Gian Mario Villalta
Self-translation is not a field that can boast of a rich harvest of theoretical contributions to confront, for the simple reason that it is decidedly not a common practice. It is, in fact, quite rare, even in cases where the personal history of writers and poets has allowed them to know and use more than one language easily.
Indeed, a work cannot but be born immersed in the profound rhythm of a language and inside this rhythm (which is made up of sounds and signs, but also history, forms of life, landscape) it is created within its plurality of elements.
Why then should an author, once he has completed this work that involves his entire self , begin again in another language?
One could say that we are talking about translating, not re-creating. But what does "translation" mean for the author of the work that is to be translated?
Let us say right away that there is a fundamental difference between translation and self-translation. Even though we talk about "departure text" and "destination text," while dodging treacherous notions such as ‘original', ‘faithfulness', and ‘creativity', which have provoked opposing theoretical alliances, there is no doubt that the position of he who prepares to translate his own work is singular. His motive for doing so, we repeat, must also be singular.
It has been observed by B.T. Fitch (The Status of Self-Translation, in Text. Revue de critique et de théorie littéraire 4, 1985) that the existence of a work of self-translation, which involves the fact that the author works on his own writing, makes the work virtually incomplete. In other words, the complete work can only be represented by both pieces of writing together.
Fitch's intelligent observation is followed by fanciful observations: the two texts are in some way to be considered variations of each other. We can ignore the chronological order in which they were composed, since this is of minor importance given that what interests us is the process that is the outcome of the text, and not the text as a product. According to Fitch, it is not the re-production of a product that is so important, but the repetition of a process.
This type of reasoning is only apparently consistent, since, as we said, the genesis of a work cannot be separated from the language in which it takes place. The hypothesis that there is a repeatable creative process in the two languages leads to the revelation of the obvious (themes, figures, concepts, settings) and the hiding of that which is truly important: the articulation of a world/language/subject in which the creative process unfolds.
Among the many exceptions and observations necessary in order to understand the issue, one seems to me to be fundamental: if the intention of self-translation already exists in the work that will later be translated or if instead the translation comes about as a result of subsequent suggestions and reflections. Secondly, it appears to me that the awareness of the actual chronology of the phases of writing becomes very important from a theoretical point of view: does the writer finish a chapter and then translate it? Does the poet translate one poem at a time, as he writes them, or does he translate the collection when it is complete? The ability to answer these questions would be decisive.
It also become decisive to investigate the type of relationship that exists between the two languages in the personal history and formation of the author, since each language is in and of itself a place of formalization of culture and History, and dominant types of rhetoric and poetics operate within it.
It is this very fact that becomes fundamental: a language is always active and operative in the reality of its discourse, according to a system of persuasion made up of recognised rhetorical devices and poetics. In this specific case, it must be emphasized, therefore, that every language contains active poetics, that is, formalized practices in which a horizon of possibilities, exclusions, and transgressions regarding taste, sensitivity, and the realization of a poetic text are configured.
For this reason, the definition that Emilio Mattioli has given of translation as a relationship between poetics seems to me to be particularly appropriate as far as self-translation is concerned.
In fact, whatever may induce an author to begin and complete a process of self-translation has to do with the possibility not so much of mere repetition, but of gaining perspective, of adding meaning.
We should not, however, consider that this gain in perspective or addition of meaning happens automatically in the ‘new' text obtained through self-translation, though it would seem natural to think so. It could very well be a retroactive or biunique function, depending on how the relationship between the two texts (that is, between the two poetics) has been conceived.
In other words, it could be that an author works on the translation text with a view, let's say, to a "semantic clarification" with respect to the original poem. This would allow the text to present itself in a more concentrated or more cryptic form. Naturally, there must be reasons for this: let's say that the author perceives the feasibility of realizing a certain poetic form in one language but not in another (as in the case of the early Friulano Pasolini), and wants to underline this aspect emphatically. At the same time, however, he obtains the authority to commit some infractions and to bring novelties to the poetic horizon of the language of greater resistance.
