Translating the Contemporaneity of Neodialect Italian Poetry
By Justin Vitiello

-Translation not only transforms other literatures, their authors and translating authors, but in repressive societies serves specifically as an instrument to educate, inform, and alter political and hence literary values. In totalitarian states, modes of expression not permitted native authors are allowed foreign authors in translation (1).

-There has never been a creative flowering of dialect poetry like the one... taking place since the Seventies, so purposeful, cultured, often followed in many authors by the definitive renunciation of poetry in Italian... Never as in recent years has dialect appeared..., according to De Sanctis's prophecy, as "the new seedbed of literary languages". And never as in recent years has dialect been so widely mentioned in one breath with "expressive avant-garde" and "experimentation"(2).

In re translating neodialect Italic poetry in the context of contemporary Anglo-American poetic idiom(s), Luigi Bonaffini synthesized three points I made about the subject in a letter written to him while I was working on poems from the Romanesque, Apulian and Sicilian for his anthology, Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy (3): "Vitiello... enumera alcuni degli elementi piu' importanti nella traduzione dal dialetto:
(1) (E') un lavoro di conservazione di culture in fase di estinzione (e qui Vitiello da' una prospettiva globale del problema).
(2) La traduzione della poesia dialettale rida' una voce culturale-globale agli emarginati, a quelli che Franz Fanon chiamava 'i Dannati della Terra'.
(3) Al livello linguistico, come vediamo chiaramente nella poesia americana nera e Beat, i dialetti sono i veicoli di innovazione artistica"
(4) - realized, I should have added, by "poeti aulici", many of whom, via experimental methods, thus challenge the Italian literary canon of "Montalismo" and its martinets and sycophants in the dominant school of English translation of Italian poetry (5). As "deviazioni da letterarieta'" (6) - which, ironically, Montale himself admired (7) - "la piena contemporaneita' (of neodialect poetry) con la poesia italiana ed europea" (8) can be affirmed to fulfill the dreams of Gianfranco Contini, Pier Paolo Pasolini (9) and Giacinto Spagnoletti (10). Neodialect poets - writing, we must remember, in minor Romance languages (11) - ply a contemporary trade akin to that of "i Provenzali,... i fabbri del parlar materno" (12) and, ever since, have deserved recognition with "pari dignita'" (13) in relation to mainstream poets composing in Tuscan or so-called standard Italian. In this essay, by focusing on some of my translations from Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy(DPSI) and Via Terra(VT), I will try not only to promulgate my manifesto for the overthrow and reconstitution of the present canon of Italian poetry but also to humbly propose that Anglo-American translation criteria undergo a similar, radical overhauling (14).

I thus face the challenge posed by Willis Barnstone in The Poetics of Translation:

Why not shake up English poetry with the sudden arrogant figure of Vladimir Mayakovsky, standing tall in his coalminer's cap, shouting his syllables out to the sky from the Brooklyn Bridge?... Lexical shock renews weary language bones. (p. 266).

Actually, poetic revolutions in Italy have been going on since hopes of the Resistance started to fade. The ups and downs from then on have confirmed Edgar Wind's provocative observations: "A certain amount of turmoil and confusion is likely to call forth creative energies... Dissatisfaction and discontent, far from being inimical to the arts, have often been their tutelary genius" (15). Given that Italy's literary establishment has persisted in resisting innovation, every new school has had to face the problem Alfredo Giuliani identifies in I novissimi. Poesie per gli anni '60: : "Ogni volta che... qualcuno vuole essere contemporaneo, deve scontrarsi con immaturita' sociale, col provincialismo politico, con le improvvisazioni e inquietudini che si pretendono soluzioni, con la perpetua commistione di anarchismo e legittimismo" (16). Nevertheless, Italian poets since World War II - call them neo-realistic, neo-hermetic, neo-experimentalist, neo-avant-gardist, neo-neo or unclassifiable - have made serious contributions to what Giuliani considers a continually Leopardian "accrescimento di vitalita'" and to what Andrea Zanzotto sees as the essence of poiesis:: "In reality poetry knows always new transfigurations and reincarnations, digs underground and surfaces when least expected: it is like the 'old mole'... revolution" (17). Often bringing to crises notions of self, role, artistic values and functions sui generis - like "letteratura di rifiuto" or "rifiuto della letteratura" (18) - contemporary Italian poets, besides performing their major "duty" of writing poems, have engendered healthy polemics vital to any intellectual and cultural climate bent on avoiding extinction. As Pasolini grasped this sine qua non of the making of radical culture, "nella storia nostra... non la poesia e' in crisi, ma la crisi e' in poesia" (19) - constantly via a "vero e proprio sperimentalismo".

