On Translation: Todd Portnowitz Translates Pierluigi Cappello

Thanks to great translators, AGNI readers get to know the writing of people working in a wide range of languages. We want you to hear from those translators. Today, the thoughts of Todd Portnowitz on the art of translating the poet Pierluigi Cappello for Issue 82.

My measure, for better or worse, of a good poem in Italian is whether or not halfway through I begin translating it in my head. With Pierluigi Cappello it took only the first two lines of the first poem of his I read: “Così come oggi tanti anni fa / mandate a dire all’imperatore” (“As long ago, so too today / go tell it to the emperor”). I had to know the answer, to unravel the knot of the opening line, and to figure out how, if it all, it related to the second.

Often in Cappello’s work one finds this precarious relationship between two consecutive lines, where the second seems both a logical continuation and a complete non-sequitur. Using disparate thoughts and images, he manages to create something that reads like a complete sentence, often without punctuation, which allows his readers the widest possible range of interpretation. It’s the sort of trick played by W.S. Merwin in Shadow of Sirius: with sleight of hand he shifts a word, pulls a comma, swaps verb for noun, and so transports the reader to a realm of meaning not above language but behind it—the alphabet pulled back like a curtain to reveal a bare stage, haunting and dream-abiding.

In “Parole povere” (“Poor Words”) Cappello applies this trick of careful apposition on a different scale, stacking up miniature biographies of the people he knows or knows of. These little “lives” crescendo as a prayer crescendos to its amen, only to disappoint us with a lack of closure—and then to surprise us with its far less conclusive, and far more human, magnanimity. From a translator’s point of view, the poem presents no notable difficulty other than that of controlling the dynamics, of calibrating the language of each miniature portrait so that it speaks to the next and builds toward the conclusion.

Far more difficult, on the linguistic level, is Cappello’s much briefer poem “Settembre” (“September”), particularly the poem’s final three lines:

la nuvola sottratta alla terra
il salto allo slancio, l’orma al suo piede
il corpo a ciò che precede.

What we have are four “subtractions”: a cloud (nuvola) subtracted from the earth (terra), an impetus (salto) subtracted from a leap (slancio), a footprint (orma) subtracted from its foot (piede), and a body (corpo) subtracted from all that comes before it (ciò che precede). The Rubik’s-cube like challenge was not only to mirror this repetitive structure where the verb (sottrarre, “to subtract”) is implicitly applied to each subsequent pair of objects, but to find interesting equivalents in English for the objects themselves, so that syntax, meaning, and beauty would click into place.

With orma and piede the solution came easily: piede can be hardly be anything else but “foot,” and while orma can also be “trace” or “track,” the intrigue of subtracting a “footprint from its foot” seemed to me quite obviously greater.

Not so simple, however, was the pair of salto and slancio. What was Cappello getting at? Salto is most commonly used to mean a “leap” or “jump” and slancio something like “momentum,” “forward movement.” Is he saying “a leap subtracted from momentum”? The idea itself isn’t displeasing, but rendered as such in English the language is clunky and unclear. Diving into a dictionary I found that slancio could also be “dart,” “rush,” “bound,” “impulse,” “leap”—“leap”! How could they both be “leap”? A “leap subtracted from a leap” or maybe “a leap from an impulse” or, perhaps, “a jumpstart from a leap”? To find the most interesting solution I had to pull my head out of the dictionary and just think, like the native English speaker that I am. What, in the language I know and use everyday, could be taken, subtracted from movement, from a rush of movement, from a leap? What was that thing at the beginning of a leap—the impulse, the impetus. “Impetus,” more so than “impulse,” struck me as a driving force, the reason behind a leap into action, this feeling in your chest (petto) that pushes you over the edge. And so I jumped.

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Portnowitz_Headshot B&W_hi-resTodd Portnowitz is recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets for his translations of Pierluigi Cappello. His poetry, essays, and Italian translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, PN Review, Asymptote, Guernica, VQR, Southwest Review, AGNI, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. He lives and works in New York.

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