My good friend Martha Cooley and her husband, Antonio Romani, are currently working together on translating the collected poems of Giampiero Neri into English. Here, in a short piece for the this year’s Manhattanville College Writer’s Program Blog, she reflects on some the lessons she, as primarily a fiction writer, has learned along the way.
TRANSLATION, POETRY AND ART OF FICTION
BY MARTHA COOLEY
“Is that how you’d say ‘for sure’ in Italian?”
“What does ‘cheer’ mean in English—not in the ‘hurrah’ sense but the sense having to do with a pleasant feeling?”
“What does ‘Liberty’ mean, in this line here? What—a decorative style? Well, why don’t Italians use ‘Art Deco’ instead of something so silly-sounding?”
The foregoing are snippets of conversations between myself and my Italian co-translator. We’re translating the collected poems of a wonderful Italian poet, Giampiero Neri, who has just published a new volume of poetry, Paesaggi Inospiti (Inhospitable Landscapes) at the age of 81. Lauded in his homeland but little-known in the United States, Neri writes about what he calls the “natural theater”: nature’s quiet stage, incessantly dramatic and mysterious. In his quietly moving poems, natural and human actors coexist, often uneasily, in settings of beauty, folly, and cruelty.
The work of translation is sometimes maddening and always stimulating. I speak good but not fluent Italian; my co-translator speaks good but not fluent English. We’ve spent countless hours talking about the imperfect tense, prepositions, slang, and context (some of Neri’s poems allude to the Second World War). And we talk all the time about sound: the poems’ music in Italian, and how to convey it in English.
My co-translator also happens to be my husband. Added to the experience of translation is thus that of deepening our linguistic, cultural, and emotional bonds. We marvel at how much we’ve learned about our separate languages, about ourselves, and about poetry—and how entertaining the education’s been for us both.
I’m a fiction writer who’s written poetry since I was a teenager but have published very little of it. I consider myself a constant (in the joint senses of continuous and loyal) apprentice-poet. As a novelist and story-maker, I cannot imagine producing my own work without reading poetry regularly: it’s always in my head and ears. And as a teacher, I’m forever urging my fiction students to read more poetry—to read it aloud, read it daily, read it to other people (or to domestic animals, if humans can’t be drummed up). Everything a fiction writer needs to know about selection of details, about compression, and about diction can be found in poetry. Plus so, so much else…
Because Neri often writes prose-poems, my task as a translator sometimes seems simpler than it might otherwise. This makes me realize that fiction writers as well as poets ought to practice the art of translating poetry. A fiction writer who speaks, say, a reasonable amount of French might want to have a go at the prose-poems of Baudelaire; a Spanish speaker might want to try translating Gabriela Mistral. Working with a fellow-translator (spouse, friend, or amiable stranger—amiability’s important, as arguments are likely!) is exhilarating. And for the writer of fiction, what’s learned is sure to be multifaceted and long-lasting, as poet-translators have known all along.
A translation by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani of Neri’s poem Pseudocavallo [Pseudohorse] can be found in AGNI 69, Spring 2009.
I have not yet got my hands on the Spring issue AGNI 69, but here’s the original poem and a rough translation by Federico Federici that I’ve found on the internet.