Thursday, May 25, 2006

Translations: Eugenio Montale + Oprah's Legends Ball

Translating Montale's mottetti
MontaleMy Italian is rudimentary, but a few years ago, I fell in love with these two poems by Eugenio Montale (1896-1981, at right, Nobel Academy), which first appeared in his collection Le Occasioni (The Occasions), which were written over an eleven-year period and published in 1939. The mottetti (motets) and other poems from this book have been translated in English more than once, especially after Montale received the Nobel Prize in 1975.

One of the things I most love about these tiny poems is how Montale utilizes the aural possibilities, the music of the Italian language to embody the themes, imagery and action of the poems. In the first, we get echoes of the "fiore che ripete," the forget-me-not ("non scordati de mi"), all throughout the poem, along with its swaying at the edge of the fissure, or crevasse--that literal phonic space tossed "tra me e te," between "you and me" that calls out to us, the readers, as it calls out to both Montale and his beloved. It is an actual physical space, but also a metaphysical, an emotional and psychoological one. In the second stanza, we get music akin to the sound of gears churning (the "ch" of "cigolio" and "ci" [note again the echo] the "sf" of "sferra") and again, at the very end, another echo, of long "a"s, but this time borne away by funicular that has brought us to the far side. In the second poem, Montale captures the swooping flight of the swallows, birds whose name in English still retains this up-and-down movement, but it is sharper in Italian, where the vowels literally leap up and down ("balestrucci"), while the long "a"s of half the words in the first three lines are like the air itself, carrying us forward. The poem concludes with the "oo" sound regnant, conveying simultaneously openness and closure; English's cognates allow me to capture some of this, though only some. Dana Gioia, the NEA head, has published an entire book of translations of Montale's mottetti, though to my mind the best English translator of this great poet is Jonathan Galassi, who's also editor-in-chief at Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Il fiore che ripete
dall'orlo del burrato
non scordarti di me,
non ha tinte più liete né più chiare
dello spazio gettato tra me e te.

Un cigolìo si sferra, ci discosta,
l'azzurro pervicace non ricompare.
Nell'afa quasi visibile mi riporta all'opposta
tappa, già buia, la funicolare.

The flower that repeats
from the edge of the fissure
has no hues fairer or brighter than
the space cast here between you and me.

A metal gear grinds, separating us:
the stubborn azure does not hold.
In a cloud almost visible, I am borne back to the other
stage, where already darkness settles in, by the funicular.

Il saliscendi bianco e nero dei
balestrucci dal palo
del telegrafo al mare
non conforta i tuoi crucci su lo scalo
né ti riporta dove più non sei.

Già profuma il sambuco fitto su
lo sterrato; il piovasco si dilegua.
Se il chiarore è una tregua,
la tua cara minaccia la consuma.

Copyright © Eugenio Montale, 1939, 2006.

The rising and falling black and white
of the swallows from the telegraph pole
to the sea
hardly comforts you, perched at the edge
of the water,
nor returns you to where you no longer are.

Already the elder thickly perfumes
above the dig; the small storm dissipates.
If this brightening up is a truce,
your sweet threat consumes it.

Translations © John Keene, 2006

Oprah's Legends Ball
Oprah at the Legends BallReading Anthony Montgomery's Monaga blog today reminded me that C. and I'd watched Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball on Monday night, and also made me remember how much I'd enjoyed it. In fact I almost missed because I hadn't been paying much attention to the hype and rarely catch her TV show. What I most enjoyed was seeing a number of the major African-American female cultural figures and pioneers of the last 50 years--Coretta Scott King, Leontyne Price, Dorothy Height, Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight, Della Reese, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick, Elizabeth Catlett, Chaka Khan, Diahann Carroll, Roberta Flack, Naomi Sims, and many of their younger successors (whom Oprah called the "young'uns")--together, being celebrated, championed, extolled for what they individually and collectively have made possible, not only for African-American women, but for Black people, women and everyone else. Seeing these women assembled together at the luncheon and then at the Sunday gospel brunch-picnic, which Patti Labelle set off live (I said that if she hadn't passed the mic back to Bebe Winans the entire lawn would have started levitating) naturally, were the real highlights.

While I do question the materialism that was on display (those drop-diamond earring sets were really over the top!), I was actually sort of amazed and delighted to witness Winfrey, one of the most powerful and galvanizing figures in our culture, taking over an hour of prime time to celebrate other Black women and call attention to their achievements. (Of course in the process Oprah yet again demonstrated how important and powerful she truly is, while also celebrating, well, herself.) I wish there'd been more time for her to explore the honorees' accomplishments, even though I already knew about all of them, and less time spent on the glitz, but then it's the glitz (and all the other celebrities who attended the actual ball and the luncheon) that drew a broad(er) range of viewers and advertisers. I also wondered where some other notable figures who were listed as attending were (Toni Morrison, Katherine Dunham, Aretha Franklin, Nikki Giovanni, Lena Horne, Alice Walker), though I assume either health or other reasons (scheduling, etc.) were behind their not being on camera. There are certainly many other major Black female figures, from women in business to science and the arts, to political figures, who also could have been included and honored, but it was Oprah's show, and were she to honor all the legendary figures and many unheralded ones, it would take months--perhaps that's what we need, Oprah's Legends Summer. I also wondered whether there was a male figure who might do the same for African-American men, and about a comprehensive way of honoring and celebrating people outside the mainstream of our entertainment culture who've achieved remarkable things, particularly on behalf of others, across class, gender and other lines.

Clay Cane's colorful take on the show is here.


  1. I hope Oprah's listening: a Legends Summer would be phenomenal! Much more to look forward to than Jim McGreevey ... *rolls eyes*

    And you're reading my mind, too: I wonder what the male version of this would look like. And if it would be as full of love - or as interesting. I wouldn't want to see Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier talk about basketball. OMG ... Bill Cosby ...

  2. Donald, don't you think she and Gayle probably said, okay, we did the do, so now we can kick back at least for a while? With the men, I think there'd be lotso of "Old School" vs. "Nu Skool" stuff going on, and Dr. Bill C. would have to give a stern lecture to the "young'uns" about irresponsibility, etc., before there'd be love-festin'. No Black has a platform like Oprah's, though I could see Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson or Tavis Smiley trying something along these lines...but what would Diddy, Jay-Z, the NBA folks, Skip Gates and Arnold Rampersad, etc. be doing instead of weeping?