Saturday, 5 April 2014

Day 5: 'Agonia' by Giuseppe Ungaretti

Can we translate from languages we don't speak? My attempt today is a poem by Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, sent to me by my Italian translator friend Elena. (She is also my Italian teacher, so the pressure is on...) My command of Italian being as yet mostly imaginary, she also sent me a fairly literal translation. So to what extent is this translation mine? With the help of a dictionary, I think I could have gathered all the information Elena included. But I have already been guided by her thoughts - I might have made different choices had I not read her version.
It is fairly common practice for poets and (especially) playwrights to produce 'translations' from languages they don't speak, aided either by some poor unacknowledged translator who gives them a 'literal', or by comparing multiple existing translations. This obviously considerably broadens the range of texts we have available to us as translators; but I am not wholly convinced it is really a good way to translate. If you have five different versions to compare, you will get a very good sense of what the original is doing, but can you really get sufficiently 'inside the mind' of the text to translate it if you can't read it yourself?
Of course, it's one thing for me translate from Italian, which is similar to French and which I read well enough to have some sense of what the poem is doing; it would be quite another for me to attempt a translation-from-literals of a Finnish poem, say - or Arabic, Chinese etc, where I couldn't even attempt to read the poem aloud.
Whether or not you think I should be inflicting my translations from Italian upon the world, I hope you enjoy this one!


To die like parched skylarks
on the mirage

Or like the partridge
 – the sea passed by –
perched in the first branches
because of flight
has no desire now to fly

But not to live on lament
like a songbird grown blind

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