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A conversation with translator Diana Thow

What made you decide to bring Rosselli into English?

I took Lawrence Venuti’s translation workshop at Temple University, Rome, as an undergraduate. I was not familiar with his name or his scholarship, and I had never really thought about the practice of literary translation—I ended up in the class by dumb luck. But I had been studying and writing poetry and so I wanted to translate an experimental poet, preferably female, for the workshop. I asked Professor Venuti for suggestions, and he suggested I look into Rosselli. I found a selected edition of her work at the now defunct Libreria delle Donne on Via dei Fienaroli in Trastevere—Rosselli’s old neighborhood in Rome—and I began to translate a few poems from that book. This was 2002, six years after her death, and though very fine translations were scattered here and there in journals and anthologies, no editions of her work had yet been translated into English.

Translating for me then was my only way of reading the poems carefully, getting inside them, as you are trained to do in college literature classes. I was drawn in by the elliptical, private worldview presented in the poems, which was intensified by my private act of translation. At every turn there was a puzzle or a mystery. I’ve been working on Rosselli since, I have read through her papers and spoken with scholars and people who knew her in Rome. The mysteries may have transformed a bit, but they have never really fully unraveled for me. I don’t expect they ever will. On the one hand this inaccessibility is sort of upsetting for a translator, but on the other it is also essential in moving forward. No translation is ever definitive, and with Rosselli there is no illusion that it can be. I mention this because I believe that in some ways Rosselli's best readers are language students, those who are in between complete fluency of a language, who can still revel in the dissonance or beauty of a sound or a construction. Rosselli herself grew up in between France, the UK, the US, and Italy, though she didn’t choose to call Italy home until she was in her late teens. She plays with Italian in such an earnest way (at times joyful, at times devastating), and asks it to reveal correspondences with her other languages (English and French). In some ways her ideal translator is one who feels a little foreign in their own language and in the language they are translating from, to replicate this sense of correspondence and earnestness. If you have access to only one language, Rosselli’s complexities can be easily flattened.

What challenges did you face when translating Hospital Series in particular?

These are very dense, complex poems in the Italian. There's an alternate aesthetic here, which has to do with Rosselli's own theory of prosody. Striking a balance with that was definitely a challenge. Rosselli had an idiosyncratic, almost synesthestic metric system (delineated in her essay “Spazi Metrici”) that she developed out of her own studies of music theory, experiments with chance and atonal music (that the poems are a “series” already suggests the musical connection), a visual obsession with text and typography, as well as studies of light and color. During the composition of Serie Ospedaliera, which is her second book, she was re-reading Italian greats such as Dante, Petrarch, Montale, and claimed to be influenced by their prosody as well.

In the first poem ("seventy beggars and a shirt that shattered") I puzzled over how to render the shift from beneficenza (charity) to benefatto (the past participle of the verb benefare, an antiquated term for doing good works) and still render the archaic quality and the slide from one to another. In general I try to honor the Latinate roots between English and Italian when possible, as a reference to Rosselli's own bilingual palette. My solution here was benefaction/benefacted, the transformation of these words leading to the surprising image of a serpentine camel: "all was laurel and benefaction, the / king of the poor benefacted, slithering camel..." Here the images, specifically the Trinity mountains, signal a deeper and perhaps spiritual vocabulary. I think. In moments like these I just hang on and try to translate as literally as I can.

In "Two monkeys plough the soul with invisible tracks" I translate biscotti, which by now is a term familiar to anyone who frequents Starbucks, (though in Italy the word really just means cookies of any kind) to "biscuits." This references Rosselli’s very British English—her mother was British. The very typical Rossellian gesture here, though, is smozzare, which is a neologism, a mashup of mozzare, which means to chop off, and smorzare, which is to put out, as in a flame. Though I usually try to invent something where she does, for lack of a better solution I translated this as "put off."

In the first line of "Your watercolors disordered my mind," I absolutely couldn't replicate the gesture she makes here, due to the nature of English. She turns a masculine noun (watercolors/acquarelli) feminine (acquarelle). This is a technique she uses in her first book, Variazioni Belliche—in fact the whole first line is borrowed from a poem in that collection. It is very common for Rosselli to self-cite, articulating a technical, almost obsessive, interiority. Invernizio ("wintering") is another neologism in Italian, "-izio" is a suffix that comes from the Latin, (ie. giudizio,/judgment, but I also hear inizio/beginning). In this poem the sonic backbone is an associative chain of words with the "sc" sounds (scomponevano, scompiglio, etc). "sc-" in Italian is a slightly destructive, negative prefix, like our "dis-," so I tried to replicate that accumulation of disjunction in the English version.

A constant struggle for me in translating Rosselli is to resist the urge to over-polish the rough edges while translating, which is hard since that’s usually part of the process. Rosselli lives in her unpolished passages, it’s her earnestness, or urgency, that really marks her.

What was going on in Rosselli's world when she wrote Serie Ospedaliera?

Rosselli dates the Series from 1963-1965. This was an incredibly productive time for her: she was in her mid-thirties, living in Trastevere. Her social and literary scene in Rome included Alberto Moravia (her father’s cousin), Carlo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carmelo Bene, and Antonio Porta. She participated in meetings of the avant-garde poetry group Gruppo 63, but critiques the group in the Series, self-consciously distancing herself from it. In 1964 she publishes her first book, Variazioni Belliche, with the aid of Pasolini, which was well received. She also suffers a series of nervous breakdowns during those years. Rosselli was never comfortable with the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia that she was given for her disturbances, and preferred to think of her illness in other terms. As much as a hospital is a symbol of illness and unrest for Rosselli, she also associates the collection with healing and progression, saying in an interview with the critic Giacinto Spagnoletti in 1987:
A serious illness, which at that time seemed incurable, undermined me…only with great effort was I able to read and write….So to resist this weakness, and to survive creatively I had to isolate myself and conduct a systematically private interior life, without any visitors. These poems reflect this melancholy deprivation, but I believe and I hope, also a greater linguistic rigor, and a more humble acknowledgement of the many cultural debts (not just to the familiar Rimbaud, Campana, Montale) to writers considered either "minor" or who had fallen out of fashion (Saba, the hermetic school, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rilke, etc.). The series of poems is a "hospital series" as it is also resigned to a critical retreat, a backtracking; it is no longer warlike and its perceptions and intuitions are even more rare or rarefied. (My translation)
This collection is written in the middle of her most productive poetic output, preceded by Variazioni Belliche and followed by Documento; as the central, transitional text in this trio of books, the expansion and refinement of her poetic project from what she considered the "rawer" first book to the "accessible" third is very much evident in Serie Ospedaliera.