Dialect as translation: notes on Luigi Meneghello’s Trapianti.
Università degli Studi di Padova
The relation between standard language and any kind of idiolect is central to contemporary, multi-cultural aesthetics as well as to current debates on the possible fate of local dialects. Both questions are pivotal to authors who, writing ‘across’ the threshold of a territory at once global and local, are pushing the boundaries of this seeming paradox. While turning into an instrument to cast out and question collective and individual notions of identity, translation takes on an increasingly existential meaning, which fuels and stimulates literary imagination. In this article, I would like to focus on the Italian novelist and essayist Luigi Meneghello’s work as translator, showing how a complex, essentialist perception of dialect is perceptively turned to poietic effect in Trapianti: dall’Inglese al Vicentino1, a notebook of versions of his favourite poetry in English.
“A core of apprehended matter”
Responding to the gradual change in education and the parallel re-articulation of regional dialects in the second half of the twentieth century, a number of Italian writers have managed to bring the three-fold interaction between written and/or literary Italian, spoken language (or regional versions of standard Italian) and spoken dialect to its full potential. The somewhat anarchic nature of dialect and its friction with Italian has been particularly brought to the fore by Luigi Meneghello (1922–2007) whose awareness of the existential chasm between “the way we learn to speak and to live and the way we learn to write” (qtd. in Pellegrini 33) results, throughout his fictional work, in the incessant “interweaving of vernacular, spoken Italian and literary Italian” (Meneghello Opere 776). As Franco Marcoaldi suggests in La Repubblica, “[Meneghello’s] whole work might be read as a constant exercise in dissimulation: an interplay of languages (Italian, vernacular, English), high and low culture, and literary genres (novel, epic poetry, autobiography)” (51; my translation). The novelist’s own idiosyncratic use of a basically multi-layered language has so far been investigated both in Italy and in Great Britain where Meneghello lived for a long time, teaching at the University of Reading.2
Meneghello’s experience of dialect has proved central from the very beginning. It is worth introducing his poetics with a passage from his first, seminal novel Libera Nos a Malo (1963) where the narrator’s evocation of pre-war Italy helps him focus on his perception of the vernacular:
Ci sono due strati nella personalità di un uomo; sopra, le ferite superficiali, in italiano, in francese, in latino; sotto, le ferite antiche che rimarginandosi hanno fatto queste croste delle parole in dialetto. Quando se ne tocca una si sente sprigionarsi una reazione a catena, che è difficile spiegare a chi non ha il dialetto. C’è un nocciolo indistruttibile di materia apprehended, presa coi tralci prensili dei sensi; la parola del dialetto è sempre incavicchiata alla realtà, per la ragione che è la cosa stessa, appercepita prima che imparassimo a ragionare, e non più sfumata in seguito dato che ci hanno insegnato a ragionare in un’altra lingua
Ma questo nocciolo di materia primordiale (sia nei nomi che in ogni altra parola) contiene forze incontrollabili proprio perché esiste una sfera prelogica dove le associazioni sono libere e fondamentalmente folli. Il dialetto è dunque per certi versi realtà e per altri follia. (46)
There are two strata in one’s own personality; above the epidermis are superficial bruises, whether in Italian, in French, or in Latin; below the epidermis lie those old bruises which healing up formed dialectal scabs. Whenever you touch one of these, a chain reaction is triggered off, which you can feel but can hardly explain to a non-native speaker. There is an indestructible core of apprehended matter, which you catch through the prehensile vine-shoots of your senses; the dialectal word is always pegged down into reality; it is actually the thing in itself. We apperceived it before we learnt to think, and it would never shade off after we were taught how to think in another language.
