On Translating (Part of) Leopardi's Zibaldone 

David Gibbons on translating Giacomo Leopardi

As far as I was concerned, it started in November 2005 and ended—the first time—in September 2009, before ending definitively in July, 2013. Except maybe it wasn't so definitive after all...

Allow me to explain. In November 2005, having just completed one major translation project and taking my first steps toward an even more major (and in fact still far from complete) research project—both of which involved the translation of nineteenth-century Italian literary texts into English—my eye was caught by a message that an acquaintance had posted on an Italian Studies mailing list. I had met Mike Caesar a few times in my years as a graduate student in Cambridge, when I was working on my Ph.D. thesis on Dante. In those days (1993-96, as it happens), Mike's wife Ann was a member of the Cambridge Italian Department, and while our areas of specialization were different, there was still some degree of interaction at the departmental level: events, seminars, drinks parties, etc. It was at some of these events that I had met Mike, who was professor of Italian at the University of Kent at the time.

Things happen, life changes. I left Cambridge in 1996 for Edinburgh, where I got married and did a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university, before relocating to northern Italy for good in 2000 and becoming a full-time translator. From a distance, I retained an interest in my former world and the movements within Italian Studies in Britain, and was aware that both Ann and Mike had gone on to greater things, having taken up chairs at the universities of Warwick and Birmingham, respectively. Mike's message, posted to the mailing list in 2005, was a notice advertising the intention of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham to launch a funded postgraduate research programme, to 'coincide with its planned complete English edition of Leopardi's notebooks, the Zibaldone.' Having left my postgraduate days far behind, the prospect of funded research programmes was of limited relevance; rather, it was the phrase 'complete English edition of Leopardi's notebooks'—an elaborate way of saying 'translation,' I suspected—that caught my attention.

Translation at its best, I knew well by this stage, is an opportunity for the translator—as well as, hopefully, the reader—to learn something new worth and worthwhile. My shift from medieval to nineteenth-century Italian literature was still a relatively recent one; and I was well aware that my knowledge of Leopardi, one of the titans of this period, was sketchy at best. Most of what I knew, in fact, was restricted to a rather unsatisfactory experience with his poetry in my second year as an undergraduate, when I failed miserably in grappling with its subtleties as a result of being linguistically unprepared for such a strenuous challenge. I knew that his Zibaldone was a massive, sprawling text, consisting of his private jottings, and that it had remained unpublished until many years after his death; but I had very little idea of what its actual contents might be.

For various reasons, then, it looked like an opportunity not to be missed; so I plucked up courage and sent an enquiring email to Mike. Non-committal pleasantries were exchanged, along with promises of updates at the appropriate time. And then nothing, until June or July 2006, as I remember it, when I got an email intimating that the project was about to go ahead. In the months that followed, Mike asked me if I would like to start getting to grips with a passage of the Zibaldone. He suggested I try my hand at the long essay on the Homeric epic to be found at Z 3094-3167—a lengthy but self-contained unit which could serve as a trial.

As luck would have it, I still have the exercise books in which I drafted my longhand versions of virtually the whole translation. (In the end, I translated Z 3094-3672, which worked out to something like 110,000 words—more than two NaNoWriMo novels, but barely one-tenth of the Zibaldone as a whole.) The page in the first exercise book where I began my first attempt shows the date 3 January 2007, which sounds about right. A page or two after that, I find the following comments, which must have come from one of Mike's emails: 'The challenge...is to achieve a readable English that does not sell the complexities and exactness of Leopardi's thought/written style short;' and then, 'Leopardi's consistent use of stronger punctuation than is generally admissible in modern English.' Effectively I was setting down the objective for myself as I embarked on this challenge—what it was that I, or we (for it was already clear that this would be a collective endeavor), were hoping to achieve.

And there was certainly no shortage of complexities in this first long essay on the Homeric epic. One of the most obvious was lexical—the choice of vocabulary. The problem was not so much what the words meant; there was little of what we might call technical vocabulary. It was not so much even a case of what the words meant in context; it was a question, rather, of marrying the meaning of the individual instances of the terms in context with their repetition across extended passages of text. Or rather, working out what one instance of a given word meant in its context, and then, the next time it appeared, seeing if it meant the same thing in this new context as it had in the first. For if it didn't, maybe the word I had used to translate it originally wasn't quite right, and would have to be altered; or maybe it was okay for a different term to be used when Leopardi had used the same one; or maybe not. Decisions, decisions. It was the terms fortuna and felicità in particular with which I was grappling in this first essay. In my notebook I transcribed their full definitions, which I found in the Devoto-Oli Italian monolingual dictionary, noting with some satisfaction that the second definition of fortuna was 'success'—un libro che ha avuto molta fortuna, 'a book which has had much success'—for already I was coming to the conclusion that this was what Leopardi meant when he used this word.

