Introduction to the Translation of some Lyrics by Maura Del Serra
"Esperia Press", Berkeley, California, February 20, 1999
Introduction to the Translation
of some Lyrics by Maura Del Serra
I met Maura Del Serra in the fall of 1997, on the occasion of a symposium of italian poetry in Charleston, South Carolina. There I had the pleasure of listening to the poet reading some of the lyrucs that I will present here in my English versions.
Maura Del Serra's poetry has the quality of the poet herself: an exceptional formal beauty and delicacy, matched by depth and strength of thought. Although contemporary, it presents to the translator, in many ways, the same stylistic and semantic problems as hermetic poetry - the same compactness, the intricate and sinuous syntax, the frequent use of inversion that is so difficult to render in English, and a certain obscurity theat challenges readers while at the same time fascinating them. We are not dealing here with poetry that comes towards the reader, in the manner of the essentially prosaic, contemporary American poetry; rather, this poetry beckons the reader to come forth, to unearth secrets enclosed in it, by flashing the anticinig possibility of an epiphany.
In traslating Del Serra's lyrics, I encountered the same difficulties that I did while translating Montale, or the early Maria Luisa Spaziani. English and Italian, we know, are not translator-friendly, since the grammatical and syntactical structures of the two languages are vastly different. In this case the process of translation was rendered even more arduous by the complexity of Del Serra's poetry, which is often difficult to grasp even in the original.
My English versions of Del Serra's poems are more linear that the originals; therefore the translations, while they acquired some clarity, have lost some of the arcane quality of the italian.
There is no doubt that Del Serra's poetry is erudite, both in content and in vocabulary. There are not only numerous references to ancient Greek words and classical concepts, but also great cultural latitudes brought about by the fact that the poet has studied and absorbed the works of numerous major poets and literary figures from diverse cultures and different eras. We are led, for instance, from the Baroque style of the mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, to the mystical correspondance (in the Baudelairean sense) with Margherita Guidacci.
In traslating these poems, I was fortunate to have the help of the poet, who was very cooperative both by telephone and in written correspondence. Maura Del Serra is a traslator in her own right, and is therefore well-acqainted with the problems of translation. She has translated into Italian the works of Else Lasker-Schüler, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil, Jorge Luis Borges, and many others.
Rhythm is very important in Del Serra's poetry. I agree with the critic Giorgio Bàrberi Squarotti's notion that Del Serra's verses are essentially hendecasyllabic, or constructed around a hendecasyllabic rhythm. I attempted to preserve, insofar as I could, the "beat" of the original vers, since I could not possibibly preserve the "sound". Unfortunately, the English translation loses the sense of suspense, of anticipation, gained by the frequent Italian use of the inversion, which never fails to sound unclear, awkward, or downright untenable in English.
Del Serra is a playwright as well as a poet, having authored many dramatic pieces, such as La Minima, L'albero delle parole, La Fenice, La fonte ardente, Specchio doppio, Il figlio, Agnodice, Andrej Rubljòv, and the recent Dialogo di Natura e Anima. Therefore, there is always a dramatic tone in her poetry, and some of her poem may sound like a soliloquy in a play. Her educational background being essentially classic, her works present some of the qualities of classical drama, and the tone that has been described, by some critics, as "prophetic", stems from the hieratic diction of an oracle or a prophecy addressed to the reader.
Among the poems I translated, the following are from Corale: "The Seal", "Before Birth", "The Gardener", "Air Field", "Aztec Song", "Leaves", "Without Anything". The rest of the poems are still unpublished, and they will be part of Del Serra's forthcoming book of poetry Adagio con fuoco.
Corale (Rome, Newton Compton, 1994) received the coveted Montale prize in 1995. It is a selection of lyrics representing Del Serra's poetic iter from L'arco (1978) to 1994. In the translated lyrics, we can find echoes of western metaphysical poetry, the classics, Dante, as well as references and allusions to the Bible. Since Del Serra's poetry is essentially visionary, I find it also akin to the poetry of the Imagiste poets.
Bàrberi Squarotti also perceptively emphsized the "disposizione al discorso" that characterizes Del Serra's poetry. It is such disposition (developed, no doubt, also by the poet's training and activity as a university professor) that enables the poet to impart to the reader her knowledge and philosophy. The critic further described Del Serra's poetry as a "slancio luminoso"[...] tra l'ammonitorio e il consolatorio", since the élan of the verses soothes the reader into an acceptance of reality that only poetry offers and predicates.
Mysticism is also an essential part of Del Serra's poetry, in which we hear echoes of the Sufis, Hildegard of Bingen, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (the subject of the play La Fenice), Emily Dickinson, the latest Eliot and the more recent Margherita Guidacci, whose works Del Serra is presently collecting and editing.
The "sentenziale" quality mentioned by Bàrberi Squarotti goes also hand-in-hand with great simplicity of style when the poet described nature - a nature that is seen not only as a miracle to behold and a pleasure to live in, but also the ultimate bearer of wisdom and the supreme healer.
I regard the traslation of a poem as my personal gift to those who otherwise could not read it in the original language. One test of great poetry is how well it translates into a foreing language. This is, ideed, the ultimate test, in that the poem is stripped of the oramental vestments of the original sound, and reduced to the bare bones of images and metaphors, to its very essence, the poet's message. If the original poem is all sound and no content, it will not stand the ordeal of translation. Although the translator must try to present the poem in a form that is as close as possible to the original, he or she must also produce a poem that can stand on its own in the target language. This combination presents a very difficult, almost impossible, task. For that reason I call translation "the art of the impossible". Del Serra says of writing - and, therefore, also of translating - that it represents "uccidere la morte con la morte", thus creating something meaningful that will stand the ultimate test of time.
When translating, considerations of sound and rhythm are essential to the choice of word and the choice of expression. Some of these choices are dictated by a certain intuition that the sensitive traslator learns to develop with time. Some of the devices that I have used in traslating Del Serra's lyrics are standard in the process of translating from Italian into English: the elimination of some inversions impossible to render in English, the addition of some necessary punctuation, and the simplification of syntax, even to the point of breaking down sentences with many clauses, which Italian allows and prefers, yet English abhors.
Even after Whitman sent the Muses packing, only the force de frappe of the Beat generation, here in the United States, could move poetry from the turris aeburnea of Academia, to make it rise from the streets, from the everyday events of life, and from the experiences of every man. Great poetry does not come often from university halls; only in exceptional cases. Maura Del Serra is one of these exceptions.
February 20, 1999