Translating the Uncanny: The Eerie Landscape of Giovanni Pascoli’s “Last Dream,” Translated from Italian by Geoff Brock

By Elena Borelli

PascoliLast Dream is a collection of translations from Giovanni Pascoli’s corpus of poetic works. The choice of poems reflects a personal preference on the part of the translator who handpicked a number of works mostly taken from what he interprets as the pastoral, almost Arcadian side of the Italian poet’s production: lyrics in which the natural world takes center stage and in which the poetic “I” is filled with personal memories and imbued with an almost religious sense of wonder and awe. In choosing ‘his’ Pascoli, the translator purposefully excludes the ‘national’, the ‘scholastic’ and the ‘tragic’ Pascoli, as he explains in the afterword of his book.

Had this afterword not come after the reader has fully enjoyed Geoffrey Brock’s exceptionally well-crafted and yet faithful translations, his interpretation of Pascoli as a poet of small things and beautiful landscapes would have raised many an eyebrow among the scholarly community. Indeed, the greatest danger involved in every foreign rendition of Pascoli is to reduce the depth and quality of his poems to a series of sketches of rural beauty and country life occasionally populated by family ghosts. On the contrary, Pascoli is the poet of the uncanny––of disquieting feelings within a familiar setting, which he achieves via a traditional metric measure where a reassuring and predictable rhythm is made to implode thanks to striking and disturbing images––often used as a counterpoint to images of natural beauty. Pascoli’s poetic language is also particularly challenging for the translator because of its polyglossia or glossolalia, which, far from being a display of erudition or a Dadaist experiment, stems from a deep focus on the phonematic level of language: here, the sounds of all languages––be they human or animal––are on an equal footing in providing music, memory, play and pleasure. In short, they allow us to delve into what Kristeva termed “the Semiotic.”

It is practically impossible for a translator to deal with these three levels at once––rhythm, imagery, and polyglossia––when trying to render Pascoli into a foreign language. In his translations, Brock wisely chooses to concentrate on rhythm and imagery, attempting to preserve whenever possible the regularity of the Italian meter and rhyme system while never downgrading the richness and uniqueness of the metaphors in the original text. The result is a truly remarkable achievement where the intricate imagery and the malleability of the English language at the expert hands of Brock provide the reader with translations that are poems in their own right.

In Pascoli’s poems the regularity of the rhythm is obtained thanks to his almost exclusive use of the hendecasyllable, the most prominent verse of the Italian poetic tradition, which can be found in forms such as the sonnet, the ballad, and the Dantean tercet. Not only is the hendecasyllable the most common meter of nineteenth-century Italian poetry, but it is also the meter in which translations of classical poems such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid were written. The hendecasyllable, together with a strict rhyming scheme, provides the reader with a familiar and catchy rhythm, only to be ruptured from within by unexpected sound and imagery, thereby conjuring the uncanniness characteristic of Pascoli’s poetry. Every translator wishing to be faithful to the spirit of Pascoli’s work needs to find a way to replicate this clash between the familiar and the eerie, and Brock does so excellently.

Indeed, to our modern ears used to free verse or to poetry deprived of any musical patterns, these poems sound positively, and pleasantly, old fashioned. He translates the hendecasyllable with a fixed pattern of three-beat lines, mostly a combination of trochaic and dactylic meters, which results in compositions reminiscent of Alfred Tennyson (with whom Pascoli shares many poetic themes), or ballads, at times even containing the repetitive lull of nursery rhymes. This solution proves to be very much in line with the original, along with the rhyming scheme, where Brock often simplifies the Dantean tercet into an ABA pattern. In the two poems that constitute the exception to Brock’s rule of not translating the “erudite” Pascoli, two excerpts from the Poemi Conviviali, Brock translates the free hendecasyllables as free verse which, thanks to the many alliterations and repetitions of words and sounds, nonetheless reads musically.

Within this carefully crafted rhythm, the richness of the English language allows Brock to experiment endlessly with imagery and even sound. The poem “Plowing” is a case in point: a depiction of a silent field covered with autumn mist where the translator not only perfectly replicates the way Pascoli’s verses read, but also adds a clever pattern of beautiful alliterations not present in the original text: “Out in the fields, where a few leaves gleam/ russet on vines and the morning mist/ lifts from the hedgerows like steam,/they’re plowing: one man goads the slow/ cows with slow shouts, one hits the ridges with his patient hoe” (italics added). In the next poem, “Railway,” where the poles dotting the green countryside come to symbolize the disquieting face of technological modernization, the sound of the wires in the wind is compared to that of a harp, an ancient, enchanted instrument. The translator chooses to translate sonora with “thrumming,” a word that indicates both the strumming of strings and the sound of engines, thus semantically superimposing the image of music with that of the yet mysterious ––and threatening––devices of modernity.

In the mysterious “Night-Blooming Jasmine,” Pascoli’s one and only “erotic poem,” the whispers during the first wedding night are transposed into metaphors of birds and flowers, which the translator renders phonetically with a repetition of shushing sounds: “from one house whispers come in rushes./ Nestlings sleep beneath wings,/ like eyes beneath their lashes/ From the open calyces flows/ a ripe strawberry scent, in waves.” Similarly, in “Lightning and Thunder,” the language is wonderfully onomatopoetic and replicates the sound of the storm: “booming, rebounding, grimly rumbling/ away, then washing back in tatters.” The next image, a Pascolian juxtaposition of tragedy and motherly figures who are comforting and yet deadly, is superbly rendered with an incursion into modern syntax, which shatters the verse: “Tenderly now: a mother’s/ soft song, the creak of a cradle’s arc.” The smooth alliteration of labial and liquid consonants in the original text (s’udi` di madre e il moto di una culla) is here transformed into the whisper of “soft song” and the screeching of the cradle’s wood––translator’s liberties which show that Brock has mastered the formula behind the magic of Pascoli’s poetry.

Upon reading Brock’s translations of Pascoli, the only regret is the shortness of his selection. Indeed, Brock’s brief forays into Pascoli’s homerica (the two excerpts from Conviviali) and Primi Poemetti indicate that the same poetic quality that captivated him as a reader of Pascoli’s shorter poems is also at play in the longer ones and that he is well equipped to reproduce it. Due to his alleged untranslatability and missing allegiance to any prominent literary movement of the Italian fin de siècle, Pascoli has been, as Brock explains in the afterword, “unjustly confined to his own borders.” It is therefore to be hoped that Brock’s great work will encourage further translations of Pascoli’s works, especially those yet to be discovered by the English-speaking world.

Pascoli, Giovanni. Last Dream. Edited and translated from Italian by Geoff Brock. Storrs, CT: World Poetry, 2019.

Elena Borelli holds a Ph.D. in Italian Literature from Rutgers University. She is currently involved in several translation projects: the full English translation of Giovanni Pascoli’s Poemi Conviviali, in collaboration with poet James Ackhurst, and of Pascoli’s Canti di Castelvecchio with poet Stephen Campiglio. She regularly contributes to Journal of Italian Translation with translations of contemporary Italian and Anglophone poets.

One comment

  1. Great book. I recommend it.

Leave a Reply to DariaCancel reply