The Italian job, David Groves

Kendrick Smithyman, Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian 
Jack Ross and Marco Sonzogni (eds)
Novi Ligure, Edizioni Joker,€ 20.00,
ISBN 9788875362645


This book is the culmination of a project which began with the 1999 publication in Landfall of seven of Smithyman’s translations (one each from Penna, Sinisgalli, Sereni, Sbarbaro and Montale, and two from Quasimodo) and passed through a local first edition in 2004. It is a fine achievement, though the presentation, consisting of an introduction and essay, while dutifully ticking various boxes of translation theory and practice, is unfocused, and there are no notes or apparatus. The book, perhaps deliberately, leaves completely open the question of its intended reader:

If I stand at a point where fences meet,
I can look to another corner. Is that you
over there? Truly, is it you?
To cross a field, sometimes that isn’t easy.”

  (from “After Zhivago”


There are various “yous” to whom this book might be addressed, standing at different corners of this field not easy to cross. In one corner, we can detect the faint outline of potential Italian readers and students. Marco Sonzogni has assisted Jack Ross and managed to place the book with a Piedmontese publisher, whose list crisscrosses works in Italian and English, including Sonzogni’s edition of English translations of Montale’s poetry. The Italian origin of publication is evident only in the many instances of faulty syllabification in the opening pages. In the second corner of the field, we can spy in quite sharp relief the staff and students of New Zealand’s two university departments of Italian: great pleasure and profit to be gained in 50 tutorial minutes from comparing any one of the 150 poems printed here with the original text.

A third corner is occupied by the general reader interested in the poetry of other cultures, a browser who has enjoyed translations of Neruda, Ritsos, Holub et al and is intrigued to come across such an extraordinary assortment of  20th-century Italian poetry, ranging across 14 poets, rendered by a major poet writing in English. Such a reader may be relieved to know that Smithyman’s practice avoids the “impressionist”, “phonic” or “syntactic” extremes that Ross illustrates on the basis of translations from Latin in the first half of his essay. A reader can check Smithyman’s general approach by ferreting out the Penguin Book of Italian Verse (1958) and comparing 14 of his translations with the text and prose crib there. The relatively recent Faber Book of 20th-century Italian Poems (2004) includes the same poets but very few of the same poems.

I have checked all poems against the originals except for some by Penna and some by Montale, and, after spot-checking the Quasimodo, I chose to read through the poems by Smithyman’s favourite Italian poet as a sequence in their own right. There are errors, though Smithyman emerges relatively unscathed from most of the morphological and syntactic traps, and there are certainly oddities and kinks; but these are counterbalanced by nice matches, fine solutions and bold inventions. He naturally renounces any attempt to reproduce rhyme or assonance. This surprising volume offers a valuable stand-alone representation of a considerable cross-section of Italian poetry.

The easiest way to access the originals of many of the lesser known poems here is to refer to the double number of Poetry Australia (22-23 August, 1968), which contained texts and translations of Italian poetry and which apparently made Smithyman growl “I could do better.” This was the source of a number of his texts – which explains why he translated only the second half of a famous poem by Erba. (Other texts appear reliable, though there is the odd omission of a sentence in a poem by Quasimodo.) Smithyman translated 22 of the poems appearing in Poetry Australia, directly vying with those versions, which had confessedly aimed to stick close to the Italian texts.

Comparison with Poetry Australia is instructive in two ways. An Italianist will be immediately struck by Smithyman’s choices and omissions. Poetry Australia has a wider range, but Smithyman almost totally ignores the avant-garde poets of the 1960s and 70s. There is a significant time-lag in his tastes. After this initial contact, Smithyman followed his own instincts. Admirably, he ventures into Montale’s later poetry, but after Bufera (1956) jumps right across to the Quaderno di quattro anni (1977). The one poet whom Smithyman introduces off his own bat, and the choice is very telling, is the difficult, hallucinatory Dino Campana. Smithyman’s choice of poets thus settles squarely on the symbolists and hermeticists.

Secondly, Smithyman’s versions are much wordier than those in Poetry Australia, generally a bad sign. He takes 237 words over the two Sbarbaro poems, as against Sbarbaro’s own 212 and the Poetry Australia translators’ 204. He takes 66 words over a Sinisgalli poem which the Poetry Australia version renders in 48. Sometimes his translations are improvements, quite often they aren’t. The point, however, is that Smithyman aims generally for a looser syntax and more laconic tone as he prods the poems in the ways he wants them to go, pepping them up with extra adjectives and colloquialisms.

This consideration points us to the fourth corner of the field, where stands the attentive reader of New Zealand poetry and admirer of Smithyman in particular. When he started this journey of translation, Smithyman apparently knew little Italian, and to my knowledge never visited Italy, but, though serendipitous in its inception, the choice of these particular poets proved inspired. Like Smithyman himself, many of them strove every-which-way to avoid the dreaded lyrical “I”, shrouding it in “we” and especially “you” and in impersonal forms, inscribing it in instrumental personality and ostensive fictions, promoting a metaphysic of style over content, and deliberately preferring obscurity to a suspect and vapid sincerity. Predictably missing from Smithyman’s collection (and from Poetry Australia) is Saba, Italy’s grand practitioner of the diaristic, here-I-am-hanging-out-the-washing-and-having-a-poetic-aperçu school of poetry.

In the New Zealand reaction against neo-romanticism, while Bill Manhire was looking at language quizzically, occasionally catching it out and tripping it up, Smithyman was intent on wrestling it to the ground, sometimes tying himself up in knots in the process. One can only be surprised that his apprenticeship in translation came so late, since how better to experiment with poetic tone, voice and personality? Ungaretti, Montale and Quasimodo, the Italian “big three”, were themselves all magnificent translators.

It seems a useful working hypothesis that the extraordinary flowering of Smithyman’s third period – with the domestic Imperial Vistas Family Fictions and the regional (but not national or provincial) Atua Wera – is directly related to the loosening up of discourse and the crossing of temporal, spatial and cultural boundaries that he practised imaginatively in his translations. In addition, Montale’s switch from the dense imagistic mode of his earlier epiphanies to his later sardonic manner, and the shift of Quasimodo from his earlier intricate and allusive compression to the more relaxed style and social themes of his later work, may have exercised a particular influence on Smithyman’s own development. If so, this book is an important contribution to the study of one of our finest poets.


David Groves is a professional translator.

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