Found in Translation

Many of us learn enough of a second language to meet our needs — to order dinner or locate a restroom. But to know others in the way we know our family, friends and neighbors takes a deeper and more subtle understanding of language than the average person achieves.

“If we don’t want to have a heads-in-the-sand society, the answer is obvious. We need to be aware of other cultures, and no other human act reveals so much about people as literature,” said professor John DuVal, director of the literary translation program in the English department of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s more successful than philosophy or anthropology. In literature you meet people who seem realer to you than people you know. When you read good fiction or poetry, there are no stereotypes.”

The translation program recently welcomed assistant professor Geoffrey Brock to the faculty. His arrival at the university was delayed by a Guggenheim fellowship that gave him a year to “light a fire underneath” a bilingual anthology of 20th century Italian poetry. He continues to edit the anthology while teaching translation and creative writing classes.

Brock calls his approach “re-creative translation,” offering readers a literary experience of a work. In an essay about translating the novel, he cited a “cocktail” of elements that create the literary experience for Italian readers of Queen Loana. Among the elements are style, voice, tone, diction, humor, character and suspense.

“It follows,” he wrote, “that a faithful translation ought to try to recreate them for English readers, too, or at least to mimic their flavors and effects, in order that the translation function as an analogous work of art in its own right.”

This approach to translation demands more subtlety than a simple literal translation of sentences from one language to another.

Eco’s words that tasted like magic:
Quante parole so perché le ho imparate lì? Perché so anche ora, con adamantina certezza, e in barba alla mia tempesta cerebrale, che la capitale del Madagascar è Antananarivo? Lì ho incontrato termini dal sapore di una formula magica, avvittolato, baciabasso, belzuino, caccabaldole, cerasta, crivellaio, dommatica, galiosso, granciporro, inadombrabile, lordume, mallegato, pascolame, postemoso, pulzellona, sbardellare, speglio, versipelle.And Geoffrey Brock’s re-creation in English of that magic:
How many words do I know because I learned them there? Why do I know even now, with adamantine certainty, and in spite of the tempest in my brain, that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo? It was in that book that I encountered terms that tasted like magic words: avolate, baccivorous, benzoin, cacodoxy, cerastes, cribble, dogmatics, glaver, grangerism, inadequation, lordkin, mulct, pasigraphy, postern, pulicious, sparble, speight, vespillo… (p. 111-112)

“If I had just literally translated it into English, some of the passages might have become obscure or dull and as a result might have failed to achieve whatever humorous or entertaining effect Eco had intended. But Eco is an entertainer and wants his novels to be, among other things, entertaining,” Brock said.

Brock’s re-creative translation offers a rich experience of Eco’s novel with allusions that sometimes spin off the page in rollicking passages melding “a kiss is just a kiss” with a jumbled quote from JFK and bits of Dante with nursery rhymes.

“It’s not important that readers recognize all the quotations – I doubt any would, either in Italian or English,” Brock explained. “But it is important that they recognize enough to decipher the passage’s organizing principle, and that they be, on balance, more amused than confused.”

One passage was quoted from an old mystery novel, and Brock had fun switching gears to give the paragraph “that noir feel.” Even when translating a passage about fog from Bleak House, Brock could not simply lift Dickens’ original English, since Eco had mixed in a bit of “The Little Match Girl” with the Bleak House segment.

At the same time, Brock was conscious of the danger of including so many allusions familiar to English readers that he would turn Yambo into “an insufferable Anglophile” rather than the sophisticated polyglot created by Eco. When he used English-language sources, he tried to select those that Eco had alluded to elsewhere in the novel, such as Shakespeare and James Joyce. In the end, he left enough Italian allusions that “Yambo’s national identity remains, I think, intact.”

In the sixth chapter, a passage presented a particular challenge. Yambo picks up his childhood dictionary and muses on the words he had discovered there many years earlier. He remembers how the words enchanted him – they “tasted like magic words.” He was more interested in their sound than in their generally obscure meanings. It is their very obscurity, Brock wrote, that “makes him (and us) more conscious of their sonic texture, and of their mystery.”

Brock’s task was to choose words that are “obscure enough and interesting enough in their sounds to have the mysterious ring of magic words.” At Eco’s suggestion, Brock used an English dictionary that would parallel Yambo’s dictionary. He searched the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for words that resembled Eco’s words in sound or appearance.