Let's say that the notion of relationship between poetics has the advantage of emphasizing the idea that the co-implication of language and poetry is not something added on, but a constitutive reality of human discourse. Therefore, even when there may be the possibility of a ‘choice' on the part of the poet, of the language in which to express himself, it is necessary to keep in mind that even the language in this case ‘chooses' who will use it, but not only for sentimental or biographical reasons, so much as, to a great extent, for reasons related to expressive and formal questions.
Let us come, at last, to our topic: differently from dialect poetry of the past, poetry that is defined ‘neodialectal' is immediately characterized by a translation in the standard language. This constitutes in and of itself a sign of a radical change of function of dialect writing within the national literary system, which in the past saw dialect as having an invigorating function within the language, or as flaunting its distance in an opposing function.
In each case, the fact that the translation is inscribed in the initial gesture with which a book offers itself to the public stimulates some questions, at the very least in the public itself. In fact, it appears as evidence of a branching apart of the relationship between the sphere of production and that of reception; that is, it indicates that the text in question is not addressing a community of dialect speakers, but is seeking its readers outside of this community, or (we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves) on the border between two worlds, that of dialect (as it has become) and that of Italian (as it is becoming).
Some dialects are more comprehensible to other Italians, others less. The gap in similarity between language and dialect can have the character of micro-diglossia, when a wide possibility of comprehension remains, or of macro-diglossia, when comprehension is very difficult. In each case the notion of diglossia differs from that of bilingualism since in the first case it is understood that the speaker is well aware of the distinctly different functions of the two languages. In addition, in diglossia one language has a dominant role in official use while the other's use is socially restricted.
Except for cases of extreme (and skilfully wrought) micro-diglossia, books of dialect poetry are published with a translation, which is almost always a self-translation.
The ways in which the self-translation text presents itself to the reader (at the foot of the page in verses, with each "new line" or with slashes of separation, completely to the right of the page or completely to the left, in a minor point size or at the end of the collection, with or without notes . . . ) vary greatly and in my opinion, have to do with the adoption of a relationship between poetics. This too, must be integrated into the work that each poet carries out when he translates himself.
What I mean to say is that a large part of the novelty and the strength of dialect poetry that is called ‘neodialectal' derives from the knowledge of the linguistic means and the horizon of existing poetics. As such, ‘neodialectal' poetry goes so far as to propose itself as a type of profound analysis and resolution of a great crisis in poetic language.
The poet must always deal with the question of belonging in a language (not just to a language) understood as both a subjective bond as well as a community dialogue.
But this community of reference is, in turn, a different figure in the past, in the present of experience and in the future of aspirations and imagination.
What has happened in this regard and has so profoundly nurtured poetry, has complex roots, which each poet feels and ripens in his own way, offering his own voice.
From this point on what I will say will be the fruit of a personal experience, and from it I hope we will be able to focus on other experiences, without hierarchies of importance, given that, as Noventa suggested, it is such a great thing to be a poet, that it is a great thing even to be a small poet.
In the second half of the 1980s, I began to write in dialect and therefore to reflect, let's say ‘officially', on the relationship between dialect and the Italian language.In the background, naturally, was the insistent process of expropriation due to the acceleration of the processes of social reproduction, which had already brought all of us into a postmodernity in which the traditional forms of coexistence of self and language were dissolving.
One of the boundaries on which it was (and still is) possible to read this process in action was in the changes in the relationship between the spoken word, writing, and new telecommunications, in the context of the linguistic and social changes that have occurred and are still occurring.
In brief, the Italian of the new telecommunications (writing is the oldest form of telecommunication and it is not yet obsolete) had shaken up the traditional hierarchic order between the spoken word and writing, in such a way as to make the perception of an Italian that was both sayable and poetic at the same time difficult. I am referring to the 1980s, when the ‘spoken' of literature showed its affected and overly-cultured character, while on the other hand, television's neo-language acquired styles and sonorities that were contagious but not conducible to the expression of the dominant poetics, except in the forms of parody.
