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A strong, idiomatic translation of Italy's greatest modern poet.
Eugenio Montale is universally recognized as having brought the great Italian lyric tradition that began with Dante into the twentieth century with unrivaled power and brilliance. Montale is a love poet whose deeply beautiful, individual work confronts the dilemmas of modern history, philosophy, and faith with courage and subtlety; he has been widely translated into English and his work has influenced two ...
A strong, idiomatic translation of Italy's greatest modern poet.
Eugenio Montale is universally recognized as having brought the great Italian lyric tradition that began with Dante into the twentieth century with unrivaled power and brilliance. Montale is a love poet whose deeply beautiful, individual work confronts the dilemmas of modern history, philosophy, and faith with courage and subtlety; he has been widely translated into English and his work has influenced two generations of American and British poets. Jonathan Galassi's versions of Montale's major works—Ossi di seppia, Le occasioni, and La bufera e altro—are the clearest and most convincing yet, and his extensive notes discuss in depth the sources and difficulties of this dense, allusive poetry. This book offers English-language readers uniquely informed and readable access to the work of one of the greatest of all modern poets.
|On the Threshold||4|
|Noons and Shadows||80|
|IV||Flashes and Inscriptions||320|
|Index of Titles and First Lines||613|
Jonathan Galassi: I'm doing very well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.
Jonathan Galassi: A friend first introduced me to the poems that he wrote after his wife died, called his "Xania" poems. That was about 1973, and I've actually been working on Montale off and on ever since them. I have done two other book-length translations. One is called THE SECOND LIFE OF ART, and that is his selected essays, published by Ecco Press, and the other was called OTHERWISE, and it was his last published book, published by Random House in 1984, but that's out of print now.
Jonathan Galassi: I would say I had several goals. The first is to convey the base level of meaning as accurately as possible. The second is to make a text that is a poem in English. I can't say that it does the same things in English that Montale's poetry does in Italian, but I've tried to be both literal and poetic to the best of my ability. But the two languages are very different, so even though I know my translations are pretty close on the literal level, they end up producing poems that are somewhat different from Montale's own because of the structures of the two languages.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, that's a very good question. I believe that I've made my versions as accurate as I can, and I feel that they do try to reflect the tone of Montale in Italian. Personally, I feel that the other translations do that in other ways that I'm not happy with. I feel that Arrowsmith's versions, for instance, are not rhythmically or tonally -- their approach to those issues is much more prosaic, I say, whereas Robert Lowell's IMITATIONS have quite a few of Montale's poems in them, but I feel he uses expressionistic imagery that distorts Montale's essential meaning, sometimes. But, obviously, some people will have their own ideas about these things.
Jonathan Galassi: Oh, boy.... Well, actually, some of the shorter poems. I found the earlier poems more difficult to translate, because I felt that their origins are farther away from his later poetry. His later poetry is much more influenced by Anglo-Saxon and by Dante, and these are origins which we understand. Whereas his early poems much more come out of a more local Italian tradition; it's harder to render those. The Ossi di Seppia -- the CUTTLEFISH BONES -- were harder for me to do. It might seem like a surprising answer, but I would say the shorter lyrics were the hardest.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, it's definitely obsession -- I hope it's something else, too! I just found his voice so compelling; it must speak to something in me. And I found his approach to tradition, originality, combined with his absorption of tradition, as well as his intensity...I'm still obsessed with him.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, he's definitely influenced my approach to poetry, and I feel that doing this project liberated something in me. It sort of opened up access to a broader range of language and a feeling for me. I have finished another book of my own poetry that's being published next year, and it's definitely influenced in many ways by the work I've done on this book. I don't know that other people will see that influence, but I feel it has very much. It allowed me a freedom -- it's kind of ironic that doing a translation would liberate you, but it did.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, let's see. I think to me his greatest contribution was the way he took a whole tradition -- the whole tradition of Italian lyric poetry -- and made it his own, so that instead of being radically destructive, he was a radically inclusive writer. And I think that's an amazing accomplishment. He made a great tradition modern, brought it down to the present. And I've tried to allude to that in my own translation but also in my annotations to the poems that talk about the incredibly complicated things that are going on in the poems. So I don't know if I brought it to the surface, but I brought it to the table.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, I think that Farrar, Straus has tried to stay close to the mission that it developed over the years of publishing writers -- of really being interested in the quality of the writing. Not just publishing ideas or books but trying to find real writers of all different kinds -- poets, novelists, essayists, journalists. And I think that's at the core of the quality that we stand for and what we try to keep doing. Well, I think first of all, we look for that intrinsic strength of the writing, the originality of the use of language, and we look for freshness -- someone saying something that hasn't been said before. Someone who is writing with originality and genuineness. And we also of course look for things that are about issues that are of concern to people. But it starts with the writing itself.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, I'm interested in the Lowell versions that are in his IMITATIONS. George Kay is a good translator. Charles Wright's version of THE STORM is the book I like. And I also respect greatly the Arrowsmith versions. They're all interesting in their different ways. James Merrill is another one I like a lot, but I have to admit I like mine the best. I didn't always like my own the best -- I had to work on them very hard!