This core of primordial matter (lying as much in names as in any other word) possesses uncontrollable forces; there is actually a prelogical sphere where associations are free and basically insane. On the one hand, dialect is reality; on the other hand, it is madness. (My translation)
What is most challenging about this passage is the way Meneghello linguistically articulates the very question he lays bare and conceptualizes. However clear—and fraught with the poetic suggestions of Rimbaudian dérèglement—our understanding of the prelogical (or the a-logical) might be, the core meaning of the narrator’s reflection still lies in the unfathomable depth of the adjective ‘incavicchiata’ (‘pegged down’). Borrowed from the rural context of his childhood, the word conjures up the inextricable connection between the natural and the cultural. Its pragmatic overtones are developed throughout the whole novel, as if the language both endorsed and resisted the author’s keen perception of a world which would soon undergo some inevitable sea-changes. Its impact on the reader is spellbinding and it engages us with the author’s multi-faceted perception of language, which is underscored by Meneghello’s compound “materia apprehended” and its two-fold meaning (apprehending as understanding and clutching).
What is, then, the novelist’s concept of dialect? On the one hand, an essentialist view of dialect is apparently played off against the literary-philosophical understanding of idiolect formulated by Walter Benjamin in his essay on surrealism, where the tension between ‘reality’ and a pre-modern, magic, and re-creative use of the word is poignantly highlighted.3 On the other hand, essentialism is counterweighed by an empirical grasp of language, symbolically evoked by the natural/cultural image of the “pegs” and testifying to a virtual contiguity between reality and words. This suggestion has recently been explored by novelist Jeanette Winterson who, reviving the etymological connection between ‘real’ and réal (a Spanish coin), regards the reality of words as the writer’s own currency within the reality of our existence.4 Although starting from the eccentric question of regional belonging, Meneghello’s insights into language foreshadow those of Winterson. Both notions ultimately refract on that crucial poise between the empiric connotations of Wordsworth’s “language of men” (Lyrical Ballads 241) and Coleridge’s esoteric-animistic grasp of the poetic idiom, which is the lasting legacy of English Romanticism.
It is precisely by tilting the balance between romantic resonances and the notion of language which has been firmly rooted in the Western consciousness since the late nineteenth century that Meneghello overtly touches on the idiolectic potential of dialect, and on that of literature itself. Both the narrator of Libera Nos a Malo and its author (Opere xxx–xxxii) suggest in fact a correlation between the subversive dynamics of dialect and poetry. Some fruitful qualification of Meneghello’s early contention occurs soon after the passage quoted above. No longer opposed to Italian, the vernacular becomes a paradigm for a wider dérèglement of our languages (Libera Nos a Malo 44). Although this helps us refrain from any clear-cut dichotomy (dialect/bios—Italian/logos, for example), it is however useful to retain such a view of dialect as a kind of release from logos, a term which seems to imply not just the complex adjustment of any idiolect within social discourse, but also those dynamics that structure “the word as etymological occurrence, symptom of human history, memory and attachments” (Heaney Preoccupations 150).
While assigning some precedence to his native Vicentine vernacular over standard Italian, Meneghello actually suggests a relation between the dialect-speaking self and reality which is virtually exempt from a thoroughly wider social finality—i.e., from the tension towards an ‘external community’. Cesare Segre relates such non-social impulse to the childlike, potentially carnivalesque perspective that is intermittently adopted by the novel’s narrator:
The childlike impression merges word and thing; it is indifferent to the social contract that allows adult language to distinguish signifier from the signified. In the childlike perspective, signifier and signified are not just inseparable from each other, but from the connotations implied in the very moment of apperception (Prefazione x; my translation).
The associative context webbed within apperception is of course ‘cultural’, rooted in a definite range of individual and collective attachments. Yet, as Segre points out, the experience of language and the stratification of meaning it implies are—to some extent, at least—forgotten or transcended by childlike essentialism. One might further suggest that by retrieving that primary apperception, the adult’s viewpoint does not discard the noumenic necessity of his vernacular lexicon. As a consequence, the vernacular turns into a fluid “matter” which is moulded through that momentary and momentous obliteration of current context and attachments when imagination can soar again. In a way, Meneghello endows dialect with aesthetical gratuitousness and ultimately with the power of poiesis, which supports Ferdinando Bandini’s later consideration of the novel as a “philosophical poem” (qtd. in Marcoaldi 50).
