Translating Silence: Giuseppe Ungaretti’s “Allegria,” translated from Italian by Geoffrey Brock

By Elena Borelli

When translating Giuseppe Ungaretti’s first volume of poetry, originally published in 1919 and subsequently reissued in various editions, Geoffrey Brock has chosen to leave the title in the original Italian. The  translation of the word allegria as “merriment” or “mirth” would be misleading for the reader, especially because in the very first edition the complete title was an oxymoron: Allegria di naufragi, “Joy of Shipwrecks.” This early title is more revealing of the true nature of Ungaretti’s collection, which at times celebrates the sudden euphoria of being alive in the face of war and death. Writing in the trenches of World War I, Ungaretti composes poems inspired by the awareness of human fragility, by the sense of brotherhood among men which this fragility engenders, and by an almost mystical sense of unity with the universe. Therefore, the use of the Italian allegria is more appropriate in the English translation, as it evokes a musical rhythm, an allegro movement inserted in the interstices of drama.

Brock bases his translation on the 1931 version of Allegria, which Ungaretti called “the definitive” form of the book, and which, according to the translator, best captures the early genius of the poet. Subsequent editions were occasionally retouched by Ungaretti, and Brock only departs from the 1931 edition in order to revert to earlier versions in the instances in which the poet himself returns to the voice of his younger self. The main idea behind this translation is to reproduce the poems in the trenches, with their fragmentary style and their broken syntax. They were scribbled on scraps of paper and it almost seems that the fracture in the verses is due to a lack of physical space on which to write. Indeed, those poems are made of silence, as well as words, and of images which recur almost obsessively: the mortal body, the devastated landscape of wartime Italy, and the indifferent universe with its beauty, at times imbuing the poet with a desperate vitality.

A superficial reading of Allegria may suggest that translating these poems into English is an easy task. “M’illumino / d’immenso,” “I’m lit / with immensity,” probably the shortest poem in the Italian tradition, is a case in point. Here, like in many of Ungaretti’s early poems, there is no metric scheme; the language is free from any archaism or the words of the Petrarchist literary tradition which still populate the verses of Giovanni Pascoli or Gabriele D’Annunzio; there are indeed many cognates between this Italian and modern English on which the translator can rely. This apparent ease is deceiving, as a good translation of Ungaretti cannot overlook three important elements. The first is silence, which in these poems works as a musical rest with a precise length. The second is the focus on form, as the lack of a rhyming system leaves space for a granular network of internal echoes and alliterations. Finally, the third is the attention to the repetition and transformation of the recurring images in this collection. Brock often manages to successfully incorporate these features of Allegria into his translation.

Ungaretti’s lines are built with enjambments, inasmuch as they break the syntax of the sentences into fragments, often creating an unnatural pause and a sense of tension. These breaks are dramatic, often separating elements that in Italian syntax constitute a unit, such as adjective and noun, or auxiliary verb and participle. The lines need to be read with a rest in between, as silence here has the important function of rupturing a flow, breaking normal speech into fragments. Brock’s translation is careful to reproduce these pauses, taking advantage of the more rigid structure of the English language and thus creating even more unusual rests. The first lines of the poem “Detachment” provide a good example of the use of silence: “Eccovi un uomo / uniforme / eccovi un’anima / deserta.” Brock’s use of words adds an additional layer of silence: “Behold a uniform / man / behold a desert / soul.” Here the words “uniform” and “desert” could stand alone in the sentence beginning with “behold” but the noun after the break suddenly changes the meaning of the lines and almost creates two independent sets of sentences.

The translation of the famous poem “Soldati” (Soldiers) is also particularly well crafted. The poem compares the soldiers to leaves on trees in autumn, which are destined to fall. In the Italian the subject – the leaves – comes at the end as the lapidary first line “si sta,” which does not indicate the agent of the sentence. Every short line then adds a fragment of meaning until the sentence is complete. Brock’s rendition does the same but reversing the order: “We are / like the leaves / on the trees / in the fall. The rhythm of the poem is formulaic, solemn in its brevity, with an alliteration between “leaves” and “trees” which replicates “sugli / foglie” in the original text. Only at the end is the condition of the soldiers revealed by the word “fall,” which alludes to both the season and the falling of men on the battlefield.

