How Absolute a Knave

I stumbled on a poem recently by the Italian poet Sergio Solmi (1899-1981), “Entro la densa lente dell’estate,” whose first line, which also serves as the poem’s title, is a beauty—and a heartbreaker for the English translator, as any wonderful line of verse must be to the translator, aware that beauty and fidelity rarely go hand in hand. Indeed, beauty, being aloof, and fidelity—how absolute a knave—being exact, fastidious, always pursing the lips and pointing out faults, are rarely even on speaking terms. You have to marvel at the varied yet concentrated phonetic play in the above line, the en sound that occurs in three of the first four words, the els that linger in the ear from la to lente to dell’estate (double consonants in Italian should be heard as such and so there is a special drawn-out emphasis on the el sound in dell’estate, as if an English tongue were taking particular care to pronounce “hall light” without running the two words together), the esses, dees and ahs that echo exactly once each, the tees that have the tongue lightly tapping the teeth from beginning to end. Finally, the first three words that repeat the en sound follow this in each instance with a terminal vowel that is slightly higher in pitch than the one before, thus: en-oh… en-ah… en-ey (more or less; a thousand pardons to those who have mastered the International Phonetic Alphabet). And if we were looking to hang some sort of meaning on the phonetic series of those terminal vowels, we could say they suggest the growing light of the early morning, the rising pitch imitating a rising sun. Just a handful of phonemes, nine or ten depending on how you wish to count the values of the ees in lente and estate. It would indeed be nothing short of a miracle if a similarly small number of euphonious sounds lined up in the English words that best reflect the meaning of the Italian ones. O bel compatto mondo (O beautiful compact world) exclaims the poet further on and he might well be praising this dense first verse of his. “Within the thick lens of summer,” a translator might be tempted to get up some internal rhyme by choosing “dense lens” over “thick,” but… we are prevented from doing so. English lenses are thick, not dense. Simple usage trumps any attempt at a phonetic effect.

Like the poem in its entirety, the above verse is written in the classic line of eleven syllables (hendecasyllabic is the technical term), which is the foundation of Italian poetry. In Solmi’s poem, however, there is no end rhyme. Here is the entire poem; my pedestrian translation follows:

Entro la densa lente dell’estate,
nel mattino disteso che già squarciano
lunghi, assonnati e sviscerati i gridi
degli ambulanti, — oh, i bei colori! Giallo
di peperoni, oscure melanzane,
insalate svarianti dal più tenero
verde all’azzurro, rosee carote,
e vesti accese delle donne, e muri
scabri e preziosi, gonfi ippocastani,
acque d’argento e di mercurio, e in alto
il cielo caldo e puro e torreggiante
di tondi cirri, o bel compatto mondo.
Lieto ne testimonia, sul pianeta
erra, nella città Milano, mentre
vaga, di sé dimentico e di tutto,
lungo le calme vie che si ridestano,
— oggi, addì ventisette Luglio mille
novecento cinquanta — un milanese.

Within the thick lens of summer
In the relaxed morning, which the long,
Sleepy and intense cries of the peddlers
Are already rending—oh, the beautiful colors!
Bell pepper yellow, dark eggplants,
Heads of lettuce ranging from softest
Green to sky blue, rosy carrots,
And the women’s bright clothes, and walls
Rough and precious, swollen horse chestnuts,
Water the color of silver and mercury, and on high
The sky, warm and pure and towering
With round cirrus clouds, o beautiful compact world.
Happy, he witnesses the above, wanders the planet,
In the city of Milan, while
Lost to himself, to everything,
A Milanese roams the calm streets that are waking again
—Today, the twenty-seventh of July,
Nineteen hundred and fifty.

One final remark. Of the many effects that the English translation cannot reproduce from the original, there is one at the end of the poem based solely on syntax and word order, on the way the poet can put together a correct utterance in Italian. The last six verses form a syntactic whole, three complete sentences with subjects and verbs (plus a lot of other subordinate stuff, too, but no matter), from “Happy, witnessing the above…” to the end, or in Italian, from “Lieto ne testimonia…” to the end. Because adjectives in Italian agree in number and gender with what they modify, we know from lieto that whatever it is modifying is indeed singular and masculine. However, Italian allows Solmi to place at the very end of the poem after a long build up over four verses the finally specified subject of the main clause, un milanese, “a Milanese” (“…mentre vaga… un milanese”). It forms a kind of humorous anticlimax, a carefully calibrated whimsical touch that is underscored by the echo of mille plus its end vowel and in the next, and last, line milanese and its end vowel. We might call it a key detail deferred, which English word order here just does not comfortably allow.

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