28 February 2012

Translating Eugenio Montale

The original in Italian:

La poesia

Dagli albori del secolo si discute
se la poesia sia dentro o fuori.
Dapprima vinse il dentro, poi contrattaccò
il fuori e dopo anni si addivene a un forfait
che non potrà durare perché il fuori
è armato fino ai denti. 

The word for word Italian to English transliteration:

The Poetry

Since the dawn of the century discussion
If the poetry is in or out.
He won the first, then counterattacked hard inside
the outside and after he became a forfeit
that will not last because the outside
is armed to the teeth

English Interpretive Translation:


Our modern poets have argued
whether poetry comes from inside the poet or outside.
Poetry revealed himself from inside the battlements
and In was thought to have won,
but then, he relinquished
because outside, Poetry was armed to the teeth.


I've never taken a course in Italian. The transliteration was conducted by some Microsoft program designed to translate web pages. But that is not where the poem's meaning comes from. It is as if I have chipped away at the stone to reveal some of the geode underneath. The act of translation must first transliterate, but it also must interpret.

Montale seems to say here that it is both inside the soul and outside the body. It exists wherever there is a human being and I agree with him. Poetry as an internal act is very personal, very protective. The poet constructing poetry for himself creates a world and its structures for him to live and work in, to protect him from the outside.

But the poet must also construct poetry for the world, the poet must use his words as weapons to tear down ideas that people hide behind, to force them into the open, to reveal the vulnerability of us all. To lay bare our faults and injustices, and to set us free from our illusions.

Poetry must be both inside and outside, must reflect this constant conflict of this inner landscape and our outer environment. And good poetry, the poetry that really is able to turn us from being protected to being proactive, from being on the defense, to taking up arms against our oppressors, that poetry that serves to connect us to our other, better self, is also the barrier between the two worlds. It is also the door.

And in Adrienne Rich's words, "It promises nothing. It is only a door."

And it occurs to me that non-believers can go ahead and not believe in poetry or the soul or the spirit or the life force or whatever other invisible things we have created words for out of a need to hope for something better. Just because you don't believe in it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It only means you haven't opened the door.

And you haven't opened the door because you want it to promise you something which it cannot.

I feel courageous opening that door and I gladly walk through, not knowing if I am going outside or inside. That is the job of the poet: to walk through poetry, to live through poetry, to speak through poetry, to infuse everything we contact with poetry.

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