In Brock’s translation there are several successful attempts at reproducing the game of internal alliterations and variations present in many of Ungaretti’s poems. In “Lindoro di Deserto” (Lindoro of the Desert) the repetition of liquid consonants in “allibisco all’alba” is replicated with “I’m dumbstruck at daybreak”; in “Levante” (Levant) the onomatopoeic line “picchi di tacchi picchi di mani” adds a different sound repetition in “clacking of heels clacking of hands.Ungaretti’s poems even contain an internal “grammar” of sounds, where the iteration of every phoneme or even single letter is meant to produce a certain effect. The abundance of “s/sh” sounds creates a soothing effect, often associated with images of nature. This characteristic is well known to Brock, who at times even exploits it, as in the translation of “A Riposo” (At Ease), where the abundance of fricative consonants exceeds that in the original: “The sun sows itself in diamonds / of water drops / in the pliant grass / […] The mountains swell / with sips of lilac shadows / and scull with the sky.” Brock’s translations are the work of an alchemist, who sets out to understand the mechanism of the poetry of an author, creating parallel texts which imitate the original text with the sounds and structures provided by the English language.

It is obvious that the translator of Allegria is fascinated with the particular imagery of this collection, which he rightfully compares to that of Charles Baudelaire. There are memories of Alexandria, where Ungaretti spent all of his childhood and early youth, transformed by late nineteenth-century Orientalism. “Levante” (Levant) is an apotheosis of languid landscapes and curved shapes, which the translator renders with words like “snail-shell whorl,” “the line of haze,” perfectly restituting the almost psychedelic quality of the poem. There is the landscape of the Carso plateau, arid and destroyed by the war, which the gunshots perforate like the texture of lace (“trina crivellata– I hear the night raped / The air is riddled / like lace). There are the almost Gnostic images of the human body faced with its mortality (“And the man / bending / over / sun-startled / water / finds himself / a shadow / rocking and / slowly shattering”), with the desires of the flesh (“we feel ourselves caught in a whirlwind / of fresh longing”), and with being always a “foreigner” on this earth, as in the poem “Girovago” (Wanderer).  Finally, Brock’s translation rightfully indulges in the description of the beauty of the universe, with which at times the human soul seems to merge: “What song has risen tonight / and woven / the crystal echo of a heart / into the stars […] Now I am / universe-drunk.”

With his latest translation, Brock does justice to one of the masterpieces in Italian poetry, one which had a long-lasting influence on subsequent generations of poets. As always, he shows a deep understanding of the poetic language he translates and an almost intimate knowledge of the voice of the poet. His fidelity goes beyond the mere adherence to the text in order to re-create Ungaretti’s voice and imagery in English. Brock then once again offers to the English-speaking readership a collection of poems which in their brevity and crystalline clarity resonate with our modern taste.

Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Allegria. Translated by Geoffrey Brock. Archipelago, 2020.

Elena Borelli received her Ph.D in Italian Literature from Rutgers University, USA. She has published numerous articles on Giovanni Pascoli, Gabriele D’Annunzio and the literature of the Italian fin de siècle. Between 2012 and 2016 she was Assistant Professor of Italian literature at the City University of New York. Her research focuses on the notion and discourse of desire in the culture of late-nineteenth century Italy. She has published two books, The Fire Within, an edited collection of essays on the theme of desire in Italian literature, and Giovanni Pascoli, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the Ethics of Desire: Between Action and Contemplation. Elena is also currently involved in several translation projects, namely 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. Currently she is Deputy Team Leader for Italian, Classical Languages and Linguistics at the Modern Language Centre of King’s College London, UK.

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