The shift from Meneghello’s specific concern with dialect to his broader insight into the interaction of languages surfaces in further, far-reaching relations between his early novel and later developments in his work. The use of language in Libera Nos a Malo still raises highly controversial issues and invites comparison with reflections on the nature of language that basically divert from the post-structuralist and deconstructionist approach of much post-modernism. However, Meneghello’s poetic stance is relevant to postmodern world-views as such and therefore deserves to be carefully considered.
Over the last two or three decades, two basic tendencies have emerged, namely globalization and regionalism. In their socio-political implications, these trends have proved highly conflictual. Whereas their interdependence has always been recognised, however, it is only recently that their mutual and complementary nature has been explored.6 Needless to say, language has played a paramount role in the process of globalisation, which clearly emerges within the English-speaking world. This phenomenon affects everyday social discourse as well as literature and the arts. World-wide connections, the range covered by what is now called ‘global English’ and the new perspectives opened up by migrant writers have made the ‘Anglosphere’ a privileged dimension for investigation. Yet similar phenomena are taking place all around Europe and over the world. On a European level, antithetic drifts toward global and local languages are significant in Spain, Italy and Belgium, to mention a few cases. There has been controversy from the very start—reactions against the utilitarian standardization of language, and reactions against the self-enclosed and potentially ‘xenophobic’ hold on local dialects on the part of threatened communities. Reality has fortunately proved more fluid, leading to unpredictable results such as the appropriation of dialects by foreigners and, conversely, the ongoing change and evolution of native-speaking communities.
Since the early sixties, Meneghello has been fully aware of such opposing yet complementary pulls, as shown by the palpably anti-elegiac groundtone of both Libera Nos a Malo and I Piccoli Maestri (1964).7 This is why his work was, from the very beginning, potentially subversive. Although just a few years separate his debut from those of fellow writers in Europe and in the English-speaking world in particular, he was able to predict those discussions about the nature and use of regional vernacular and standard language that date back to the early seventies, and to stalk out territory which was far from being fully explored.
In a sense, in ‘his’ sense, Meneghello is a natural-born translator. As the foreword to his first novel reveals, the choice of Italian instead of the vernacular was deliberate but painstaking. His aspiration to a wider readership did not dispel a certain sense of sacrifice.8 In fact, through his fiction Meneghello partly gives up “madness”, eager as he is to broaden the borders of a world ‘incavicchiato’ into his native region and his hometown, the Veneto and Malo. Meneghello’s ‘Italianization’ of such a world already implies translation: from one world to another, from one language system to the other, in an endless “alternating current” circuit (Dispatrio 27). Poetic dérèglement shifts therefore to the very dynamics of translation. It is in the way translation turns into a part of the creative process, into a movement coterminous with the novel’s digressive pattern, that one might detect Meneghello’s creative grasp of dialect. For a novelist where stories seem to grow out of a word, a phrase, or a way of saying, as Segre points out (“Strati Linguistici” 68–9),9 translation is coextensive with writing. It becomes a self-propelling motiv which leads to such formal experimentations as his “narrated dictionary” Maredè Maredè (1991),10 a most challenging philological investigation into individual and communal memory.
