In the Wilds of Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi was special to the point of idiosyncrasy. How do you translate him?
Leopardi by Pericoli.jpg

Tullio Pericoli/Studio Pericoli

Giacomo Leopardi

I’m starting a translation, my first for many years, and at once I’m faced with the fatal, all-determining decision: What voice do I translate this in?

Usually one would say: the same voice as the original’s, as you hear it in the Italian and imagine it in English. This would be along the line of Dryden’s famous injunction to translators to write as the author would write if he were English—a rather comical idea since we are interested in the author largely because he comes from elsewhere and does not write like an Englishman. In any event, this text is a special case.

I’m translating a selection of entries from Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone. This is a book all Italians know from school and almost nobody has read in its entirety. The word zibaldone comes from the same root as zabaione and originally had the disparaging sense of a hotchpotch of food, or any mixture of heterogeneous elements, then a random collection of notes, a sort of diary, but of disconnected thoughts and reflections rather than accounts of events. Leopardi, born in 1798 and chiefly remembered for his lyric poetry, kept his Zibaldone from 1817 to 1832, putting together a total of 4,526 handwritten pages. Printed editions come in at something over 2000, before the notes, which are usually many. There is general agreement that the Zibaldone is one of the richest mines of reflection on the modern human condition ever written. Schopenhauer in particular referred to Leopardi as “my spiritual brother” and saw much of his own thinking foreshadowed in Leopardi’s writings. The selection I’m translating, put together by an Italian publisher, is made up of all the entries that Leopardi himself had flagged as having to do with emotions.

Immediately two problems arise as far as establishing a voice for translation is concerned. First, the book is almost two hundred years old; second, even if Leopardi might have imagined its being published it was certainly not written or prepared for publication and is full of elisions, abbreviations, notes to himself, rewrites, and cross-references. In fact, on his death in 1837 the huge wad of pages was dumped in a trunk by his friend Antonio Ranieri and was not published in its entirety until 1900. So, do I write in modern prose, or in an early nineteenth-century pastiche? Do I tidy up the very personal and unedited aspect of the text, or do preserve those qualities, if I can?

The first question would be more tormented if I felt I had any ability to write a pastiche of early nineteenth-century English. I do not. So that’s that. But I’m also suspicious of the very idea of such time parallels. English and Italian were in very different phases of development in the 1830s. Official English usage had largely been standardized in the previous century and novelists like Dickens were preparing to launch a full-scale assault on that standardization. Not to mention the fact that American English already had a very different feel than British English. Meantime, Italian hardly existed as a national language. Only around 5 percent of Italians were actually speaking and reading Italian when the country achieved political unification in 1861. The literary language, dating back to Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio, was Tuscan and this is the language Leopardi writes in, but without ever having been to Tuscany, at least when he began the Zibaldone. For him, it’s a very mental, cerebral language, learned above all from books. Does it make any sense to move from this to the language of Shelley and Byron, or Emerson and Hawthorne?

Even given these circumstances, Leopardi was special to the point of idiosyncrasy. Brought up in a provincial town in the Papal State of central Italy, then one of the most backward territories in Europe, son of an eccentric aristocrat fallen upon hard times, Leopardi was a prodigy who seems to have spent his whole childhood in his father’s remarkable library. By age ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French. Hebrew and English would soon follow. The Zibaldone is peppered with quotations from these languages and they can be heard, particularly the Latin, here and there in his prose. Thinking aloud, as he seeks to turn intuition and reflection into both a history of the human psyche and a coherent but very private philosophy of nihilism (with his own shorthand terms, that sometimes don’t quite mean what standard usage would suppose them to mean), he latches on to any syntax that comes his way to keep the argument moving forward. Some sentences are monstrously long and bizarrely assembled, shifting from formal structures to the most flexible use of apposition, juxtaposition, inference, and implication. The one other translation of an “old” text I have done, Machiavelli’s The Prince, was a picnic by comparison.


Do I keep the long sentences, then, or break them up? Do I make the book more comprehensible for English readers than it is for present-day Italian readers (for whom footnotes giving a modern Italian paraphrase are often provided)? Above all, do I allow all those Latinisms to come through in the English, which would inevitably give the text a more formal, austere feel, or do I go for Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and modern phrasal verbs to get across the curiously excited intimacy of the text, like someone building up very complex, often provocative ideas as he goes along, with no one at hand to ask for explanations or homogeneity or any sort of order?

Here, for example, is a brief and by Leopardi’s standards very simple entry on hope and suicide.

La speranza non abbandona mai l’uomo in quanto alla natura. Bensì in quanto alla ragione. Perciò parlano stoltamente quelli che dicono (gli autori della Morale universelle t.3.) che il suicidio non possa seguire senza una specie di pazzia, essendo impossibile senza questa il rinunziare alla speranza ec. Anzi tolti i sentimenti religiosi, è una felice e naturale, ma vera e continua pazzia, il seguitar sempre a sperare, e a vivere, ed è contrarissimo alla ragione, la quale ci mostra troppo chiaro che non v’è speranza nessuna per noi. [23. Luglio 1820.]