Within two pages of starting I was captivated. Leopardi was discussing the way in which good fortune, particularly in ancient times, was an important source of praise—for good fortune, as he put it, 'was never adjudged to be distinct from merit' (Z 3099). Hence even 'felicitous accidents of birth,' such as beauty or strength, wealth or nobility, were seen as indications of a person's intrinsic worth. A person who was good-looking or well-off, or successful in some other sense, must have been a 'good' person; all the more so, as Leopardi notes, because the ancients did not believe in an afterlife based on the concept of rewards or punishments, and 'consequently, they held good fortune [felicità, 'happiness'] to constitute the most important part of praise' (ibid.). The problems for the translator were obvious. 'Happiness' works etymologically, in the sense that it has to do with 'hap' or 'happen,' and their associations of fortune—if you have good luck, if good things happen to you, then you become 'happy'—yet this sense has largely been lost in modern English, where the consequence (contentedness) has come to take the place of the cause (good fortune). Effectively Leopardi, with his etymologist's or historical linguist's hat on, was doing the opposite of defining his terms. Rather, he was conflating them, establishing a historical connection that showed where these various ramifications—which overlap between the two languages, Italian and English, but not entirely—came from. Simply looking words up in the dictionary and abiding by the definitions they provided would not be sufficient. And yet, given that Leopardi built an argument out of these terms, and in some cases referred back to his discussion at a distance of several hundred pages (the terms of this particular discussion recur, for example, in Z 3342-43, 3351, and 3382), at least some form of consistency had to be maintained.

In cases where he does engage in definition (which he does, regularly), Leopardi only arrives at a distinction between the two terms in the course of his discussion. Such is the case, for example, with egoismo (selfishness? egoism?) and amor proprio (self-love? amour propre?) which he starts to discuss on Z 3361. Here again the translator is faced with a problem. In one sense I was in a position of advantage, because I was able to read the end in order to make sense of the beginning; I could work out what Leopardi was trying to get at when he started his discussion. Yet the fact is that Leopardi himself did not necessarily know, or at least, not clearly—he worked it out in the course of his argument. Hence the risk was of adding excess clarity to the process at a point where it was still working its way toward resolution. This, perhaps more than any other, was the danger inherent in translating the white-hot thought that is Leopardi's Zibaldone, a text, or hypertext if one must, written a penna corrente—with the flow of the pen.

In one sense, the translator had no choice. It was clear that Leopardi was not writing nonsense; so there was no way that the translation could be nonsense either. Decisions had to be made, and stuck to. Thus, when I came several months later to translate the essay on music in Z 3208-3234—one of the most brilliant pieces of writing it has ever been my privilege to read, let alone translate, and quite worth the entrance fee on its own—I found myself struggling with the word tuono, which Leopardi used repeatedly. To begin with, I erroneously assumed that it meant 'sound;' I must simply have read suono instead of tuono. The longer I went on, though, the more doubts I had. So in this case I appealed to my higher authorities, in the shape of Mike and Franco D'Intino, the other editor and project director. In fact, I only discovered the true nature of the complexities involved, and the work that had gone on editorially subsequent to submitting my translations, when I read an interview with Franco published earlier this year, in a blog run by the postgraduate students of the University of Reading. When asked the question 'Were there parts of the text more difficult to translate than others?,' Franco responded with the example of precisely this word tuono:

'How to translate "tuono" in Leopardi's thoughts on music? This simple word was the object of a careful study by Antonio Rostagno, a colleague from La Sapienza [Rome University], who commented on all the relevant passages and decided, in each case, which was the right translation. His knowledge of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century musical theories furthermore allowed us to identify for the first time new sources, quoted in some innovative explanatory notes. In this, as in many other cases, the English edition is clearer than the Italian one, where the reader does not exactly understand what "tuono" means.'
The final version of the passage in question, in the beautiful FSG edition, begins as follows:

'That what constitutes melody in music, that is, the successive harmony of tones, or rather, harmony in the successive sequence of tones, is, like any other form of harmony or congruence, determined by habituation, or by arbitrary laws, may be shown by the fact that musical melodies do not delight the unknowledgeable unless the succession, the successive arrangement, of tones in them is such that our ears become used to them, that is, that such melodies are either entirely popular, or have some popular part or one which resembles the popular.'
The word 'tones' has a footnote reference, directing the reader to notes on Z 1871, the second of which reads as follows:

'The ambiguous word "tones" has different meanings in theoretical writing about music of the time. These are listed by Leopardi's source, G. Martini, Storia della musica, vol. 1, p. 500. In general, sound becomes tone, or harmonized sound, only when it is used in a conventional system (this distinction derives from Rousseau). "Tone" may be understood as a harmonized sound, that is, a sound that is not natural, and is placed in a system of pitches selected as "notes;" or as the distance separating one pitch from the next in the diatonic scale; or, finally, as a more generic "tonality," that is to say, the tonal colour or ambience in which a melody unfolds.'
This example, as well as illustrating with unusual clarity what I meant about translation involving learning new things, shows the benefits of having undertaken such a massive task as part of a team, with editorial directors who were able to draw on the expertise of a series of specialists. It also meant that increasingly, and in particular after a meeting of all the translators involved in the project at Richard Dixon's beautiful house near Cagli in November 2008 (if I remember correctly), many such decisions were taken collectively. One case I remember in particular is the term assuefazione, 'assuefaction' or 'second nature,' a key issue in Leopardi's thought, which occurs in the music passage referred to above, where it is translated as 'habituation.' In my versions of the later passages, rather than attempting to translate the term in context, I simply submitted the English text with the word left in the original. In some cases—like 'habituation,' for example, the final choice was not always what I myself would have chosen. But as Umberto Eco has pointed out, correctly, translation is at all times a form of compromise between competing pressures, and this was all the more true in a project of this kind, collaborative in nature.

In one sense, though, the lexical difficulties were minor compared to the challenges posed by rendering Leopardi's syntax into English. Here too, though, these were not necessarily what might have been expected. Often Leopardi's prose is characterized as formal and archaic, as classicizing in contrast to the Romantic wave that had begun to sweep through Italy at the time—that is, full of subordinate clauses and parentheses rather than conjunctions and broken sentences. In one sense this is true, but as I lingered with the prose of the Zibaldone, I came to see it as writing that was trying to keep up, or catch up, with thought. Thought as it raced from one new connection to another, one new discovery to another; thought followed by counter-thought, argument by counter-argument, backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, until eventually some kind of provisional conclusion was reached.

As a native speaker and writer of English, I think I began with a notion of the sanctity of the sentence. I had in mind the kind of scenario which Ian McEwan describes in his tribute to Malcolm Bradbury, published in the latter's posthumous novel To the Hermitage, where he mentions the kinds of questions he and his former teacher used to discuss, over bottles of wine: 'And who are today's best sentence-makers? Malcolm makes the case for Martin Amis, together with some exquisite examples he has by heart.' Probably my unspoken ambition as a translator was to write some of those sentences—the kind that my favourite writers, such as Peter Matthiessen and Peter Levi, turn out by the dozen. I remember looking at recent translations of Proust and Dostoevsky, as well as prose writings by those of the Romantic writers I knew best—Coleridge or Wordsworth—to try and find some kind of stylistic equivalent. Sentences by other writers I found which recalled to me what I was seeing in Leopardi were noted and annotated; Robert Louis Stevenson was one, as was—believe it or not—A. A. Milne.

Looking back at my exercise books now, I find scribbled comments such as '4 subordinate clauses; 1 repeated main clause, 3 subordinate clauses;' 'This could be split up quite easily;' '5 sentences from 1, 1 sentence reduced to 8;' 'subject separated from main verb by 8 lines of text;' and so forth. I find sentences reduced to diagrammatic structures, lists almost—point i), point ii), point ii) a), and so on—in an attempt to make sure that I didn't get lost in translating them. On occasion I find comments such as, 'What is this sentence all about?,' and even, in one case, 'This is a sentence which in my view doesn't make sense.' (This was Z 3224, for those who are interested—the sentence which begins 'Since I have no doubt,' and ends several hundred words later. Reading it back in the published translation, I think it probably does make sense—just.) By the time I had got to Z 3374, I had noticed that, as I put it, Leopardi was 'continually starting short sentences with relative pronouns,' as well as writing interminable sentences which were so long he had to repeat the original subject and verb when he finally brought them to a conclusion.

