with your Italian background? You wrote in the Preface to Memory and Enthusiasm that you were forbidden to learn the "old language" and felt "in the shadow of exile."
DP: No, I don't think my work in or views about translation have a lot to do with my background, because my background is mostly southern Italian and not literary at all, in fact just functionally literate. Of course, having heard the sounds of Italian in south Philadelphia as a child meant that--when I finally learned the language--the least of my difficulties was in mastering the accent. My problem wasn't pronunciation, but rather making sense!Anybody--even The Little Tramp-can bluff an accent.
I started to translate when I was learning Latin and German in school. And I studied German in college, too. I translated Brecht, Rilke, and Hölderlin. Because, as a poet, I felt:" This is what poets have always done. They just didn't write prose or poetry. They tried their hand at translation too."
1. Di Piero sees himself as less "Arnoldian"--since Arnold is "too self-consciously magisterial"--than "Coleridgean.""I wouldn't at all mind being called 'Coleridgean,'" he kids, half-seriously, "which is closer to (my) truth."Personal communication, 15 February 1996.
Translation Review, Volume 50, 1996.