In its shifting away from and back to Meneghello‘s ‘primary’ language, or from the local specificity of regional use to the wider national context, translation galvanises the forces of idiolectic expression and of communicative, narrative direction. A further move away—from Italian to a foreign language — supplies Meneghello’s “alternating current” when he turns to poetry, thus intertwining the narrative with an originally lyrical impulse. As will be shown, his training as a novelist plays a central role in his versions of English poetry. These bear witness to the translating (displacing and replacing) dynamics of his existential migration to Great Britain11, the country from where—enriched by the synthetic essence of English, and by its habit of understatement—he has been writing home since the post-war years and where he feels “dispatriate”.12
Reaching out to the music of what happens
How does Meneghello’s experimentation with literary forms fit into the aesthetic implications of glocalisation, as Bauman would call it? His reflections, as well as his works, seem in tune with a whole strand of writers who have long been engaged with such new perspectives. Seamus Heaney is the first name that comes to mind, since Meneghello’s words thoroughly voice some of the Irish poet’s well-known ‘preoccupations’13. Heaney is also, along with Tony Harrison, the spokesman of a breed of poets who harshly object to Britishness because of their ‘regional’/national and class affiliation but whose work has achieved world-wide resonance through a highly paradoxical ‘English’ label attached on its travel card.14
As in Meneghello, the local inflection in Heaney and Harrison is hardly elegiac, even though their language constantly implies a detachment from fading communal bonds. Furthermore, all three move unquestionably beyond the somewhat stifling etiquette of ‘regional poetry’.15 Different though their experiences are, they rather share some deeper feeling, which has to do with translation and with their evaluation of the language experience. Both Heaney’s and Harrison’s work as translators has actually brought them beyond the somehow ‘normal’ degree of re-invention which takes place when a poet sets out to translate. Heaney’s translation of the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne (Sweeney Astray, 1984) and Harrison’s rendering of the Mystery plays (The Mysteries, 1985) into Yorkshire dialect are, admittedly, ‘versions’ of those works: they aspire to the source text while displaying “a creation that seems to grow into an original work” as Brennan Kennelly suggests in the New York Times. This means to pay enormous attention to the prelogical, a-logical impact of the original, as well as to its interaction with cultural memory.
Meneghello’s perspective is very akin to this approach, as emerges in his lifelong experiments with translation from English into Vicentine vernacular. Trapianti, dall’Inglese al Vicentino—a slim volume of versions from Shakespeare, Hopkins, e.e. cummings, and Yeats among others—is worth reading as a textbook example of the creative potential of language and as a challenge to the fruitful ‘limits’ of translation. Heaney would probably appreciate the collection’s subtitle Biade vece, biade nove (‘Crops old and new’), its botanic overtones alluding to the Irish writer’s distinctive metaphor for writing (“Digging” and the sixth section in his later Station Island16 being the most suggestive examples). Transplantation is of course a favourite metaphor by linguists and translation theorists, and it perfectly chimes with Meneghello’s philological grasp of language(s). Moreover, its metaphoric meaning (‘heart transplant’) retains existential overtones, which the writer develops elsewhere to evoke his very first experience in England after the war (Dispatrio 15).
Above all, the term sounds most appropriate to define the very process of translation. In Meneghello the source text typically triggers off a new semantic, structural and phonological tension which runs through the new poem and thrusts out towards a new context. A stunning expression of such dynamics is his version of Yeats’ “Paudeen”:
Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Meneghello playfully changes the character’s name into the assonant, irresistibly local “Podìn” and restages the scene in ‘his’ Malo, where Yeats’ “lonely height” might concretely evoke a landscape surrounded by mountains:
Me son rabià co ‘l nostro Piareto de la Bia,
su ‘l cucùssolo
As appears from the very first reading, the phonological-aural layer is given prominence: the original rhyming scheme and tight vocal pattern is substituted by a kind of looser texture which is nevertheless remarkable for its play on assonances, consonances and for its paranomastic associations (detectable, for example, in the interplay of sibilants, high-front and back rounded vowels in lines 6–7, in the assonance ‘dismèntega/anema’, and in the middle rhyme ‘sola/mola’ in lines 11–13). Elsewhere, the original phonological associations are preserved, as happens in Meneghello’s translations of Shakespeare. His version seems almost to echo the original when he translates Hamlet’s ‘mousetrap’ monologue into “Pianzare per Ecuba!”
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
La sarà na vergogna che sto-cuà,
As an attempt to approach the semantic core of the original poem ‘from without’, Meneghello’s strategic echo works together with structural techniques such as actualization, which is as powerful in “Podìn” as in his noteworthy version of another poem by Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (“Inisfrì” 56–7). In “Pòdin”, Meneghello maintains the sheer simplicity of the episode—signalled by the deliberate redundancy of the curlew’s cry—yet he places it within a more experiential and narrative frame. Verb tenses, together with the abrupt shift to present tense in line 4 and the reframing of the initial participle into a finite mode, lend the poem a somewhat conversational drift; the groundtone hovers delicately between the speaker’s confession and his possible address to kindred souls.