Do I write:

Hope never abandons man in relation to his nature, but in relation to his reason. So people (the authors of La morale universelle, vol. 3) are stupid when they say suicide can’t be committed without a kind of madness, it being impossible to renounce all hope without it. Actually, having set aside religious sentiments, always to go on hoping is a felicitous and natural, though true and continuous, madness and totally contrary to reason which shows too clearly that there is no hope for any of us. [July 23, 1820]

Or alternatively:

Men never lose hope in response to nature, but in response to reason. So people (the authors of the Morale universelle, vol. 3) who say no one can kill themselves without first sinking into madness, since in your right mind you never lose hope, have got it all wrong. Actually, leaving religious beliefs out of the equation, our going on hoping and living is a happy, natural, but also real and constant madness, anyway quite contrary to reason which all too clearly shows that there is no hope for any of us. [July 23, 1820]

Or some mixture of the two? The fact is that while I find it hard to imagine translating Dante’s famous Lasciate ogni speranza… any other way than “Abandon all hope” (curiously introducing this rather heavy verb where in the Italian we have a simple lasciare, to leave) here I just can’t imagine any reason for not reorganizing La speranza non abbandona mai l’uomo, into Man never never loses hope.

And if I leave dangling modifiers like “having set aside religious sentiments,” am I going to find an editor intervening as if I’d simply made a mistake. If I warn the editor that there will be dangling modifiers because Leopardi doesn’t worry about them, does that mean that I can then introduce them myself where Leopardi doesn’t?

All these decisions are further complicated by the fact that just as I begin my translation of just two-hundred pages of extracts, a team of seven translators, and two specialist editors, based in Birmingham, England and largely sponsored by, of all people, Silvio Berlusconi, has completed the first unabridged and fully annotated English edition of the Zibaldone, a simply enormous task. Their version will not be published until July (by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States) but I have a proof copy. Do I look at it? Before I start? Or only after I finish, to check that at least semantically we have understood the same thing?

Well, certainly the latter and with due acknowledgement of course; there is absolutely no point in my publishing a version with mistakes that could have been avoided by checking my attempt against theirs, as quite possibly they will have been checking theirs against the recent French version. On the other hand there is equally no point in my producing a translation that is merely an echo of theirs. I’d be wasting my time. This kind of translation just doesn’t pay enough for you not to need some other incentive: the crumb of glory that might accrue from producing a memorable Leopardi.

I decide to look at the Translator’s Note in the new edition, and perhaps a few parts of the translation that don’t correspond to the extracts I’m supposed to be translating, just to get a sense of how they’ve dealt with the various issues of style. Immediately I realize that these translators faced an even greater dilemma than I do. Seven translators and two editors will all have heard Leopardi’s highly idiosyncratic voice and responded to his singular project, his particular brand of despair, in their own ways; but one can’t publish a text with seven (or nine) different voices. Strategies must have been agreed and a single editor must ultimately have gone through all 2,000-plus pages to even things out. This means establishing a standard voice that all the translators can write towards and making certain decisions across the board, particularly with respect to key words, the overall register, lexical fields, and so on. In any event, after reading a few paragraphs of the translation itself I’m reassured that my work will not merely be a duplication of theirs, because I hear the text quite differently.


Here the reader will want me to characterize this difference, perhaps with a couple of quotations. And the temptation would be for me to show something I could criticize and to draw the reader onto my side to support some supposedly more attractive approach. But I don’t want to do that. I’m frankly in awe of the hugeness of this team’s accomplishment and aware that they have done things the only way things could have been done to offer a complete translation of the whole text.

What I’d rather like to stress is my intense awareness, as I read their translation, of the uniqueness of each reading response, which is the inevitable result, I suppose, of the individual background we bring to a book, all the reading and writing and listening and talking we’ve done in the past, our particular interests, beliefs, obsessions. I hear Leopardi in an English that has a completely different tone and feel than the one my colleagues have used. I just hear a different man speaking to me—a different voice—though what I hear is no more valid than what they hear.

And I realize that, beyond the duty of semantic accuracy, all I have to do (all!) is to sit down, for a few hundred hours, and perform this Leopardi—in whatever way seems most right, most authentically close to the tone and the feel of it, at the moment of writing (since every complex translation would be somewhat different if we had done it a month before, or a month later, or even an hour); yes, just hear the text and experience it absolutely as intensely as I can, allowing myself to fall into its way of thinking about things, then say it in English, perform it in English, my English, as he performed it, sitting at his desk, writing in Italian, his very peculiar and special Italian. Of course there will be interminable revisions, much polishing up, and an editor will have his or her say. But essentially this is the way it is with translation, whether it be me and Leopardi, or some other translator and the latest Chinese Nobel Laureate, or some Russian translator and De Lillo or Franzen: the book is fed through a hopefully receptive mind, which inevitably leaves its indelible stamp on the translation. Let the academics argue the issues back and forth; what I have to do now is read honestly, and pray for inspiration.

Give the gift they’ll open all year

Save 50% off the regular rate and 75% off the cover price and receive a free 2021 calendar!