“My desire was to present a list of words that looked, at first glance, like cognates of their Italian counterparts – they are not just false cognates, but rather a kind of parody of cognates. It was a way of underlining, for myself mostly, but also for anyone who bothered to compare my translation with Eco’s original, not just the irrelevance of meaning here, but the way in which that irrelevance contributes to the magic,” Brock said.

“Every quoted passage had to have its own style and voice in English distinct from the main body of the novel,” Brock said. “That was one of the challenges and pleasures of this translation.”

Mocking Fascism

DuVal faced the challenge of re-creation in his translation of Tales of Trilussa, a selection of poems by Carlo Alberto Salustri, which received the 2006 Raiziss/de Palchi Prize from the American Academy of Poets for translation of poetry from Italian. Salustri wrote under the pseudonym Trilussa, an anagram of his last name. Tales of Trilussa was originally published by the University of Arkansas Press, which ordered a second printing after the announcement of the award.

“Trilussa’s poems can be successfully carried over into another language only by retaining – or, more precisely, recreating – the dexterity and the bite of the originals, and in John DuVal Trilussa has found his ideal translator,” said Michael Palma, a juror for the American Academy of Poets.

DuVal’s translation offers English speakers access to the mocking social commentary and occasional silliness that still delight Italians more than 60 years after the poet’s death.

“The poetry of Trilussa is in Romanesco, which is the dialect of Rome – the way people speak in Rome, have spoken in Rome – an evolving language since the end of the Roman Empire,” DuVal said. “This prize has been particularly gratifying for me because the language is actually Romanesco rather than straight Italian, and I appreciate the fact that the award-givers and the judges selected a book in dialect, which 20 years ago would not have happened.

“Secondly, it is gratifying to me because this is probably the book of translations that I’ve had the hardest time writing. Trilussa is a poet of tremendous variety. Every poem is different. He has funny, hilarious poems. He has serious poems. He has sentimental poems. Each time I did a translation I felt like I was starting over again,” he said.

In the introduction to Tales of Trilussa, DuVal wrote that the poet brought a comic-lyric sensibility to his poems, influenced both by late 19th century Italian Crepuscolari poets, who emphasized simple language and subjects, and by “the popular canzonette sung in the Roman streets and dance halls.”

In “La Zampana,” or “The Gnat,” Trilussa’s sonnet celebrates a gnat whose life ends when it is crushed between the pages of The History of Italy, becoming a smear “right in the Campaign for Independence.” In the final two lines, Trilussa captures the lesson of the gnat’s “mark on one of History’s pages”:

In Italia, a un dipresso,
Se p_ divent_ celebri lo stesso.“Or, in DuVal’s translation:
A person’s chance for fame, however piddly,
Cannot be altogether squelched in Italy.

Trilussa, who published his first poem in1887, was able to make his living with his sonnets, fables, satires and lyrics until his death in 1950. He was already well known nationally and internationally when the fascists assumed control of Italy. Trilussa did not claim to be an anti-fascist poet. Rather, Trilussa said, he was “simply not a fascist.”

“His satire exposed the pomposity and double-talk of everyone from street thugs to cabinet ministers. The fascists, when they took power in 1922, were no exception, except that there was a new element to satirize in the new regime: terror,” DuVal said. “Such poems as ‘In the Shade’ and ‘The Last of the Bogeyman’ become increasingly complex when we realize that they themselves make their author more vulnerable to the terror they mock.”

DuVal was introduced to Romanesco by his colleague, the poet Miller Williams, who one day at a party handed him a fat volume of Trilussa’s complete poems in Romanesco, saying, “Here, John – here’s something you’ll enjoy translating.” Intrigued, DuVal taught himself Romanesco with the aid of Romanesco-Italian dictionaries and a Louisiana State University Press edition of Romanesco sonnets by G.G. Belli printed alongside what he calls Williams’ “masterful translations” into English.

“When I look back through Tales of Trilussa, I can have two different sensations,” DuVal said. “Sometimes when I just leaf through the book I’m really impressed by the variety, and I take tremendous pleasure in reading it. But too often as I look through I’m impressed with a sense of coming short sometimes of Trilussa’s poetry, as I go from one poem to the other. There’s just so much to the original.”

Guessing at la lengua

DuVal is currently translating accounts by Europeans of their first encounters in North America for an anthology edited by his daughter, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Some of the accounts are reports back to Spain from governors or missionaries in what is now the southwestern United States. The spelling is “awful,” he said. “It’s hastily written and not grammatical.”

In the early 1500s, as Cabeza de Vaca wandered through what is now the southern and western United States, he recorded a long list of the languages he encountered. Many are now extinct. The explorer’s writing was better than most of the report writers, but still there were tricky inconsistencies.

