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A Conversation with translator Brett Foster

The first two sonnets are conversations concerning Cecco Angolieri’s speaker and his bawdy beloved, “Becchina.” In the Italian, these bits of speech have a kind of bouncing musicality that it must have been very difficult to render in English. Can you talk about how you approached the “talkiness” of these poems?

Those opening two “conversation” sonnets are really striking poems, aren’t they? In at least two ways: formally, in terms of how Angiolieri paces the speakers’ exchanges to line up with unit shifts in the sonnet structure. I regularly teach Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and I remember looking at the terse, confrontational back-and-forth speeches between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra when I was working on some of these dialogue sonnets. (Angiolieri wrote about six or seven of these, total.) It’s called stichomythia in the context of Greek tragedy. There’s a technical name for this effect in medieval Italian poetry, too—battibecco—which I have GOT to think becomes a sly pun on Angiolieri’s part, since one of his speakers in these poems is always Becchina. Second, there is just the very colloquial quality to the voices, too—it’s like those awkward times when you happen to walk by a couple in an intense conversation and realize too late that they are having a very public argument or break-up moment. I’m glad these two manage to give that impression of “talkiness”—with all of these poems, I have tried to capture that immediacy that you can here so clearly in the Italian originals, and having to make that work and sound believable in heated dialogue is a special challenge.

These poems also present a special opportunity to give readers a very direct portrayal of Becchina; she is mentioned frequently through the sonnets, but usually Angiolieri’s speaker is complaining about her rudeness or anger. Here, we get to hear her, and so I wanted to give a sense of a woman who swears pretty naturally, and who is clearly getting fed up with her lover’s melodramatic antics. In some ways, then, Becchina represents the subversive poet’s point of view—they both find the high lyrical dramas of the day’s love poetry to be a little much, rather over the top. “Enough already!” she is often saying in these dialogue poems. I think Angiolieri felt that, too, about the fashionable “high” literary poetry of his day.

The first one, “His Heart, Jumped,” is additionally odd because of the triangulation of the conversation. It took me a while to understand that the speaker’s opening cries for help are answered by a passerby, first of all, and only mid-poem does Becchina enter and resume her insults and cruel rejection of Angiolieri’s speaker. With this poem, we glimpse again, but by a different effect, that winking, parodying element to Angiolieri’s treatment of love; he is used to Dante, Cavalcanti and others writing these highly plaintive, you’ve-made-me-swoon poems of a lover’s despair, and so Angiolieri has great fun literalizing and overdoing the whole situation—i.e., the beloved has been so cruel it’s like the sad lover has been beaten or mugged in the street. There’s something really funny about it. It’s like Becchina has snatched the speaker’s heart, much like someone might have his iPhone stolen today. So it’s mainly fun and games … until it’s not. Look at the last tercet in the second dialogue sonnet, for example: “Now if you felt pity that would match your beauty / … / you’d say, and say genuinely, ‘Choose me.’” That sounds so tender and “straight” to me. That’s so characteristic of Angiolieri: he mimics the more elevated language of the dolce stil nuovo poets perfectly, only to overturn, deflate, or blow up that more courtly voice later in the poem, or, conversely, here you are reading along thanking, “My, what a ridiculous love farce” this is, until suddenly you shift, the voice gets more solemn, and it’s like that scene with John Cusack holding the radio above his head in Say Anything—so serious! So vulnerable!  

Willis Barnstone, in The Poetics of Translation, says, “If the original authors of any work of art are to live in other tongues, their existence depends on a blurring of authorships, on a sympathetic and partial surrender of single property ownership to another author, the poet translator.” Do you agree with this claim? And if so, how do you see your own voice and Angolieri's blurring in these translations?

I love Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, first of all. It’s so smart, with points drawn from decades full of the practice of literary translation. And it’s refreshingly provocative in various places, too. A thrilling read. That said, I would have to nuance somewhat that notion, and it’s a noble notion sure to inspire most translators, about the “blurring of authorships.” I could easily say that is the case sometimes, and we can all think of cases where the poet seemed made to render the voice of another poet. Holderlin’s Sophocles is a famous example. A more recent example that comes to my mind is William Matthews’ versions of Martial. There, I remember thinking, wow, they almost could be one poet, or poet-translator, just appearing with two millennia between them.

Translating Angiolieri, though, has made me think about the relationship a little differently. They key word in Barnstone’s formulation remains for me “sympathetic,” because I might venture to say that the one core requirement for a successful translation project is that presence of sympathy. To me, this sounds different from that stricter notion of a blurring of authorships, whereby voices are so attuned, and one poet is able to identify so well with another. My emphasis on sympathy is more qualified but also allows for a broader range of possible partnerships between poet and translator.