From the middle of the 1960s, (the legitimation arrived at the end of the eighties) only the dialect word seemed to preserve the character of language, both ‘individual' and ‘common', that Italian was losing faster and faster.
Yet this was happening under auspices that were not completely serene: dialects, in turn, had heard their death sentence pronounced. The world of farmers and villagers that had justified and nourished dialects for centuries was disappearing.
That same world in which dialects had found their own reality, on the other hand, was also the reason for their function and literary identity in past centuries.
While the poet lost and found the word in Italian, when he resorted to dialect he found himself in a paradoxical condition: the word that he found belonged to an iceberg headed toward the equator.
And that's not all. Having rightly refused the traditional position of subordination of dialect as compared to language and having proposed dialect as a ‘first' language, the poet bore all the weight of having transferred oral language into writing.
A local and familiar "first language," which harked back to spoken language, and also to the great dialect traditions.
But the poet rediscovered many of the same problems that he thought resolved. In addition, all too often the multicoloured coral bursting with a rich and strange vitality when it was in the waters of the spoken word, inexorably turned dull and grey once it was take out of its element and brought to the shores of writing.
This is, therefore, the basic hypothesis, to which I still subscribe, and it is far from the facile celebrations of dialect and its excellent poetics. The flowering of dialect poetry from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, with its close dialogue with poetry in standard Italian (also represented by works translated and self-translated) share the same crisis of word and communication, a difficulty that all Italian poetry faced in those years and that is still not resolved.
In those years the neodialectal adventure surely gave depth to poetic thought and led to works of great quality, which must be read, however, in light of the outline just presented while keeping in mind various conflictual internal dialogues.
The dialect poetry that affirmed itself from the 1970s onward could not find itself on the same wavelength. On the contrary, for reasons that I have tried to explain, this poetry made the difference between language and dialect one of its principal strong points (the first to write poetry within this consciousness was Pasolini).
As far as I am concerned, my first publication was a short poem, Altro che storie! (1988), in which I dealt with this very theme of the language's loss of horizon, where dialect represented a dual sign of opportunity and impossibility.
Dialect was disobedience, the farmer's ancient refusal of the expropriation that threw him into the machine of industrial production. At the same time, it was the conviction that this time too had passed, that this move was no longer incisive. This is what led to the (ironically) desperate tone of my first pieces. I became angry at writing in dialect as a true possibility that could no longer ingenuously be so.
At the same time, it must be said that I came from a heartfelt proximity to those poets and philosophers who felt that the authenticity of words has to do with the authenticity of language: as far as dialect is concerned, I felt that I had other issues.
From the beginning, however, I always worked in the coexistence/conflict of expression and thought between dialect and the Italian language. I felt deeply the crisis of the former (a language that begins to be written while being threatened with extinction) and the latter (a language that is actively ‘used', as Italian has been in Italy, loses contact with poetic tradition).
I continued to write, while always trying to answer the questions: what could the ‘sayability' of dialect bring to the language? What could the richness of the language and tradition bring to dialect?
From a ‘maternal' dimension of the language that I thought was lost, there came an attempt to reconstruct ‘maternity' (in the sense of creation, care, sharing) in poetry. This came about also because of a sense of ‘community' that I saw (or that I liked the idea of seeing, in the neodialectal poets – to tell the truth I misunderstood: it was simply friendship), which for several years was something truly important.
It was a vision of life and writing where marginality was not ostentation, where one seemed to be able to live "in a land of men and books" (the expression is Celan's), far from the human and intellectual standards of "being a poet in Italy", (and I put the phrase in quotes) that for so long I had not liked.
But many years have passed since I began (it was before the fall of the Berlin Wall) and in the meantime many things have become clear.
In the meantime I have continued to ask myself questions and to work on the two sides of the question.
Today it seems necessary to question everything once again: Which dialect? Whom do we address? A dialect that no one knows anymore? Or, if some people speak it, they cannot read it (because reading is difficult, it's difficult . . . )? Perhaps poetry can move even closer to theatre, something that it is already doing, and from there see what can be considered ‘sayable' that has sufficient breadth.