From the very beginning, the poem reads as if it were actually spoken or thought aloud by the persona, and its mood seems to stress the semantic level more thoroughly than in the original. Paudeen’s “fumbling wits” become Podìn’s “zoca de bronbòlo” (‘plump nut’) which is ‘radegheta’ (‘quarrelsome, grudging’). The speaker’s voice shifts from resentful to affectionate—once again, more openly than in Yeats. Meneghello’s use of tenses at the end is also highly telling: whereas Yeats’ progress toward the climax is reproduced in rhythm, the unfolding of the absolute participle in line 11–2 implicitly demands some kind of response from those who know “our Pòdin”, but also from other human beings, whose voices (“our sounds”) are not unheard. Although no addressee is involved, the impersonal pronoun (‘se se dismèntega’) suggests, moreover, some faith in a choral, communal audience which surrounds the persona and might ideally share the self’s lyrical flight. Juxtaposed to the use of a familiar register, this makes the final, gnomic ‘flight’ as stunning as in Yeats’ poem: the mountain top (“cucùssolo”) becomes at once the site of isolation or solitude (vowels are low and associated with sibilants) and of elated, mystic togetherness. This sense is achieved at the very end both through the mode shift mentioned above (here the soul “mola el so dolse segnale”, it ‘lets out its sweet cry’) and the lexical adherence to the original text. Meneghello’s choice of “soni” for “sound” is, finally, highly significant. By rejecting the more common ‘chiasso’ (‘noise’, ‘racket’), the translator reaches back to a Shakespearian and later Faulknerian range of connotations. ‘Soni’ actually retains the detached, already non-human quality of ‘sound’, thus charging the worldly tone of the poem with Yeats’ metaphysic meaning.
Meneghello’s use of dialect as a target language revolves around a powerful centrifugal articulation. His translations hinge largely on the ‘a-logical’ level of signifiers in order to approach the semantic core of the original. Yet, even when the original naturally acts upon the translator’s grasp of the sensuous and the a-rational18, a two-way chain reaction is always at work: the logical and the a-logical constantly tunnel into each other. This becomes crucial to his translations of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poems, notably “The Windhover” which reproduces the kaleidoscopic, skimming thrust of the original:
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Here follows Meneghello’s version, “El Falcheto”:
Go balcà stamatina, go ocià ‘l dieto
In “The Windhover”, ecstasy is permeated by a theophanic apprehension of nature; it is the music of the poem that leads to the momentous transparency where the poet’s aesthetic perception is at one with his vision. While translating, Meneghello is very sensitive to the original pattern, notably in the way he recasts Hopkins’ battering tripartite scansion in lines 8, 12 and 13. Besides, the sonnet’s sustained rhythm and phonemic patterning is refracted by Meneghello’s enjambement, internal rhymes and pace variation, which make up for the more irregular pattern.19 An example is in line 3, where “saetà contra l’alba de perla” (‘flashing like lightning against the pearl-like dawn’) echoes the visionary overtones of the original compound “dapple-dawn-drawn”. Later on, the scanning of “brute beauty, and valour and act” is echoed in the triadic “belessa-crua, coraio, agitassiòn” (line 13) which Meneghello textually isolates, thus signalling the importance of such word clusters in his source. At the end too, he tries to capture the verbal ‘excess’ of the original, reproducing through consonant patterns the Anglo-Saxon texture chosen by Hopkins (alliteration is actually crucial in line 21, “le crola, le se sbroia, le se sgrosta”: the embers “fall down, graze and peel off”). At times, “El Falcheto” even expands the original, as might be observed in the very first line. As if developing the associative potential hidden in the original, the act of catching the falcon by surprise is changed into the momentous glancing and almost preying (“go balcà”; “go ocià”). This suggestion foreshadows the awe-struck groundtone of the following stanza, but it also curiously endows the speaker/seer with a falcon-like, predatory gaze. Moreover, as the admiration for the bird’s energy reaches its climactic pitch, Meneghello’s version verbally approaches the sense of ecstasy (“el boresso”, or irresistible mirth) that defines the poem’s movement.
