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
-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
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
(1) (E') un lavoro di conservazione di culture in fase di
estinzione (e qui Vitiello da' una prospettiva globale
(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
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
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
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
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
masks its status as an illusion: the translated text seems
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
by the individualistic conception of authorship that
to prevail in Anglo-American culture. According to this
the author freely expresses his thoughts and feelings in
which is thus viewed as an original and transparent self-
representation, unmediated by transindividual determinants
(linguistic, cultural, social) that might complicate
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
in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations (p.
(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
to ghettos), sounds ('o sole mio! and mannagg'! mixed with
rock and blues), smells (yes, garlic and olive oil mingling
spaghetti and meatballs), tastes (ditto), touches (tweaks,
caresses, karate chops). Such concretely expressed forms of
valences can, as Fred Gardaphe' puts it, 'bridge the gap
the Streets and the Academy, between the oral and literary
traditions of Italian and American culture' by linking
to past and memory to myth so well it's hard to tell them
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
bellezze verminose in vaso d'oro
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
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.
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
City of Stench and Poison
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.
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
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:
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),
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.