Book Review

Montale in English by Eugenio Montale

Montale in English by Eugenio Montale

This book brings together around one hundred of Montale's poems in translations by English, Scottish, American, Australian and Italian translators. Before I began compiling it, I thought I had a good idea of the history and force of Montale's presence in English. But the more days I spent on the prowl in libraries, the more astonished I was to discover just how many English versions of Montale's poems have been made since 1927, the year that the first one, G.B. Angioletti's prose paraphrase of Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato, appeared in the Criterion. In the end I have decided to include the work of fixty-six translators, but I might have included that of dozens more. The one real regret I have, though, is the absence from this anthology of several translations – Henry Reed's rendering of the great Mottetti, for instance – which repose unprintably in archives.

In selecting the translations, I have kept in mind the two standard criteria of the anthologist: interest – the need to let the reader see much of what there is to see – and interestingness – the need to stop readers in their tracks as often as one can by printing what is in one way or another genuinely good. Interest has meant for me two things. First, I have sought to represent the full range of Montale's poetry, drawing primarily on his first three books – Ossi di seppia (1925), Le occasioni (1939) and La bufera e altro (1956) – while not scanting the poems in Satura (1971) and the books that Montale wrote after it – Diario del '71 e del '72 (1973), Quaderno di quattro anni (1977) and Altri versi e poesie disperse (1981). At times Montale spoke somewhat sceptically of these books. Once, he called them his retrobottega, goods from the back of the shop. Critics and translators, especially American ones, have inclined to dismiss them out of hand. I like a great many of the poems of this second Montale, and it is my hope that readers of the last quarter of this book will come to like them too.

Second, I have wanted to represent the range of kinds of poetic translation – metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation – to use Dryden's still excellent terms. For a while, recalling that Robert Lowell remarked in his preface to Imitations that he sometimes preferred 'modest photographic prose translations' to verse translations, and that Montale himself occasionally expressed the same preference, I flirted with the notion of reprinting some of the prose photographs in, for example, Stanley Burnshaw's The Poem Itself. Two prose translations do appear in this book, but now, with the permission of the translators, lineated. Finally, in an effort to help the reader to consider the methods and to calculate the merits and demerits of the various modes of translation, I have offered in the case of several poems the Italian original and two or more translations of it.

As for the second criterion: the first-rate translation, that miracle of renewed sense and reanimating form, which is still, like the original poem, bamboo-dry, is, of course, a rarity. It may be that no translation in this book performs the miracle. But I feel sure that a number of the translations come as close to the miraculous as we may have any decent right to expect, and that many can be read and reread with pleasure as English poems.

This is an abridgement of Harry Thomas's Preface to his edition of Montale in English, reproduced by kind permission of Handsel Books.

-- Reviewed by Harry Thomas on 31/01/2006

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1590511271
ISBN-13: 9781590511275
Publisher: Handsel Books
Publication Date: 01/04/2005
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 147

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