In the case of Angiolieri, I have enjoyed the experience of translating his sonnets precisely because my own poetry typically does NOT sound like his poetry—not at all! Yet I’ve seen in recent years where this ongoing engagement with the more raucous, hell-bent voice in these sonnets has given at times a new robustness, a certain conversational looseness, in my own poems. If you have a penchant for drifting toward too earnest, introspective regions lyrically, then translating a very colloquial, “comic-realistic” poet such as Angiolieri can be a tonic to help with that. Or at least I’ve recognized that louder, harsher voice in my own poems more recently. My point about sympathy, though, is that is can exist without some deep requirement that your own writer’s voice “line up with” or complement the voice of the one you’re translating. What I’m trying to say is, the very fact that Angiolieri’s voice is a largely foreign one to me makes the challenge of getting the lines right, and making them believable, a very enjoyable one, like a magpie’s puzzle: Can I throw my own voice out there in a different direction, and render this guy’s poems in ways that hold up?

Angiolieri was a contemporary of Dante, known for his tenzone (poets’ battle) with Dante. Did you ever feel like you were battling Angolieri while doing these translations?

What a fun question! Battling with Angiolieri—the very thought makes me a little frightened, really. Seriously, when I first encountered the three sonnets we have of Angiolieri’s addressed to Dante, well, I just couldn’t believe the audacity and testiness of them, and their mocking quality. It is a great way to be reminded that, to us, Dante will always be the great medieval poet of Christian epic, but in this more social, literary context, he was clearly in Angiolieri’s estimation a haughty young poet from Florence. (Since Angiolieri is from the rival city of Siena, these two poets were destined not to like each other very much regardless of their differences of literary style.) Unfortunately, none of Dante’s responses to Cecco, if he deigned to write any, exist, though I like to think that Angiolieri may have been very much on Dante’s mind when we writes, deep in Inferno, “Everyone knows all Sienese are vain”!

So to get back to the question, No, it really has never felt like a poets’ battle, or contest of voices, with Angiolieri. I just don’t think that’s the natural relationship between poet and translator, though I suppose in certain cases it could be that. For me, I’ve often thought with this project of wishing to be in service to Angiolieri—by getting his name and his poetry out there again, since he’s largely unknown even to readers of older poetry, and by trying to arrive at versions of his poems that do justice to this lively, mischievous, sometimes bullish voice of his. This more altruistic view also involves, looking a little further outward, giving readers a more enriched, diversified awareness of medieval lyric poetry—in Italy in this case, but really, most countries can boast of a poet or school of poets that worked in a similar counter- or anti-lyrical, more colloquial, more comic-realistic camp. I remember reading a few of Cecco’s poems for the first time, and asking myself, “When was this guy writing??” I knew mainly the lyrics of Dante and Cavalcanti, and so figured all medieval poetry sounded pretty much like that. Not so much.

Finally, I will say this: if I rarely think of a face-off with Angiolieri, I am sometimes haunted by the thought of what he might make of this or that English version of this or that sonnet. I mean, that’s probably every translator’s nightmare, right? You have to endure the original poet, somehow back to life and looking over your shoulder, saying, “Hold on, hold on, you’re saying that THIS is the best that you can do with my poem?” A wretched thought! And something tells me Angiolieri would hardly hold back in telling me exactly what he thinks of my efforts! Really, I think we like to romanticize those poets whose work means so much to us, especially if we’re translating them. But in Angiolieri’s case, he really was a roguish individual, by all accounts— impulsive, quick temper, you get the picture. A part of me thinks, “Hey, he’d be crazy fun to hang out with.” But another part of me thinks, “Uhm, no, no thanks, I think I’ll just chill here tonight … but you go knock yourself out!” And it sounds like he often did.

I usually get this sinking feeling when I have finished a new sonnet, yet I know that I haven’t reached those different registers of the voice in the original. I have the paraphrasable content more or less accurate, but the heart of the poem just hasn’t come through my language yet. It still feels generic or inert, and all the while I’m remembering that Angiolieri’s poems were for a long time thought to be mere tavern songs. At that point I hear a different voice, or more precisely, a line from a little poem by Carl Rakosi, which says something like, “C’mon! Help me get a little more life into this damn poem!”

And here’s one last haunting, but a good one: I had a chance to present some of these sonnets at an arts festival in Orvieto, and they arranged for a local actor, a lovely man named Andrea, to recite the original sonnet just before I read the translation. That was a grand time, of course, but I mainly remember thinking, after every poem Andrea read, usually so that it drew laughter from the audience, “Wow, these sonnets of Angiolieri’s really do have bite, like a David Mamet speech or a Louis C. K. routine or something.” And they are very much enjoying, you could also tell this from Andrea’s readings, their own hyperbolic performances. There’s a preening quality to the sonnets, but also that slight smile that tells you the poem is self aware of its own posturing, as if it’s saying, “I’m really making this ridiculous, aren’t I?” 

You’ve described some other translations of Angolieri, including those by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as “misleadingly elegant” in that they lack the “familiar, streetwise quality” that you try to capture in your translations. This approach might seem like a “modernization” of Angolieri, but you also adhere to the traditional formal constraints of the sonnet quite strictly. Do you see Angolieri’s poems as rooted in their place and time or somehow timeless? Or would you like to reject that binary entirely?