Jonathan Galassi: I have been to the places where a lot of these poems were composed, but not while I was working on this book -- when I was working on earlier projects. I actually went and met him when I was working on the essays project. But I did do a huge amount of research in the literary criticism, both in Italian and English, because in the notes I've tried to make clear all the issues that were at work. And that was a lot of fun -- I enjoyed that a lot. That's one of the reasons why the project took so long.
Jonathan Galassi: I worked 14 years on this book. And survived!
Jonathan Galassi: ...and I'll miss it, too! To this question: No, we've published a lot of translations over the years, and with a language where a lot of people can read it and enjoy it, I think it's a good thing to have both there. I really am a big fan of that kind of publishing.
Jonathan Galassi: One thing I learned that was really interesting was how deeply he knew English poetry, and how influential it was in his writing. Shakespeare, Browning, Hopkins, Hardy, Emily Dickinson -- those are all poets who had a big influence on Montale. We don't usually think of European poets having been influenced by the English -- it's usually the other way around. And not just the English but the American poetry -- I thought that was really interesting and surprising.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, yes, we've come across a lot of new people who you'll be hearing about in the months and years to come. The books that we're most excited about at the moment include Michael Cunningham, THE HOURS, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, and Thomas Friedman's book, THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE, which is about globalization and is just out. I'll mention a few new authors who aren't out yet but might interest you: There's a poet named Brenda Shaughnessy, whose book is called INTERIOR WITH SUDDEN JOY. It will be published in June. She's a really exciting new poet. And we're going to be publishing a story writer named Elena Lappin. Her book is called FOREIGN BRIDES. That's coming out in June also. Those are two books I really love. And a novel called THE METAPHYSICAL TOUCH by Sylvia Brownrigg. Those are three books that are just about to come out by new authors who I think are really exciting.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, I would say it's the best it has been since I've been involved as a publisher. I think that publishers have recognized that there's an active market for poetry. It's not always as big as fiction titles, per se, but it's an active, happening part of bookstores. And our experience with National Poetry Month, which has given booksellers and other organizations a chance to promote poetry, has proven that there is a very active audience for poetry. It's quite fragmented, but I think that the Internet actually is going to be very helpful with connecting poetry readers with work that they will want to read. All that said, it's still very hard to get your poetry book published. It's still a very long, slow process, and it probably always will be.
Jonathan Galassi: I don't know a lot about them, but I do think they're worthwhile because they give people time to read and write concentratedly. But I don't see writing as a profession -- in other words, you don't get a degree and then you're a writer. It's a vocation. But I think they're valuable in other ways.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, I did answer part of that above, but I think that yes, the way Italian is put together is very different from English. It's a tighter language, and it's a much more convoluted language, so that you sort of carry an idea with you longer in a sentence, somehow. So I think it has probably made my poetry more condensed. And that's been good for it, I think. So living with another language has been deeply influencing for me, and a lot of fun. Even though I haven't been speaking Italian so much while doing this -- I've been reading it. But it's been a great influence on me.
Jonathan Galassi: Well, most of the other translators are not around any more, unfortunately. I would have loved to hear what Arrowsmith thought of it. But I have heard a lot from Italian scholars and Italian readers, and I have made some changes in different editions of the book based on their comments. I'd say, in general, the reception has been wonderful and very helpful. A translation, like a poem or anything else, is not finished -- it's abandoned, as they say. So there's plenty of more work to be done at it, and I still like to fiddle with it.
Jonathan Galassi: I think it has changed. I think that there's more pressure on editors to acquire a lot of books, and this has resulted in sometimes less close relations with the author. In the old days, the editor was really the author's prime contact in publishing, and now I think the agent is mostly that person for the author. But I think there are many editors today who are still doing it the old-fashioned way. That's why they got into the business, and they're still very, very dedicated, and I really admire that dedication.
Jonathan Galassi: The Academy of American Poets is the oldest and I think the largest organization in America devoted to both the creation and appreciation of poetry in America. We give out a number of prizes and grants; we coordinate National Poetry Month; we're developing a poetry book club and an online poetry classroom. And a number of other activities, too, all centered around the appreciation of poetry in America. And I'm the president of the board of directors, and I'm the chief kibbitzer in the group that is run by Bill Wadsworth. You should visit the academy web site, which is www.poets.org.
Jonathan Galassi: Thank you for your interest. It's been quite amazing to me to see that so many others out there share my obsession -- or can sympathize with my obsession, let's put it that way...