a is for anamnesis
“A word that shows up is a message for you.”
As long as I've studied translation and practiced as a translator, I've struggled with the word "translation" and how that word, itself, as a lexical object, shows up in the work I do as a "translator". Like with any other practice, any other art, I don't think about the word while I'm doing the work; I don't think anyone really does, with "painting" or "writing" of any kind. I think about the author I'm working with, I think about his words, the tones, the colors, what he paints his writing with; I think about the author and my relationship to him.
Before embarking on this journey with Belli, I worked primarily with another author, far different, in the plays and poetry of Federico García Lorca. With Lorca, I felt an immediate connection. I read "Blood Wedding" as a first year undergraduate student, and I fell in love; something about the way he made a tragedy in the wilderness, using such simple imagery to convey complex themes, drove me deep into his mindspace. When I read him, I felt that I was conjuring him, a spirit author guiding me through his woods. And when I began to translate him, that feeling intensified. Lorca's ghost was following me, I was calling into language transfer (the way H.D. might phrase what she does in “Heliodora”) Lorca's own words.
I can honestly and abruptly say that Belli did not join me this way. At least, not immediately, not obviously.
This may sound baffling or "woo-woo" in general, but trust me, other translators have felt this ghostly presence, too. In his translator's notes on Dante's Inferno and Homer's Odyssey, Stanley Lombardo writes:
“Insofar as it can be distinguished from meaning, style – and the spirit that informs it – is the deepest concern of the translator, whose great task, like Dante’s and Virgil’s before him, is to hear his author’s voice as his own.” (Inferno)
“This is the way of translation as art, a kind of anamnesis in which we remember our own voice as the poet’s.” (Odyssey)
The anamnesis Lombardo is talking about is an essential oneness with the original author— from the Greek “remembrance” of a “supposed previous existence”. This is where translation gets creepy; although I know I am writing the words, I know I am the one translating the piece, because of the hearing, the conjuring of the author I’m working with, I’m not expressing myself. I’m expressing Lorca, or Belli. Sometimes I feel no right to the texts I generate as a translator, because although it is mine, I did create it (and no one else could make the same thing the same way), it wasn’t entirely mine; my author was watching from my shoulder the whole time, seemingly whispering the secrets to me (if I listened, which may constitute “getting it right” in anamnesis).
But as I said, Belli didn’t begin this way with me. At first, for a long time, he was an enigma and I never seemed to understand what he was saying. Though I could read and parse the poetry, and I laughed at times, I could not re-create or channel this humor into American English. Belli wasn’t standing beside me, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
When I look back on the project, the moment I think this changed for me was when I got to some of his “bad” poetry, the stuff I didn’t like and thought wasn’t worth writing down. For whatever reason, this bad poetry clicked in my mind. I suddenly knew why the good stuff was good because I knew what was bad, and why. If I could transfer the good to the good in English, then surely, a good poem in English would emerge. The new problem; not to improve on the bad poetry, but to bring it to English as a “bad poem” in the same way.
I think it is vital, as a translator, to bring a poet’s “bad” poetry across as bad poetry and not to change the quality, not to improve on it. If you improve on a poem through translation, you’re not translating; you’re rewriting or revising, or perhaps “imitating” as Dryden says (imitation also inscribes improvement beyond what you’d like to steal). Belli, to me, is an important enough poet to withstand having some bad poems out of his 2,000+ sonnets. It’s important, vital, to include the whole person in the collection, including the “mistakes”, according to my sense of humor and sense of poetry. I chose to include poems across the spectrum and chronology of Belli because of this. Mike Stocks cherry-picked poems he liked and included those, the “good ones”. Different strokes. The original collection of Belli I chose sonnets from was also a selection curated by Pietro Gibellini, and so I’ve only seen those 535 sonnets consistently to choose from. Different strokes. But as I chose sonnets, so Belli chose what to work with, and so our materiality merges as creators and artists; I began to have that anamnetic relationship with Belli, to “hear his voice as my own” (or at least his humor, one essential quality of his “voice”).
Here’s an example. The first sequence I translated for this collection was “The Sacrifice of Abraham”, mostly because I’d attempted to translate it before but nothing clicked in that version. This sequence of 3 sonnets was divisive with readers— people seemed to either love the rhyming sass I chose to incorporate, or they found it trite. For this reason, and not because I don’t personally like it, one might say these poems are “bad” for some readers. The first thing that I did when translating these poems was to walk through the entire thing in Romanesco and transliterate the words definitionally, as shown in my worksheet to follow. Romanesco is one of those Italian dialects that emerged and evolved because of the intensity of regional pride in the country, even lasting to the years of the Italian Unification. “Modern Italian”, though understood by all Italians, is a myth of a language, much like “English” is a myth; there are many multiples of dialects, sub-languages, cultural languages, and slangs out there for both of these examples, and interpreting Romanesco solely based on Modern Italian is relatively difficult for all Belli scholars.
You can see from this worksheet that I did a fair amount of guessing at first to get the Romanesco into English. One tricky thing is the double letter spelling, as in “ttra”, which represents the transcription of how Romanesco was spoken. Double letters are used in Modern Italian (as in all things “-etto”) to indicate a slight hold or trip over the “t” when spoken. With Modern Italian, some of the double letters were left behind in Romanesco, and some are the same, carried over. When I read these sonnets, a level of guessing or channeling occurs in spelling, to imagine the word in Modern Italian before imagining it in American English. It only gets trickier from there.
