Neither lit nor struck, alight or enlightened, illuminated or illumined, but perhaps any of these things because, as Giuseppe Ungaretti himself stated: “Poetry is poetry when it carries within it a secret.”
Giuseppe Ungaretti Santa Maria La Longa il 26 gennaio 1917
Giuseppe Ungaretti Santa Maria La Longa, January 26, 1917
Translation ©Matilda Colarossi 2021
How long does it take to translate four words? And how long does it take when those four words are whispered by a whole nation, the young and the old, at the sight of the rising sun? And how long does it take when the words are “inebriating expansions of the soul” (G. De Robertis)? Who can say?
In my case, it took a very long time.
I have known the words of the poem Mattina since I first read them in university in Canada over forty years ago; I have whispered them before endless sunrises since then; I have heard them on the tongues of students and colleagues, scholars and laypersons; but it was only after translating them that I fully understood the meaning.
The translation of poetry can be many things: for some it is understanding the words and relaying them in another tongue (which I call paraphrasing and which is rarely poetic); for some it is trying to replicate all the rhymes and poetic devices (which I call madness and which rarely makes sense); and for others it is trying to awaken the same emotions that the original (and here I say original not source, for the origin of the thought that gives birth to a work lies within the author, not within the translator) aroused in them. Of the three ways of translating poetry, the last is the one I most strive for, but, bada bene, to work it must contain the other two: you must truly understand the words and their meaning and the “weight” of those words in the source language to try to relay them; and you must understand how and why the author chose those exact words and decided to use them in a certain way (through specific poetic devices). However, translation is all about sacrifice; it is about loss. Something is always, always lost in translation (see Magrelli, here). Only those who don’t translate believe that the three translation methods expressed above can coexist perfectly without compromise.
So, in order to translate Mattina I first tried all the three: I read numerous articles, analyses, and studies by various scholars; I started to understand how and why Ungaretti did what he did and what he was trying to inspire in the reader. From his initial poems, in fact, in which he tries to imitate crepuscular poets like Palazzeschi and has hints of futurist modes, he “progressively depurates and changes” (Franco Fortini, I poeti del Novecento, 2017), reducing his poems to the essential. It is a reduction that is possible, according to Fortini, for the biographical, or rather, “biological” condition of war, which was “schiacciante umiltà” (“Il Capitano”*, Il porto sepolto, 1916). And then I tried to decipher exactly how I felt when I repeat the words to myself.
I realized that it was the sounds rather than the actual words that moved me, and the silences (“Silences that are finally associated with all the other graphic signs that suggest diction and intonation.” – Fortini) which lay suspended between the words. They were the stillness of the dawn, the glow of the oncoming day, the warmth that comes with light and enlightenment, with the understanding that something greater than ourselves exists. It was wonderment, which is not necessarily religious but certainly spiritual, expressed in the words: “M’illumino /d’immenso”, words which “were meant to create tension and anticipation while continuing to be an echo chamber for the single phonemes and the verbal sequences.” (Fortini)
Once I had understood what the poet meant to do and how the poem made me feel, I moved on to how Ungaretti achieved this.
The first edition of the poem, which he sent to Giovanni Papini on January 1917and which appeared in the collection Antologia della Diana in 1918 with the title Cielo e mare, was much longer:
|Cielo e mare |
con un breve
|Sky and sea |
by a swift
Although the poet was clearly already “reducing his words to the essential”, he would go on to remove the last three verses. By doing this he was able to heighten the effect of the first two: the swift movement of the eyes to capture the light is, in fact, superfluous because it is implicit in the words “M’illumino”; and the word “immenso” is able to complete the image on its own, because it is in that immensity that the poet’s ineffable emotion is held. In addition, he changes the title (which is an important element in the final version of the poem for it gives us context): Sky and sea becomes Mattina; it goes from something purely spatial to something temporal. And it is in this moment in time that the magic occurs: as the light triumphs over the darkness, as the glow of the sun’s rays bathe the poet in its light and a new day is born.