I avoid the controversy against dialect reduced to simple packaging for the versification of anything on the part of nostalgic people, avant-gardists, conservatives, ecologists, neo-regional-nationalists and others who use it without mercy (pietas).
Perhaps, however, it is necessary to say a few words about the dialect of today and of tomorrow: having lost its world, it preserves its intonation, some part of its vocabulary and syntax, some ‘quotations'.
Otherwise, it is necessarily a ‘dialectization' of Italian (and of English). In the Friuli region, thanks to regional support for the protection of the language, one of the area's main television stations transmits an edition of the news entirely in the Furlàn dialect. I think it is educational to watch it at least once: while the linguistic conjunctions remain – the substance, fattened up by authentic Friulano nouns and verbs here and there, is all an Italian that has been Friulanised by endings in ‘s', English that has been Italianised and then Friulanised, or English that has been directly Friulanised.
The affirmation that dialects are still alive seems mistaken to me. It would perhaps be more correct to say that they have already been reborn in another reality, in another relationship with communication, in other experiences. It would be right to talk about ‘migration'; what the dialect was, what it still is, is the fruit of a migration into another reality, to another dimension of living and communicating, which we perhaps have yet to measure.
Perhaps there is a "dialect function" tied to the experience of speaking, to the true Italian language, which has actually migrated inside Italian, an Italian that is conscious of time lived, of things that grow old, of words that are transformed in memory.
On the other hand, while the Italian language is threatened with becoming, in certain fields, a minor language even in Italy, it is also true that dialects are coming closer to it, they are not so foreign to it, they learn to speak it, they take care of it.
In the next few years, will cultural choices, or even more so, political ones decide what language will be spoken in Italy?
But the dynamics of language are surprising and creative, and even today registering the vivacity of the words that flow from one mouth to another, from one text to another, is as difficult an undertaking as evaluating the impact of the great migratory flows of people and communication from the ex-centres to the very central suburbs, to the ‘centre-less' world of telecommunications networks.
Is this the prospect of a creolization? I don't know. I don't really think so. Italian and its dialects make up a single body: they compete for sounds and forms, they transform themselves, they become widespread slang, but they do not easily yield ground.
The Italian language may be faster, more inlaid with expressions from various dialects, from English, the slang may be more widespread inside a common sound. I don't think that this is a bad thing in and of itself. Perhaps it could become a good thing, if in this way the language of writers and poets becomes more excited and more exciting.
What role have self-translations of neodialect poetry had? Can it be said that these translations have been a search for common effects?
I think so, although it is necessary to listen to what poets have to say about this.
I personally think we can attempt a reflection.
Language has a sound and a rhythm, which is something more profound (and more immediate) than metrics. It is the music of the language, whose so-called ‘musicality' is just the rhetorical froth.
This is the propulsive dimension of expression and of its corporeal root, which crosses all levels of verbal communication, and forms the horizon of the language's poetic dimension.
As we said, this poetic dimension of the language is not a specific function. It is not something that involves a sphere of special activity. The opposite is true: poetry is the activity in which the comparison and conflict with the poetic dimension of the language takes place intentionally.
If we see linguistic change not only as variations of vocabulary or shifting of syntax, but – less superficially – as the transformation of the ‘gesture' of the word (intonation, posture, profound rhythm of the act of saying), the decades that have just passed have been an appeal to change voice.
The ‘musical' richness of Italian has become difficult to put into practice, since Italian has a new music: in this sense dialect poets have really worked to remove from the poetic what was configured as musical (that is, rhetorical), to go once again toward music (that is, poetry).
Self-translation from dialect has necessarily become a place to reflect on the Italian language. It is a vaster moment of ‘translation' of life experience, of a different emotional dimension, of a wider perception of time. It is the preservation of dialect (translation also does this: it preserves), as it accompanies it in its migration toward a new relationship with daily life and language.
First published in Conference Proceedings: "Translating Oneself: Self-Translation in Dialect Poets", Cremona, April 8, 2003, pp 5-9.
Translated by Berenice Cocciolillo