In his metapoetic reflections, Heaney has frequently insisted on the necessary, free and “irreducible” nature of lyrical language.20 Meneghello draws on the irreducible tension latent in the source poem by remoulding Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and the vibrating thrust that sustains it. This is most clear at the end of the first stanza, which culminates in a visual shift on the bird’s claw (‘che sata!’). The association of the first two abstract terms to a third focusing on concrete, synecdochic detail is deliberate: by ‘betraying’ the original, Meneghello recovers and enhances the stupor that informs Hopkins’ poem. In “El Falcheto”, it is therefore the overall pattern that appropriates the original poem’s whirling and tectonic, bird-like perspective by realising what Hopkins calls the ‘inscape’ between subject and object. The windhover21 may turn into the small hawk or falcon common to the Veneto landscape: it nonetheless retains its majestic flight upwards where the heavens become pure light (instead of daylight, Meneghello uses “’l ciaro” so that brightness is enhanced through the ‘spreading’ vowels). In some way, the use of dialect here stresses the point of balance between everyday life, or even everyday toil (underscored by the familiar register of “fadiga orba” and “bronse coerte”) and the gleaming essence of spiritual revelation captured by Hopkins, and before him, by Wordsworth. As powerfully as in “Podìn”, then, Meneghello responds to the ecstatic movement to which poetry aspires while rooting it into his unique grasp of experience.
Language and roots
Language, and poetic language as such, retains an “irreducibly free” quality which cannot be expropriated and which resists any attempt at normalization or standardization—which, ultimately, challenges translation. English-speaking writers like Heaney are eager to delve deep into the fractions that language might conceal mostly because they prove sensitive to that interzonal potential inherent in inter-linguistic friction.
So does Meneghello as he addresses ‘his’ poets, especially those whose language was sharpened by the experience of migration. The question of multi-lingualism seems actually essential to his reading of Yeats and of Hopkins. As much as his fictional rendering (“trasporto”: Opere 776) of the vernacular into Italian, his translations deflect the possibly ‘self-enclosing’ nature of the vernacular, His ‘inner emigration’ into another language qualifies the engrained notion of regional dialects as residual languages. It is rather because his vernacular draws on sedimentary soil that it lies open to unpredictable associations and to metamorphosis.
Considering how Meneghello’s work has been influenced by his “dispatrio”, one might conclude that the feeling of local belonging becomes essential to the poet who sets out to wander: Meneghello’s poetics might well chime in Ken Smith’s contention that “[his] are portable roots”,22 and that uprootedness does not equal loss but is, in fact, a condition of creation. In Trapianti, the writer’s translation into dialect and his poetic strain merge together. A kind of estrangement from “logos” is as crucial to the latter as to the former; translation is realised by listening to the source poem and it poignantly intertwines such listening with meaning. If, as Winterson again suggests looking back at Romanticism, poetry is the “realisation of an emotion” (82), Meneghello perceives translation as the working principle of such realisation. This is why his concern is two-fold. On the one hand, Meneghello seems to unlearn the poem by focusing on all that precedes meaning: pun, rhymes and non-sense23 are as significant as the dramatic or narrative approach of ‘his’ poets. On the other hand, he lets verbal creation hinge on such pre-verbal suggestions. As a medium for translation, his vernacular is both a sounding board and a newly made instrument. His listening to Hopkins (and to Shakespeare of course) proves, in this respect, highly meaningful: Hopkins’s feel for phonological associations, his rhythms and his use of compound words are a powerful expression of ‘unlearning’ for both native speakers and foreign poets (the tri-lingual Italian poet Amelia Rosselli, for example, chose him as a model in her prose writing and experimental poetry).