Such a commitment to ceaseless renewal of poetic form and content also entails a confrontation with the oxymoron "traditionalism-radicalism" that was a major focus of twentieth century Italian poetry. But we must, in addition, comprehend certain poets' rebellions against abstract debates regarding politico-linguistic culture. Once again, Pasolini aids us postmodernists in developing a healthy skepticism about any trend in any field where the use of language is paramount. Speaking of the socio-political and elite/mass cultural powers, he says: "La loro lingua e' la lingua della menzogna. E poiche' la loro cultura e' una putrefatta cultura forense e accademica, mostruosamente mescolata con la cultura tecnologica, in concreto la loro lingua e' pura teratologia (20). Non la si puo' ascoltare. Bisogna tapparsi le orecchie" (21).
Confronted with the "monstrosities" of this Newspeak of cultural and political elites, their stultifying "ideologia mandarinale e corporativa"(22), and the hype of consumerism, contemporary poets are tacitly engaged in "purifying the languages of the tribes". Their quest for authentic roots of language and its liberating, often asyntactical, neologistic and colloquial, and always radically idiomatic structures has ultimately metamorphosed into neodialectics.

So how does one transform minor Romance languages into Anglo-American poetry? Beyond the technical difficulties (which are too well known to require comments), there exists the mainstream cultural context , that "free market", i.e., monopolistic totalitarianism demanding a currency in an English-language translation that Venuti describes in The Translator's Invisibility:

A fluent translation is written in English that is current ("modern") instead of archaic, that is widely used instead of specialized ("jargonisation"), and that is standard instead of colloquial ("slangy"). Foreign words ("pidgin") are avoided... Under the regime of fluent translating, the translator works to make his or her work 'invisible', producing the illusory effect of transparency that simultaneously masks its status as an illusion: the translated text seems 'natural', i.e., not translated (pp. 4-5). > Compounding this sanitized, white-washed, non-idiosyncratic approach that prods the translator toward color-blindness is the dominant ideology, the apolitical correctness of an individualism designed to be purified of race, gender, class, ethnicity, multilingualism. As Venuti argues, The translator's invisibility is also partly determined by the individualistic conception of authorship that continues to prevail in Anglo-American culture. According to this conception, the author freely expresses his thoughts and feelings in writing, which is thus viewed as an original and transparent self- representation, unmediated by transindividual determinants (linguistic, cultural, social) that might complicate authorial originality (p. 6). Obviously, I resist this "cultural political practice" (Venuti, p. 19), this ideology of individualism that has become the hegemonic culture and, thus, like any institution wielding power, a variety of fascism. My own attempts at sabotaging this Establishment, you will note even before I present them, are published by a marginalized press (Legas) in a book reviewed by marginalized journals (23). Frankly, I like it that way, for three reasons:
(1) I strive for goals similar to those of Venuti, who subscribes to "foreignizing translation":
I want to suggest that insofar as foreignizing translation seeks to restrain the ethnocentric violence of translation, it is highly desirable today, a strategic cultural intervention in the current state of world affairs, pitched against the hegemonic English- language nations and the unequal cultural exchanges in which they engage their global others. Foreignizing translation in English can be a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations (p. 20).
(2) I have come to the point where I am in fullest accord with Paula Gunn Allen's idea of "border creativity" in the face of an ethnocidal culture: "Having never lived in the master's house, we can all the more enthusiastically build a far more suitable dwelling of our own... It is no concern of ours what 'they' say, write, think, or do. Our concern is what we are saying, writing, thinking, and doing" (24).
(3) Linguistically, I have shifted from Prospero's to Caliban's idiom. That is, I have aimed for "plurivocita'" (25) in my translations, a quality approaching the polysemousness and polivalency of neodialectics in ways akin to the practice of ethnopoetics which, I have already argued, extends our linguistic range beyond what is deemed worthy as art for art's sake to our many idioms, dialects, volgari in all their senses: sights (of our villages transplanted to ghettos), sounds ('o sole mio! and mannagg'! mixed with rock and blues), smells (yes, garlic and olive oil mingling with spaghetti and meatballs), tastes (ditto), touches (tweaks, pinches, caresses, karate chops). Such concretely expressed forms of cultural valences can, as Fred Gardaphe' puts it, 'bridge the gap between the Streets and the Academy, between the oral and literary traditions of Italian and American culture' by linking 'present to past and memory to myth so well it's hard to tell them apart, and impossible to believe we're not listening to the original voice (26).
Condemn me or ignore me. It does not matter. Perhaps History will absolve me? Especially in the chiaroscuros of the following examples of my translations offered as possible ways to resolve the dilemmas indicated above in appropriate American vernaculars? With such criteria in mind, please focus less on my academic glosses than on my linguistic/poetic renderings of:

(1) Franco Loi's neorealistic folk poetry:
Addio cari compagni, amici luganesi,
addio, bianche di neve...
Cantaum suj basej, sota quel'aqua,
cun di stralusna che spaccava el mund...

Good-bye, comrades from Lugano,
good-bye, white peaks of snow...
We sang/ on the stairs
under downpour and lightning
rending the world (VT, p.37)

(2) Gabriele Alberto Quadri's earthy, sarcastic, even crude invective, a poetic form as ancient as the Greeks and Romans:
...s'a tira pu l'usell,
va al babor, zacagnin!
gh'e' poch da fa or pivell;
l'e' ora d'anda' sott,
o sanguanon! che foffa,
tott in la', botascion!

...if you can hack it,
go to Naples - ball-buster-
that'll squeeze the greenhorn
outta you or else
you'll toll your last bells,
by Judas's blood,
wind up in some back alley...
Enough! Scat! Clap your balls! (VT, p.56)

(3) Raffaele Nigro's lyricism so classically evocative:
Mo ca u sole hav'apert
ri lanter sopa a la vuschera,
non se n'e' sciuta la nott, no,
e la paiure
non m'ha lassate 'nzalve
da la freve.

Now that the sun has spread
its magic-lantern light in the forest
the night abides -
and fear still has not
freed me from the fever...(VT, p.248)

(4) The radical experimentalism of Mauro Mare' that spans the hills and swamps of Latin and Romanesque:
se distrugge la ggente
vita frommicolata sur Bellicolo
dubbiqua niunquita'
bellezze verminose in vaso d'oro
sbarzato d'arubbeschi
perche' ttamanto scanni li fijji tua?

people are genociding
ant-life swarming over the UMBILICUS MUNDI
doubiquitous the NEC MINUS ULTRA
vermin scum in gold bed-pans
teeter-twittering in arabesques
how come-ly thou flayest thy children?(DPSI,p.117)

(5) Pietro Gatti's staccato disruption of traditional syntax and diction:
Jete tiembe cu mm'arretire a ccase:
do sarmiende p'u fueche stone angore.
Ccussi', pure m'arrocche, a ppuvuriedde,
u uegghje p'a luscecchje. N'a' rrumase
nu fele ind'o' bbucchjere. P'a nuttate.
Ca' a lurteme po' ll'esse.
Come vole.

It's my time to go home.
There, for the hearth, two bundles of twigs...
In my poverty I've saved
oil for my lamp - left at
the bottom of the jar. For night.
Perhaps the last.
So be it.(DPSI, p.187)

(6) Nicola Giuseppe De Donno's baroque (Quevedesque? Berninian?) meditation on death:
Intra stu puzzu cupu de culozza,
rretu la nuta frunte nu nc'e' gnenti,
nc'e' llu vacante, e fforsi, a stenti a stenti,
na pruledda de gnignu...