But now let’s look at the actual poem and the devices used to place us before the immensity together with the author.
Ungaretti composes two lines in free verse with two words in each (creating a septenary). He uses the repetition of the letter “M”, which is known as euphony (from the Greek word meaning “good sound”). Euphony is the use of sounds that are pleasant or easy to pronounce, usually because they contain lots of consonants with soft or muffled sounds like L, M, N, and R instead of consonants with harsh, percussive sounds like T, P, and K. Furthermore, the letter M is the first sound expressed by infants, and, therefore, incommunicable. The use of the repetition of the letter recalls non-words articulated in sounds, sounds that are closest to silence, and, therefore, to the incommunicability that accompanies certain tragic events (the incredible tragedy of war is always present in Ungaretti).
And finally, with regards to the poetic devices, M’illumino / d’immenso is a synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a rhetorical device that describes or associates one sense in terms of another, a blending of senses, so to speak: illumined and immensity are perceived differently by our senses, because while the first is a visual sensation, the second is something that only the mind can perceive, which discloses, therefore, the interiority of the poet, a sphere that is within him, understandable only through sensorial experience.
Ungaretti aims to communicate what is impossible to communicate: the fiery light that comes from the totality of space and transports him to a state of grace.
It is, here, interesting to note that many scholars have likened Mattina to Dante’s vision of the new day in Purgatory and Paradise: in Purgatory, Dante trembles before the luminous dawn, “L’alba vinceva l’ora mattutina / che fuggia innanzi, sì che di lontano / conobbi il tremolar de la marina”; and in Paradise he describes it as a sublime fullness, a sublime light, enlightenment, “Fatto avea di là mane e di qua sera / tal foce, e quasi tutto era là bianco / quello emisperio, e l’altra parte nera,” and again, “Io nol soffersi molto, né sì poco, / ch’io nol vedessi sfavillar dintorno, / com’ferro che bogliente esce del foco”. But is there an added meaning? While the poet is describing the morning, is he not also speaking of birth and rebirth? Is he not also speaking of newfound oneness with the immensity that is nature in all its mystical beauty? Mother nature. I believe he is. I believe that in the choice of mattina instead of mattino (interchangeable in their meaning of morning) he does give us food for thought.
As for my translation: I tried to stay as close as I could to what the poet did. I could not keep the metre; I could, however, use of the letter “M” (the final choice, after a night of daring myself to use “luminous”, was between “illuminated” and “illumined”, but it was the sound of the harsh T in “illuminated” that helped me make my choice); and, of course, I kept the synaesthesia. However, the effect the English version has on me is not the same, and this saddens me. I don’t think I will see a sunrise, or a newborn baby, or the lush and shiny forest after a rainfall and whisper to myself “I’m illumined / with immensity”: I will always say “M’illumino / d’immenso”; but maybe those who have never read the poem in Italian will choose to. Or at least I hope they will. – M. C.
* From the poem Il Capitano, from the collection of poems Il porto sepolto, 1916: “Fui pronto a tutte le partenze. / Quando hai segreti, notte hai pietà. / Se bimbo mi svegliavo / di soprassalto, mi calmavo udendo / urlanti nell’assente via / cani randagi. Mi parevano / più del lumino alla Madonna / che ardeva sempre in quella stanza, / mistica compagnia. / E non ad un rincorrere / echi d’innanzi nascita, / mi sorpresi con cuore, uomo? / Ma quando, notte, il tuo viso fu nudo / e buttato sul sasso / non fui che fibra di elementi, / pazza, palese in ogni oggetto, / era schiacciante l’umiltà. / Il Capitano era sereno / (venne in cielo la luna). / Era alto e mai non si chinava / (andava su una nube). / Nessuno lo vide cadere, / nessuno l’udì rantolare, / riapparve adagiato in un solco, / teneva la mano sul petto. / Gli chiusi gli occhi / (la luna è un velo). / Parve di piume.”
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