That’s a really challenging final question, and if you translate older poetry especially, I imagine it’s one that you would usually like to avoid, or at least avoid having to answer it in a straightforward, either/or style. I think the translator of early poetry is always trying somehow to have it both ways, to answer that question about historical rootedness or timelessness with an emphatic, “Yes!” That is, the translator has dual, competing goals—to make the rendering sound like a poem that was written eight hundred years ago, but also to make the reader feel like they have gone back in time eight hundred years and get to feel like a first reader of that poem, the first person shown the poem shortly after Angiolieri has penned it. But how much feeling of linguistic and cultural immediacy actually does a disservice to the poem, its author, and the literary history surrounding them?

I am always striving for immediacy in my versions, or that “streetwise” quality that you mentioned, but on the other hand, I value tremendously the fact that I am trying to make readers today appreciative of a medieval lyric poem that takes us briefly to its particular literary milieu in Siena. So, as for those priorities that may help reach back in that way, that may estrange the poem, so to speak, so that it is both “hearable” but also with an air of the past and in a different accent, I do think following the original sonnet form and its various effects in Angiolieri’s hands has made a lot of sense. That alone gives the poem, however rascally it is, a certain polished, poised quality that for many will mark it as different.

Thinking beyond the form question, there are usually a few other presences that will invite the translator to decide how much she wishes, or is willing, to update or domesticate an older poem, and maybe one whose circumstances or literary conventions were much more familiar to first readers, but are lost to us now, or strike us as bizarre. For example, in one poem Angiolieri is appealing to the devil, saying, “Please take either me or my father, but please take one of us, I just can’t stand it anymore.” Reading through the notes in about a half dozen Italian editions of the sonnets made it clear that Angiolieri was drawing upon a popular convention there, but I myself certainly wouldn’t have known that offhand. And, more sensitively what do you do when a poem refers to the legend of the Wandering Jew? Or, even more unsettlingly, makes a rather harsh comment about usurers? You really can’t count on modern readers to track with that, but in these cases, it has felt like a too radical departure to ignore these references or transform them into some equivalent that fits our cultural moment better. In one poem, Angiolieri refers to a very popular preacher, and it was all I could do to resist ending one line with “Rick Warren”! Likewise, I wavered at first when encountering a place name or geographical reference in Italy that would be obscure today. References to the pier at Genoa, the Strait of Messina, an area known for its salt, a particular kind of wine. Ultimately, I decided that I really had to retain these moments— I mean, they are some of the clearest features that make it an Italian poem, even if you’re reading it in English. I’m really not interested in presenting a Cecco Angiolieri inhabiting the western suburbs of Chicago! But I do want him to sound like someone you might overhear there, some big mouth who has a knack for making you shake your head and laugh all at the same time.

Your word “modernization” brings to mind one last relevant detail here. When I first began working on translations of these sonnets a few years ago, I was so keen to make Angiolieri sound local and contemporary—to make it clear that Angiolieri’s voice was more conversational and approachable than previous versions had suggested—that I went out of my way to include a number of anachronisms. For example, in one of the several where he laments his poverty, I was trying to find some way to make the speaker say he couldn’t get one 20-dollar bill from the ATM machine. Some of these divergences worked all right as local effects, but I finally ended up removing these obvious modernizations because, as one reader I valued put it, these moments seemed at odds with the care I was taking in rendering the forms and aspiring toward a general accuracy.

In other words, such ostentatious moments might misleadingly give the impression that I was playing fast and loose with Angiolieri’s original poems, and adding anything whenever I felt like it. So I revised those poems and lost the anachronisms, but I still see them as one of the ways that enabled me to complete those first few poems. And that anachronistic spirit does remain in one aspect of my versions—in each poem’s “tag title,” which often feel free to echo or allude to our own culture or idioms today. Angiolieri had no titles for his sonnets; those tag titles are totally on me.           

And finally, my criticism of Rossetti may be unfair, and I’m certainly beholden to him for being the first person to render twenty or so sonnets of Angiolieri into English. But as you mentioned, the overall tone of these poems is just too often very muted, and the voice sounds very composed. Why is this? I think for one thing, Rossetti is just a massive lyrical talent, and could hardly write a line that didn’t have it’s own occasion for singing in it. There’s also that humbling way that we are shaped by the language and—what’s the right word?—comportment of our own era. And so, Rossetti’s Angiolieri poems have that limitation of restraint, a kind of starchy quality, that we might come to expect from a Victorian effort to present this voice of Angiolieri’s, which is so often mocking, self-deprecating, clearly wishing to have fun, and prone to awkward, off-color passages.

In one of Rossetti’s versions, he has a footnote following a rather veiled, vague passage, explaining seriously that the original was so coarse that it really could not be made as explicit in the English as it is in the Italian. My feeling is, if you’re going to write that footnote, you’re probably not the ideal person to be Angiolieri’s translator. This may sound contradictory to my earlier answer about needing only sympathy, as opposed to a deep identification with the poet, when translating another poet. But in the case of Rossetti and Angiolieri, you sense a rather opposite sensibility. In other words, there’s a reason that Rossetti did so well when translating the great and graceful Dante, and his highly idealized treatments of Beatrice. He has the lyrical heights for that; as for me, right now I’m happy to focus instead on these wine songs, date-disaster poems, and complaints about being broke, all of which you find in Angiolieri’s very entertaining sonnets.