In this grim deep pit of a skull
behind the naked brow there's naught
and void - at most it is fraught
with the brain's dust...(DPSI, p.199)

(7) A sonnet by Mare' that demands, as in the following quatrain, solutions beyond the formal:
... l'inferno-citta' cch'e' ttutta velo-
cita' ccitta'-vveleno e ttanfo e insino
in barba ar monno sbarbajjo' er destino
nojjartro che a l'eternita' ffa vvelo.

Day resurges in the uproar
of an orbed urban hell
all velocity,
City of Stench and Poison
yet in
defiance of the world
Rome's Destiny shone,
veil to Eternity.(VT, p.169)

To each translation its own creative idiom? I think so. Otherwise, why presume to transpose a poem from one language to another? Especially, in an historical context like this one of the "creative flowering of dialect poetry" which cannot, in all poetic justice, be translated according to the totalitarian can(n)on in vogue today.

-Justin Vitiello
Temple University


1- Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (New Haven, Yale UPr, 1993), p.123.
2- Achille Serrao, "The New Dialect Poetry", in Via Terra: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Dialect Poetry, Serrao, L. Bonaffini and J. Vitiello, eds. (Brooklyn: Legas, 1999), p.13.
3- (Brooklyn: Legas, 1997).
4- "Traditori in provincia. Apunti sulla traduzione dal dialetto", Italica 72, 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 222-23.
5- See, regarding this polemic, Lawrence Venuti, The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation (New York: Routledge, 1995).
6- See Bonaffini, "Traditori...", p.223.
7- See Mario Chiesa and Giovanni Tesio, Le parole di legno: Poesia in dialetto del '900 italiano, I (Milan: Mondadori, 1984), p.9.
8- Ibid., p.16.
9- Ibid., p.18.
10- See his "Italian Language and Southern Dialects" in Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy: Texts and Criticism: A Trilingual Anthology, Bonaffini, ed. (Brooklyn: Legas, 1997), pp.13-14.
11- See the "Lingue Minori" series of Campanotto Editore Udine in which Via Terra was first published (1992) in Italian and the neodialects.
12- See Franco Brevini, Le parole perdute: dialetti e poesia nel nostro secolo (Turin: Einaudi, 1990), pp.62-63.
13- See Serrao in Via Terra, pp.8-9.
14- To a certain extent this revamping has been/is a work in progress realized, over the previous decades, by "tenured radicals" and "perverse/subversive multiculturalists". However, this is not the proper forum in which to polemicize about such menaces. Nevertheless, see examples of recent American neodialectical breakthroughs to expand "THE CANON" in Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan, eds., Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (New York: Penguin, 1994).
15- Art and Anarchy (London: Duckworth, 1985), p.1.
16- (Milan: Rusconi e Paolazzi, 1991), pp.xxxi-xxxii.
17- Quoted on the cover of Modern Poetry in Translation 26: Italy, Brian Swann and Ruth Feldman, eds.(Winter 1975).
18- See A. Berardinelli and F. Cordelli, Il pubblico della poesia (Cosenza: Lerici, 1975), p.11.
19- Quoted in Antonio Barbuto, Da Narciso a Castelporziano. Poesia e pubblico negli anni settanta (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1981), p.135.
20- That is, the science of monster-study...
21- See Lettere luterane (Turin: Einaudi, 1976), p.29.
22- See Berardinelli and Cordelli, p.19.
23- See the reviews of Via Terra in Sicilia Parra 11, 2 (Winter 1999), pp.9-10, and in America Oggi (Sunday, 5 March 2000), p.25B.
24- Quoted in my "Off the Boat and Up the Creek Without a Paddle - or, Where Italian Americana Might Swim: Prolepsis of an Ethnopoetics", in Beyond the Margin: Readings in Italian Americana, P.A. Giordano and A.J. Tamburri, eds. (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UPr, 1998), pp.23-24.
25- See my Italy's Ultramodern, Experimental Lyrics: Corpo 10 (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), p.4.
26- See "Off the Boat and Up the Creek", p.26.