On Translating Strand and Ashbery

By Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan

Featured Art: Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower by Thomas Cole

A few years ago Damiano published the Italian version of 89 Clouds by Mark Strand (ACA Galleries, New York, 1999; 89 Nuvole, Edizioni L’Obliquo, Brescia, Italy, 2003). Some of these one-liners are quite straightforward, but some are really tough to translate. For instance, Cloud # 25 reads: “A cloud without you is only a clod.” Damiano’s main inspiration when translating comes from the approach Glenn Gould had when interpreting a musical score. Rather than focusing on the literal meaning of each word, he tried to play the same game the author was playing, to imitate his wittiness and to leave a trace of the strong cloud/clod alliteration. What came out, when back-translated, would sound something like “A cloud without part of you is almost nothing,” and here is how it looks in Italian: Una nuvola senza parte di voi è quasi nulla.

How did Damiano get there? Quite simple. Since each of the eighty-nine one-liners mentions “cloud,” you really cannot avoid the Italian nuvola. “You” in Italian can be tu (singular) or voi (plural) [I won’t deal here with the hell this raises when translating Ashbery]. The singular form is totally useless here, while the plural opens up a workable possibility since the syllable vo is present both in the pronoun and in the noun nuvola. So, when taking vo out of nuvola you get… unfortunately nothing, or almost nothing. Because nula doesn’t mean anything, but nulla does: it means “nothing”, so that nula is actually almost nothing.

And that was it.

For years, Damiano had been working on a selection of John Ashbery’s poems (a selection that was assembled carefully by Ashbery himself, Damiano, and the poet Joseph Harrison). Then, Moira learned Italian, joined the team, and stuck her gender-studies-sensitized nose into the process. The running joke with an Ashbery poem was this: Damiano would point out a sentence and ask Moira, “Do you think this means x, or y, or z?” and the answer, of course, would be “Yes.” And then, of course, the translators  had to start making choices. But when Damiano showed her his first draft of “Thoughts of a Young Girl,” in which he had the dwarf as a female, Moira rather diffidently questioned his choice.

The more she looked at the poem, the more the “situation” seemed to come clear. The first stanza is entirely enclosed in quotation marks. Since the first line situates the poem in a tower, like a young girl’s princess fantasy, Moira started thinking it was an imaginary note the girl writes to herself in the voice of the besotted admirer. Don’t teenage girls do that sort of thing all the time? (Well, Moira didn’t, but that’s another story.) So the writer seemed to be male; the addressee of this imagined missive, female.

In Ashbery-land, this voice, writing to show he’s not “mad,” naturally explains that he

only slipped on the cake of soap of the air
And drowned in the bathtub of the world.

And the voice of the letter is the voice of a dwarf.

Though Damiano appreciated Moira’s arguments (these thoughts of a not- so-young girl that included adolescent female fantasy and the traditional, heterosexual construct of the female “object of the gaze”), he was not completely convinced.

But wait! This is the 21st century! “Let’s call Ashbery! Let’s ask him.” In working on a book that ended up weighing in at a hefty 300+ pages, Mr. Ashbery had not been consulted on a single issue of translation, but this one was important. After all, in Italian, all nouns, not just the people nouns, are gendered. So whether it was a boy dwarf or a girl dwarf would also determine the declension of all the adjectives and participles that modified the dwarf: mad, slipped, drowned; and the person to whom s/he was writing: good, go.

But, as we quickly discovered, Mr. Ashbery was incommunicado because he was traveling up to Toronto to receive that year’s Griffin Poetry Prize. We were very delighted that he was winning this prestigious award, but we were very worried, because we still weren’t sure if the dwarf was a boy or a girl.

We read and re-read the poem. In the second stanza, which is not enclosed in quotation marks, the “she” is portrayed as that archetypal, mysterious figure, “smile still [playing] about her lips,” that female who “always knows how to be utterly delightful.” Then, purely through a series of relational nouns, she is addressed as

Oh my daughter,
My sweetheart, daughter of my late employer, princess . . .

We were beginning to feel almost sure. Then Damiano remembered that he had an edition of Ashbery in French, and one in Spanish.

Guess what. The French translation has the dwarf as a boy; the Spanish, a girl. And, at the last minute, we also found some criticism that said that not only that the dwarf was a boy, but also that he was meant to be Rumpelstiltskin, that nasty little Grimm fellow.

This was the weekend. And the book was going to press on Monday. Almost convinced by Moira’s reading of the poem, but without definite confirmation, we set about “neutering” the translation. He would be a boy dwarf, all right, but then we came up with as many invariable adjectives – those that don’t change according to the gender of the noun – as we could: folle, cortese. We fudged verb tenses and adjectival phrases: scivolai, affogai, in libertà. If we had in fact pegged the dwarf’s gender wrong, at least the translation wouldn’t scream it out.

The book went to press. Mr. Ashbery returned to New York, Griffin Prize safely in hand. “Of course it’s a boy,” he told us. “And by the way, he’s not Rumpelstiltskin, no matter what anyone says.”

Damiano Abeni is an Italian epidemiologist who, since 1973, has been translating American poets such as Ashbery, Bidart, Bishop, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Strand, Simic, and C.K. Williams. With Mark Strand, he edited West of Your Cities (2003), a bilingual anthology of contemporary American poetry. He has held fellowships at the Liguria Study Center of the Bogliasco Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, and he was a Director’s Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Center.

Moira Egan is the author of Cleave (2004), La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie (2009), Bar Napkin Sonnets (2009), and Spin (2010). With Damiano Abeni, she has published Italian translations of Ashbery, Barth, Bender, Ferlinghetti, Strand and others. Her poems have appeared in many journals in the U.S. and abroad, and in anthologies including Best American Poetry 2008 and The Book of Forms Including Odd and Invented Forms. She has been a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a Writer in Residence at the St. James Cavalier Center for Creativity in Malta, a Fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center, and a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

Piece originally published in NOR 13.

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