It is George Steiner who, aptly catalyzing a cluster of contemporary stimuli, still offers compelling perspectives on translation as a two-way propulsion, testifying to both the connective and disconnecting potential of any language. More to the point, he brightly points out two antithetic drifts: the social, communicative impulse which underlies language on the one hand and its magical, hermetic power on the other hand. Steiner’s reflection in After Babel tellingly bear on the possibilities of multi-lingualism which Meneghello develops though his poetic work:
No two human beings share an identical associative context. Because such a context is made up of the totality of an individual existence, because it comprehends not only the sum of personal memory and experience but also the reservoir for the particular subconscious, it will differ from person to person All speech forms and notations, then, entail a latent or realised element of individual specificity. They are in part an idiolect (178–9). Each tongue hoards the resources of consciousness, the world-pictures of a clan. It is secret towards the outsider and inventive of its own world. Each language selects, combines and contradicts certain elements from the total potential of perceptual data. [ ] Language is a ‘perpetual Orphic song’ precisely because the hermetic and the creative aspects in it are dominant (242–3).
Translation from and into the vernacular, as in Meneghello’s case, bridges the chasm between communication and hermetic poiesis. It betrays his eagerness to salvage the idiom and the horizon of a “clan” from dissolution but it does so by casting an estranged perspective on the original context where language and “the thing in itself” seemed indissolubly connected. Returning to Meneghello’s early comment in Libera Nos a Malo, one might ultimately see how that “core of apprehended matter” is liable to be clutched again through writing.
I would like to conclude borrowing from Philip Larkin who, unlike Heaney, Harrison, or Meneghello, never wrote about translation but whose poetic stance proves, in my view, illuminating. There is actually a sharp edge to Larkin’s oft-cited claim that his first commitment as a poet is to “the experience, the beauty”(68); this sort of commitment does not betray the solipsistic need to reward life but is rather integral to any writer’s impulse to communicate through his or her own idiosyncratic language. This is why Meneghello’s ‘essentialist’ perception of dialect does not hinder the possibility of translation: any idiolect actualises the unique relation of the speaker/poet to that ever changing imaginary reality which is part of his/her own experience and where individual and communal memory interweave. That thrust towards life is essential to creation and it turns translation into that “balance between tensions” which according to dramatist Eugenio Barba best expresses harmony (49)24. It is ultimately through translation that poetry can happen and reshape tensions,
As if a stone swirled under a cascade,
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1 Luigi Meneghello, Trapianti, dall’Inglese al Vicentino. Milano: Rizzoli, 2002.
2 Luigi Meneghello moved to England in 1947 on a British Council scholarship. Once in Reading, he became professor of Italian and founded an Institute of Italian studies, which he ran until his retirement in 1980. A complete bio-bibliography is offered by Baransky and updated by Pellegrini. On the tension between vernacular languages, regional and standard Italian in Meneghello’s fiction, see Lepschy’s essays, “Le Parole di Mino. Note sul Lessico di ‘Libera Nos a Malo’” and “Dove si Parla una Lingua che non si Scrive”; for a retrospective analysis of his relation to his ‘languages’, see Meneghello’s interview with Peters and his reply to Lepschy, Tremaio pp. 11–42.
3 See, in particular, Benjamin’s notion of estrangement as reciprocal illumination between the ordinary and the fantastic and its relation to André Bréton’s dechaìnement (“Der Surrealism” pp. 297–305).
4 Meneghello’s implicit insistence on the permeability of imagination to any other level of experience seems to support Winterson’s essential contention that “Art is a way into other realities” (Winterson 26).
5 L. Meneghello, Maredé Maredé, Milano: Rizzoli, 1991, 201.
6 Zygmunt Bauman’s books are a necessary point of reference, notably Globalization: The Human Consequences, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998 and Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2001.