One example is the Spanish word lengua, which has three meanings in the writings of de Vaca and other Spanish explorers and settlers. In addition to “tongue” and “language,” the common meanings today, lengua was used to signify an interpreter. While DuVal often encounters puns or double meanings for words, the three different uses make the translation much more difficult. Fortunately, he has experience with Medieval French and old Spanish, and thanks to his study of Romanesco, he is “used to guessing at variations.” For lengua, he also consulted his University of Arkansas colleague, professor of foreign languages Luis Fernando Restrepo, who informed him that una lengua, as interpreter, could be either a man or a woman.

Both DuVal and Brock teach translation at the University of Arkansas, and both have won the Raiziss/de Palchi Prize. No other translation program has had two winners of the Raiziss/de Palchi Prize. Both have also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts – DuVal for translation and Brock for his own poetry.

Brock also received another translation award in 2006, the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine, which he received for his translation of a poem by Giovanni Pascoli, a poem he first discovered thanks to a quotation from it in the Eco novel. Brock’s translation of Skylark Farm, a novel about the Armenian genocide by Antonia Arslan, was released early in 2007. His current projects include the anthology of 20th century Italian poetry and a second collection of his own poems, tentatively called Voices Bright Flags.

In addition to Tales of Trilussa, DuVal also translated The Discovery of America by Cesare Pascarella, which won the 1992 Harold Morton Landon Prize for the Translation of Poetry from the Academy of American Poets.

From Tales of Trilussa, translated
by John DuVal:All’ombraMentre me leggo er solito giornale
spaparacchiato all’ombra d’un pajaro,
vedo un porco e je dico:—Addio, majale!—
vedo un ciuccio e je dico:—Addio, somaro!—Forse ‘ste bestie nun me caperanno,
ma provo armeno la soddisfazzione
de pot_ di’ le cose come stanno
senza paura de fini_ in priggione.In the Shade of a Hay RickI read my paper, back propped against the hay.
Here comes a hog, so I look up and say,
“Goodbye, pig!” And then across the grass
here comes a donkey; I say, “Goodbye, ass!”No way of telling if they’ve understood.
Whether they have or not, it does me good
to call things what they are without the dread
of having to go to jail for what I’ve said.

Both DuVal and Brock have translated works that offer two different perspectives on Italian fascism, Umberto Eco’s literary examination of Italian history and culture leading up to fascism and Carlo Alberto Salustri’s mocking social commentary on life under fascism.

The Mysterious Flame

In 2006, Brock was honored by the American Translators Association with the 2006 Lewis Galantière Award for his translation from Italian of Eco’s most recent novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. In his translation, Brock offers readers a literary experience as entertaining in English as the novel is in the original Italian.

The main character in Queen Loana is an Italian bibliophile named Yambo who bears some resemblance to Eco. When the story begins, he has suffered a stroke and is awaking with a type of amnesia that has wiped out his personal memories and left only what he has learned from books. To recover his personal past, he moves into his family’s summer home with its attic filled with everything from his childhood – toys, books and school papers.

“Yambo’s entire childhood is present in objects and in old magazines and newspapers,” Brock said. “As he goes back through all these materials, it becomes a history of a generation and a history of Italian culture in the ’30s and ’40s during the rise of fascism.”

Many of the cultural allusions from the bibliophile’s attic are familiar to Italian readers and make the original humorous and entertaining. Working closely with Eco, Brock’s task was to reproduce that reading experience for English speakers. To do this, he had to replace some of Eco’s allusions to literary and popular culture with different allusions that would be accessible to Anglophone readers—but still plausibly the product of Yambo’s mind. In the case of Queen Loana, Brock said, “word-by-word fidelity would sometimes have been an infidelity.”

Celebrating Living

A good translation, whether fiction or poetry “functions as a calibration of humanity,” DuVal said. Poetry is less popular in translation than fiction because of the difficulty of conveying all that a poem holds. With Trilussa, DuVal was certainly challenged by the great variety of his work – the fables, love poems, sarcastic Romanesco street scenes and philosophy in poetry. When he says he fears he fell short in translating Trilussa, he wonders about “a sense of disunity and a sense of Trilussa not coming across as a person.”

Still, he comes back to the essential hopefulness of his art.

“Poetry is a universal celebration of living, particularly the longing within. Translation of poetry is impossible, because it is impossible to celebrate French, for instance, in English. But still we try to do it.”

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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