In the example poem alone, the first sonnet of “The Sacrifice of Abraham”, there are a couple of wacky words: “siconn’arca” and “Montemoria” are two that I want to focus on, ignoring the subtle humors I read in “Marca” (a layered pun on a region of Italy, the Biblical name “Mark”, and a literal branding) and “marraccio” (a specific type of blade).
In my first pass at these poems, any of them, I had to keep the Romanesco and the transliteration I make in front of me; without both, I was sure to lose more of the subtle meanings. “Siconn’arca” would literally be “second arc”, but the other meaning would be “second ark”, obviously referring to Noah’s Ark in the Bible. The line is saying something about the Bible’s narrative “ttra/between” the first and second arc/ark, and because of the flexibility of Romanesco and Belli’s usage of vocabulary, “arca” can mean both at once. Homophonically, I can get the word “ark” to work both ways, but I lose something because it isn’t an afterthought to “siconn’”, which sounds much better in the original as “siconn’arca”. On the page, I have to settle for a homophonic sense of both meanings.
“Montemoria” is a large and baffling problem for this poem because the words “monte” and “moria” represent 1) words in Italian with meanings, 2) an actual place referenced in the Bible, and 3) a kenning. To tackle 1 & 3 simultaneously, “monte” means mountain, and “moria” means mortality/plague/blight, so I could kenning them together to create “MountBlight” or “MountMortality” or the like. However, I would be completely ignoring the other meaning that Belli needs in the poem: the location Mount Moriah, from Hebrew transliterated “Moriyya”, meaning “ordained by the Lord”. Dear God.
My next step was to iron the poem into something resembling a poem, now that I’d dissected it. You can see in the next worksheet that I at first opted for “ark” and “Mount Moriah”. This version of the sonnet was the result of synthesizing “sense-based” meanings of the original work, with some rhyme thrown in there because I felt or imagined Belli would need me to include that to capture the absurdity of this sequence.
Most of the humor in the first stanza involves the introduction of the Bible and the pun of “Montemoria”, so I knew the stanza needed to revolve around that pun, to some extent. For me, the pun is in the kenning; if the word were separated out, it wouldn’t sound funny in Romanesco, in the meter and rhyme Belli constructed. So, for the next draft, I opted for a kenninged word in English: “Mount Tomb” became “Mountomb”, a representation of Death and Mountain in one word. In order to preserve the “Lord’s ordinance” of the mountain, I translated “ojjocaustico” (which literally means holocaust, in the sense of fire) as a “covenant fiery”. We get the sacrifice, we get the fire, we get the covenant/holy mountain venture of “Mount Moriah”. The line bounces along in this version in English: “in fiery covenant to God up Mountomb”. Read it aloud to yourself; hopefully it bounces for you, too, since Belli’s bounces for me.
Now that I’d worked out some of the trickier words, it was time to arrange the whole thing into a sonnet, full of “little sounds”. Rhyme had already entered, so I kept it, and because the original sonnet bounced and rhymed in an almost contorted way, choosing words for the rhyme and ridiculousness, I did the same. The real trouble comes with the volta of this sonnet, which Belli routinely uses as a punchline. In this sonnet, Belli’s volta is the last two stanzas, when Abraham talks to Isaac about what he needs to prepare for the sacrifice; Belli intensifies the volta with the last line, when he says that no one needs to know about the sacrifice, foreshadowing that something “bad” is about to happen.
I made the last worksheet as a focus leading up to the volta, so I could “nail the punchline”, so to speak. I needed to closely match this emotional and stylistic tenor of Belli’s, because at this point I felt I was with him, was inside his humor, laughing along. To preserve the tone shift in Belli’s original volta, I truncated the meter in the last two stanzas, preserving the essential meaning of all of the words, but dropping articles and making the dialogue into brief phrases to capture Abraham’s vocal style. The volta and the strange words, though a struggle with Belli, were also an opportunity to transubstantiate the material of Romanesco into the material of English, to hear the laughter in the piazza or the drawing room when Belli read the piece as laughter in America. Belli had joined me, probably cackling over my shoulder while he hawk-eyed the poem, and something closer to anamnesis than to translation was starting to occur—whether successful or something else, I had begun to hear Belli’s voice.
"Anamnesis". OxfordDictionaries.com, 4 Apr. 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/anamnesis.
Belli, Giuseppe Gioacchino. Sonnets. Translated by Mike Stocks, Oneworld Classics, 2007.
Belli. Sonetti. A cura di Pietro Gibellini, Oscar Mondadori Classici, 1978.
Dryden John. "On Translation". Theories of Translation, edited by Rainier Schulte, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 17-31.
H.D. “Heliodora”. Heliodora and Other Poems. Houghton Mifflin, 1924.
Lombardo, Stanley. Translator's Preface. Inferno, by Dante, Hackett Publishing Company, 2009, pp. xxvii-xli.
---. Translator's Postscript. Odyssey, by Homer, Hackett Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 382-385.