7 Several passages in Libera Nos a Malo counterpoint the possibly elegiac overtones of Meneghello’s retrospective views on the community he used to belong; amongst the most significant are the narrator’s comments on the pre-war reality of his town ( his ‘paese’, as opposed both to the fading context of rural villages and to the increasingly modernised and ‘Italianised’ cityscapes of Vicenza, Schio etc) in chapters xiii–xvi.
8 This feeling has been further explored in a later retrospective note on his early work, which explicitly refers to the necessary adoption of a national—and possibly international—perspective on writing. See Meneghello Opere 252–3.
9 For a wider examination of Meneghello’s novels and his use of cross-generic techniques, see also Segre, Preface xi–xv.
10 The dictionary actually expands with much the same playful attitude Meneghello’s inclusion of explanatory notes and an Italian-vernacular glossary in his first novel (Libera Nos a Malo 299–325) so that both the etymologic complexity of dialect and the—at times impossible—translation into Italian are markedly underscored.
11 For a portrait of Meneghello in England, see Giulio Lepschy’s article in the Guardian (Fri 17 August 2007).
12 Meneghello’s last novel
13 In his collection of essays Preoccupations and in the later The Government of the Tongue Heaney goes through a number of writers whom he regards as central to modernity in poetry; focused on his poetic, and politically delicate, English and Irish literary allegiances, both “Place and Displacement” (a tribute to Patrick Kavanagh) and “Englands of the Mind” are crucial to situate the emergence of the so-called Irish Renaissance of the seventies and eighties. Relevant to the present discussion is Heaney’s appreciation on his peculiar status of “inner émigré”, and on the sense of exile which followed his moving from Ulster to the Republic but which virtually brought his work closer to his native region and community.
14 As regards Seamus Heaney’s contribution to the ‘Irish Renaissance’, see Simmons and Corcoran (chapters i–iv). For a perceptive view on Tony Harrison’s allegiance to his working class Yorkshire background, see Butler.
15 On Heaney’s critical appreciation of the regional—with reference to Patrick Kavanagh’s distinction between parochialism and provincialism—see Parker pp. 28–60.
16 S.Heaney, Station Island, London, Faber and Faber, 1984, pp.75–76.
17 See also Meneghello’s version in “Ah, se la desfasse” (Trapianti 88–91).
18 As happens, for example, in his translations of e.e.cummings, “(uò cucò putei spiritei)” and “(‘el pulierìn ze péna)” (Trapianti 42–47).
19 Although Hopkins’ scheme (octave plus sestet) is recast into a looser structure, Meneghello remoulds the interplay amongst different levels—semantic, phonetic, sometimes morphemic—by deliberately displacing stress patterns; he also modulates the internal rhythm by using dodecasyllables (as might be seen in the first stanza). An even more accurate attuning to the original might be observed in “Osfor de Duns Scoto” (26–7) where he plays with dodecasyllables and decasyllables within a tighter stanzaic pattern.
20 It is, significantly, through his comment on translations of Eastern European poets that Heaney most clearly formulates the notion of gratuitousness: “Lyric poetry, however responsible, always has an element of the untrammelled about it. There is a certain jubilation and truancy at the heart of inspiration.” (The Government of the Tongue xviii).
21 As often remarked, Hopkins clearly made a deliberate lexical choice by preferring “windhover” over “falcon”, “kestrel” or any other term that features in his Journals. Meneghello opts instead for a more popular name, partially at odds with Hopkins’ selection but in tune with the creatural dimension of the text.
22 Qtd. In O’Brien, 922. Though not interested in translation, Ken Smith typically includes other languages in his poems, questioning and challenging the presence of borders which he, as a native English speaker, nonetheless remarks throughout his poetry.
23 See, for this aspect of Meneghello’s own poetry, the complex patterns of phonemic variation in the last section of “Pomo Pero” (Opere 377–401).
24 The founder of an International movable theatre, Eugenio Barba derives his poetics by both the estrangement of local, regional realities (notably his training in Sicily and in South America) and the setting of performances abroad. Partly inspired by Grotowsky, his reflections on the non-verbal communication of theatrical performances provide insightful remarks on the emergence of global-local contexts of communication.