Finally the penny was starting to drop: the primary locus of significance for Leopardi in the Zibaldone was not the sentence; it was the clause. Where the sentence boundaries actually fell was largely immaterial; this was thought in full flow. Gradually I stopped worrying about the sentence structure, and started concentrating more on the logic behind the clause construction. Increasingly I started to note to myself whether or not a clause was relative, hypothetical, causal, consecutive, and—in particular—concessive. I began to see what an important role concessive clauses, and concession in general, played for Leopardi in the construction of his arguments. For as often as not, arguments they were—with himself first and foremost, but also with a series of implied readers with whose opinions he was taking issue, while at the same time acknowledging their credentials to be taken seriously. A kind of respect for his hypothetical opponent, implicitly recognizing the part which they played in helping him reach his own conclusions. A conversation with Mike at Richard's house in Cagli sent me back to an article on the concept of truth in Manzoni and Leopardi by Mike's former supervisor in Cambridge, Kenelm Foster—also well known to me, posthumously and indirectly, as he had been a close friend and colleague of my own Ph.D. supervisor—in which he, Foster, says that 'even Leopardi's apparently final conclusions and most cherished positions have always something provisional about them.'

By now I was up and running, and while continuing to translate the passages that had been assigned to me, I was also delving deep into the concept of concession itself, reading works like Steven Toulmin's The Uses of Argument, and A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic. And eventually, I put my disconnected thoughts on the subject together and presented them at a conference in Berlin in the summer of 2010, organized by Fabio Camilletti (another who was involved in the preparation of our translation) and chaired by Mike, in a paper that was subsequently published.

By the later stages my rhythms were well established. The long-hand version would be translated in the last half-hour at work, after official office hours had finished, then transcribed on the computer in the first half-hour the next day, again before work proper started, writing over a digital version of the Italian text Mike and Franco had sent to us which I split into chunks and saved in Word format, as a further check to ensure that nothing was lost in the passage from manuscript to electronic format. Then I would print out what I had done, take it to the restaurant on Via Dante in Milan where I had lunch in those days, to look at it critically; or alternatively, if lunchtimes were busy, I would read it on the train home to Pavia in the evening. Toward the very end, with deadlines looming, I began to feel confident enough to write directly to file, bypassing the handwritten version, which by this stage had filled a total of five large exercise books.

Eventually, in September 2009, it was done. Mike had asked us at Cagli whether or not we wanted our individual parts in the project to be recognized. In an act of solidarity, we had decided that no, it was a collective enterprise, and we were happy to be identified with the finished product collectively. (Obviously in writing this I have had to blow my cover, for otherwise it would have been hard to say anything interesting.) Mike also asked us if we wanted to have any further say on our submissions after they had been edited; I, and if I remember correctly most of the other translators, too, said no, we had done our part, and from that point on it was up to Mike and Franco and those working with them on the editorial phases. I'm not sure whether they themselves realized it would take the best part of four years to get from this stage to publication. Maybe they did. Editing the submission of a dozen people—over a million words of text plus the entire critical apparatus—to the highest possible standards must have been the most demanding of exercises. But eventually, after having been pre-announced by email, just as I was leaving with my family for a short break on Lake Iseo in July, 2013, the weighty tome arrived in my postbox—the fruits of three years' labour in my case, and of goodness knows how many others as well.

This is what I mean when I say that it ended the first time in September 2009, and then ended definitively in July 2013—with publication. My translating Leopardi ended, that is. For there is a sense in which Leopardi is still translating me. Not just in the sense that I have continued to engage with his thought, writing articles and conference papers which in most cases have originated directly from the reflections I developed as a result of translating him. But also in the sense that, near the start of last year, for various reasons I decided to start a blog of my own, as a way of keeping a record of all the various thoughts and connections which float through my mind, and which for years were simply lost. It soon became clear to me—very soon, in fact—that what I was doing, to a far more limited degree obviously, was starting my own Zibaldone. Ideas, half-finished articles, reviews, written spontaneously, off-the-cuff, with very little editing or re-editing. Published anonymously, without any obvious readership in mind. I very much doubt whether this would have been of any interest to Leopardi; but if nothing else, it offers a testimony to the way in which, even subconsciously, a truly great work of philosophy or literature (even now it is far from clear to me how the Zibaldone should be categorized, if at all) can penetrate our minds and spirits through the acts of reading and translation, and to the work it can continue to do in us even after these acts are completed.