The Skill of Honorable Deception

By Whiteman, Bruce | The Hudson Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Skill of Honorable Deception


Whiteman, Bruce, The Hudson Review


In AN INTERVIEW PUBLISHED IN 1960, the Italian poet Eugenio Montale responded to a question about the relationship between poetry and prose by declaring that poetry "is a monster." It is, he said, "music made out of words and even ideas: it comes as it comes, out of an initial intonation which cannot be predicted before the first line arrives."1 It is no coincidence that Montale arrived at a musical analogy for the way in which a poet receives a poem. As a young man, he trained to be a baritone with Ernesto Sivori, a well-known teacher of his day, learning roles in works by Donizetti and Gounod; had Sivori not died in 1923, Montale might well have become known not as a poet but as an opera singer. Music remained a passionate interest throughout his life, and as a regular columnist for the Milanese papers the Corriere della Sera and especially for the Corriere d'Informazione, he wrote often about musical matters and as often brought music to bear on his literary concerns. He dismissed a fellow poet with the remark that he "never really understood his instrument," and he earnestly counseled all poets "not to spoil [their] voice [s] with too much solfeggio," that is, not to sound too practiced. ("The best exercises are internal, acts of meditation or reading," he said elsewhere.) Early poems collected in his first book bear titles like "English Horn," "Falsetto," "Minstrels" (directly acknowledging the piano piece by Debussy) and "Almost a Fantasia" (the subtitle of Beethoven's two sonatas op. 27, including the so-called "Moonlight"). Later groups of poems allude to musical forms such as the motet and the madrigal, and a poem from his second book, called "Keepsake," is a recitation of moments from now mostly forgotten operettas. The idea that poetry is composed like music using words and ideas is an enduring and profound contention in much of Romantic and Modern writing; it is the central formal idea of The Cantos, for example. While Montale's work may appear gradually to stray from the conventional music of verse towards a more pronounced prosaic quality, it never abandons its roots in a profound musicality.

This fact should give aspiring translators of Montale's work pause, if it doesn't inspire fear, for what aspect of poetry is harder to bring across the barrier of one language into anotiier than its musicality? The music of verse contains so much that is inimitable: not just stress and endrhyme, but assonance, alliteration, and vowel rhymes, not to mention the way in which the language of a poem rooted in musical qualities is shaped from first to last by its encompassing sound world and makes sonic cross-reference and other vocal interlacings that are extremely difficult to re-create in a second language. There is a range in the calculus of translation, of course, with the aid to study at the lowest end and brilliant re-creation at the other, although the degree to which recreation is desirable and defensible is contested. William Arrowsmith, whose version of Montale is one of the two under consideration here,2 described the opposing extremes of that function fifty years ago as "intolerable literalism" on the one hand and "a spurious freedom" on the other, giving one to assume that in his view the good translator will always try to situate him- or herself somewhere in the middle.3 Arrowsmith went on to denigrate both Ezra Pound and Robert Graves as translators because of their willingness to substitute a total reimagining of the text for subservience to it. If translation here becomes almost a metaphor for politics, with the invocation of a vocabulary of loyalty, usurpation, authority and so on, it remains true that the more radical reworkings of texts in other languages always provoke controversy. Were Arrowsmith alive and writing his essay today, he would doubtless choose to excoriate Christopher Logue 's Homeric fantasies instead of Graves's, or Anne Carson's extemporizations on Catullus and other classical poets in lieu of Pound's. …

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